I’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.
LS: 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. Continue reading