Deirdre: The setting of the American South seems very fitting for the subject matter, with its blend of religion and superstition, and its mix of cultures and backgrounds. What made you choose the time period of the 1950s?
Rita: The fifties were a time of innocence that bridged the gap between the horror of the Holocaust in the forties and the cultural upheaval of the sixties. Bonaventure Arrow represents an innocence that bridged the gap between a past full of pain and a future full of possibility.
Deirdre: The voice of the third person narrator is very distinctive. It seems to speak to us from the past, with a lyrical poetry. Was that something you had to develop consciously, or did it come to you as you were writing the story?
Rita: It came as I was writing. The American South is very much a cradle of gentility. That, along with the nature of the story itself, put me in a lyrical frame of mind. I believe it is voice more than anything that drives a story. I also think that we’re more easily enchanted when dealing with the past, and enchantment speaks in a lyrical voice.
Deirdre: In some ways Bonaventure resembles any child who grew up with violence and family secrets. His gift could be seen as a metaphor for the sensitivity that such children develop to the feelings and hidden motives of the important adults around them. Was that an idea you were thinking about as you wrote?
Rita: Most definitely. Children are so sensitive, yet often are helpless in dealing with what’s going on around them. Bonaventure is extraordinarily sensitive, even from within the womb he reacts to what’s going on:
When Bonaventure heard their harmonized breathing he would close his fingers and make a little fist, and it wasn’t but a minute until he was sucking his thumb, which always brought him comfort. The memory of their singing flowed from his ears to his knees and down to his feet, where it caused him to wiggle his toes in his sleep. (p.25)
But just as he’s sensitive to joy, he’s also sensitive to anguish:
Alarm hammered its way into Dancy’s womb and terrorized Bonaventure; he did not recognize the sound of shattering frenzy. His mother’s screams took the form of an enraged demon that squeezed his chest and banged on his head. He sucked his thumb in full-blown panic. He pulled on his ears. He struggled to breathe. (p.35)
Perhaps the character that best exemplifies his sensitivity to hidden motives is Grandma Roman:
The voice of Adelaide Roman came around sometimes, although only once in a while. Whenever unborn Bonaventure heard it, he would climb up behind his mother’s ribs and form himself into a tight little ball, because Adelaide’s voice was sharp and scraping. Sometimes its sound waves beat viciously on his eardrums, nearly shattering his tiny hammer and anvil bones. These instances provided first evidence that the gift of peculiar hearing could sometimes be unkind. (p.55)
Deirdre: At the centre of the story is a dialectic between the idea of fate and free will, with Bonaventure, William and Trinidad as agents of a higher power, and The Wanderer, Letice, Dancy and Adelaide demonstrating the significance of personal decisions. Do you see one as more important than the other, or are both always at work in our lives?
Rita: I think some people consider fate in terms of the supernatural; something along the lines of astrology, while others consider it the will of God and believe he has his reasons. Undoubtedly, having free will is part of the human conditin, while being open to a higher power is to transcend being human. Sometimes we try to circumvent “fate” with things like Tarot cards or voodoo curses or superstitious practices. That’s human nature. When writing about human nature, it’s impossible not to bring in elements of both fate and free will.
In this story, Bonaventure, William and Trinidad are observers of others. Conversely, The Wanderer, Letice, Dancy and Adelaide are caught up in their own emotions and perceptions. For instance, The Wanderer is obsessed with vengeance, Dancy and Letice with personal grief and self-imposed guilt, and Adelaide with equal measures of entitlement and resentment. Each of them is living out an irony: The Wanderer, a man committed to an itinerant life returns home, Dancy lives with “a promise made of chains”, Letice begs God for forgiveness yet never accepts it, and Adelaide praises God at the top of her lungs and then meets her married preacher at a hotel on Sunday afternoons. I would even say that irony is what keeps William from accepting heaven—he confuses love with hanging on; if he loved Dancy he would let her go.
Deirdre: Bonaventure’s “silence” really is at the heart of the novel, and the major events of the book centre on the people around him, especially the female characters. Was it important to you to tell the story of women’s lives at that time?
Rita: First of all, I’m thrilled that you’ve zeroed in on the fact that the book is not about Bonaventure Arrow so much as it is about his silence (hence, its place in the title).
As for the women, they were the ideal vehicle to portray a time and place in which females were confined to certain roles (very 1950s). Even the controlling Emmaline Molyneaux was a servant to societal expectations. Some of the women in the story use sinister means to overcome the culture they’ve been born into: Suville Jean-Baptiste (one of my favorite characters to write because of her complexity), Consette, and Calypso seize upon the powers of poison and superstition to take some control of their own lives. Others embrace suffering—Dancy and Letice wage constant battle with their own emotions. Dancy resigns herself to lifelong widowhood and Letice takes responsibility for an act that was not her fault. Adelaide Roman is foil to the very proper, very devout Letice and has absolutely no conscience at all. Adelaide doesn’t so much represent womankind as she represents ignorance.
Deirdre: Although a mystery is solved at the end of the book, some important things are left open! (I don’t want to give anything away!) Did you have the ending in mind when you started the novel?
Rita: I like to write an ending and catch up to it. Here’s an interesting bit of information: In the original version, Letice never opened the envelope at the end. Part of me still kind of wishes I’d left it that way.
A lot of people have asked if I’ll write a sequel. I hadn’t thought about it, but I suppose there was enough left open to do that.
Deirdre: Did you have a reader in mind as you were writing?
Rita: I saw the reader as someone who would take the time to get lost in another world, and definitely as someone who would suspend disbelief.
Deirdre: Do you have any writing routines?
Rita: First, I decide on voice and setting and then do character sketches. Once I’ve made those determinations, I write an outline with pen and paper. After that I compose at the computer. A scene usually pops into my head and I work on that. More often than not, it won’t be the opening of the story. As a matter of fact, the first chapter of THE SILENCE OF BONAVENTURE ARROW was one of the last scenes I wrote. The very first scenes were the one in the kitchen with the Blue Bottle fly and the one when Adelaide takes Bonaventure to Bixie’s for lunch.
I consider myself a disciplined person. I put in a full work day at my craft. If I’m not writing, I’m reading.
Deirdre: Ideas for your next book?
Rita: I have three going right now: one takes place in the 1930s, one in the early 1960s, and one in the present day. Lately, elements from each one have started to blend together in my head. It can get pretty crazy.