Black Lawrence Press
November 4, 2015

NaNoWriMo Feature: Deborah Clearman

Welcome to National Novel Writing Month, 2015! We’re celebrating all month long with a gangbuster sale on some of our favorite novels, a consultation program for those of you with in-progress manuscripts, and this–a daily feature profiling a Black Lawrence Press author who has done the unthinkable: completed a novel.

Today’s featured novelist is Deborah Clearman, author of Todos Santos.

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Todos SantosExcerpt

For an hour they traveled the high plateau of the Cuchumatanes, where stone fences sprouting spikes of maguey cactus and brilliant red flowers crossed the wide green moors. Weird rocks loomed in the mist of the altiplano, huge and ancient, like the bones of monsters, reminding Catherine she was in a place where people didn’t look to psychoanalysts to explain the inexplicable. In Todos Santos, Oswaldo told her, the affairs of mortals were controlled by the Lords of the Hills. There were four of them, each named for his mountain peak in the guttural Mayan language of Mam. When they emerged from their caves at the tops of the peaks, these four Lords rode on white horses. If a Lord called a man’s spirit into his cave, the man died. When the road had been built to Todos Santos in the sixties, the Catholics had sent a priest to banish the Lords from the village and convert the people to Christianity. Later the Evangelicals came, to broadcast salvation over tinny loudspeakers in cloying chants that echoed from the mountainsides like gnats whining in the face of God. The Lords of the Hills were older than the Christian God, older even than the first ancestor, and more durable than the black rocks of the Cuchumatanes. Still today in Todos Santos there were shamans who propitiated the Lords with ceremonies, burning candles and incense, spilling alcohol and blood. Many of these shamans performed good ceremonies, and worked for the good of the village, taking only just recompense in return. But some were evil, worked for gain, sold illness and death if the price was high enough. They were the practitioners of black magic, and people knew who they were.

“How do you know so much about a place you’ve never been?” Catherine asked.

“That’s my job. I’m good at it!”

“And modest, too.” They both laughed. The guide was worth the price, she reflected. Trust Zelda’s pick.

They left the main road to follow a dirt track down an upland valley, going slowly to save the springs and muffler of the van as they bounced over ruts. Green mountains rose up on either side, clouds drifting up like smoke from the ravines. Finally they dropped to a settlement of houses, and a sign told them they’d reached Todos Santos, altitude 2,470 meters. Over 8,000 feet, Catherine thought, high enough to shorten your breath. The sign said they were 51 kilometers from Huehuetenango. She looked at her watch. Two hours to travel those thirty miles. Zelda hadn’t been kidding when she’d called this place remote. Far away felt good.

The sun broke through the clouds when they reached the main street of town, as if in welcome. Dun-colored paving stones were bordered by raised concrete sidewalks just wide enough to accommodate a person leaning against a stucco wall, watching the village go by. The buildings were two-storied, and the street-level doorways and windows opened into shops—a hardware, a pharmacy, a foreign mail and package service—unprepossessing shops full of third-world sundries, papers and plastics of a type Catherine never saw in Iowa, thinner, brighter in color, poorer in quality. Oswaldo inched the van along the street against a tide of people walking, all the women in dark indigo skirts and the hand-woven blouses called huipiles. In their vibrant magentas, reds, and blues, their long hair black and glossy, the women were almost indistinguishable in their beauty. The men were bright against the dusty street in red-and-white-striped pants, the signature of Todos Santos, and pale shirts with broad embroidered collars. The women balanced bundles and baskets on their heads; the men wore straw hats and short black chaps that swung about their thighs with an alluring swagger. Bands of children scampered among them, the street their playground. The van felt out of place here. Catherine wanted to be walking, among the people, in rhythm with them.

They made a sharp turn up a steep stone street. A few doors up they stopped under a sign for the Hotel Todosantero. A young woman in the doorway struggled with a crying child. The woman’s thick black eyebrows wrinkled in a frown. The child, a girl about three, Catherine guessed, with tousled hair and a dirty face, stamped her foot, broke away, and ran inside. The woman’s dark eyes reached out and met Catherine’s, conveying a wordless message, a communion of mothers. She shrugged and spread her hands.

In that instant Catherine figured out what had scared her so much the night before. Not where she was going, but what she was running away from. Her life. And now, just when she needed it, escape appeared in front of her, beckoning. The woman invited them inside, saying she had available rooms. She took them through a dining room onto a terrace. From here Catherine could see below her the town plaza, its austere white church, red-tiled rooftops left and right, and across the valley, the mountains rising in a green wall, keeping out the world. The woman’s name was Nicolasa. Make yourselves at home, she said. Catherine already felt she belonged here, in this high valley, on this terrace. Maybe she would never go back.

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Craft Notes

This comes at the end of the first chapter and is told in close third person from the point of view of Catherine, the main character. The reader already knows that Catherine is questioning her marriage and is visiting Guatemala with her fourteen-year-old son Isaac, recently flunked out of eighth grade. She has left Isaac with her sister-in-law Zelda in Antigua, Guatemala, and is traveling to Todos Santos with a guide, Oswaldo. The main conflicts have been introduced in several scenes with action and dialogue. In this section I slow the pace down in order to give the reader a sense of the journey and to create mood. We see a new place through Catherine’s eyes and hear about its history and mythology through what Oswaldo tells her. There is little actual dialogue; we are inside Catherine’s head, in her perceptions and feelings. We see the relationship growing between Catherine and Oswaldo. The tone here is lyrical and meditative; mood is one of anticipation and yearning.

Catherine is an artist, so the descriptions of the landscape and people are very visual. When I write, I have to see the scene in my imagination before I describe it. I visualize the narrative voice as a movie camera held either close to a character, perched on her shoulder, or pulled back for a more all-knowing view. In this chapter the point of view has already shifted several times. Throughout the novel the point of view will generally alternate between Catherine and her son Isaac.

I use devices like the tour guide and the road sign to fill the reader in with information that I don’t want to just “tell” them, like Todos Santos’s altitude, and to show Catherine’s reaction to the information. In the final paragraph Catherine meets another important character in the novel, Nicolasa, and the reader wants to turn the page.

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Q&A

1) What is the hardest part of writing a novel? What are your techniques for dealing with this aspect of the process?

The hardest part is finding the big story and meshing it with the surface story. When I began Todos Santos, I didn’t know where it would take me. I knew that Catherine was unhappy and Isaac was troubled. As I worked my way through the plot and characters appeared in their lives, it became the story of a woman finding her identity outside of wife- and motherhood.

For a long time I had the idea of writing about foreign adoption and I got off to many false starts, beginning with a Guatemalan character who had been adopted by Americans. I was thinking of this character as the “victim” and my writing was very preachy. It wasn’t until I hit on writing from the point of view of the “perpetrator” that I was able to write successfully on my theme. My story “Baby Snatcher” appeared in The Adirondack Review.

At other times I’ve written a great scene—interesting characters, engaging dialogue, great setting—but I can’t figure out what the story is or why I care about these characters. So the scene goes into a file of promising beginnings that have gone nowhere. Maybe some day I’ll come back to them.

I just chain myself to the computer and keep writing. Sometimes it works.

2) What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

Everyone is a writer. Just be yourself.

3) How long did it take you to complete your novel? Please talk a little bit about your journey from first word to final draft.

I came back from a trip to Guatemala in which (like Catherine) I was doing research for a children’s picture book and had lunch with a friend. I told her all about my trip. I must have sounded pretty excited because she said, “That’s it! That’s your novel.”

I didn’t know I was writing a novel. I was going through a divorce; my life was falling apart. But the idea took root. Much later I began writing, in longhand in a spiral notebook. I wrote the early chapters in writing workshops, responding to prompts. I didn’t want the main character to be me, so I modeled her on a friend, although she shares characteristics with me. I worked very slowly on the novel for two years, completing several short stories at the same time. Then I decided to go to Guatemala for a year, where I finished my first draft. There I met and got to know many of the characters who went into the novel, and into later stories. Some characters I take from life; others come wholly from my imagination. After a while, I can’t tell which is which; they all become so real.

I returned from Guatemala and asked friends to read my novel, so that I could begin the long process of revision. Whole chapters got thrown out and new ones written. Three years and five drafts later, the novel was finally ready to send out. After that it received several more makeovers until it made it into print and into the world.

4) What is your favorite writing time beverage?

Coffee, coffee, and more coffee. Black and strong.

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Suggested Reading

These are some novels I’ve read recently, rather than books about writing. I believe that you can’t read too much fiction if you’re a writer of fiction.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Soulja (Urban fiction is very popular in jail and helpful for working with prison populations.)

Julia & Rodrigo by Mark Brazaitis

Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

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2015 Headshot in FloridaDeborah Clearman is the author of the novel Todos Santos. Her short stories have appeared in The Adirondack Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Connecticut Review, Hamilton Stone Review, storySouth, Witness, and many other journals. Formerly Program Director of NY Writers Coalition, she has led numerous NYWC creative writing workshops for people from diverse backgrounds. Since 2011 she has led weekly writing workshops for women in jail on Rikers Island. A member of PEN American Center, she serves on PEN’s Prison Writing Committee. You may visit her website at www.deborahclearman.com.

Author Photo by Douglas Chadwick