Heidi Durrow Interview

Durrow discusses her novel "The Girl Who Fell From The Sky," winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, her experiences being biracial and bendy straws.

In one moment, Rachel contemplates her conflict with her dual race and how one always seems to win out: “I don’t want being Danish to be something I can put on and take off. I don’t want the Danish in me to be something time makes me leave behind.” Do you feel as if you can equally embrace both races or is it as Rachel worries; that one gets left behind?

More and more as I get older, I feel like I am able to embrace the totality of my identity. But growing up I didn’t have that feeling. Like any kid, I wanted to fit in. Being both black and Danish was pretty different—and beyond that inexplicable. I just started saying what was easy for other people to hear for a long time. Now, I’ve given up being polite or making other people comfortable and so I just speak my truth.

How did you decide on this narration style for the book, traveling between character perspectives and time shifts? How did you pick the characters whose perspective you were going to adopt?

I started writing the book from Rachel’s perspective and realized soon that I needed other voices to tell the story because she is an unreliable narrator. And by that I mean that she’s got stories she’s unable or unwilling to tell at first, but the reader needs to know. The characters came about very organically. The character Jamie/Brick came about almost by accident—I thought that he was going to be a character in an unrelated story, but then realized no, he was a witness. Laronne’s character came about because I wanted someone to advocate for Nella. Each character is able to tell a little bit more of the story.

The time shifts were more deliberate. I wanted to show how much the tragedy defines not just Rachel but those surrounding her. And so in the first part of the book Rachel’s narrative goes through many years and the other characters live in the intensity of the tragedy –just a couple of weeks pass.

While it is not as explicit, there is the underlying issue of substance abuse and it impacts many of the character’s lives. Do you believe Rachel will end up “hereditary” like her mother and fall into addiction?

Ah, are you thinking sequel? Hee hee. Well, you know, I think I can say without spoiling the book that there is more hope for Rachel at the end than not. (How’s that for dodging a question?) But yes, alcoholism is an important thread to the story. I wanted to write a story in which this issue was dealt with – alcoholism destroys people but it also destroys families. But then also beyond that I wanted to depict characters who are dealing with alcoholism but who are not bad people—they are struggling people—they are people with struggles and in that way there is hope.

This novel functions both as a discussion of race as well as an exploration of healing. Did you have a primary subject in mind when you wrote it?

I think the book necessarily operates on both levels—and I did have that in mind when I was writing it. It’s been healing for me to share it!

This novel won the distinguished Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change. Do you feel that this honor changes the way readers approach the story?

I hope it allows readers to recognize that the book is operating as what I hope is a good and compelling story, but also as a book that challenges assumptions they may have, and most importantly offers them new questions to have about the world. I think that is the best thing about the Bellwether Prize—that it signals that the book raises important questions for us as a citizenry that can put us into a meaningful dialogue with each other.

What has your experience as a full-time writer been? What advice or recommendations would you have to other writers?

My experience as a full-time writer has been brief—I sure do hope it continues! And it has been amazing. What an absolute blessing that I get to do what I love most in the world every day and share stories that mean something to me with others. I have to pinch myself every morning to remember that it is all real. My advice to other writers working on getting the book out in the world: keep writing, and don’t give up. You just need the one gatekeeper to greenlight a project. The difficulty is in finding that one gatekeeper, but if you keep looking you are certain to find him or her.

What is one fun random fact about you?

I drink coffee (really anything not clear or light) from a bendy straw.

Visit Heidi Durrow at Facebook or her site for tour dates and Mixed Chicks Chat podcast on her biracial experience.

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