Edwidge Danticat On Being Prolific, Her Influences, And Her Advice to Debut Novelists

edwidge danticatName: Edwidge Danticat
Author’s Website
Hometown: Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Current Residence: Miami
Education: Bachelor’s Degree in French Literature from Barnard
Briefly: Author of Breath, Eyes, Memory, Krik? Krak! The Dewbreaker, The Farming of Bones, Brother, I Am Dying (a memoir), the YA novel Anacaona: Golden Flower and Claire of the Sea Light. Taught at the University of Miami. National Book Award nominee for Krik? Krak! and National Book Critics Circle Award for Brother, I Am Dying.

Are you grateful that you have a name like Edwidge Danticat, that’s so unique, and that you share with no one else?

I have never really thought about it because I know so many people with unique names, which are not unique to them at all. After all it’s just your name right? I suppose I am grateful for my name. People have told me that it’s a good writer’s name. I am grateful that I didn’t have to make it up. That my parents actually thought of it. When I was younger I used to tell all my friends that my writer’s pseudonym would be Edie Rose Dante, Edie for my college nickname, Rose for my mother’s first name and Dante, well for Dante as in The Inferno Dante, and the fact that I used to think of Dante as a shorter version of my last name.

In the world of book marketing, having a first and last name that’s common can sometimes work against an author in terms of findability and first name search results yield.

Yes, I guess if you Google my name you will pretty much only find me. I feel like a kindred spirit of the actor Benedict Cumberbatch. He too has that kind of name.

When you have a manuscript that needs cutting…how do you decide what to leave in and what to take out?

I follow my instincts. I read the whole thing out loud into a tape recorder then I listen to it and if I start getting bored with certain parts as I read or listen to them then I cut them out. I tend to take a lot out as I go along. I like plot. I like direct. I write long drafts then I edit for directness and clarity.

In the comic book world, sometimes villains and heroes are combined in one special issue. If you could bring together some of the characters in your fictional books in one book, who would you assemble, and under what premise?

That’s a good one. I think I would introduce some of my fictional characters to actual people I’ve written about. So I’d have my photographer friend Daniel Morel photograph the torturer from The Dew Breaker. And I would have Martine from Breath, Eyes, Memory and the fisherman, Nozias, from my latest book, Claire of the Sea Light, fall madly in love after Nozias loses his wife.

How do you go about selecting the themes for the characters in your novels?

I don’t think in terms of themes when it comes to characters. I think of them as real people. Some people reveal themselves to you right away. Others take a longer time. So I try to be patient with my characters. Sometimes I have to write several drafts of a story or of a chapter in order to get to know them better and present them to the reader in a fuller way.

edwidge danticat book cover

Was Claire of the Sea Light the most fun-to-write book ever for you?

It was and it wasn’t. All my books have moments when they make me so happy and other moments when they make me so sad while I am writing them. It all depends on where I am in the book. Claire was fun structurally to write. I don’t think I want to ever write a book like that again though. I am writing a book now that I am enjoying very much. It’s a young adult book and I am loving every minute of it though the subject matter it covers is not a happy one.

You’ve been called upon to edit a great many anthologies...

I have given myself that task. I actually really love it. I feel like I am creating a community on paper with other writers. Besides, the other writers have already done all the hard work. I’m just hosting the party.

What’s your advice to debut novelists on what to expect?

Expect a wild ride. Emotionally. But also with having your work out there in the world. You feel really exposed sometimes whether you are writing a blog, an article, or publishing a book. Surprise, not every body will like your work. Some people will really hate you. Sometimes that’s hard to take because you think of yourself as a decent person and there are times when you can inspire real hatred in other people for reasons that may not be fully clear to you. But all you can do is your work. That is the only thing you can control. Keep your head down and work hard at whatever your do. The most important thing is the work. I can’t stress that enough. The work. The work. The work. Not glory or fame, which may not last, but the work itself.

Do you think that the books you read growing up had a bearing on your writing style?

I feel like I have been mentored by every writer I have ever read and loved and asked myself, how did he or she do that. I am always trying to inspire the same kind of feeling in the people who might be reading me. I feel like it’s the least I can do to repay the writers I have read and loved growing up.

In terms of aspiring writers and novelists-in-progress, do you have any tips to offer regarding the writing process?

Keep at it. It’s not always going to be easy. If it feels like it’s crumbling, don’t trash the whole thing. Put it away for a while and go live your life. The same goes for writer’s block. Put some time and space and life between you and the work and then go back refreshed with new experiences and new love. That is unless you’re on a crazy deadline then do the best you can. You can always go back and rewrite.

Do you ever entertain the idea of writing a book series?

I have. But Harry Potter is taken. Just kidding. I think one day I might, for young adults.

When you sit down to write a new novel, do you write with literary critics in mind or with readers? Or is it both?

I try to write with just the characters in mind. And the story. I can’t really predict or control what anyone else is going to think or say. All I have any control over, to some extent, is my story and my characters.

You’re one of the most prolific voices in the world of literary fiction. Do you ever think of taking a sabbatical from writing?

I don’t hold a candle to someone like Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King or Water Mosley in terms of productivity. But I still can’t imagine taking a sabbatical. Writing is one of the few jobs from which very few people retire. And even when they say they retire, it seems like they’re still doing writing-related work. Writing is like breathing to me. I would become a very miserable person if I weren’t writing. Even if I stopped being published I would have to keep writing in order to function in any kind of normal and civil way in the world.

Are you working on something new for your fans at the moment?

My young adult novel mentioned above. It’s about twin sisters. I am about half way through. There’s more to it than that of course, but I feel like if I talk too much about it, it will slip away.

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