The Writer Who Came From Ragdale
If one were the kind of person who was easily intimidated, or quick to feel less-than (say, if one were an aspiring writer with a massive case of writer’s block), it would be…not impossible to feel a resentment against Heidi Durrow. After all, her first novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, was a New York Times best seller, she’s a winner of the Bellwether Prize for Literature of Social Change, and an Outstanding Literary Debut 2011 NAACP Image Award nominee, and a 2010 Ebony Magazine Power 100 Leader. Not to mention, this girl is crazy-smart—she’s a graduate of Stanford, Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, and Yale Law, and she used to work as a Life Skills Trainer for athletes in both the NFL and NBA, which is seriously cool. And—not that this matters!—she’s also gorgeous. So, yeah. It’s not terribly difficult to see where the teeniest, tiniest bit of jealousy might arise. The problem with that is, she’s just so level-headed, nice and charming that—darn it—you have to like her. Plus, her novel really is that good (Kathryn Stockett, breakout author of The Help, lists The Girl Who Fell from the Sky as one of her top five all-time favorite books.)
Durrow—like her protagonist, Rachel—is the daughter of an African-American enlisted Air Force father and a Danish mother, who grew up moving from base to base around the world, before ending up in Portland, Oregon, for high school. She is one of the featured authors at this year’s “A Novel Affair” weekend at Ragdale, which is appropriate, as she wrote part of her own novel while in residence there. We caught up with the extremely busy writer to get her thoughts on everything from Emeka Okafor to the first black Miss America.
On “becoming” biracial
Like my character (Rachel), I grew up mostly overseas, and, I guess I would say that I considered myself American foremost but with a Danish home life, if I had to categorize myself at all. It was confusing to move to the states and realize that being American wasn’t enough. I had to be hyphenated.
On race and growing up
I grew up in the 1980s, so it is an era that I know. There were a number of things that happened during this time that confused and sometimes distressed me about racial identity—we saw the first black Miss America crowned, but we also, in Portland, experienced a spike in skinhead activity that tragically led to a young man losing his life.
I recently visited a Portland high school that had adopted the book for its school-wide read. The young woman who had been chosen to introduce me blurted out as soon as she met me, “Oh my God, you wrote my life!”
“But this book is set in the ’80s,” I said.
“Nothing’s changed,” she said.
On the importance of education
I latched onto the notion that education was the only way I could have more choices for my life. When my parents divorced, my mom was struggling to support us. She had been a stay-at-home mom and was suddenly thrust into the workforce. She worked two jobs and went to school. And we relied on welfare and food stamps and her determination to make it work. I knew that if I got the best grades and worked hard, I would have different possibilities for my future, and I could honor her hard work.
On being at Ragdale
I arrived at Ragdale on a personal high. I had just received my first call from an agent I had queried. She loved the first three chapters and wanted the rest of the manuscript. A few days later, she passed on the novel. So, then I was on a personal low. But, it was then that I started revising the book. I tossed the second half and got to work again. It was great to be at Ragdale during this time. What is wonderful about an artist colony, and Ragdale in particular, is that you are affirmed as an artist just by being there. I needed that affirmation, because I had a lot of work to do. It was also great to commiserate. I don’t know how much of the revision I did during my remaining time, but it was where the shape of the novel came into view for me.
On role-playing with athletes
We would do workshops for the rookie symposiums and would visit each NFL during the season. I would do a scripted scene, with an actor—I would play the girlfriend, or the wife who spent too much money, or the club girl—and the scene would end in conflict. Then, we would do a Q & A with the players: What are some things you might do or say differently? Next, a player would come on stage to role-play the scene with me. It was a great gig until I got old enough that I had to start playing the mom in the scenes.
I don’t know much about sports, so I didn’t recognize the players—except there was one rookie symposium when I talked at length with Emeka Okafor. He is smart and gracious. When I asked how his team had done that season, he said that they had done okay. I learned later that they had won the NCAA Championship and he had been named MVP.
On writing the novel
I wanted to be published by 30, and that didn’t happen. And then I turned 35 without a book and I thought: I am just going to get older with or without a book; I need to do this now! Then I put myself on deadline. I wrote my chapters as short stories and I took control of exactly what I could control: the number of pages I wrote each day and the number of times I submitted my work. And I looked for information in the rejections so that I could revise.
I started writing the book in 1998. It took 12 years to write it and get it published. And now the book is in its seventh printing in paperback.
On winning the Bellwether
Barbara Kingsolver created the prize to encourage unpublished novelists writing about social justice and social change. The prize comes with prize money and a guaranteed book contract. I knew I was one of 10 finalists for the prize, but when Barbara called me, I absolutely freaked out. I did a happy “Muppet” dance and called all of the people closest to me. I had been trying to sell the book for three years by then. Through my agent, I had racked up about three dozen rejections, and then about another dozen on my own. But it was just as my agent said: It didn’t matter how many no’s I got—I just needed to find the one gatekeeper.