Andrea Hairston, who will be on the Shaping the Story panel, is the award-winning author of REDWOOD AND WILDFIRE and MINDSCAPE. She teaches playwriting and screenwriting at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She was interviewed by Cheryl Malandrinos.
When did you decide to embark upon a career in writing? Did someone or some event influence your choice in any way?
I come from a family of tall tale spinners. My grandfather was a Baptist minister and held forth from the pulpit every Sunday. My mother talked up a storm every day and captivated everyone with her stories, with her wit and wisdom and flashes of insight. As a child in grade school I was always talking too much and preventing other kids from hearing what the teacher had to say. My mother told me if I knew what the teacher was trying to teach us and felt bored or restless, rather than bother the kid next to me, I should write her a story. So I did. Every day I wrote stories that happened to me, stories that just fell into my mind. So I can’t remember myself before I was writing stories. Writing has always been part of my life, a way of being in the world.
So why not have it be your career?
I decided to write plays in college. Stories that happen in front of an audience with live actors and music and scenery and amazing costumes and lights, that was a real thrill. I decided to write novels when I was a guest professor at the University of Hamburg in Germany. I became another person when I spoke German and, despite being fluent in German, I felt like I had landed on another planet! I met women from Sudan, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Central America, and Sri Lanka who had found asylum in Germany and were working to reinvent themselves. They told me their stories and demanded a place on the world stage. I wanted to write about the experience of crossing cultures and discovering who else you might be. I wanted to tell an epic story with a cast of thousands. I wanted to explore how language shapes the landscapes of our minds. I have always been interested in stories that haven’t been told; in characters who have been left out of the official narratives; in lives that don’t get written down. So I have been inspired by the people whose stories might get thrown away. They are the stars of my novels.
What do you enjoy about writing speculative fiction?
German playwright Berthold Brecht said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” I like world building and conjuring reality. Science Fiction and Fantasy writers shake our minds loose from the iron grip of the indicative case. By substituting might be or would be for is, SF & F writers allow us a thrilling flight of fancy that changes our reality.
Can you tell us about your latest release?
REDWOOD AND WILDFIRE is an historical fantasy novel about two dreamers, an Irish-Seminole bluesman and an African American conjure woman, who leave their backwoods Georgia home for the bright lights of Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century. The book is about love, making movies, murder, and the transformative magic of music and storytelling.
What inspired it?
Actually, I never intended to write an historical novel. I was writing a contemporary piece and Redwood and Wildfire were the grandparents of the main character Cinnamon, a young girl growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I wrote backstory – getting to know the elders was just to understand Cinnamon and her contemporary life and choices. I kept thinking: “Me, write about 1899, 1910 – are you kidding?” The past is like a foreign country, an alien world, and, despite my love of travel and adventure, I didn’t want to offer myself as tour guide to the turn of the 20th century, as chronicler of what was. So I tried to get out of it. I tried to hide the history in the subtext. I tried to have “history stuff” be backstory for the contemporary novel; I would allude to this story but not explore or fully develop it. This worked like dancing in cement shoes. Not just Redwood and Wildfire, other characters from the supposed backstory haunted me; tantalizing scenes turned up in my journal and appeared on my laptop; the backstory stopped the contemporary action cold. Finally, after much kicking and screaming (and five hundred pages), I admitted the “history stuff” was too compelling to delete or ignore or fit around or behind some other story.
REDWOOD AND WILDFIRE is dedicated to my grandfather and great aunt. I wanted to write about the people who imagined the world I now lived in, who made me possible, when they were young and all around them brutal “reality” denied their hopes and dreams. I wanted to explore their struggle and joy. I am the dream they had. REDWOOD AND WILDFIRE insisted on being written. So I wrote it.
How is novel writing different from playwriting and/or screenwriting? How are they similar?
I write dramatic stories. Playwrights and screenwriters sing in a chorus. They create blueprints for action. They leave space for others’ creativity in the midst of their own. This is wonderfully rewarding and very tricky. Novelists are responsible for the whole shebang. This is a lot of heady power and also very lonely. Thus novel writing is a lot less egos to negotiate than playwriting or screenwriting, but also a lot to come up with without an inspiring chorus of feedback. Luckily, to help me craft a full complex world, I can imagine directors, costumers, set designers, lighting designers, and actors. At heart I’m a dramatist. Sometimes, it’s a solo gig – then I have to play all the roles!
Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re planning for the Shaping the Story panel?
I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative – what I have read, written, seen, and heard in the last half century. I’ve been pondering what works for me and why. I want to share the dramatist perspective on narrative structure, on character and action. Additionally I want to improvise – with the panelists and the people in the audience. The great thing about theatre is the community of meaning we make when we bounce our thoughts and creativity off of one another. I am glad WriteAngles puts us all in a room together because magic and miracles are bound to happen!
What are you working on now?
I am working on a new novel about Redwood’s and Wildfire’s granddaughter, Cinnamon — WILL DO MAGIC FOR SMALL CHANGE. Now that I’ve told her grandparents’ story, I can tell hers.
Where can readers find you online?
I have a REDWOOD AND WILDFIRE page on Facebook.