Wednesday, April 20, 2005

My interview at Today's Fantasy Fiction

I was recently interviewed by Stephen Bargdill for his TodaysFantasyFiction Blogspot. Here is the interview. His website is listed at the bottom of this interview.

TFF: Tell me about Black is the Color of my True Love's Hair.

CM: About two years ago I was walking downtown and the old Elizabethan ballad kept coming to me. I kept thinking of the lyrics. Such longing, such adoration. The Iraqi war was going on. I was so against that stupid war and lost a few Christian friends because of it. But, it's the Jamaican in me. I can be a real curmudgeon. Anyway, the image of a crusader came to mind as I thought about this ballad. An Irish knight named Colgan. In my mind he was returning home to Christendom. But he was weary and burned out, with nothing left to him but his own honor. I wanted to show that people in Christendom lacked some of the virtues they claimed. It's written very like Boccaccio or Chaucer, very high language. It's a very theological piece with people tempting him. I don't want to make it sound as if it isn't fun. It's quite fun, and it follows the required stylization of a fairytale. The editor said he liked it because of its theological questions. Very life and death, and about love and purpose. It's a great story. I don't usually think all my stories are great. But this one most definitely is.

TFF: Why don’t you think all of your stories are great? How self-conscious are you about your writing?

CM: I was a literature major when I attended college at Purchase, NY. "Greatness" is not a word we Lit. Majors throw around lightly. For me to even think one of my stories has a quality of greatness to it—in its own genre—sounds pretty arrogant. But if I didn't know Black is the color of my true love's hair to be as good as it is, I wouldn't say it is great. Will see if I can get into the "year's best fantasy antho" that Ms Datlow edits. That would prove if it's great or not, I suspect. The rest of my stories are a mixed bag. Most have very original situations, but my skill in telling the story...well some stories are workmanlike, some are very graceful, some smooth and sweet as molasses, some are plain clunky. When I got my author's copy of "So Long Been Dreaming" I went through the book underlining, crossing out and making notations in the margin. The story, Lingua Franca, is wonderful and fun SF and Nalo and Uppinder helped me improve it. It's a very good story, but is it great? It's gotten some good mention in the reviews but I don't know. It could be improved. Black is the color of my true love's hair is 99% perfect.

TFF: What is your revision process like?

CM: I get crits from writer-friends. Tons of crits. I try to do the basic revision stuff: tighten, get rid of filtering, check for typos. I do a lot of global searches for authorly tics. I try to put tension where tension is needed. One of my biggest problems is that I tend to be episodic so I re-write my stories with the intention of making each scene either be a goal, motivation, reaction, etc. But more importantly, I try to feel my way through. If you know your stuff and have an educated intuition, that's all you can really do—trust yourself. And of course, trust God.

TFF: You mainly write reviews and Christian themed pieces. You seem to have a wide range of interest. Why fantasy?

CM: I believe in magic, love, great themes. I like to think I have a wide range of interests but I suppose religion, spirituality and existential questions glue all these interests together.

TFF: How does being Christian affect your writing? Do you find there is a conflict between writing Christian themed pieces and fantasy?

CM: (giggling) I guess I can't do some of the raunchier love scenes I'd love to write. Some writer once said that a novel is a conversation between the soul and the spirit. When I write, the more carnal aspect of my mind wants a story to end a particular way. The more spiritual part of me knows it should end another way. That's the struggle. To come to a conclusion that's worked through and doesn't seem like rigid cookie-cutter answers. Christians are used to "dark parables" But don't get me wrong: In the Christian world some folks think you're writing for the devil if you even mention writing fantasy. But back in the day—medieval and renaissance times—the "kingdoms" of art, literature, music, medicine, theater and science all belonged to God. Musicians wrote music for the glory of God. DaVinci painted for the glory of God. Herbalists for instance studied plants because they thought God had created a world that could be searched out. I am hoping that one day God will also have the kingdom of speculative fiction, so to speak. Right now so much of Christian publishing is icky inspirational romance. And Christian fantasy is so often limited to apocalyptical stuff like the Left Behind series which was just a horribly-written series and allegorical rewritings of Bible stories. Many writers of fantasy and SF are very hateful and mocking towards Christians. Many Christians get offended if a fellow Christian challenges them on politics, race, etc. I sometimes wish I was bred to be squarely in one group or the other. But God gave me my own mind. I'm neither a cookie-cutter Conservative, nor a cookie-cutter Liberal. I'm not pro Black politics or pro white politics. I'm not a feminist and I'm not "not a feminist." There is no real difference for me. Christianity has a lot of fantastical elements.

TFF: What are some of the fantastical aspects within Christianity that you find fascinating?

CM: Well most religions read like a kid's fairytale, don't they? Compare Buddhism and Christianity for instance. Think of two kings. Both kings have sons. One king raises his son in a sumptuous palace. The other takes his son and puts him in a poor family. The poor prince grows up having knowledge of his parents’ flight as refuges of his birth in a stable, sees death and suffering among the poor everyday, has to deal with Roman oppressors. He is a Man of Sorrows. The sheltered pampered prince who is unaware of sorrows, one day leaves the palace and sees how terrible the world really is. Shocked and traumatized, he returns home depressed and can't get the sorrows out of his mind. At last, he learns to deal with the situation by not thinking about it and by conquering sorrows and joys by rising above need and emotions. Of course this is all well and good for him, he's got food. But he has attained Peace and grows to symbolize mental peace and Acceptance/Submission to life. The other prince who has grown up among the poor, the sick and the needy, however, actively hates the sorrows he sees around him. He goes about taking care of the poor, healing the poor miraculously. He has such a disdain for the rich and the folks in the upper echelon that the religious people and the state join together to kill him even though the regular people love him. He dies between two thieves with a prostitute being one of the only friends at his death. Then he dies. But in dying, he kills death. In dying he kills the power of sin. In apparently "losing" to the devil, he has conquered the great enemy of man. Three days later he rises again, after harrowing hell. Fifty days after that, he returns in spiritual form and his spirit enters into all those who love him, giving them power to heal the sick, raise the dead, etc. There's a lot of fantastical stuff in that.

The two stories are about differing Gods. And human pain. The Christian idea is to conquer evil by love, by active involvement. We Christians have a lord who identifies with our sorrows, who was in fact poor and needy and rejected. The other prince is loved by the world. Ours -- the Christian's God-- wasn't; in fact, he tells us that we should be careful not to be too loved by the world, and we should not identify with it. As a writer I try not to pick on anyone's religion, but as a poor sickly needy human I like a God who identifies with my pain so much that he ran towards it instead of being overwhelmed by it. This is just me. I like a God who is "acquainted with grief" and who gives us power to actually conquer it...as opposed to simply learning to submit to it. The Christian idea of evil is that it is a malevolence...a knowledgeable mindful malevolence that is at war with good. Not just something in the world. Not just something that is an absence of good. Not just something we can conquer by learning to control our emotions. For Christians, good emotions such as love and joy ARE the things to aim for.

In addition, Christianity is essentially all the great folklore, myth and primitive religions rolled into one. All folklore, primitive religion and myth point towards it for their fulfillment. That's to say: it has all of the motifs one finds in those religions. From the sacrifice of virgins, the myth of God's lost book, the dying God-Man, even the ideas of cannibals eating flesh to incorporate the life of the dying warrior. But it's myth and history meeting...myth made life. True myth, as C S Lewis would say. And then there are all those prophecies, all that talk about the Active Malevolence of the devil, all the challenge to our ideas of our "goodness" and the giving of his own Godly life and spiritual power. Kierkegaard wrote in his book Training in Christianity that the great offense of Christianity is that it says that if humanity could get its hand on God, they would kill him. We say we like goodness but we really like to destroy it. It's insulting and fantastical, but in my opinion, it's true. Goodness gets destroyed a lot in my stories as you could guess. Lots of Christ figures floating around.

TFF: I’m familiar with the story-telling tradition within the Christian culture, but what about the Jamaican culture? What kind of stories in the Jamaican culture do you think have really affected your own personal writing style?

CM: Jamaicans have a dark, very black, sense of humor, a joyous cynicism about people and situations. Christians also have a certain divine cynicism where they just don't trust much earthly "facts" or opinions. Jamaicans also tell folklore, ghost stories, and of course their dreams. At the breakfast table, everyone has some dream to tell. Uncles were always telling ghost stories and aunts were telling stories about spiritual encounters with angels or demons or whatever. There is a Jamaican word called "labrish" which means a good gossipy story. When Jamaicans meet, they always ask each other if they have any labrish. So let's say that a mutual acquaintance -- a very greedy person-- has died. The teller of this bit of labrish will probably add something like, "It was tough though getting her body out of the house. When she found out she was dying she decided to take all her money out of the bank. She was stuffing a ten dollar bill down her throat when I last saw her. Woman gained at least fifty pounds stuffing herself with them dollars, but it's understandable...better than her husband's next wife getting it" To which the other labrisher would elaborate, "I hear dead people pass a lot of gas. Maybe we ought to go dig her up and wait for her to fart. I have an old tub in the back-- could hold a lot of money." You see: just the right touch of cynicism, fun and exaggeration. This pops up in a little children's story I'm presently writing called "Miles and the Layaway hair." The kid's mother is so poor she has to put a wig she sees at the 99 cent store on layaway, but because she is sooo poor, time passes and all the black hair styles keep changing. Meanwhile the hair is disintegrating in the box at the basement of the 99 cent store and a nest of mice are making a home of it. The owners of the store --who are quite greedy-- have to call in exterminators who shake the wig every month. Quite a dilemma: do we want the mice to have a home, the exterminators to give up shaking the wig or the main character's mom to get her hair? Jamaicans also tell riddles. When I was growing up, every little Jamaican kid knew the basic intro to a riddle. "Riddle me this, riddle me that. Guess me this riddle and perhaps not." Then of course the riddle would pop up, something like: "Roomful, eyeful, can't catch a spoonful." Then all the kids would sit there wracking their brains and finally someone might guess that the answer is smoke.

TFF: The best writing advice you’ve heard?

CM: From Jasper Johns. "Take something and do something to it. Then do something to it again." Something like that. Am not sure of the real phrasing. But it's definitely important. I mean this in connection with revising. So many people think they have finished a story when they finish the ending sentence. But that's just the beginning. If they want the story to be deeper and more cohesive, they should go over it again and again. To build layers but also to perfect the story.

TFF: Do you have any novels in the works?

CM: Yes, I'm presently working on a SF/Fantasy cross-genre story based on Genesis chapter 6 called The Daughters of Men. Very sociological. It involves four types of humans—the clones, the bio-genetically engineered chimeras, the semi-demonic Nephilim, and “normal” humans. Then there are the three lovers – Woden, a Nephilim Prince; Siddhart, Woden’s captain and rebellious best friend; and Ellie, the human Black woman they both love who may be fated to bring disaster or salvation to the Nephilim. Okay, so I'm a romantic—and slightly piggy too, having two guys in love with the woman. But it's also religious. I have all these prophecies—basically two—the prophecy of the stubborn Scarred Woman fated to bring Disruption, and the prophecy of the Beautiful One who will bring peace and salvation to the Nephililm. And of course the big question: Should Ellie marry Woden, especially if she's in love with Siddhart? Could it be that she is indeed the prophesied one? Of course, you bet she is! So the book has a lot of world-building. And it examines the nature of prophecy, community and memory. Am in the throes of revising it for—I hope—the last time. I'm also working on a fantasy version of the story of Hagar called The Windfollower. I'm always on the underdog's side. What can I say?

http://todaysfantasyfiction.741.com/mcdonnell.htm

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