by Heidi W. Durrow)
Debut novelist Natalie Baszile talks with New York Times best-selling author Heidi W. Durrow about the ways in which writing a book changes you, the importance of avoiding stereotypes when portraying other cultures, and how fiction helps us empathize with the “theoretical stranger.”
Natalie Baszile’s debut novel, Queen Sugar, tells the story of Charley Bordelon, a woman who leaves Los Angeles when she unexpectedly inherits a sugarcane farm in Louisiana. Lalita Tademy, author of Cane River and Red River, says that “Natalie Baszile is a fresh, new voice that resists all Southern stereotypes, and delivers an authentic knock-out read” and Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow, says the book is a “story of family and the healing power of our connections — to each other, and to the rich land beneath our feet.”
Baszile recently talked with Heidi W. Durrow, New York Times best-selling author of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, about finishing her first novel after 12 years, drawing on her family for inspiration, and the complexities of writing race.
What is the inspiration for Queen Sugar? I felt like the cast of characters you’ve created haven’t been written about in this way before, and yet they seemed deeply familiar to me.
Natalie Baszile: A couple of the characters in Queen Sugar are loosely inspired by members of my family. For instance, in many ways, Miss Honey reminds me of my grandmother, Miss Rose, who, like Miss Honey, had a strong personality and sort of reigned over her small Louisiana town. My grandmother was a founding member of her church, which was down the street from her house, and she seemed to know everyone from the youngest child to the oldest retiree. She thought nothing of reminding someone they needed to go to church or put lotion on their ashy knees. I just received an email from a man who grew up next door to her, who wrote to say she was hugely influential in his life growing up. From the very beginning, I knew I wanted to include a character like her. The seeds of inspiration for other characters came from people I met as spent time in Louisiana researching the book. And, of course, others are entirely products of my imagination.
I’m glad to hear you say you haven’t seen characters like the ones I created. I was extremely conscious about avoiding clichés and stereotypes, and it was especially important that my main character, Charley, not be pigeonholed. So often in literature, black characters are portrayed as either living in rural or urban settings. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just not the whole story. I wanted Charley’s experience to reflect my own and that of so many African-Americans who grew up in integrated, middle-class neighborhoods. I grew up as a suburban kid in southern California. I had a variety of friends — some black, some white, some Asian, or whatever. I wanted Charley to reflect what I know to be true: that the range of Africa-American experience is vast and broad and nuanced. I think we’re seeing evidence of that in other aspects of our culture, now more than ever.
I had a Grandma Rose too! Unfortunately, she passed away last summer at 96. But she had a good, long life — I love that your grandmother’s story is being passed on to a new generation in this way. And yes, I responded very deeply to the complication of the characters — that you wrote about the “mixed-ness” of the African-American experience and that the book really delves into the notion that African-Americans belong in lots of different landscapes — that the roots run deep throughout the country.
You have great dialogue in the book — I can “hear” how all the characters sound different. How did make the voices sound so authentic?
NB: Thinking a little more about “mixed-ness,” I think one is especially aware of that in south Louisiana where so many cultures and ethnicities — Spanish, French, English, African, Native American, Italian, and more recently, Vietnamese and Latino —have mixed together or at least co-exist. That’s one of the things about Louisiana that has always intrigued me. The lines seem to blur a bit more there than in other parts of the country.
Louisianans have a lovely way of speaking. I don’t want to generalize, and I certainly don’t want to be sentimental, but I find the Louisiana accent has a musicality to it. I’m not talking about the syrupy-sweet drawl you sometime hear on television — that’s completely overdone. What I’m talking about is more subtle. I don’t know, maybe it’s the Acadian influence, but even in New Orleans where the accent sounds more like a New York accent, there’s a lilt to it that I find pleasurable. I wanted to capture that in the dialogue. I also wanted to celebrate some of the delightful turns of phrase I’ve heard my family use; phrases like “A new broom sweeps clean,” which is a way of saying, “We’re starting over,” or “I’m booking you,” which means, “I have my eye on you.” Such brilliant use of metaphor! The other day, a Louisiana friend told me he heard a woman say, “Hard times make a monkey eat peppers,” which is a colorful and imaginative way of saying, “In extreme circumstances you do something you wouldn’t ordinarily do.” And of course, each character had to sound different. Each person had to have their own voice or way of speaking. So it was a matter of me trying to inhabit every character as much as I could.
You definitely did that. And there was one character in particular I wondered whether you had difficulty in writing: Remy, a white Southerner. He surprised me in a good way. I think about this in light of the discussions over the years about white writers writing “black” characters — and whether they have the “right” to write “black.” You can tell from all of the quotation marks that this is a highly fraught question. I’m not sure any of the words I’ve used here in quotation marks have solid/thoroughly knowable meanings.
NB: I’m very happy to hear that Remy’s character surprised you in a good way. I tried to make him as nuanced as the other characters. He has his blind spots to be sure, but I wanted to show some awareness, some willingness to change. I think his desire to understand Charley’s point of view makes him interesting. And of course, I wanted to give him credit for his willingness to break through or at least ignore whatever social conventions still exist that discourage his interest in Charley.
You know, I never hesitated or questioned my right to write a white character. In fact, I didn’t even think about there being a restriction until just now. I think that’s because “white” culture is, to a large extent, the dominant culture in this country, and whether we like it or not, to some extent, we’re all participants in it. It’s the primary filter; it’s the experience that is automatically privileged. Just look at movie and television. How many movie and television shows still feature an almost entirely white cast? There might be one or two brown faces, but still? The situation has improved, of course, so that media more regularly reflects black, Latino, and most recently, East Indian points of view, but it’s still primarily white. I confess to seeing plenty of movies and watching plenty of shows like that. I may feel a slight pang of longing for more diversity, but I pretty much watch them with absolutely no expectation that the cast will be more diverse. It’s sad. That’s why some of my favorite movies — Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hustle and Flow — are set, oddly enough, in Southern locales, where blacks and whites just sort of co-exist. But then there’s the whole question of class dynamics at work in those films. I feel like I’m ranting…
But yes, those were the films and the ideas I had in mind when I was writing Queen Sugar. I wanted the characters to interact and form relationships based on their common experience. I wanted Charley to notice who was white and who was black, but in a back-of-the-brain sort of way until they did something earn her distrust.
Here’s what I ultimately feel about writers writing about other cultures and ethnicities: As long as they do it well, with respect and appreciation and compassion, I’m all for it. The thing that gets my goat is when authors slip in, say, a black character, as some kind of novelty or for some sort of dramatic effect.
What’s your writing process? I got the sense that this book has been in the works for a long time — how fully formed was the novel when you first started? What did you learn along the way about yourself as a writer? Or even about yourself?
NB: Before I answer the writing process question, I’m curious to know how you feel about the issue of writers writing about other cultures/races. Do you take issue with white authors trying to write black characters or vice versa?
Your answer really summed up how I feel too. I don’t think any artist should be restricted to writing their “race” — whatever that means. In my book I write from the first-person of a white Danish immigrant, which I’m not. But I know I wrote that consciousness with a lot of love and empathy and in a sincere attempt to understand. Barbara Kingsolver says that one of the great functions of fiction is that it allows us to empathize with the “theoretical stranger.” As writers our job is to bridge those theoretical differences.
NB: The “theoretical stranger” — I love that, and I totally agree.
So, my writing process is pretty straightforward. Until recently, I was writing every day — or at least five days a week. You’re right to sense that Queen Sugar has been in the works for a long time; it took me 11 years to write if you count the years between the time I quit my job in 1999 to the month I sold the manuscript in 2011. The story evolved over time. I had the basic premise — a woman leaves Los Angeles and returns to South Louisiana — from the beginning, but the question of why she returns was something I discovered over a number of years. I learned a tremendous amount about myself as a writer in the course of writing this book. I learned what kind of writer I am, what I value in a story. I learned to trust my instincts about my writing process — when to push and when to step away. I learned that as much of a dreamer as I consider myself to be, I can be incredibly stubborn. Maybe stubborn is the wrong word. Maybe determined is a more accurate description. I also learned some painful lessons about the business of writing. Let’s just say, I’ve definitely been tempered by this process.
Your story is my story! I quit my job two years before you and it took me 12 years to write and get my book published! So I totally understand how your story must have evolved so much over the years. It takes determination to be a fiction writer — I’m so glad as a reader that you stuck to it! You crafted a great story and a great read. I think during my long journey to publishing I had the same kind of determination that was sometimes bordering delusion. After three dozen rejection letters from editors, I was still certain the book should be published. Twelve more rejections later and one yes and I was right. All of that said, how are you approaching the next book? Can you tell what it’s about? Do you have the same determination, or hunger or delusion to write it as you did the first book?
NB: I have the idea for the next book, but I haven’t started writing it yet. My plan is to start working on it, in earnest, this summer. I can’t say much about it because the idea is still fragile and barely formed. I can say, it will be another Louisiana book because there’s so much more I want to explore. I’m not finished with Louisiana, and I don’t think Louisiana is finished with me. That said, I want to set up new challenges for myself. I read a wonderful quote by Jonathan Franzen a while back. He said:
“As a writer, nowadays, you owe it to your readers to set yourself the most difficult challenge that you have some hope of being equal to. And if you do this, and you succeed in producing a reasonably good book, it means that the next time you try to write a book, you’re going to have to dig even deeper and reach even farther, or else, again, it won’t be worth writing. And what that means, in practice, is that you have to become a different person to write the next book. The person you already are already wrote the best book you could. There’s no way to move forward without changing yourself.”
I love the spirit of this quote because it gets to the heart of what happens when we write. We’re not the same people we are at the end of a book that we were at the beginning. We owe it to our readers and to ourselves, to reset the bar, to set up a new challenge. So, as I think about the next book, the one I have in mind, I imagine it as something different from Queen Sugar. Similar in that it’ll be set in Louisiana, but different in subject matter; more challenging in some way, I hope. I find that prospect exciting … and also terrifying.
Will I approach it with the same determination? Absolutely; I don’t see any other way. Will I be as delusional? Probably. I think you have to be delusional, on some level, to write a novel. It’s such a long, difficult journey. But even when it was difficult and frustrating; even when I was bitterly discouraged, there was a sweetness to the experience. Something deeply satisfying. Finding an agent and getting the book published was another matter entirely. I entered into that experience with certain expectations, and by the end, I was much more pragmatic. The business side of being a writer tempered me, and I know I won’t approach that process in the same way. But I really think you have to allow yourself to be a bit of a dreamer when you’re writing. Otherwise, why would you do it? There has to be joy; there has to be magic. If anything, I hope this next novel won’t take 12 years. That would be nice. But if it does, it does. I’m not going to fight the process and put something out there that’s not ready. That would be the worst.
I think that’s the only way — to write the story in the time it takes — but yes, don’t take another 12 years if possible! So now you’ve done it: You’re a published and “real” writer. Before we sign off, any suggestions to the writers out there still in the hunt?
NB: I guess my best piece of advice is, find the people who share your vision. Lots of people will have opinions about your work. Their intentions may be good, but they might steer you in a direction that isn’t right for you. It’s important to listen to what people have to say, but then learn how to take the advice that works for you and discard the rest. And when you find people who truly understand what you’re trying to do, what you’re trying to say, who really understand you as a writer, be grateful! Cherish those relationships.
Heidi Durrow is a New York Times best-selling author of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, which won the PEN/Bellwether Prize. She is the founder of the annual Mixed Remixed Festival and an occasional contributor to National Public Radio.