Today I welcome fantasy author Delia Sherman, a long-time favorite of mine.
Delia Sherman was born in Tokyo, Japan, and brought up in New York City, with occasional visits to her mother’s relatives in Texas and Louisiana and her father’s relatives in South Carolina. Much of her early life was spent at one end of a classroom or another, including Brown University, where she earned a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies in 1981, and Boston and Northeastern Universities, where she taught Freshman Composition and Fantasy as Literature until she realized she’d rather edit and write. Pursuing her love of history and travel, she has set novels and short stories for children and adults in many times and places.
Her books include Through a Brazen Mirror (Ace, 1989), The Porcelain Dove (Dutton, 1993; Plume, 1994), Changeling (Viking, 2006), The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen (Viking, 2009) and her latest, The Freedom Maze (Big Mouth House, November 2011).
Delia lives with fellow author Ellen Kushner in a rambling apartment in New York City. She is a social rather than a solitary writer, and can work anywhere, which is a good thing because she loves to travel, and if she couldn’t write on airplanes, she’d never get anything done.
Set against the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and then just before the outbreak of the Civil War, The Freedom Maze explores both political and personal liberation, and how the two intertwine. In 1960, thirteen-year-old Sophie isn’t happy about spending summer at her grandmother’s old house in the Bayou. But the house has a maze Sophie can’t resist exploring once she finds it has a secretive and playful inhabitant. When Sophie, bored and lonely, makes an impulsive wish inspired by her reading, hoping for a fantasy adventure of her own, she slips one hundred years into the past, to the year 1860. On her arrival she makes her way, bedraggled and tanned, to what will one day be her grandmother’s house, where she is at once mistaken for a slave.
ANTHONY: Delia, thanks for taking a few moments to chat with me about THE FREEDOM MAZE. I have to start by saying: I absolutely loved the book. Such a great story, told in a straightforward manner but still with a touch of whimsy in the right places. At the end of the book, you say you’ve been working on this story for eighteen years. I know Neil Gaiman had a similar experience with THE GRAVEYARD BOOK. He said that although his initial idea came years ago, he never quite felt his skill was up to the task of telling the story until recently. Why did it take you eighteen years to bring Sophie’s story to the page?
DELIA: One reason is What Neil Said. My reach exceeded my grasp in a big way. When I started it, I’d never written for young readers before, so I had to learn a different way of pacing, a different way of dealing with exposition, a slightly different focus of attention. Another is that the first publisher I sold it to asked for revisions I did not feel comfortable making, which ended in my buying the manuscript back from them. Yet another is that new research became available, which allowed me to make the book more historically and sociologically accurate than it could be when I began. And a third is that the dialogue on race and representation and Writing the Other came out into the open, making it more possible for me to address the troubling question of what a white woman was doing writing about slavery. I guess the bottom line is that THE FREEDOM MAZE took the time it took because that’s the time I needed to get it as right as I humanly could.
ANTHONY: Sophie clearly follows in the footsteps of the Pevensie siblings, Alice, and most specifically the kids in Edward Eager’s THE TIME GARDEN, which you reference repeatedly. But Sophie’s adventure is not quite like her literary predecessors. When did you decide that you would concentrate on the, shall we say, more mundane aspects of living in the past, rather than sticking to “the grand adventure?”
DELIA: Oh, I knew that from the very beginning. I’m not good at writing about “grand adventures.” Never have been. I like reading them, but writing them? No. My second novel, THE PORCELAIN DOVE, is all about what happens at home while the hero is off achieving the quest. My favorite chapters in THE LORD OF THE RINGS is “The Scouring of the Shire.” I love the magic that surrounds, grows out of, and leaks into ordinary daily life. It’s pretty much what I always write about, in different contexts.
ANTHONY: Have you been made aware of any impact your book has had on awareness or republication of THE TIME GARDEN or the rest of Edward Eager’s books?
DELIA: Like any other author, Edward Eager goes in and out of fashion, but he is plenty important enough to remain in print. I hope kids who aren’t familiar with his work will be inspired by THE FREEDOM MAZE to read it, but I suspect there are always going to be more kids who read Eager than who read me.
ANTHONY: I know you go on a lot of writer’s retreats. How much of THE FREEDOM MAZE was written “communally,” so to speak, and how much at home / in private? This also leads to a larger question: how has attending retreats and conferences affected your own writing habits over the years?
DELIA: None of FREEDOM MAZE was written on retreat–or at least not the kind of retreat in which several writers get together to share writing time and brainstorming sessions. I did take time away from home, once alone and once with Ellen (who was crunching her own project), to work on it away from the distractions of Real Life. That kind of retreat is, and will always be, invaluable to my process. The kind of community that helped me with THE FREEDOM MAZE was more my reading group and the kind friends who read and commented on the history, the structure, the pacing, the representation of slavery and slaves, the dialect, the botany, the costuming, the emotional plot, Sophie’s development, the rites and rituals of Voudon and symbols of the Orishas, and just about everything else (except the commas, which NOBODY messes with if they know what’s good for them). That community is something I have accrued over the years, mostly after the early drafts of FREEDOM MAZE were already written. Recently, I’ve learned to talk plots through, to brainstorm, to try out ideas and trajectories of emotion and action, figure out which ones are worth pursuing and which lead only to blind ends or places I’m not interested in going. Macro-plotting is a skill, both for the one who is asking for help and the ones who are giving it. It involves trust on the one hand, and flexibility and non-investment in your suggestions on the other. The helpers have to learn to ask questions. The helped has to be open to new ideas and ways of looking at things without falling into the trap of letting somebody else’s aesthetic take over their book. I have found I love writing in community. It makes my task easier and keeps me from following quite so many false narrative trails. But finally, it’s my obsessions, my tarot deck of characters, my sense of style and story that goes down on the page.
ANTHONY: THE FREEDOM MAZE clearly is a tale complete in-and-of itself. Then again, to my mind so was THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE. So I have to ask: will readers see Sophie Fairchild Martineau, “the creature,” Papa Legba and the rest again?
DELIA: I haven’t the slightest idea. When I first turned in this book, back in 1990, I think, I had sketched out a sequel in which both Antigua and Sophie come to New York in their different times, and perhaps overlap briefly. I could still write it. But not in the foreseeable future. There would be a LOT of research involved, and although it would be fun, I’ve got other projects I need to work on first. But thank you so much for asking.
ANTHONY: You’re welcome! Now for my usual closing question: What is your favorite book, and what would you say to someone who hasn’t read it to convince them that they should?
DELIA: I love many books. My favorite tends to be the one I just finished that I can’t stop talking about (right at the moment, Jeanette Winterson’s WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU CAN BE NORMAL?, which is a stellar memoir about adoption, the feral mother to end all feral mothers, love, and madness). However, if what we’re talking about is the thing I go to when life gets to be too much, when I want to crawl into a text and pull it up around me like a magic robe, I read THE LORD OF THE RINGS. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s one you can live in over and over again. I think I’ve read it 20 times, and every time, I find new things to think about–or maybe new ways of thinking about the things I find. It makes me laugh, it moves me, it makes me believe in community and friendship and hope. It scares the living daylights out of me and saddens me and comforts me. It’s one of the great books of the 20th century, and it has had a greater effect on how I look at the world than almost any other book I can think of, except maybe Francis Hodgson Burnett’s THE SECRET GARDEN, which turned a New York girl into a gardener who believes in magic. And if all that didn’t convince someone to read it, well, then, I’d just have to feel sorry for them.
ANTHONY: Thanks again, Delia!