I loved Henrietta, a combination of proper lady and slow burning spitfire. What elements of connection do you look for when creating a point-of-view character for a story? How do you hope the character will relate to the reader?
I think it is important to truly empathize with a POV character. When I’m writing I’m looking for characters that are different from me, but also familiar. I can see their motivations. I understand why they are doing the things they do. I connect with Henrietta through many of the matriarchs I’ve loved in my life. These women have guided me as a human being. My two grandmothers remind me a lot of Henrietta, and so it was important for me to tell a story that treats her as she should be treated: complex and deeply sympathetic. By the end, I wanted people to truly see why she makes the choices she makes, and to understand them. I love Henrietta, so I wrote her with love.
Tell us a little about what inspired “A Third of the Stars in Heaven.”
I grew up in a small place that is deeply religious. Saint Thomas, like the name suggests, has a long and rich relationship with faith. I wanted to write a story that explored how an event outside of one’s belief would affect a person. Henrietta is one answer to that.
This story is part of a larger collection of stories set in the Virgin Islands after an alien occupation. Some of the characters in these stories start out with faith and find that they can’t hold onto it in the midst of such a powerful paradigm-shifting event. Henrietta is different. She does not question her faith. I set out to explore the reason for that. While her story is unique to her, I think her decision represents how a lot of people would deal with the intrusion of an outside threat to their inner belief. There is a defiance in it that feels real to me.
While I thought it was important to show how an event like this could cause people to lose faith, I found it equally important to show the other side of that. That’s why I wrote “A Third of the Stars in Heaven.”
The story is filled with wonderful sensory detail: the stark empty halls; the sweet coconut caramel taste of a Long John; the wet smell of the alley; the yelling and laughter of the elementary schoolers; Henrietta running her fingers down the length of her skirt pleats. How do you think such sensory impressions support a story? Do you think readers notice when such intimate details are not present?
I think some people do notice when details are absent. They’ll remark on it right away. I believe the majority of people only notice it through their response to the story as a whole. Imagery helps guide people back to parts of a story once they are done reading. It creates a memory to hold onto and return to. The absence of sensory detail creates a weaker memory. It doesn’t keep as long or as well. I find that some of the most memorable scenes I’ve loved from stories are rich with details. There don’t have to be a lot of them—I also like to imagine the world for myself—but they do have to be there. Carefully rendered bits that help form the whole picture reinforce the central story in lasting ways.
You have written about narrative voice before, in particular Vernacular Third Person and how it can be used to enhance a story. Are you conscious of the narrative voice when you begin a story, or does the voice grow out of the story itself in later edits?
I’m not always conscious of it. I stumble upon it over time most often. But I do sometimes consciously choose a voice. With Vernacular Third Person (third person narration that uses a colloquial voice), I think the choice is political. It challenges the reader outside of that vernacular to give the work a little more time, to push past their biases.
This story isn’t written in this way. I did try my hand at it with “Other Worlds and this One,” but it is more a hybrid of first and third person than a true VTP. However, there’s been some work from other writers that I think does VTP very well. Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber is one example of this. I think the story being told needs the vernacular. It would be very different without it. And less impacting, I would argue. Same could be said of Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, which I think is the purest VTP I’ve read. There is no person behind the voice; it is the voice. It tells a close third person story in vernacular without alluding to itself at all. It blew me away when I read it. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is another example I’ve talked about in the past. The novel has such a powerful voice because it uses a number of vernaculars.
While I think it is important to challenge yourself and your readers by being deliberate in your narrative voice, I find that letting it come out of the story is most important. Sometimes a story will call out for a challenging voice, and I think that is an opportunity to go for it. But it shouldn’t be forced. It feels disingenuous when you force it.
What writers excite you between the pages? Who do you turn to when you want to get your fiction on?
Well, my all-time favorite answers to this question are Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin. I love the deeply psychological and sociological aspect of their work. They tell excellent stories that have many layers. I read a lot more of their science fiction than their fantasy, but I’ve been aiming to change that.
I’ve also been reading a lot of N.K. Jemisin lately. She writes a lot of fantasy and I’m in love with her worldbuilding. But she also explores psychology and sociology in her work. I find that my favorite writers do this, no matter what genre they are writing in. They get excited about exploring how their speculative elements affect the people in their worlds personally and as a society. I love reading thoughtful exploration of speculative elements and so that kind of work inspires me when I write.
I really could go on endlessly on this one question. There’s been so many answers that excite me and inspire me. But I’ll just stop with this short list.
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