Heidi Durrow grew up as the middle child of an African-American enlisted Air Force man and a white Danish woman. Raised in North Carolina, Turkey, Washington state, and Germany, she spent summers and holidays in her mother’s Danish hometown. A former corporate lawyer and journalist, she holds degrees from Stanford, Yale, and Columbia universities. She also worked as a Life Skills trainer for NBA and NFL athletes. Ebony magazine named her one of its Power 100 Leaders of 2010, she was nominated for an 2011 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Debut, and she has received scholarships, grants, or fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the New York Foundation for the Arts, The Jerome Foundation, The American Scandinavian Foundation, The Elizabeth George Foundation, The Lois Roth Endowment and other places. She is a well-regarded public speaker who has been featured as an expert on multiracial and multicultural issues and identity by NBC Nightly News, The New York Times, CNN, National Public Radio, the BBC, Ebony magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle. In addition to her writing career, Heidi heads the Mixed Remixed Festival, an annual free public event celebrating stories of the mixed experience through films, books, and performance, and she hosts an audio and video podcast called The Mixed Experience.
Inspired by a true story, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky explores complicated questions of identity, family and grief. A heart-wrenching and beautifully written portrait of a young biracial girl dealing with the aftermath of violence as well as with society’s ideas of race and class, it was the winner of the 2008 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Barbara Kingsolver called the novel “[A] breathless telling of a tale we’ve never heard before. Haunting and lovely, pitch-perfect, this book could not be more timely.” A New York Times bestseller, the text is taught in many college and high school classrooms.
Heidi talked to Dead Darlings about her novel, her festival, NaNoWriMo, writer’s block, and about fiction’s role as a socially engaged activity.
What was your inspiration for The Girl Who Fell From the Sky?
I was inspired by a newspaper story I read about a family that experienced a tragedy similar to the one I write about in the book and the girl survived. I became strangely obsessed with this story. There seemed to be so many questions left unanswered but the main question I had was about the girl: she survived the accident, but what would her survival look like? How do you grow up with that kind of tragedy bookmarked inside you? I set out to give that girl—that real girl—a voice.
Why did you choose to use multiple points of view to tell the story? Was it hard to maintain those different voices?
Once I discovered Rachel’s voice, I intended to write the whole book from Rachel’s perspective, but as I wrote more of the story I discovered that she was an unreliable narrator. I needed other voices to make the story whole. Laronne was the first character I added—I realized I needed her point of view because I needed someone to advocate on behalf of Nella. Other points of view grew out of the writing organically; I added points of view as I needed them to tell the story that I wanted to tell.
You do a great job of conveying the angst of adolescent feelings, for example in the way Rachel has to separate herself into the girl she was before and the girl she is now, the girl she is at home and the girl she is at school, the girl she is inside and the girl she is outside. Rachel, despite the ways in which she hides herself, is quite a powerful young woman. Was it hard to find Rachel’s voice?
It took me years to find Rachel’s voice. In fact, I was working on this book for a couple of years before I struck upon her voice. Once I could hear what she sounded like, what was most difficult was figuring out how to “grow up” her voice. She ages from age 11 to 17 over the course of the book—those are significant years and the things that an 11-year-old pays attention to are different from a 17-year-old’s interests.
Rachel says, “I know how to answer the questions differently now. I’m black. I’m from Northeast Portland. My grandfather’s eyes are this color.” What would be at stake for Rachel in admitting her history or saying that her mother was Danish and white?
That admission on her part is a kind of surrender. She has given up trying to make others recognize the complexity of her identity or experience. It’s not that what she finally decides to say in that moment isn’t true, but it is reductive.
Rachel notices that, “Miss America is black today, and she has blue eyes…And then I think: I could be Miss America if I got prettier.” Rachel feels that in her world, black women are not perceived as being as beautiful as white women. How do social concepts of race, of blackness and whiteness, impact Rachel, who is both? What about society’s dictates about what is beautiful and what is not?
I think society’s ideas about race and beauty are profoundly confusing. On the one hand, it seems like popular culture has expanded its definition of beauty to include women of color like Halle Berry, Selma Hayak, Beyoncé, and Jennifer Lopez. At the same time, it was a big deal for Viola Davis to ditch her wig and wear her hair “natural” to the Oscars. What’s the message here? Rachel struggles to understand why white “features” make black women “more beautiful.”
Rachel thinks, “If there’s no one else to tell another side—the only story that can be told is the story that becomes true.” When something as confusing and contrary to our conceptions of motherhood or humanity happens, how do we create narratives to make a truth that is more comfortable?
We lie. We lie to ourselves first, and we perpetuate it as long as we can. Rachel lies to herself as an act of self-preservation. But of course it’s the opposite of self-preservation. She ends up realizing she has to know and own the whole of her complicated story. She has to give up the fixed identity that she thinks will make her safe.
“A reporter—pretty and young like his first schoolteacher—wanted to make the bird-boy’s story one that made sense.” How much of novel writing do you think is about taking a story that is confusing and trying to make sense of that story or world?
I write because I have questions—about the world, about myself, about the people I know and love or have fallen out of love with. When I read the real story that inspired The Girl, I was struck by the fact that no one ever asked: Where was the father? Where was the kids’ dad? That seemed grossly unfair. The father failed that family too—whether it was a week before the tragedy or years ago that he walked out. He wasn’t there to help the family be a family, which is what the real family seemed to desperately want. So, yes, I think the impulse to write a story or to create any art is to start with a question—explore the question. Answering the question or questions isn’t the point—it’s the exploration. It’s about making new questions.
The new manuscript I’m working on starts with a question too. I’m writing about a mixed-race woman who was a bodybuilder/strongwoman born in 1858 in what was then Poland. She went on to become a super-famous circus artist painted by Degas in Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando in 1879. The first question that occurred to me was: who was her dad? Where’d that black guy come from? I’ve done a ton of research and now I get to use the facts that work, but I’m using a lot of fictional elements to be able to really dig deep into the question.
Both Laronne and Jamie feel the reporter doesn’t know how to ask the right questions. What are the right questions in the wake of an event like this one?
I think the right questions end up identifying not just a single culprit, but all those responsible. Think about how many people failed the real girl: neighbors, teachers, social workers, her father—the system we’ve created that doesn’t support families that want to be families. People didn’t ask those questions in the wake of that real tragedy. I wanted to ask those questions in my novel.
We know very early what has happened to Rachel quite literally, and yet there is still so much mystery surrounding the details as well as why it happened and the aftermath. How did you decide what to reveal and when as you constructed this retelling and reimaging of the aftermath of an inconceivably tragic event?
I was struck by how the news stories about the real story that inspired my book all explained what happened but also mentioned that there were no witnesses to the actual moment the tragedy happened. That said to me that there could be many different ways it could have happened, and I wanted to explore those possibilities. I wanted to keep circling around the event to discover all the possibilities.
Jamie feels he must train his heart not to feel. Rachel learns to keep certain emotions and truths sealed in a blue bottle she envisions inside herself. Why is it dangerous to feel or be honest about feelings in this world?
Oh, man. How do I answer that without revealing my own feelings?
You are half Danish, half African-American and grew up in Portland, OR, just like Rachel. This novel is obviously fiction, but I wonder how was your experience similar to hers? How was it different?
When I speak to audiences who have read the book I am often told: You’re like a grown-up Rachel! And yes, the character does have the same racial/cultural background and grew up in Portland as I did. But the one-to-one correlations really end there. However, the emotional touchstones of the book are the emotional touchstones of my own life. But that is true for almost all of the characters. They are all a piece of me.
How long did it take you to write the novel? Did the novel stay pretty close to your original concept or did you end up veering far from your earliest ideas?
The book is vastly different than my first stabs at it. In fact, there was a period of time when I was working on it that there were grown-up Rachel chapters. I started the book when I was 29, and it took almost 10 years to finish. The thing that stayed the same was my vision for the book: I wanted to write a book about my obsessions about multiracial and multicultural identity and experience, society’s ideas about race and beauty and grief.
In addition to writing and speaking publically about your writing, you run the Mixed Remixed Festival, which celebrates stories of mixed racial and cultural experience through films, books, visual arts, and performance. Could you talk about your passion for this subject?
I decided to create the Festival out of my own selfish needs. I was struggling with all of the rejections from publishing houses that said there was no demographic for my manuscript about a half-black and half-Danish girl. There was no market for a story about an Afro-Viking. I was determined to prove those editors wrong, so I decided to gather the community together. I was certain that there were other writers out there writing this kind of story and that there were lots of people interested in it. And then beyond that, I wanted to create a space for other emerging storytellers. The really satisfying part of producing the Festival each year is knowing that it has encouraged writers to write because they knew there was a place where their stories would be welcomed and understood.
Your novel was chosen by Barbara Kingsolver as the winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. How do you see fiction as being a socially engaged activity?
Fiction provides a unique way for a reader to encounter a character that has a different background or experience. It allows for the reader to empathize and identify with the other. That is an amazing, radical act I think, to be able to engage with difference through story. I am always heartened to hear from readers who have found themselves in my character Rachel, and they aren’t all mixed chicks with crazy curly hair. They are teens and women and men of all stripes and polka dots. I remember one college student said to me, “This book isn’t just about being mixed. It’s about me. And I’m white.” She was right. It’s about her too. She’s part of the same tribe.
How do you balance your writing time with the work of organizing a festival, running a podcast, The Mixed Experience, where you interview writers and artists, and speaking around the country about The Girl Who Fell From the Sky?
What’s balance? I’m still trying to figure it out. Lately, I’ve found that if I dedicate days to writing and then days for the other stuff that’s the best way to use my time. I have a hard time transitioning between the things I need to do as a producer/speaker/podcaster and writing. So there are writing days and work days and I keep them separate.
You were a lawyer and you also studied journalism before publishing your first novel. Was it hard to transition from your corporate career to full-time fiction writer?
I did a soft-transition to writing. When I left my corporate career I was lucky to find work as a consultant to the NFL and NBA as a Life Skills coach. The job was fun and it was also seasonal. That allowed me to be in the corporate world part-time and then binge-write in the off-season. I feel really lucky I found that work.
How do you think your training as a journalist or as a lawyer shapes you as a fiction writer?
As a journalist and as a lawyer, you learn the importance of questions—asking the right ones to get the facts or the evidence that you need. As a fiction writer, you need to know what questions the reader needs answered (and when in the narrative) and you need to know what questions excite you enough to spend years working on a book.
On a whole other note, I’m glad that I had that professional experience. I’m sure that it will inform my work more in the coming years, but I feel lucky that it informed the way I went about creating a writing career for myself. I remember feeling horribly stuck while writing The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. I kept waiting for someone to “discover” me or to “get permission” to be a writer. When I realized those things weren’t going to happen, I knew I had to pursue a writing career in the same way that I had pursued journalism and law. I had to build a resumé. That seemed do-able, and I started to tackle the task step by step.
It was the advice my first agent the late great Wendy Weil gave me: Remember you just need one gatekeeper to greenlight the book. You just have to find that gatekeeper. I was lucky to find my gatekeeper in the writer Barbara Kingsolver. So I guess I’d add to that advice. Keep looking!
If you had to list your top pieces of writing advice, what would they be? Jane Smiley says to “be the tortoise not the hare.” Do you have any sayings like hers?
I like that. But can I steal from one of my favorite poets, William Stafford, who said if you get stuck, lower your standards and keep going! That’s the hardest thing to do, but it’s so right. You can’t revise what you haven’t written down, and it’s through the revision that the real writing starts to sing.
You are a big proponent of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). What is it about NaNoWriMo that appeals to you?
NaNoWriMo gets me writing. I’ve never finished a novel when I’ve participated, but I’ve written a ton of pages and often times written stuff that surprised me. And there’s the wonderful feeling of community—you’re not alone in the struggle to get your vision on the page.
When you are feeling writer’s block, what is your favorite way to get back to writing?
I used to write bad haikus—bad being a requirement. It was always interesting to see that if I kept writing them eventually no matter how hard I tried some actually turned out to be decent.
I haven’t done that in a while because I think when I’ve experienced writer’s block recently it’s because I haven’t been reading enough—that the well is dry—and that I haven’t figured out how to pay attention to my own voice—my way of looking at things.