Avoiding Cliches + Using Specific Details: Natalie Baszile and QUEEN SUGAR

Posted by January 16th, 2014

QUEEN SUGAR coverI’m such a nut for Women’s Fiction featuring characters who overcome emotional struggles and find quiet but satisfying resolution. That, to me, is epic fiction. When I found out about Natalie Baszile’s forthcoming novel, QUEEN SUGAR–which would fit beautifully unto a bookshelf next to THE HELP or THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES–I knew I wanted to know more about this author, who’s already winning fans with her ambitious, assured debut. QUEEN SUGAR is a smart and inspiring read, not to mention a perfect tutorial in avoiding cliches when writing about family and the American South.

LS: QUEEN SUGAR’s main character, Charley, is a single mom recovering from two devastating losses, trying for a fresh start. As a writer, that’s a lot of heavy stuff to take on. Yet your take was fresh, and nuanced. How did you make Charley’s heartbreak seem so realistic?

NB: First, thank you very much for the kind words. I always love when I read a book that makes me feel something bigger is possible, so I’m glad you found the story inspiring.

I was terribly concerned about clichés in the early drafts. I wanted Charley to face a lot of real-life challenges and I wanted her experience to reflect what so many people, particularly women, face as they raise children, loose spouses, take care of sick and aging parents, even battle depression. The best way to avoid clichés is to be particular, so I tried to imagine how Charley’s struggles felt to her specifically. So, for example, when I wrote about her father’s cancer, I tried to include details that would reveal that disease as Charley experienced it. When I wrote about her depression, I tried to show how that dark period felt to her.  But I also wanted to show Charley coming through those challenges to create a new life for herself, so it was enough that some of those problems were behind her; in her rearview mirror. A few brushstrokes were sufficient.

Thinking a little more about clichés, I was also very conscious of creating an African American character who couldn’t be pigeonholed. I wanted Charley’s life story to reflect what I knew to be true:  that the range of African-American experience is vast and broad and nuanced. Yes, some people have had more urban experiences growing up, but others, like Charley, were raised in the suburbs, and had childhoods that were more integrated. I think we are seeing more examples in so many aspects of our culture now, more than ever before, and I wanted Queen Sugar to reflect that reality.

Natalie Baszile author photoLS: Homecoming is a big theme in the book—several characters are coming back home to Southern Louisiana so that they can have a new beginning. Do you have a personal connection to this part of the US?

NB: My dad was born in Southern Louisiana and lived there until he moved to Port Arthur, Texas, for high school.  Most of his siblings and their families– my aunts, uncles and cousins–still live in Lake Charles, Opelousas, or Baton Rouge, and my great aunt, who must be in her late eighties, still lives in the little town where my dad was born. So even though I’m a California native, I feel that I can claim Southern Louisiana as part of my personal history.

The south Louisiana landscape, which is mostly flat, is completely different from anything I knew growing along the ocean in southern California, and it’s certainly different from the hilly terrain of Northern California where I live now, but I’ve come to appreciate it. The sugarcane fields, the bayous, and the bay are all beautiful in their own way, and when I’m there, I am always keenly aware of the nature’s presence and its power.  Things are always on the verge of being overtaken by woods or water. The struggle to hold nature at bay or at least reach some truce with it is ongoing. Then there’s the weather—the tropical climate and the hurricanes. I wanted to convey that awareness, the feeling of constantly having to engage with the natural, as well as Charley’s sense of wonder and amazement.

LS: Culture shock is also a prevalent theme in QUEEN SUGAR. Tell our members about some of the details you used to illustrate this, such as one character’s favorite drink.

NB: My grandmother drank Stanback and Coca-Cola every day, and I remember when I visited, being utterly fascinated and slightly horrified watching her drink that concoction. She’d start first thing in the morning and drink a couple more throughout the day. She also refused to drink Coca-Cola out of anything but glass bottles, which was another thing I’d never seen until I started spending time in South Louisiana. Food was another way I tried to illustrate the cultural differences. Boudin, for example, which the characters eat in the novel, is a mixture of seasoned rice combined with either ground beef, pork, shrimp or crawfish, and is stuffed into a sausage casing. It’s sold everywhere from grocery stores to gas stations. There are also “cracklins” which, in New Orleans, is fried pig skin but farther west, in Iberia or Saint Mary parish, more closely resembles cubes of fried bacon.  Dishes often have wonderfully descriptive names—like “Dirty Rice,” for example—which Miss Honey teaches Micah to cook in the novel.

People’s relationship to the land was also completely new to me. People in Louisiana hunt and fish, they go crabbing, shrimping and even frogging, then bring what they’ve caught home and either store it in their freezer, or cook it, call a few friends, and have a feast on their back porch. Maybe not every day, but often. Even if they only have a few potted tomato plants on their balcony in New Orleans, or a little garden on the side of their house, people seem more connected to the land.

There are so many aspects of Louisiana life that are radically different from what I knew coming up.  I love people’s accents in Louisiana, their use of language and turns of phrase.  My aunt used to say, “A new broom sweeps clean,” which is such a wonderfully visual way of speaking. In the novel, Miss Honey says, “I’m booking you,” to Violet, which is something my grandmother used to say, and which is so much more colorful than saying, “I’m watching you.” The mix of cultures, the history, so many of the traditions—they are all different from what I experienced as a child or even as a young adult—and it was, indeed, shocking to encounter them for the first time. And yet there’s something strangely familiar about the all of it. When I first started going to South Louisiana to research sugarcane, I’d have moments when I was aware of being in a completely foreign place, while feeling absolutely comfortable, as though something within me was finally awakening. I wanted Charley to have that same experience—to look at the landscape or interact with the people and feel completely separate, while also feeling oddly connected

LS: Why do you think that stories that come from the American South are so compelling to readers all over the world?

NB: First, the south has a rich, wonderful storytelling tradition. It’s hard to open your mouth and tell a good story; there’s an art to it. Some of my Louisiana friends are terrific storytellers, and it doesn’t matter how often I’ve heard them tell the same story, I always find them hilarious or moving. But I also believe “Southern Fiction” is popular with readers because southern woman, both black and white, occupy a particular intimate space historically, and southern women writers, both black and white, can write about those complicated relationships because in many cases, they’ve lived them. They are intimately familiar with the power dynamics in a way northern or even western women are not. They have played out those relationships for generations. And so, if a southern woman writer, or a woman who has southern roots as I do, is willing to wade into those murky waters, if she’s willing to be honest, she can create story that is deeply compelling.

LS: Tell us about why you blog.

NB: I had a blog called, “My Life From Scratch” that is now defunct, an early version of “My Hungry Heart,” which I started the same summer I sold my novel. Some writer friends and I rented a house on Long Island for a couple weeks, and while everyone else worked on their books during the day, I was waiting for editorial notes and had time on my hands. I didn’t want to lose the writing muscle I’d built up from working on the novel, so I created the blog. I’d always wanted to write shorter pieces about things that felt important enough to share but that didn’t warrant a non-fiction book or even a long essay, so the blog post seemed like the perfect form. Plus, it helped me keep my mind clear.  I like to say the blog helps me keep the lint out of my trap. Often, as I go about my day, a moment will unfold with its narrative arc already in place. It’s like a little jewel of a moment.  If I’m paying attention, I can feel the story coming to me. So the blog it’s not a marketing strategy at all.  When I was in my twenties, I kept a journal, but I stopped doing that in my thirties when I started writing QUEEN SUGAR, so the blog is a good way for me to mark moments in my life, moments I think will resonate, in some small way, with other people. Until recently, only a few friends knew I had the blog, and it was a nice way for them to keep track of what I was doing.

When I was first started working on the novel, and for many years after that, I was afraid that working on other projects would siphon creative energy away from the story. Some writers can have multiple projects going simultaneously, but I couldn’t. So, for the first eight years or so, the novel was the only thing I wrote besides research notes and ideas for characters or the plot. When I went to Warren Wilson for my MFA, I wrote craft papers, but even then, my only creative project was the novel. I didn’t write short stories or essays. I don’t’ think I even wrote a letter.  If I had an idea for another story I’d jot it down in a notebook.

Blogging takes a lot of time—at least in my experience. Even a short post takes a while to craft unless you don’t mind putting something out there that’s really rough, or you’re one of those writers who produces crystal clear prose on the first try. So that’s something to consider—where do you want to invest your energy? That said, the stakes for a blog post are lower than they are for a novel, which is a welcome relief.  In a novel, you have to constantly hold an entire universe in your head.  You have to imagine everything. Even if you’re only focusing on one scene or single sentence, everything has to hold together. A blog post, even one that’s beautifully crafted requires less of you. There’s simply less you’re required to hold, which can be nice. So would I recommend blogging while trying to write a novel?  It depends on where a writer is in the process. If they are just starting out or, good heavens, in the home stretch, I’d say, focus on the book instead.  If they are somewhere in the middle, which most novelist are for a very long time, I’d say, sure, why not?  It might be exactly the outlet you need.

LS: On your blog, I read that this year you’ve made a vow more creative and to incorporate beauty into your everyday life. How has that affected your writing?

NB: Incorporating beauty into my everyday life expands my thinking. It allows me to be more imaginative. The words flow more easily; I’m more relaxed and feel more connected. It’s sounds odd to say, but I feel more magical.  When I get too bogged down with the daily chore of living, my life feels brothy as opposed to chunky and textured.  If I don’t have any interesting little bits and pieces for my mind and spirit to chew on, that adversely affects the writing. So I’m trying to be conscious. Again, it doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking the time to pick lemons off the tree in the backyard.

LS: Tell us about what you’re doing as QUEEN SUGAR’s pub date (Tuesday, February 6th, 2014) gets closer.

NB: I’m thrilled the book is being published; thrilled and deeply grateful to my family, and all the people, many of whom have become dear friends, who have helped me along the way. So far, being able to share this moment with them is the sweetest part. Now, as the book goes out into the world, I’m excited and yes, a little nervous, but I’m looking forward to the next phase of the journey. My goal was to write the most beautiful book I could write, and to tell a story that would touch people. As I mentioned earlier, I know how I’ve felt when I’ve read a book that I’ve loved or felt inspired by, so I hope readers are moved by QUEEN SUGAR.

I’ve written an essay that will appear in O, The Oprah Magazine’s March issue, and am contacting friends who are helping get the word out in cities where I’ll be reading. And of course, there’s more activity on social media. These final days are busy, but so far not too crazy. I can definitely feel the momentum building, though. Friends who have been down this road have advised me to enjoy this time.  I’ll only be a debut author one time, I just want to be awake and present for every moment.

Natalie Baszile has a M.A. in Afro-American Studies from UCLA, and is a graduate of Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers where she was a Holden Minority Scholar. QUEEN SUGAR comes out from Pamela Dorman Books on February 6th. Connect with Natalie via her website, Facebook, Twitter, and her blog.


More from the Book Country blogYou might also like: Writing Fearlessly with author Patty Chang Anker.


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