Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Read This Book!

First of all, Madapple has one of the most arresting covers, doesn't it? I gave it a rave in my column at Dame Magazine, and I was so taken with it, I asked the author, Chistina Meldrum, if she'd let me pepper her with questions, and she very graciously agreed.
Madapple is dark, hallucinatory and haunting—and one of the most original novels I've read. Can you talk about how the idea came about? Where did Aslaug, the protagonist, spring from?

When I was an undergraduate, I studied comparative religion, and I was fascinated by the traditions and mythologies that seem to cross cultures. I thought it would be interesting to build a sort of mystery around some of these overlapping traditions.

Then I went to law school and began working as a litigator. During this time, I spent my days formulating arguments for my clients, selecting and emphasizing those facts that best supported by positions. In each case, my opposing counsel would do the same, emphasizing those facts that best supported her argument. In theory, truth somehow filtered through: the judge or jury would sort through the extreme arguments and parse out what was fair and true. In actuality, each argument oversimplified reality, and the ending result, while perhaps as fair as was feasible, often had little to do with truth.

It was this experience as a litigator, combined with my background in comparative religion, that spurred my writing of Madapple. In Madapple, I wanted to explore how we humans, in our attempt to understand the world, at times simplify and thereby distort it. I wanted to think about how we create categories, based on what we want or have felt or believe is socially acceptable, and then divide the world into these categories.

Specifically, I wanted to explore the dichotomy between science and religion. Having studied religion, I’d come to believe this dichotomy was a human construct. As Aslaug, the protagonist of Madapple, says, “Science describes the world, it doesn't explain it: it can describe the universe's formation, but it can't explain…how something can come from nothing. That’s the miracle.” Yet religion absent science also seems insufficient. If God exists, would not nature be a means by which to understand God? The more I researched the natural world in my writing of Madapple, the more convinced of this I became.

Ultimately, I hoped Madapple would be a contemplation on faith: faith in God; faith in science; and the way in which faith can both open the mind and confine it. And I hoped Aslaug, the protagonist of Madapple, would be an embodiment of this contemplation on faith. An isolated girl whose daily existence is utterly dependent on the natural world—on foraging—and who interprets the world through this lens; but whose emotional life, due to extraordinary circumstances, becomes fueled by religion and mythology. When these two ways of seeing the world collide in Aslaug’s trial for murder, the reader must ask: Is the devil in the details, or is it God? In the end, the categories fail: the answer is both. \

You talk about how rationality is "limited in its ability to capture the world"--a phrase I love. Can you talk about how this applies to the novel, and how it might apply to your own life and your own beliefs?

The phrase sprouts from the idea that the division between science and religion is a human construct that oversimplifies the real world. Limiting the world to what humans can understand rationally is to neglect the mysteries that lie everywhere. Science abounds with unanswered questions. Some of the most fundamental concepts in science, like gravity, cannot be explained: they can only be described. Humans might be able to use their rational faculties to describe in great detail the laws of nature, but no rational explanation can explain why the laws of nature function as they do. For me, life is richer when I am aware of and open to and curious about such mysteries.

Are you still working as a litigator or are you writing full time?

I am not working as a litigator. I am writing and parenting full time. But practicing law still informs my writing in ways that continue to surprise me. I hadn’t expected my legal background to be useful to me in my writing, but it has been. In Madapple, my legal background was useful in writing the trial scenes, of course. But the intellectual discipline of being a litigator—the training I’ve had in formulating arguments—has proven extremely useful to me in terms of plot development and storyline. In some ways, Madapple was like a novel-length argument, where each element was there for a reason and, in the end, it was essential that all the pieces fit.

What's your writing process like?
I write mostly during the day when my children are at school, but I also write in the evenings and on weekends when I feel compelled to do so. I don't use an outline to plot. I use more of a general framework. For Madapple, I actually made a graph—shaped like a bell curve. But I don't plot out every point. I plot out the main ones, then I write. And the writing often takes me in different directions than I'd intended. The process for me is dynamic. Sometimes the writing drives the plot, pushing it outside the confines of my plans, and sometimes the framework reins in the writing. I don’t share much related to my writing in the early stages of a project. I find I need to have the freedom to write without being concerned about what others would think, at least until I have solid draft. Once I have such a draft, it helps me to have guidance from others—to get fresh perspectives. But if I let go of a project too soon, I’ve found I can lose my way a bit.

Can you talk about what you are working on now?

My second novel also is a literary mystery of sorts. I’ve finished a draft, but I’m not yet ready to share much about it. It has been purchased by Alfred A. Knopf and will be edited by Madapple’s fantastic editor from Knopf, Michelle Frey.

What question didn't I ask that you wish I had?

The one question I have been asked more than any other about Madapple is why it is categorized as a young adult book rather than an adult book. The fact is, Madapple is what people in the industry refer to as a “crossover” book—that is, it is appropriate for mature teens and adults, but not for children. The protagonist in Madapple is sixteen. Although she is an unusual girl, having grown up under extraordinary circumstances, she grapples with many questions to which I believe older teens and adults might relate. That said, the book is in some respects controversial. I didn’t write it with the intention of being controversial, but I did write it hoping it would spur thought. For this reason, Madapple probably is not appropriate for teens under age fourteen, and it may be most appropriate for people sixteen and up.


Jeff Lyons said...

Wow... sounds like a must read. This is an area of great interest to me as well. Loved the interview!

Clea Simon said...

I find it so intereesting that so much fiction with an element of speculation or fantasy is cast as "young adult." Can't we mature women dream?

Caroline said...

I agree, Clea. I really wouldn't consider this book Young Adult--though YAs would love it. Truely, it's very dark and brooding, in a wonderful way, but the issues it addresses are thorny and complex.