Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi Durrow: review and interview

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Heidi W. Durrow is a stunning debut novel about a sole survivor of a family tragedy. Rachel, her Danish mother, her brother and her baby sister fell from the roof of their Chicago apartment building. Was it an accident or were they pushed? Rachel literally turns a deaf ear and focuses on the more immediate struggle of fitting into the African American community in Portland, Oregon, where her grandmother lives. Rachel has brown skin, blue eyes and "speaks white." Who is she?

The story unfolds in several voices: Rachel in the first person, her mother's journals, and three other characters in the third person. One narrator changes his name from  Jamie to Brick. It also skips back and forth between three time periods and places: backstory in Germany, Chicago after the accident and Portland in the five years following. I had to reread some passages to follow the asynchronous narrative. It would have been less confusing to have just 2 narrators, Rachel and Brick (without a name change.) The journals could have filled in the gaps, without adding 2 more voices.

Still, it was well worth the effort to untangle the plot strings. The dialogue sounds realistic and the metaphors are gorgeously poetic. Rachel and Brick are fabulous leads, but even the minor characters are well developed. The real mystery is not the accident but Rachel's identity in a society that can't see gradations between black and white. There is prejudice and hate, but there is also love and acceptance. This lyrical and most original story stayed with me long after I finished it.

Heidi Durrow, like her protagonist, has a Dutch mother and an African-American father, who served in Germany. The Girl Who Fell From The Sky sings true to the multi-cultural experience of modern life. If you are looking for a fresh new voice with a meaningful message, this literary novel is for you.

My Interview with Heidi Durrow
author photo by Timothi Jane Graham

Sarah Laurence: Although your voice is distinct and original, I was reminded of both The Bluest Eye and Beloved by Toni Morrison. Was Morrison an influence?

Heidi Durrow: I adore Toni Morrison. And she was a definite influence on me as a writer--She was my a model of lyrical, beautiful writing--I love her sentences!--And beyond that--I think of this book as kind of a response to The Bluest Eye. My protagonist Rachel isn't the young brown girl who yearns for blue eyes, but the young brown girl who has them and must deal with what that means to the world.

What made you decide to set the narrative in the 1980’s?

I wrote what I knew. I came of age during that time and I wanted to include details about the state of race relations and racial consciousness during that time. That's me at age twelve (photo to left.)

How has the biracial experience changed over the past decades? 

I want to say that growing up biracial now isn't as difficult as it was when I was growing up. President Obama and the many biracial people in the media, arts, and sports who actually talk about their mixed identities has made it less isolating. But still, I think kids in the smaller towns and cities--they still are dealing with many of the same things that I dealt with as a kid. We, as a country, are still invested in labels. And it's difficult for people to understand a multiplicity of experience and identity.

The protagonist, Rachel, is a girl aged 11-16. Why did you decide to write the story for adults instead of for young adults? 

I think of the book as written for adults, but I also think young people can get a lot out of it. Especially young women. I think the YA label is more a marketing term than descriptive of a book. Take The Book Thief for example (one of my all-time favorites)--it was marketed as YA here, but not in Australia where it was first published. I would like to think that I am writing for teens as well as adults. As I wrote the book, I was very much aware that I wanted to write a book I wish I could have read as a 15-year-old me.

Why did you tell the story in multiple voices/time frames? Was this narrative structure in place from the start or did it evolve over time?

The narrative structure evolved over the course of some two dozen revisions. I started writing the book in third-person from Rachel's perspective as an adult. But then I struck upon her voice in the first-person right at age 11 and then it took off from there. The other characters' perspectives came in as I realized that Rachel was an unreliable narrator and I needed other people to give the reader information and the character Jamie/Brick came about because I realized that Rachel needed a witness. I think in real life too--when something bad happens to you, it's important to have someone say yes, that was a bad thing. I recognize that too.

What was your road to publication like?

Long! Very long. I started the book in 1997 and it took 12 years to write the book finished and get it published. I got so many rejections at every level. I had teachers along the way who told me to give up on it and put it away. I just couldn't let it go. I kept working on it and for every "no" I got I tried to find information in the no and not take it personally. At some point, I started to win contests, and grants, and residencies. I took it step by step and finally my dream came true (Heidi in 1974 to right.)

What is the best writing advice you have received?

You just need one gatekeeper to say yes to your story. You just have to find that gatekeeper. I got lucky. My gatekeeper was Barbara Kingsolver. I am forever grateful!

Wow! Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors. How did you connect with her?

Barbara Kingsolver chose my book for the Bellwether Prize. She created and fully funds the prize which comes with $25,000 and a book contract. I did get to meet her when she was on tour for The Lacuna. And she was just as warm and wonderful, elegant, gracious and funny as I imagined her to be!

What is your next book project?

It's based on the life of a famous mulatto strongwoman and circus performer of the late 1800s. It's set in Paris and London and the other main characters are a very hairy Laotian girl who is exhibited as a "freak" and Edgar Degas. I'm having a lot of fun with it. And then, I've also been taking notes on a kind of sequel to The Girl . . . I didn't write the book with that in mind, but as I travel around and people ask me questions about the characters they all want to know what happens next. I kind of want to know too.

Thank you, Heidi, and good luck!

Reviewer's Disclaimer: I bought this book (published February 25, 2010) after reading a review in The New York Times. I have a biracial character in my young adult novel, as u like it, so Durrow's novel caught my eye. I received no free products or compensation.  The childhood photos and author photo were supplied by Heidi Durrow and reproduced with permission.  

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Cynthia Pittmann said...

I enjoyed the review and interview,Sarah. I think that we will continue to see multiple narrative threads in novels -time, setting, character, emotional tones. I find it disturbing at first- here's where I confess that Beloved is too painful to read...and the movie is so difficult. Still it does stay with you forever! (I think the baby voice haunts me.) These psychologically profound novels remain disturbing.

My husband usually teaches Beloved, so I've had lots of contact with Toni Morrison through her works. We have a wonderful video interview that I enjoy watching. Also The Bluest Eye is around here somewhere- I'm going to take it off the shelves and read it again. I can understand Heidi's comments about writing for adults. I think Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John is written for adults, too, but it is YA literature.

Older teens like to be related to as adults, don't you think? I sometimes teach Annie John and my students read it as a reflection on their past-they make connections to her experiences and thoughts. It could be the Caribbean connection that makes it so vivid to them.

I think The Girl Who Fell...would be appropriate for beginning college students. What do you think? Did you conduct the interview online or in person? I like the detail in Ms Durrow's answers. Great interview!

tina said...

Her perseverance is to be admired in getting her book published.

A Cuban In London said...

Oh dear, even before I began to read your fab interview, I was thinking 'The Bluest Eye', 'The Bluest Eye'! And lo and behold, you mentioned it. I don't think that many authors who write about that kind of experience Heidi (apparently, too, I haven't read the book yet) describes, can escape the ghost of Morrison's landmark novel.

What I also found interesting is that as a follower of your blog I've noticed in the latest three or four reviews that the plots of the novels you have written about have a lot in common with their authors and their lives. A question I would like to ask either past writers or future ones would be: Do you ever get the feeling that your plot, or one of your characters, or a bunch of them, is/are getting too close to your real self? And what do you do about it? Writing fiction in a way is modifying real life, except for when you write Harry Potter books, in which you invent a wizard. But generally speaking, fiction still happens on planet Earth.

I loved your review and the book sounds like one of those reads that plunges the reader straight into a maelstrom of characters and situations.

Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Bee said...

The Bluest Eye made a huge impact on me. If Durrow's writing is similarly poetic and lyrical I very much look forward to reading it!

I've long admired Kingsolver, but now I think she should be elevated to goddess status. How wonderful that she is helping get other worthy writers into print.

pattinase (abbott) said...

This is a wonderful review and interview. Inspiring.

Anonymous said...

I'm a big fan of multiple POVs and can't stop writing them myself - lol! Very clever - well done review!

As a writer, I have the most difficult emotional time writing stories that are the closest to my own experiences - the ones that are the most fictional are easier to spend time with, although I keep getting drawn to those other stories - but I keep resisting them at the same time.

Sarah Laurence said...

Cynthia, Durrow’s book is less gloomy than Beloved, which I still loved. Humor offsets the tragedy. There are some similarities between The Girl and Annie John; thanks for making the connection. I’m especially interested in YA crossover. The Girl would fit in well with your beginner college course. It would provoke an interesting discussion of points of view and race. I usually conduct my author interviews via email after I’ve finished reading the book or ARC and browsed the author’s website. I try to give the author a few weeks and ask for the responses a week in advance of posting so that there is time to go back and forth with follow up questions. Heidi got back to me almost immediately, which gave me time tinker. It was a pleasure getting to know her better. I really enjoy these interviews, but only do them once a month because the posts are very time consuming.

Tina, I love publishing stories with a happy ending. I really admire Heidi’s perseverance, but I hope it will take less than 12 years to get my first novel published. Her words encourage me to keep going. The time to reflect may have made The Girl a better book. I just wish it were easier to get original, provacative work like this published.

ACIL, The Bluest Eye was the first thing that came to mind for me too, which is why it was my first question. Morrison is one fine literary ghost. That’s an interesting observation about the personal story overlap of novels I review. I seek out debuts, and first books frequently draw most directly from personal experience. It is easier to write what you know. As for me, real events inspired the main plots of my novels. S.A.D. is set in my part of Maine and draws its inspiration from my involvement with school politics and extensive research I did on Intelligent Design. as u like it is set primarily in Manhattan, where I grew up, and features a protagonist who reads Shakespeare for fun and volunteers at an animal shelter, like I did. However, her personality and love of acting are hers alone. The problem with writing realistic fiction is that people assume it’s true no matter what. You have to get beyond that embarrassment if you want your work to be convincing. Interesting question!

Bee, I’d love to hear your reaction to The Girl. Kingsolver and Morrison are two of my favorite authors. I think it’s wonderful that Kingsolver is using her fortune to launch a new generation of socially conscious authors. Weren’t you posting a book review too or was that next month?

Patti, thanks, I’m looking forward to reading you review too.

Kathy, I prefer multiple POVs in the third person or alternating first person POV. It interrupts the flow to have many jumps in voice and time. Still, Durrow makes it work for her story. The reader just has to work a bit harder to follow. I love how your response answers ACIL question. Thanks for sharing! I’ll come visit your review soon.

Barrie said...

What a wonderful review and interview. I always love to hear the story behind the story. Great writing advice from Heidi, too, about finding the one gatekeeper. Thanks, again, Sarah!

Linda McLaughlin said...

Great review, Sarah. Glad you enjoyed the book, though I agree that there can be too many points of view. The cultural aspects of the story sound really interesting.

Sarah Laurence said...

Barrie, thanks for hosting! I hope to find my gatekeeper soon.

Linda, it’s a fascinating book and well worth reading. I enjoyed your review too.

MissA said...

I've been wanting to read The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (love the title!) for quite some time now and since school is almost over, I should be able to read it soon :)

I agree with Ms. Durrow that YA is more of a marketing term, it states that the target audience is teens. Personally, I think that books written with teen protagonists should be classified as YA and adult, many teens are mature enough to handle the 'mature content' that often results in books with teenage protagonists ending up in the adult fiction section.

I think the idea behind the novel is excellent 'the young brown girl who has blue eyes and must deal with them', bi-racial people are facing more acceptance but they still face a lot of hostility from people demanding they 'pick a side' (I say this as someone who is not bi racial but multiracial).

Wonderful review Sarah, you've made me even more eager to read this book! And thank you Sarah and Ms. Durrow for the interview =D

@SarahL-I would review this book, so look out for the review sometime during the summer!

Alyssa Goodnight said...

I love a beautiful metaphor! And this book sounds quite intriguing, although I imagine I would get hung up on the multiple POV's in all their forms too.

As always, love the interviews that are included! Excellent!

Stacy Nyikos said...

This sounds like an amazing book that hits upon some threads I'd find really interesting. I appreciate that you point out what you like and what you find critically problematic. It presents a really well-rounded understanding of the piece.

Sarah Laurence said...

MissAttitude, I love the title too and how that fallen girl works as a metaphor. This is a good book to save until school is over because you will want to savor it. I’m really looking forward to reading your review. The Girl would crossover well for mature teens. It would be great to get this book circulating through YA book blogs. You bring a good point about picking sides. I’m half Jewish and half Christian and had similar problems fitting in when I was growing up in the 1980s. Now I’m married to a Brit. Books about split ethnic or cultural identity appeal to me. I write about that too in my own work. I love how you focus on diversity in your blog.

Alyssa, read it. It’s worth the extra effort to follow the narrative. Thank you!

Stacy, I think you’ll love this book and find it structurally interesting too. Let me know what you make of it. And thank you for understanding why I criticize even the best books. It’s what I love about your reviews too.

Lucy said...

All I can say is wow. You've made me want to buy the book.

Sarah Laurence said...

Lucy, welcome to my blog and thank you! I like your taste in reading already. Enjoy!

Ellen Booraem said...

Deeply satisfying review and interview, Sarah. Thank you. THE GIRL is now on my TBR list, nudged up near the top. I was happy to hear that Ms. Durrow say that the experience of being interracial may be getting easier now that Prs. Obama and others are in the spotlight. Social progress will be interesting to watch in the next decade or so.

Alyson | New England Living said...

This book really intrigues me! I always love a story where the protagonist doesn't necessarily fit in to their environment. This is something that I have always felt personally, and reading a story like that always resonates.

kayerj said...

I enjoyed your review and interview very much. I also read through the comments, you inspired a great discussion about this book. Good luck with your novel and thanks so much for stopping by.

MissA said...

Exactly, most adult fiction/crossover YA seem like books that I will need more time to read in order to really savor more so than other YA (but not all).

I hear you on feeling torn! Story of my life :) I hate that it is so difficult for people who are half and half to fit in. I think it's hardest for teens, it seems like it gets a little easier when you're an adult because people care less :)

Rose said...

As always, Sarah, I appreciate your bringing new books to my attention--this one will definitely go on my "must-read" list. Novels with multiple narrators seem to be more and more common these days. Sometimes I find them a little confusing, too, although I think Heidi's justification for them makes sense.

I didn't join the meeting this month, because I've been up to my elbows--literally--in dirt, trying to get the garden ready. I did read two of Stieg Larson's books, "The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo" and the following one, whose title escapes me at the moment. But since they seem to be really "hot" right now, I didn't think one more review of them was necessary:)

cynthia newberry martin said...

Very interesting interview. And I enjoyed seeing the childhood pictures of the author too.

Because it's taking me a long time to see my first novel all the way to published, I love reading about others who persevere over the years and finally make it to the other side. It's also nice for Heidi to emphasize that it just takes one gatekeeper who wants to open the gate...

☆sapphire said...

Thank you for the nice review and interview!! I really enjoyed them!
I thought at first that having several voices in a novel would be very confusing. I personally like two or three voices. Do you like having more than three voices?

Keri Mikulski said...

Wow!! Interesting point of view.

Fabulous in-depth review and interview. Wow, twelve years - this one is now on my TBR pile. Thanks!

Charlotte said...

Can't wait to read Heidi Durrow's book. Also, your tulips with yellow background truly would make a lovely postcard, or card.

troutbirder said...

Thru two adoptions my sons family is now interracial. I'm doing all the reading I can to get up to speed on this and related subjects. Great review!

Sarah Laurence said...

All, sorry to be late to respond and to visit. I’ve been in NYC for my high school reunion (more tomorrow) and PA for a bar mitzvah.

Ellen, it is encouraging to see progress in our lifetime. I’d love to hear what you think of The Girl.

Alyson, it sounds like The Girl is one for you. I liked it for the reason you mentioned too.

Kaye, the best thing about my blog is the discussion. Thank you!

Miss Attitude, take heart; it does get easier. I had tough moments during my teen years, like when I didn’t get invited to schoolmates’ bat mitzvahs since my mother wasn’t Jewish, and then getting bullied at a camp for being the only Jew. Now most people find my mixed background interesting in a positive way. I’ve gravitated towards friends of mixed backgrounds both in real life and online. I’ll be discussing the teen pressure to conform in my next post. Your comment got me thinking.

Rose, yes, Heidi had good reasons for using multiple voices. I’ve been reading The Girl with The Dragon Tatoo and won’t be reviewing it either. I loved the character of the girl but found the opening pace slow, the mystery predictable and the content disgusting. I can’t see why it’s such a big hit. It was fine for the plane, but books like The Girl are far better reads. Enjoy!

Cynthia, I always ask authors for photos of themselves at the age of the protagonist if it’s YA or crossover. I hope Heidi’s luck rubs off on you and me.

Sapphire, I agree that having fewer voices is better in general, but there are exceptions to the rule. The narrative structure needs to fit the story. Authors like Anita Shreve and Jodi Picoult have used the multiple POV to render extra dimensions to their stories without losing the reader. The problem with The Girl was that having multiple voices AND multiple times/setting made for a challenging read. Heidi managed to make it work, but I thought dropping 2 minor voices might have worked better. It’s still a brilliant book and well worth reading.

Keri, tell me what you think of The Girl. I think you’ll find it fascinating as I did to read about teens from a fresh perspective and literary style.

Charlotte, I’ll be passing my copy onto you. The tulips need your company. Tea soon?

Troutbirder, I’d love to hear your reaction to The Girl. It’s a must read for biracial families. Your grandchildren are adorable.

Heidi Durrow said...

Hi it's me--Heidi,the author of the book--I don't usually weigh in on discussions of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky unless invited, but I just want to say how much I'm enjoying reading your comments and thoughts. Sarah's questions were great and gave me a chance to think about the work anew--thank you Sarah and to all of you! heidi

Sarah Laurence said...

Heidi, thank you for joining us! The discussion in the comments has been one of the best yet, and that’s all thanks to your fabulous book and interview. You are welcome here anytime. I can’t wait to see what you write next.

Peaceful Reader said...

I enjoyed this book and think it is an important account of how racial inequality influences many. The interview was wonderful-loved the photos! Thanks to Barbara Kingsolver for hand-picking Heidi's book.

Sarah Laurence said...

Peaceful Reader, welcome to my blog! Thanks for adding your impression of The Girl.