Interview with Francesca Forrest, author of Pen Pal
Posted June 30, 2014on:
I recently read and reviewed Pen Pal, a most extraordinary novel by Francesca Forrest. Click here to read my review of Pen Pal, but the super quick summary is that this epistolary novel focuses around the relationship between a girl named Em who lives in a floating community off the Gulf Coast, and Kaya, a political prisoner. Through Em’s letters and descriptions of her life, Kaya realizes she may have more in common with this girl than she thought. This is a powerful and profound story of marginalization and empowerment.
Francesca was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the novel, living in Japan, indie publishing, and her passion for helping preserve native and minority languages.
Let’s get to the interview!
LRR: The novel is written in an epistolary fashion, with letters, diary entries, e-mails, even newspaper articles. Why did you decide to present the story that way?
FF: The novel grew out of a story that evolved on Livejournal. Em’s message in a bottle, was just as an idea that came to me one morning, and people wanted more. I had had the idea of Kaya in my head for years, and I thought, what if she were the one who answered? So a few days later I posted her response. And then, every few days, I’d post another letter. I really loved the format and thought it worked well for a serialization because the wait for the next post gave the readers the experience of waiting for the next letter, just like the characters.
When I decided to turn it into a novel, I decided to supplement the letters with diary entries and other “evidence” so I could tell a richer story. I think it’s interesting to think about what people choose to reveal where, and to whom, and I tried to play with that with the characters’ letters to different people, and with how what they write in their diaries differs from what they say in their letters.
LRR: Can you tell us a little about how this story came together, and what your inspirations were?
FF: Kaya’s story grew from two dreams I had: one in which a witch, or maybe a goddess, asked me to resurrect a defunct festival in her honor, and one in which a priestess was held prisoner in temple over a volcanic crater. I asked myself how those situations could be tied together, and that got me thinking about cultural suppression and why and how it happens—and then I could see how there’d be parallels to the situation of Em, whose community floats alongside, but keeps apart from, dry-land society. Other inspirations: I was enchanted, long ago, when I heard of jubilee, an event that happens fairly regularly in Mobile Bay, Alabama, and occasionally elsewhere: fish flood the shallow waters near shore so thickly that you can go out and just scoop them up by the armful. This became the dawn of seagifts in Pen Pal. And I was inspired, too, by the story of the pen pal correspondence I mention on the Pen Pal website, between Manuel Noriega, back when he ruled Panama, and Sarah York, a young American girl. That story raised so many questions about adult and child interactions, ulterior motives, and the intersection of the personal and the political.
LRR: I started reading Pen Pal around the same time I was finishing the Long Hidden anthology. Long Hidden features stories from the margins of history, and with Pen Pal, I was watching marginalization happen right before my eyes. What advice do you have for authors who are writing about cultures other than their own, and specifically, about situations that involve marginalization?
FF: This is such a hard question, with so many ramifications.
If you’re writing about a culture you don’t belong to, then you have to always remember you’re a guest. There’s levels and levels of guest. Maybe you know this culture well; maybe you’re like the parental friend who’s come over so often the kids call you uncle or auntie. Then again, maybe you’re a complete stranger. If you’re an intimate of the family, you’ll know more; you’ll be more at ease. If you’re a complete stranger, you’re going to do a lot of homework before you arrive, so as not to inadvertently cause offense (and you may end up causing offense anyway, and then all you can do is apologize and try harder next time). You’re certainly not going to try passing yourself off as the master or mistress of the house. That would be **amazingly** presumptuous and rude.
As for the marginalization element, I think writers often have some inkling about what marginalization feels like, because writers are often on the margins, themselves. But individual marginalization isn’t the same as systemic marginalization—being left out because you’re bad at sports is not the same as being invisible in pop culture or denied a job because of your skin color or sex. If you’ve experienced systemic marginalization, you can write from experience; otherwise, it’s like the different-cultures thing. You bring respect, humility, sincerity, and willingness to work hard and learn, and just try your best. That’s all you can do.
LRR: How did you go about developing Em and Kaya’s unique cultures and communities?
FF: With Kaya’s culture, and with her country more generally, I didn’t want the story to read as referring to any particular real country, but I wanted people who know that part of the world to be able to believe in W— as a possible, plausible country. Geographically W— is located somewhere between the Flores and Banda Sea, by Indonesia. I spent a lot of time researching climate, weather patterns, food crops, and flora and fauna of this region, as well as different styles of house, foods people like to eat, and so on. I tried to create majority and minority cultures whose details wouldn’t seem jarring or out of place.
For Em’s community, I read up on the ecology of the US Gulf Coast, fishing regulations, what it’s like to be in a hurricane at sea. Although the details of daily life in Mermaid’s Hands came from my head, the histories of Africatown in Mobile, Alabama, the Manila Men of St. Malo, Louisiana, the Cajun and Choctaw coastal communities of Louisiana, and the Gullah communities of the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina all fed into my notions of where Mermaid’s Hands originated and what it was like. I also read a lot of Zora Neale Hurston (who in addition to writing fiction also collected folktales and songs), plus stories of pirates and rum runners.
I like knowing the stories and legends associated with particular places, and for Kaya and Em’s communities, I had the joy of inventing these.
LRR: You went the indie publishing route with Pen Pal. Why did you choose that publishing option? Any advice for other authors who are trying to decide if they should publish indie or traditional?
FF: I realized in the process of hunting for agents just how hard a sell Pen Pal would be. It’s got both a child protagonist and an adult protagonist; it’s written very simply, but the conflicts and situations are complex. It presents two invented cultures in a real-world context; there are dreams and visions. You could say there’s a lot on its plate.
Of course, to my mind, it’s a story with a huge potential audience, but I could see how a big publisher would balk at taking a chance on it. I realized that since I was the one who believed in it so strongly, I should be the one to take the risks. And once I realized that, I suddenly saw how the story itself practically demands the indie route. Em and Kaya are on the margins, seemingly without backing or support, but they turn their weakness into strength. Every interaction I have for the sake of the book feels like part of Em and Kaya’s struggle.
As for advice for other writers, I would just stress that neither route is easy. Indie publishing gives you a lot of control, but demands a huge amount of work. With traditional publishing, you cede control, but you gain support and expertise on all sorts of fronts.
LRR: How long did Pen Pal take to write? So many novels go through edits, rewrites, complete changes. How did you know when Pen Pal was done, and ready for publication?
FF: The original version, on Livejournal, was only about 13,000 words and was done in slightly under three months. Then it lay fallow for a while, and from the time I picked it up again, it took about two years to finish. How’d I know it was done . . . writing a story feels like archaeology conducted in my own mind: uncovering stuff, dusting it off, trying to understand what these fragmentary, broken bits are, what they’re part of. Eventually I feel like the original structure is there, clear and complete. At that point, I know it’s done.
And because your Livejournal name has me curious:
LRR: You’ve got a lot of Japanese on your Livejournal site. Did you spend time growing up in Japan? Can you tell us a little about your experiences, and your connection to the Japanese language and culture?
FF: I was interested in Japan from the time I was very small. I remember being given a taste of Japanese tea when I was about five or six, and bossily telling my best friend at age eight that “hi” (hai) meant “hello” in English but “yes” in Japanese. I studied Japanese in college and classical Japanese literature in grad school, and I lived in Japan both as a single person and later, when I was married. Lots of major events in my life happened in Japan—first boyfriend, first nine-to-five job, first experience with daycare. One of my kids was born in Japan; I discovered the movies of Hayao Miyazaki in Japan; I translated manga into English for a scholarly conference, harvested bamboo shoots, learned to cook wild butterbur shoots—all kinds of things. Currently two of my kids are in Japan, one at school and one working, and my husband teaches Japanese literature here in the United States. So I feel very comfortable with Japanese language and culture.
LRR: Speaking of language and culture, I was very struck by the Cultural Survival and Mother Tongues section of the Pen Pal website. How did you first get interested in minority languages? What are some positive ways in which countries and communities are promoting the survival of dying languages?
FF: I grew up in New York State, with Canada right next door, and was aware of the fraught history of English and French language in Quebec. And in high school I took a course on the history of the US government’s treatment of Native Americans, so I learned about cultural suppression through language suppression. Maybe those things got me interested? I’m not sure, though; I’ve always been interested in both underdogs and other cultures, which would push me toward minority languages.
Emersion schools are a great way to help keep languages alive. The Akwesasne Freedom School, on the territory of the Akwesasne Mohawk (straddling the New York–Canada border), provides education in Mohawk to kids up to high school age. Some of those kids have shared what they’ve learned with their parents, some of whom didn’t have the opportunity to receive an education in Mohawk, so the older generation is teaching the younger, but the younger generation is also teaching
the older. Radio broadcasts in minority languages are another means of keeping languages alive. In the United States, there are stations that broadcast in Hopi and Cherokee and other Native American languages. In New Zealand, stations broadcast in Maori, and in Panama radio broadcasts in Kuna and Ngöbere are helping those languages to survive.
And now for some questions on the lighter side:
LRR: Have you got any other writing projects in the works right now?
FF: I do! One’s a fantasy novel in which the heroes find themselves opposing a powerful foreign corporation that’s stripping the clouds from their sky; the other is a series of vignettes about bridges.
LRR: Who are some of your favorite writers?
FF: This question is very hard for me to answer because my thoughts go in so many directions—there are the writers who were important to me as a child, writers whom I love as people, writers whom I’m in awe of because of their talent, and authors of individual books that I love. But in the world of science fiction and fantasy, these days I’m really enjoying the short stories of Benjanun Sriduangkaew.
She’s working on a novel, and I’ll be excited to read it when it comes out.
LRR: What’s your favorite book that you’ve read lately?
FF: I really adored Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. What a fabulous book. But I also had great fun with two romances recently. Romance isn’t a genre I’ve every really read in before, so it was all a new experience. One was steamy, but also amazingly sweet, but also super exciting—Laura’s Wolf, by Lia Silver. The other was a novelette, very short and slice of life, with lots of gentle humor: The Caramel Macchiato Kiss, by Jennifer Montgomery. And I recently read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for the first time (somehow missed being assigned it in high school). Wow! just breathtaking. And I really loved the short stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie.
LRR: You’re a regular attendee at ReaderCon, and you’ve recently been a panelist there. What are some of your favorite convention experiences? What Conventions are you planning to attend in the upcoming year?
FF: I really like the panels—the topics are often intriguing and the discussion interesting. But I also like the chance to meet in person people I’ve known online, and I like the conversations in stairwells or over coffee, one-on-one or in small groups. I haven’t gone to other conventions mainly because my work keeps me so busy and because of the expense, but maybe one day!
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To learn more about Francesca Forrest, check out her livejournal, or follow her on twitter. For more information about Pen Pal (and ooh! artwork!), check out the Pen Pal website. actually, don’t even worry about that stuff. just go order the book!