I became aware of Heidi Durrow’s work in 2008 when she won the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Literature. I have coveted the Bellwether–a first novel prize–for over a decade. I applied last year but, alas, did not win. However, there is plenty of room for socially engaged action and writing in the world. I am pleased to learn about Durrow’s continued activism, in fiction and beyond, and I’m thrilled to feature her on The Debutante Ball.
Heidi’s debut novel, THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY, tells the story of Rachel, the daughter of a Danish mother and a black G.I. who becomes the sole survivor of a family tragedy.
With her strict African American grandmother as her new guardian, Rachel moves to a mostly black community, where her light brown skin, blue eyes, and beauty bring mixed attention her way. Growing up in the 1980s, she learns to swallow her overwhelming grief and confronts her identity as a biracial young woman in a world that wants to see her as either black or white.
Meanwhile, a mystery unfolds, revealing the terrible truth about Rachel’s last morning on a Chicago rooftop. Interwoven are the voices of Jamie, a neighborhood boy who witnessed the events, and Laronne, a friend of Rachel’s mother. Inspired by a true story of a mother’s twisted love, THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY reveals an unfathomable past and explores issues of identity at a time when many people are asking “Must race confine us and define us?”
In the tradition of Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street, here is a portrait of a young girl—and society’s ideas of race, class, and beauty.
The Debs Interview with Heidi Durrow
The road to publication is twisty at best–tell us about some of your twists.
My journey to publication was not only twisty but also very long. It took me a little over 10 years from the time I started working on the manuscript until I finally got published.
I started working on the book just before I turned 30. I thought I could write the book finished within a year—two years tops! But it actually took me six years to finish a first draft! And then the even harder work of revision and trying to get the book published began. When I finally landed a very well-regarded agent after a couple of years, I thought I was set. Nope. My agent sent out the book to about three dozen editors over the course of a couple of years. Everyone rejected it. So I started sending it out to contests and small publishing houses that didn’t require an agent myself. All the while I was revising the work when I got solid, actionable feedback from editors or readers. And then it was like lightning hit—I got a call from Barbara Kingsolver who created and funds the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. My manuscript had won the prize which comes with a guaranteed book contract. I had never felt so elated! But then again, more hard work began. Barbara told me during the call that she and the other judges had notes for me to make some edits on the prize-winning manuscript. I knew she was right. I knew exactly what I had to do. I deleted about 150 pages from that prize-winning manuscript—and with a new focus (knowing that my book would be published) and the notes from my editor and the judges I completely the revised the manuscript two more times before I turned it in for publication six months later.
A year and two months later, the book was finally on bookshelves. It had already gained some great pre-publication press thanks to the great folks at Algonquin Books and from there I was off and running. It all seems like a dream now.
What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
I was a life skills trainer for professional athletes of the National Basketball Association and the National Football League. It was a great job. A really fun job. I would do a scripted scene with a male actor who played the athlete. I would play the player’s wife, or the club girl, or the baby’s mama in the baby mama drama. The scene would end in conflict—yelling or screaming. And then we would end the scene and ask the players how they would have handled the situation differently. What would they have said or done in the circumstance to have a better result? Then a player would come on stage and role play with me. I did that for almost 7 years until I had to start playing the player’s mom in the barbecue. That was my cue to leave and buckle down on my literary aspirations.
What is your advice for aspiring writers?
My advice for aspiring writers is: 1) don’t show your work to others too soon; and 2) once you’ve started showing it or shopping it don’t give up on the work. I had a really bad set-back when I showed the first pages of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky when it was in its very early stages (like I was maybe 15 pages in). I doubted my work and my words when I got very critical and particularly unhelpful feedback – ***SPOILER ALERT*** specifically, an instructor told me that it would be a better idea for the mother to die of cancer than how she dies in the book now. If you’ve read the book, you will understand how stupid that comment is because it would be a whole different book than what I was writing. So, yes, protect the writing when it’s raw. And more importantly protect yourself as an artist—you need room to explore. And then once you’ve done the hard work of writing and revising, don’t give up when you hear “no” – I realize now that I was borderline delusional to think that my book would be published after almost every publisher in existence rejected it. But the thing was I didn’t want to just publish a book; I wanted to share a vision. I held on to that feeling and that kept me going.
Talk about one book that made an impact on you.
Two books made the most impact on me and my writing life: Quicksand and Passing by Nella Larsen. I knew about Nella Larsen long before I ever read her books. But when I finally did, her books rocked my world. I had no idea I was allowed to write about being black and Danish. I didn’t know that I could write a story that was that specific and it would still be understood to be universal. Nella Larsen’s books gave me the permission I badly needed to write about what I most desperately needed to write about so that I could answer some questions for myself.
What time of day do you love best?
I love the morning. I love my morning rituals. I brush my teeth and then sit down with a cup of coffee with bendy straw in my chair and write 3-pages long-hand in my Moleskine and then a sentence-long affirmation 10 times in a row while listening to NPR. Those moments feel like all possibility.
Heidi Durrow is the New York Times best-selling author of THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY (Algonquin Books) which won the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. A former corporate attorney, she is also the founder and producer of the non-profit arts organization that hosts the annual Mixed Remixed Festival (Los Angeles, June 10-11, 2016) and the host of The Mixed Experience, a popular weekly podcast. Ebony Magazine named her a Power 100 Leader along with Malcolm Gladwell and Edwidge Danticat. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, NPR, Essence, and the Huffington Post. You can find her online, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.
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