Heidi Durrow's compelling debut novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, began as a seed of an idea she found in a newspaper article about a girl whose family died in a tragedy that she survived. Durrow became obsessed with imagining this girl's life, and in the process started thinking more about her own bi-racial upbringing. Here's more from Durrow, a former attorney, greeting card writer, and the winner of the prestigious Barbara Kingsolver Bellwether Prize for Fiction:
Jennifer Haupt: As the daughter of an African-American father and caucasian Danish mother, did you experience much prejudice growing up? Curiosity?
Heidi Durrow: Honestly, until I was 11 and living in the United States, I don't think I knew what race was. Of course, I knew that my dad was black and my mom was white, but that didn't have any necessary meaning to me. They were still my mom and dad. It wasn't until I moved to Portland, Oregon at age 11 that I started to think about the fact that I was from a mixed family. People (kids) thought I looked curious-I talked funny. The other kids couldn't understand why I didn't know anything about being "black."
JH: How did your multi-racial background influence you as a writer?
HD: I write to try to understand my experiences and the world better. I go into my writing with lots of questions and somehow try to work them out through story. I wrote The Girl Who Fell From the Sky in an effort to understand my experience growing up biracial and bicultural in a society that refused to acknowledge the duality of my identity.
JH: You've been a journalist, an attorney, and a Hallmark greeting card writer. How did all of that fuse into being a novelist?
HD: I was always looking for a way to write but still have a paycheck! I grew up poor and really wanted to be sure that I would be financially safe and stable. It's a dream come true to be able to write full-time now and actually make a living!
JH: The way that The Girl Who Fell From the Sky came together as a novel-combining your personal story, a news story, and your wonderful imagination-is fascinating. Tell me about that process.
HD: I started writing this book some 12 years ago after I read a newspaper story about a family that died in a tragedy but the girl survived. I became obsessed with the girl. What would her future look like?
When I sat down to write her story I realized that what would give the book its heart was not getting the facts right, but by exploring the reasons I was so taken with her story. I realized that her story felt somehow like it had something to do with my own-and by that I mean, no I didn't survive a tragic accident and lose my family, but in many ways, I felt like society's view of me "divorced" me from my family because I had to pick one race (and not the completeness of my identity).
JH: You're very involved in the annual Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival. How did that come about and what is your role in it?
HD: I am the co-founder and co-producer of the Festival along with my friend, Fanshen Cox. We started the Festival in 2008 because we were frustrated artists-the gatekeepers kept telling us that no one could relate to our stories about the Mixed experience (mixed identity, mixed families, mixed relationships)-that there was no market for our stories. So we decided to become the gatekeepers. We knew others who were interested in these stories and thought we'd create a forum for them.
Originally, it was supposed to be a small intimate event held in our living rooms. But then the Japanese American National Museum stepped in as a sponsor and we suddenly had this beautiful state-of-the-art space. Last year's Festival was the largest to date. We had 1000 people come through on the first day and President Obama's sister Maya Soetoro-Ng who is a scholar and children's book writer as our headliner. This year's Festival scheduled for June 11-12, 2011 is on target to be even bigger.
HD: Loving Day is the wonderful brainchild of Ken Tanabe, who wanted to bring awareness to the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision and to mixed families. We hold the Festival around that date and host the largest West Coast celebration of Loving Day with a reception and this year also a live show.
JH: How do you balance the creative process of developing new work and promoting The Girl Who Fell From the Sky?
HD: Writing is such a different animal than promoting. I find it difficult to do both at the same time-one is quiet, private, contemplative-the other part is frenzied, fast, razzmatazz. I enjoy both parts of the process. I love meeting and connecting with readers, and I also love sitting at my desk figuring out what the next word should be.
JH: What's the one true thing you learned while writing this novel?
HD: I learned a lot about my young self. Not that the book is my true story, but the book is about my true struggles. I went back and read through my old diaries from when I was my character's age. I was surprised by how much in denial I was about my struggles. I created a fictional me in my diary if you can believe it. I think that's what I learned: that we're not always prepared to be honest about our hurts and difficulties, but that through writing ultimately and eventually we can be and in the process maybe even help others.
Heidi Durrow is the New York Times best-selling writer of The Girl Who FellFrom the Sky (Algonquin Books). She is a graduate of Stanford University,Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, and Yale Law School. Durrow is an occasional contributor to National Public Radio and is the co-producer of the Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival.