The Big Idea: Karen Lord

Sometimes in writing, who you make your protagonist, and the qualities that person possesses,  makes all the difference for the story you want to tell. When it came time for Karen Lord to tell the story in Redemption in Indigo, she chose a protagonist who was unconventional — Paama, a character from African lore — but whose unconventionality served her story well. And indeed she has, with the book earning starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Booklist. What qualities makes this unconventional protagonist so essential, and so readable? Lord unfolds the tale.

KAREN LORD:

I’ve known Paama for a very long time, almost as long as I can remember.  Her story was in an anthology of folktales from all over the world, in the company of such standards as Aesop’s Fables and The Ugly Duckling.  There were fairy godmothers, talking animals and beautiful princesses (some passive, some plucky).  There were kingdoms, enchantments and adventurous journeys.  And then there was Paama, a ordinary woman living in an ordinary village.  She had a husband, a glutton, an embarrassment, a blight on her happiness.  And she got rid of him!  Now that was real – and useful!

Years later, I sat down to attempt my first novel.  Paama, I thought, what are you doing these days? First I wrote what I knew about her life, which took only three chapters, and then I just … kept going.  I had an image in my head of an uncanny being and an ordinary woman struggling over a cou-cou stick (cou-cou is a Barbadian dish, somewhat like polenta, made of cornmeal and boiled okras stirred smooth together).  That was another fragment of childhood – when the rain is falling and the sun is shining, the devil and his wife are fighting for the cou-cou stick. But now I had questions.  Why that stick?  Why did it make the weather go wild?  I decided it was a Chaos Stick, able to turn any possibility, no matter how improbable, into reality.

I enjoy reading about sword-swinging heroines and heroes of noble blood and epic destiny, but I’ve also observed that in real life the powerful people are those who have learned how to make good choices.  This has nothing to do with luck.  I’m talking about creativity (making the most of what’s available or finding new resources), discernment (seeing people and situations clearly) and detachment (keeping free of peer pressure, the praise and blame of society).  The Chaos Stick would suit someone who already had the knack of choosing well.

It was a risk, making Paama the protagonist.  After all, what makes for good living does not always make for good story.  But Paama told me very clearly the kind of heroine she was going to be and the plot moulded itself around her personality.  She failed, and did not despair; cried, and stayed strong; left, and returned on her own terms.  Her enemy expected a head-on confrontation, but she countered with strategic yielding.  She kept making choices, good and bad, and never stopped learning from the bad and improving on the good.  She mastered the art of serendipity, which is more than mere luck.  She wielded the Stick well.

Paama became my patron saint of editing.  I often don’t know what I’m writing till I’ve written it, which makes editing a crucial exercise in making choices.  It is a combination of finding and following the narrative’s flow; uncovering and enhancing the subtle patterns in the framework; keeping story separate from self-esteem – creating, discerning, detaching.  It is the art of serendipity, which is, for me, the essence of storycrafting.  Serendipity is a lively sprite, always planting surprises in mundane places.  A random, unconnected sentence becomes foreshadowing, a side character develops into the antagonist’s foil, and a watcher from the sidelines ends up conducting the entire orchestra.  Writing has its fun and flow, and so does editing, for all its workmanlike appearance.

Don’t get distracted by the talking animals, the deathless beings, the Object of Power and the other staples of fantasy that I’ve added to Paama’s story.  Redemption in Indigo is a novel which celebrates ordinary people and everyday magic, because sometimes all it takes to be a heroine is to choose wisely, walk softly and carry a small Stick.

—-

Redemption in Indigo: Amazon|Borders|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt here. Read the author’s guest blog at Powells.com. See the book’s video.

19 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Karen Lord

  1. Hmmm- I saw an intro to this on Tor.com the other day. This will definitely go on my reading list.

  2. I love this statement:
    “…in real life the powerful people are those who have learned how to make good choices.”
    I’ve added it to my quote collection.

    I will put your book on my ‘to read’ list.

    Your writing style sounds wonderful. I have often wanted to do that, but so many people suggest planning, outlining, plot, structure before you even write.

    I have tried to just write and follow a story as it unfolds, but of course I usually fall into a quagmire at chapter 3 without any idea where to go. So I suppose that proves I am not destined for my ideal of writing.

  3. This is a beautifully-written piece. The novel has been on my list for a while, but I’m now even more excited to read it–I love stories about so-called “ordinary people,” and fantasy needs more of them.

  4. Karen,

    Would the story be all that different were Paama a European named Eunice?

    My point?

    We have a tendency to think a story as being unique to a race or location. Sometimes both. When it is the universality of experience that marks our literature, our legends and myth. Similarity of experience leads to a similarity of tale, and Anansi becomes Bugs Bunny for an auditiorium filled with young American Marines in 1943.

  5. The book sounds awesome. And as Zahra said, the Big Idea is beautifully written.

    If my local library isn’t already getting the book, I’ll make sure they do! :)

  6. Gorgeous essay. Thank you for sharing about your writing process, and how Paama informed you and it. I especially appreciate the naming of the 3 values of creativity, discernment, and detachment, and look forward to seeing how those play out in the story. I am so looking forward to holding this book in my hands!

  7. This isn’t coming up as available from amazon UK (except for one used copy at a silly price). Any idea when it will?

  8. @MadLogician Amazon UK and Amazon CA have been a little confusing of late, differing completely from Amazon.com. Preordering was possible on both a few weeks ago. I think they’ve just been slow to update.

    And yes, that is an exceedingly silly price.

    I’ll ask a question and see if I can find out something definite about the UK availability.

  9. Alan@6,

    Yes, I think the story would be different, although
    I’m sure that Eunice’s story is also a good one. Perhaps the basic plot wouldn’t change- but stories aren’t just plot. I love science fiction that focus on different cultures.

    Bugs Bunny may be an iteration of Anansi (or Coyote or…..), but he’s not identical. Those differences can make for a new and exciting read.

  10. @Rachel

    Agree re cover. Her ethnicity and culture does inform her tale and it would be a cheat to make her into something she is not. ‘Sides, black is beautiful. :)

  11. @Pam

    Actually, my point was that the story would not be different at the core were it about a European named Eunice. There are certain things that are just universal. Being a Caribbean Black makes the details different, but not the heart.

    Besides, I like the cover, for it tells you honestly about what you may expect in the book itself.

  12. @MadLogician News, of a sort! Although my friends who preordered with amazon.co.uk haven’t heard anything yet, I’ve been told there was a brief window of availability at bookdepository.co.uk before they ran out of stock again.

    I see there are other UK sellers when I check googlebooks and abebooks.co.uk, but I know nothing about their reputation.

    Try bookdepository. They will notify when the books are back in stock.

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