"New Worlds Are Our Oyster."
by Dee Gentle
Spotlight on Ghost/Specter Themed Romance
Ronlyn Domingue was born and raised in South Louisiana, where the people and the weather are equally warm. Her last name is often pronounced as if the 'g' were a 'q'. Note the spelling, and it should make sense that it rhymes with 'meringue'.
Before becoming a full-time writer, she was a grassroots organizer, project manager, teacher, and grant writer. Her work has appeared in New England Review, New Delta Review, Clackamas Literary Review, and The Independent (U.K.)
THE MERCY OF THIN AIR, her debut novel, was a finalist for the 2005 Borders Original Voices Award, a Book Sense Pick, and Redbook Magazine RedBook Club Pick. To date, it has been acquired in 11 other countries.
PNR: Have you always wanted to be a writer, what led you to pursue writing as a career?
Ronlyn D.: It's a story with some twists. I had a remarkable third grade teacher who allowed me to read and write on my own during class a few times a week. She encouraged me to write creatively, and I was drawn to novels--or at least what counts as a novel for an eight-year-old. As a teenager, I still wrote fiction, but the closer I got to college age, the more I realized that I had to be practical about what I'd do with my life. I was a journalism major in college. My rationalization was that I;d make a living this way, but it turned out that I didn;t enjoy being a reporter. My subsequent jobs always involved writing in some way, which was by accident more than design.
During my twenties, I dabbled with some fiction but I didn’t take it seriously. I had convinced myself that it was a waste of time. The odds of getting published, much less making a living as a fiction writer, were too slim. I'm practical to a fault. But one's inner voice is stronger than one’s will sometimes. I had what I call my 'dead baby dreams' for several years. I never wanted these babies, and I'd lose them to abortion, stillbirth, or adoption. The dreams were very disturbing. At some point, in a flash, I realized that those dead babies were my unwritten books. I started to write again, and I haven't had another dream like that since.
I committed myself to fiction again in my late twenties. I decided to pursue an MFA in creative writing to give myself three years to concentrate on my work and get an opportunity to teach. After I graduated, I expected to continue working as a consultant for nonprofit organizations, perhaps teach one day, and write novels, too. Much to my surprise, my full-time job now is to write my second book.
PNR: How do you manage to balance your writing and personal time? What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing?
Ronlyn D.: That’s a trick question. In a way, I'm writing all the time, at least to the extent that I’m always thinking about my next project. Everywhere I go, no matter what I do, that story is with me. The story and its characters creep into moments that have nothing to do with the work. But when I’m not actually reading for research or typing words on a page, I like to work in the yard, practice yoga, take long walks, and cook for friends and family.
PNR: What is the best part about being a writer? The most frustrating?
Ronlyn D.: Best part. The Hum. When I'm deep into a story, I have the sensation of a low, sustained noise in my head, and it’s accompanied by something like euphoria. (Everyone knows what this is like--people talk about being in 'the zone' while playing sports, or knitting, or painting.)
Most frustrating. When I haven’t connected the conceptual dots of a story. Fiction works in layers. The plot part is typically easy. . . Point A to B to C. Themes and symbols, if the writer trusts herself, emerge on their own. I know a story of mine doesn’t work if I don’t see the unifying concept. For example, I wrote a story about a child with a severe stutter who was an artistic genius. He was hypersensitive about people. It took me years to realize the unifying concept was perspective. Jared, the character, had this artistic skill--as well as perspective on other people than no one else did.
PNR: Where do you get the ideas for your books? Do you outline or “go with the flow” when writing?
Ronlyn D.: There's no consistency about where I get my ideas. THE MERCY OF THIN AIR began about 12 years ago with the offhand comment I made to a co-worker, 'If you don't stop bugging me, I'm going to die and come back and poltergeist you'. The short story I mentioned previously was inspired by a little boy I saw on my way to work every morning who walked alone to school. My second novel, which I’m working on now, started with a character who’s one complicated stew of a man.
Because I spend so much time on research and thinking, when I finally sit down to write, most of the plotting is done. I write with a storyboard that summarizes every scene in the book. These will get moved around, some scenes will be added, but typically, I know the entire story from beginning to end. The fun for me is discovering how to connect the pieces. I know the facts, but I rarely know the motivations and nuances behind them.
PNR: What do you consider to be the key elements of a great story?
Ronlyn D.: Wow, what a tough question. This is so subjective. For me, a great story must have at least one well-rounded character, a person (or thing) who captures my attention. Plot turns 'pivot points in the story' must be expertly timed. Whether the prose is minimal or lush, it must be engaging—all the better if I re-read sentences or paragraphs just to enjoy the use of language and what it communicates. It's a good story if I finish and think, “Hey, that was pretty good.” It’s a great story if I have a new understanding about the human experience. It’s superb if I still think about it months, years, later.
PNR: Which author(s) is your favorite? And who has most influenced your work
Ronlyn D.: The authors whose worked I’ve learned from most to date include Margaret Atwood, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Irving, and Mark Helprin. Whether they influenced my own writing, I'm sure they have on some level, but I don’t compare myself to any of them, and no one has compared me to them, either. Other writers I've read recently, and look forward to reading for years to come, include Audrey Niffenegger, Glen Duncan, Will Clarke, Laurie Lynn Drummond, and Kathleen Cambor.
PNR: Your first novel, THE MERCY OF THIN AIR, has received critical acclaim and has been released around the world; could you tell us about the publication of your book? Where did you get the idea for this novel?
Ronlyn D.: That comment I made to a co-worker years ago turned into an idea for a novel about a poltergeist who moves from house to house, not fixed in one place. All I had was a series of incidents in mind, but the character had no name, no gender. In 1999, I imposed the short story form on this novel idea--which forced me to come up with a story in the first place.
Then there was Razi...
PNR: Yes, Razi. As a reader, I found myself drawn in by Razi's plight and experienced an emotional bond with her; the novel’s themes are emotionally complex and she is such a wonderfully strong woman. Could you tell us about the development of her character?
Ronlyn D.: Let.s start with the moment I knew I wasn't dealing with just any character. When I started to work on the short story, there were a few things I knew about her, what I call her 'bullet points'. She was the daughter of a suffragette. She was a birth control advocate. She had green eyes and blond hair. And she was dead. But she had no name. One day, I was driving home from work and stopped at a light. Suddenly there was a voice in my head (don’t take that too literally) that said, 'My name is Raziela'. I paused and thought, Well, okay, that's your name. From then on, she was a force to contend with.
Razi was very impatient with me to figure her out. I didn’t realize this at the time. Right now, I’m working on my second novel, and the narrator is quiet and patient. It's okay that I don't understand him yet. He's giving me some space.
But Razi. . . She had a presence like no other character I've written. She surprised me with her emotional depth, quite frankly. For someone who valued science, rationality, above all else, Razi was capable of intense passions in her political life, friendships, her bond with Andrew. The other day, I was talking to a writer friend about the challenge of capturing a character’s voice, and I shared with her how shocked I was when Razi became lyrical in her speech. It didn’t fit what I thought about her. Razi was more rounded that I gave her credit for being.
As for her strength, I see that as both nature and nurture. Razi was born feisty, smart, and strong-willed. She was also raised by parents who encouraged her intellectually. She was deeply loved. Her father could not have been more proud of her. Even though Razi lived at the turn of the 20th century, with such a foundation early in her life, it's plausible she would have had the conviction to pursue a medical career and do the things she did. That’s not to say she didn’t struggle with traditional expectations. That was a fault line in her relationship with Andrew all along.
PNR: Razi’s narration seamlessly weaves the past and present, did you find this difficult? Tell us about the process.
Ronlyn D.: I've had others ask this question, too, and everyone seems surprised when I say it wasn’t difficult at all. When the work began as a short story in 1999, it was written in the same way the novel is--scenes from different points in time. From the beginning, the work was conceptualized with the three periods--past, present and between. The storyboard I used was color coded by period, which made it easy for me to glance up and see how the “weave” worked visually and conceptually. On the level of craft, I didn’t have to do that much. The scene order was organic--most of them fell right into place. I know, that sounds impossible but that's what happened. My job was then to make sure the scenes included images or events that connected to what would immediately follow, as well as “cliffhangers” that would be strong enough to hold until the reader returned to that period of time.
PNR: I must say that I was completely immersed in the atmosphere you were able to create in your novel, your writing fully engages the senses; does this come naturally to you?
Ronlyn D.: It didn't at the time, but now it does. I credit Razi for making this happen. Because as a character, she’s an empiricist--someone who thinks experience, particularly through the senses, leads a person to knowledge--I had to understand and trust her as she led me along. There’s that scene with Eugenia when Razi detects the seeds from a magnolia tree cone. I've lived around magnolias all my life, but it wasn't until I wrote that scene that I, through Razi, truly experienced the vibrancy and fragrance of those red seeds. The deeper I got into the novel, the easier it became to figure out how to evoke the senses. It's amazing that a mere combination of words can do such a thing.
PNR: In your opinion, what do you believe accounts for the sudden interest in all things paranormal, in movies, books and television? Do you think Razi's story could have been told as effectively in the confines of conventional fiction?
Ronlyn D.: I think it's a reaction to what it's like to live in this point in time. First, we all live in the harshness of this world. Every minute of the day, turn on a television and you're confronted with the worst of our nature--war, violence, murder, deceit, greed. Some people have to deal with that in their own homes, where they should be safe and loved. It’s no surprise to me that people want to believe in an afterlife where their loved ones are at peace, waiting for them, at times intervening in their lives. We don't feel safe in this world and perhaps that won't be the case when we're dead. And then second, science and technology are ripping right into the essence of existence. The Human Genome Project, stem cell research, cloning, advances in fertility treatments. we're dealing not only with what makes a human being but also how it can be manipulated. One has to wonder, where does your uniqueness come from - and then where does it go when you die?
Writing THE MERCY OF THIN AIR as a strictly realistic story never crossed my mind. And if it were, it wouldn't be the same book. Razi's hyperesthetic qualities wouldn't have worked if she were traditionally mortal. Certain twists in the story would have seemed forced. I believe that every piece of fiction has an inherent nature, and until the author honors it, the story isn't authentic. This novel’s inherent nature was speculative, a version of reality that may or may not exist.
PNR: Are you planning to continue writing in this genre? What is your favorite genre to write?
Ronlyn D.: We'll see where my work fits into the genre of paranormal fiction. There will likely be some element of alternative reality or perception in my second novel. Nothing as drastic as in THE MERCY OF THIN AIR, though. I dare not project too much. There's no way to predict what the creative process will yield. I consider myself a literary fiction writer, but that isn’t necessarily how others see my work. I think it's wonderful that readers with widely different genre tastes enjoy THE MERCY OF THIN AIR. Strict categories are too confining anyway.
PNR: Could you tell us about your current projects, what can readers expect to see in the coming months?
Ronlyn D.: I'm working on my second novel. My research involves the Vietnam War and ecology right now. The narrator is a man in his 50s, a very interesting fellow to me. I’m not a one-book-a-year kind of writer, so Novel #2 will take a while. But I don't expect this one to take as long as MERCY did, which was about four years. Lately, I’ve had ideas for a short story and an essay pressing on me. Both tie into the subject matter of my next book, so I might write those as a way to sort out ideas for Novel #2.
PNR: Thank you Ronlyn, for taking time out to speak with us; where can readers find out more about your work?
Ronlyn D.: You're welcome, and thank you so much for the invitation. I really enjoyed answering your questions. Readers can find out more by visiting www.ronlyndomingue.com. If you Google my name or the title, lots of additional information will pop up, including some terrific online reviews. I hope those readers who pick up THE MERCY OF THIN AIR enjoy the experience. It was a thrill to write.
Buy it now!
THE MERCY OF THIN AIR In 1920s New Orleans, smart and fearless Raziela Nolan is in the throes of a magnificent love affair when she suddenly dies in a tragic accident. Immediately after her death, she chooses to stay between -- a realm that exists after life and before whatever lies beyond it. From this remarkable vantage point, Razi narrates the story of her lost love, as well as the relationship of Amy and Scott, a young couple whose home she haunts seventy years later. Their trials finally compel Razi to slowly unravel the mystery of what happened to her first and only love, Andrew, and to confront a long-hidden secret.
Visit Ronlyn's Website for a Complete List of her Work
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