The trouble with interviews, part one

ShanaToday, for our first DiversiTheme, we welcome of the amazing Shana Mlawski to the blog! Shana is the writer of HAMMER OF WITCHES, a very diverse and very awesome historical fantasy. She graciously agreed to do an interview with us, but as you will find out, along the way we ran into some problem. After all, is there a right way to talk about diversity? Can we tell others how to write diversity? Can we successfully summarize it in one interview? Shana helped us consider a lot of these things over the course of many mails. Did I mention she’s awesome?

Today we’re happy to share with you the original interview she did. Friday we will let her give her own counterpoint on “The trouble with interviews”

1) Can you tell us a little more about HAMMER OF WITCHES? What inspired you to write it?

Sure! HAMMER OF WITCHES is about a bookmaker’s apprentice named Baltasar who gets mixed up with an organization of witch-hunters that for some reason thinks he has information about a dangerous, fugitive sorcerer. Before long, Baltasar is on the run, surrounded by demons and genies, and on a quest to uncover the secrets his family has kept from him. Did I mention it takes place in Spain 1492? That’s kind of important.

The idea popped into my head after I traveled to Portugal and Spain and started reading up on the Age of Exploration. The period is infinitely more fascinating than your history class led you to believe. Before the late 1400s, Iberia was an extremely multicultural setting, but by 1492 things were starting to change. Spain conquered the last remaining Muslim province on the peninsula, the Spanish Inquisition was torturing people, and the crown decreed that all Jews convert, leave the country, or die. Spain basically decided it was done with multiculturalism, which turned out to be ironic, because that was the same year Columbus made contact with a whole new hemisphere of cultures.

I thought, “Hmm, religious conflicts, culture clashes, torture, globalization? SOUNDS KIND OF FAMILIAR. I would like to write about that.” But I was simultaneously thinking, “I want to write a book with wizards and dragons in it!!!” so I went all Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and mixed them together. History and magic: two great tastes that taste great together!

2) In HAMMER OF WITCHES, you tell the story of a bookmaker’s apprentice caught between the Spanish Inquisition and a legendary Moorish sorcerer, which leads him to the uncharted lands in the west. It sounds like such a rich, fresh world. Why is diversity in fiction important to you?

Semi-noble reasons:

  • I’m a teacher, and most of the students I have taught are not white, yet when I ask them to write short stories, they usually write about white boys, specifically affluent heterosexual cisgendered able-bodied Protestant white boys, because our society teaches kids that affluent heterosexual cisgendered able-bodied Protestant white boys are protagonists and everyone else is a sidekick. I find this ridiculous and sad.
  • Diverse books are important for those in the majority, too. They teach empathy, something that our society sorely needs more of.

Selfish reasons:

  • I’m from New York. I went to a reasonably diverse college. I lived in Puerto Rico. I don’t think I know how to write books that only have white people in them. They don’t make sense to me.
  • I find books about rich white Americans who seem to have no ethnic background boring.
  • I wanted to write a book set in Spain in 1492. If I wrote a book without ethnic, racial, and religious diversity, it would be a lie. I write fiction, but I won’t write lies if I can help it.

2) How did you prepare for writing diverse characters?

I researched. A lot. I read somewhere between 50 and 100 books and talked to experts on the different cultures I was writing about.

But you can use “research” from your own life, too. I’m Jewish, part of my family is Catholic, I have Muslim friends (“Some of my best friends are Muslim!” she says with tongue in cheek), and I lived in the Caribbean. When you live among different cultures, it quickly becomes clear that there is a ton of diversity within groups. That knowledge makes writing diverse characters much easier, I think. Once you know that all Jewish people are different, you realize you don’t have to ask anxiety-inducing questions like, “What would a Jew do in this scene?” Instead you can ask, “What would Baltasar’s Uncle Diego do in this scene?” That’s a much easier question to answer. It’s likely that Uncle Diego’s Jewish background will have an effect on him and the way people treat him, but he’s more than just his religion. He’s an individual who doesn’t completely align with any archetype or stereotype.

3) What was the biggest challenge of writing this book?

Speaking of research, did you know that writing a book set in the past can be difficult? Every time you want to add a detail to a scene, you have to do hours’ worth of research to make sure it’s correct. Example: The book starts on the night of July 31st, 1492. The moon is… (checks NASA’s website) a thin crescent. We’re in Andalucia. It’s hot. Well, if it’s hot, I should probably have a character open a window. Hmm, what kind of window is it? (Shuttered.) How does it open? (Outward.) Is there glass in the window? (No, of course, there isn’t. Don’t be silly. It’s 1492. Glass is expensive.)

…Oh, shoot. Didn’t I just write a scene where a character drinks wine from a glass bottle? That can’t be right. What kind of bottle would he have drunk from? (Ceramic, if he had a bottle at all.) What kind of wine would it be? (A cheap, young red, probably from Rioja.) Wait, did that character just drink wine while eating a tomato? Are you serious, Shana?! They didn’t have tomatoes in the Old World! Bad Shana. Go sit in the corner.

Stuff like that. But it’s a lot of fun, too. I’m a history nerd. I complain, but I love this stuff.

4) What was your favorite part of writing it?

You know that moment when you write something and you realize your unconscious mind has come up with something very smart and very true that your conscious mind never would have thought up in a million years? That’s a good moment.

I also love my characters. Is that wrong to say? You can thank my subconscious for them, too. A writer can spend days, weeks, months mapping out a character with a pencil and paper, but ultimately the character speaks for him or herself. They develop their own voices and refuse to follow outlines. It’s fun waiting to see what they do next.

And, of course, our bonus question: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?

Write human beings. I’m a debut writer, so I wouldn’t characterize myself as an expert on the subject, but this seems to be the keystone to this whole writing diversity thing. While people from different backgrounds are of course different, all humans have, or at some point had, hopes and dreams, talents, flaws, relationships, biases, goals, and feelings (even if they don’t admit it). I also have a theory that 95% of the world’s grandmothers want their grandchildren to get married and eat more.

To write differences effectively:

  • Research.
  • Listen.
  • Get advice from people who know what they’re talking about.
  • Know the stereotypes.
  • Steal character traits from people you know so you’re less likely to write a cliché.
  • Pay attention to privilege and power dynamics.
  • To avoid tokenism try to include more than one member of the minority group you’re writing about.
  • Be very careful when using dialect so you don’t sound like this: http://www.theonion.com/articles/ask-an-elderly-black-woman-as-depicted-by-a-sophom,29855/
  • If (when) you write something offensive, apologize and vow to be better.
  • And the hardest one: Write with confidence but be humble, because you don’t know everything.

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