One Sister’s Song
A novel, a dream, a gift.
One Sister’s Song is a novel I began writing when my first child turned one. The entire process took eight years; I started writing this book in pieces in Nashville, returned to it in fits and starts as my son and I endured the terrible twos, and realized true progress on the project while working with a freelance editor in Denver. Publication with Pearl Street Publishing came after a few more months of revisions―including the addition of whole chapters―which filled out the book and made it a solid, good read. By then I had another child, a daughter, and by the time the first edition of my book was published I had two little girls, sisters who celebrate the special bond they share every day, sisters who hopefully will draw much strength from that bond as they grow.
The main character in my book, Audrey, struggles to understand the bond she shared—and still shares—with her late sister, Laura. Audrey tries to fill in for Laura―to live in her sister’s house, to raise her sister’s teenage son―while she strives to fit the pieces of her disrupted life back together:
Another scraping sound grew louder. Audrey glanced toward the corner of the house, listening for hints of her nephew’s discontent as he pounded a metal rake along the side lawn.
“You’re going to break it, Julian,” she grumbled. She thought of Laura doing yard work, sinking her fingers deep in the soil. Laura joking with Julian, rather than nagging at him all the time. Laura urging Julian to walk, reading to Julian, consoling Julian. How can I do as well? Audrey wondered. Why in the world did she leave him with me?
One Sister’s Song is a dream, a dream of a story that involves dreams from an unknown past:
That night in her room, the narrow guest room where she’d always slept while visiting, Audrey dreamed of a running figure―some sort of fugitive―who had haunted her dreams since Laura’s death. Bent beneath a wide-brimmed straw hat, the fugitive appeared boyish and slight in baggy pants and a loose tunic. Bare ankles showed above makeshift shoes as the figure stumbled through ruts and rocky paths, under the protective cover of dense trees. Stooped shoulders and missed steps made it evident a long way had been traveled, and exhaustion was near.
One Sister’s Song also is a dream of a book for me, a first-time author who can now hold, sign, and give to people a gift of my own tangible dream come true, over and over again. The second edition of my novel epitomizes this dream; its original cover art was designed by a very close friend, a friend who lives in an old farmhouse with a trap door in the dining room floor, a friend who gladly shared the challenges of owning a historic home, encouraging me in her enthusiasm to finish this book and see it through publication.
But getting a book published is only part of the dream. Readers are part of that dream, too. One reader sent me a bookmark made of hand-made paper and a simple, treasured, note: “Thank you for writing this book.” I have no idea what about my book affected her, what compelled her to respond in this way, but I’ve received similar empowering reactions from others, reactions that indicate this book impacts people. Something in it compels readers to consider their perspectives regarding love, race, and respect, just as the writing of this book forced me to rethink my own understandings of these powerful themes.
One Sister’s Song is a gift. It’s a gift I can give to people, but it’s also a vehicle through which I receive gifts, sometimes in the form of a handwritten note, an enthusiastic e-mail, or even a congratulatory phone call, sometimes in spirited feedback from a book club. My book explores a variety of issues, from racial identity and discrimination to sisterhood, single parenting, and grief recovery. While readers seem intrigued by the Underground Railroad details woven into the plot, many are also eager to learn about biracial families like mine and the special challenges faced by people of mixed descent:
“I hate that question: ‘What are you? Are you adopted or something? Come from an island somewhere? It’s like people need a tidy answer because they can’t figure it out for themselves, and that drives them crazy.”
In the interview with me posted on the Pearl Street Publishing website, I suggest that by the time my children are adults, no one will be surprised to hear that two of their grandparents were African-American and French-Canadian. The challenge for their generation will be to refuse to assume anything about anyone; to know others can surprise you with their true identities and experiences, and to remain open to those surprises. I wrote One Sister’s Song to help promote such understanding, to shed some light on an issue that’s rarely explored in literary novels. Not only does my book celebrate the differences among us, it honors the people among us who cross boundaries and abandon comfort zones every day, leading us in a noble quest toward a more honorable, more tolerant world.
At the same time, One Sister’s Song celebrates sisters and the unique, tremendous ties sisters often share. While my main character, Audrey, sometimes resents the power her sister wields even in death, she blesses her sister’s memory and cherishes every sliver of understanding she slowly, painfully, grows to accept:
Everything in [her great-aunt’s] home was dark, and cool, and comforting, from the hardwood floors to the rugs that muffled them, to the cushioned settee in the parlor and the thick banister. Audrey tried to imagine her father as a boy, racing through these rooms, banging in the back door and upstairs to retrieve some treasure. But she could see, most clearly, Laura lounging on the settee, Laura with her brown face pressed against a screen window to smell the summer rain, Laura skipping out that same back door to join their cousins as they chased fireflies in the dusk. Audrey could see, because she’d been the one watching, always watching, while Laura led the way.
The Writing of One Sister’s Song
PSP: What was the genesis of One Sister’s Song? Was it the themes or a single idea which then lead to the themes?
KDC: It was the single (and simple) idea of a woman and her boyfriend’s disapproving mother.
PSP: When did you start developing this idea into the story for One Sister’s Song?
KDC: When I was working full-time, I did not know I would ever return to creative writing. When my son was a baby in 1993, I was back in Syracuse visiting family when one of my parents’ neighbors said something like “you were quite a writer back then,” referring to my high-school days. I had read about a writing group that met near my home in Nashville, and that fall I joined it. PSP: How did all the themes develop from this one concept? Do you have a book where you jot down ideas?
KDC: I jot down ideas everywhere! When I’m in an organized state, I have a blank book that I use on a regular basis.
PSP: And when you’re not in an organized state?
KDC: I use anything that’s handy. A few words scribbled on a piece of mail can trigger a long stream of free writing later, when I finally get another chance to write.
PSP: How did all the themes develop from your one concept?
KDC: I began to experiment with giving Audrey multiple story problems. I read once that a novelist’s job is to get a character stuck in a tree and then proceed to throw stones at her, to make the situation more and more difficult and the story more and more compelling.
PSP: Some writers insist that they begin with the ending. In a sense, you did that—Laura’s death was an ending as well as a beginning. Which character, Audrey or Laura, was imagined first?
KDC: The ending to One Sister’s Song remained a mystery to me for a long time. While I didn’t know how Audrey was going to solve her problems, I was certain of one thing: she had to be the source of her solutions. So she really wrote the ending in that her actions affected so many people’s lives, including her own.
Audrey was imagined first. Laura was created to provide one of the story problems. Someone once suggested I change Audrey’s name to make it sound more African, I think, but I knew I could never do that. Her last name changed a few times, but she’s always been Audrey.
PSP: Why couldn’t you change her name? You would think that a change like that would be rather simple—it’s only one word.
KDC: I was pretty far into my first draft when that suggestion was made to me. Once a character becomes so real to you that you dream about her, it’s impossible to change something as personal as her name.
The Novelist as Social Critic
PSP: Are any parts of the book autobiographical?
KDC: No. Some of my sister-in-law’s true experiences became anecdotes that Laura told in the book, and I did witness a few things, including the main situation.
I think one of the weakest sections of the book is the scene involving the racist police officer. I didn’t change it, though, because something very similar happened to my husband, and I wanted to use that scene to make the point that people of color in this country are still subjected to racism in very real, shockingly obvious ways. I was with Patrick when he was pulled over by an officer who had him sit in his police car where he could see his collection of KKK stickers.
PSP: So you left in an admittedly weak section of the book in order to make a larger, social statement. Do you see that as a primary role of the novelist—to make a statement about social issues?
KDC: I see that as one of my roles as a novelist, but I would never suggest that any other writer ought to take on such a role. I’ve always been interested in social issues, and I’ve learned through writing this book that incorporating social issues into fiction makes the finished work more substantial and compelling. I also learn a lot in the process and then get to share what I’ve learned.
The Writing Process
PSP: What is your reaction to this statement?
The first person you should think of pleasing, in writing a book, is yourself. If you can amuse yourself for the length of time it takes to write a book, the publishers and the readers can and will come later.
KDC: While I find the writing of a novel a very entertaining project, I do not write to please myself only. I do keep the reader in mind. Publishers (no offense, Sherry!) are not important matters of concern, because the story will be read, one way or another, if it’s a good one. I keep the reader in mind because I’m trying to communicate with him/her. I imagine readers as very skeptical antagonists who demand clarity and originality and who refuse to let me off the hook when I’m tempted to take shortcuts.
PSP: No offense taken. I see the role of publisher in the first instance to be a reader.
Who is the reader you keep in mind? In the law there is the “reasonable person” standard—what would a “reasonable person” conclude? Is there a “reasonable reader” standard? Or is there some other reader you have in mind?
KDC: That’s a great question, a funny question, really. Funny because it makes me realize I probably consider my four sisters to be my toughest critics. They’re not easily fooled. My youngest sister, Kristen, is quite outspoken, and when I was growing up, my older sister, Lisa, was pretty blunt about most things, especially anything I did or said!
PSP: I like that: “the reasonable sister standard.”
PSP: Your book also takes on issues related to recovering from grief. In what ways does your character approach grief in a positive, healthy way, and in what ways is she self-destructive?
KDC: She’s unhealthy in her approach when she’s beating herself up about every mistake she makes, and healthy when she talks with others (especially her nephew) about her sister. I think guilt can be extremely destructive, and Audrey struggles to get beyond various types of guilt throughout the story. And it goes beyond the pages of the book. Audrey always has battled with guilt, and always will.
PSP: Does the healthy recovery from grief provide us with an opportunity to grow as individuals, more fully realize our humanity?
KDC: I’m sure it does, or can. The impact of grief on a character certainly provides a writer with the chance to see what that character can accomplish under pressure, which makes for a good story. The results of decisions made under pressure can have such long-term effects…. I find the different ways different characters behave under pressure fascinating. And I’m no “pressure player.” I have a lot of respect for people like Audrey.
PSP: Do you think that a sharing of communal grief, for example September 11, can help us overcome superficial differences such as the color of our skin?
KDC: I think it can, but it has not. Profiling is now more common and more widely accepted as a necessary evil, for the sake of security.
Race and Prejudice
PSP: Are there questions you have been asked by readers that you think would be interesting to readers-to-be?
KDC: Most people ask immediately if the book is somehow autobiographical. It is not. Some also ask if my husband and I have ever experienced any kind of prejudice, and that takes longer to answer….
PSP: What do you say?
KDC: I tell the story of Patrick and the officer with the KKK stickers, or the story of Patrick being pulled over for no reason in downtown Nashville. Or the story of the lady who glared at me when I kissed Patrick good-bye in public. That lady made it into the story, by the way, when Audrey and her boyfriend have brunch in a hotel.
PSP: Have you discussed issues of race with your children? How would you describe the “balancing act” performed by biracial individuals? How do you expect your children to perform this balancing act?
KDC: My daughters are pretty little. My husband and I have talked about race with our son, Jeffrey, though. And he’s read about famous African-Americans like Dr. King and Ruby Bridges and Harriet Tubman. I’m very interested in the Underground Railroad, so he’s seen lots of children’s books about that.
It’s a heady subject for a young child, but as Jeffrey gets older, it’s easier to explain issues of race as they arise, and he seems to take it all in stride. I think the “balancing act” is performed by biracial people like my husband. People often ask him (and me) where he’s from; they don’t know how to assess him or what to expect from him at first. I don’t take offense at such questions, and I don’t think he does, either. People are curious.
I don’t expect our children will have much trouble at all. It’s much more common now to meet people of mixed descent than it was 15-20 years ago, so by the time our girls are adults, no one will be surprised to hear that two of their grandparents are African-American and French-Canadian. The challenge for their generation will be to refuse to assume anything about anyone; to know others can surprise you with their true identities and experiences, and to remain open to those surprises. And in that sense, our children are already a step ahead.
PSP: Where do your characters find the courage to oppose racial oppression? Certainly it must be easier to accept the status quo, no matter how unjust it is, simply because it is the status quo, and you’ve learned how to get by. What does it take for a person or group of people to take a stand and say ‘This is wrong, and we’re not going to take it any more?’
KDC: Audrey actually looks at things in very “black and white” terms, ironically enough: she’s been hurt and her family has been hurt and she refuses to give in to anyone who threatens to cause her or her family more pain. So status quo or no, a situation that needs to be changed is going to be changed, one way or another. And so she marches on, drawing strength from the two strong people who were her parents, from her sister who remains with her in spirit, and from those who have survived with her. I guess what it takes is faith in one’s self and the ability to ask for help when it’s needed. When a character is guilt-ridden and grief-stricken, though, keeping the faith and asking for help can be tough. Just ask Audrey.