Presenter of the National Book Awards

2010 National Book Award Finalist,
Young People's Literature

Laura McNeal


Dark Water

Alfred A. Knopf


Interview by Eisa Ulen


Eisa Ulen: Your female protagonist, Pearl, begins to express an interest in the lives of the men and boys she sees in her community who seek work as day-laborers. Do you identify with this aspect of your character’s personality? Why was it important for you to include the experiences of a young migrant worker in Dark Water?

Laura McNeal:For years and years, I've watched migrant workers ride their bicycles up steep hills to work in avocado groves, yards, or plant nurseries. I've seen them on our street going grove to grove, locked gate to locked gate, pushing the call buttons to ask, “Any work for me?” I've driven past the corners where they wait to be hired, hour after hour. I've seen how they swarm cars that pull over, and I have been inside one of those cars. About 14 years ago, I was led by a friend into a migrant camp that was completely invisible from a major street in Fallbrook, in a thick stand of trees 200 yards from a school. My friend told the men living there that I was a journalist who had come to help them. If they talked to me, he said in Spanish, their lives would get better. I have always felt this was a promise I didn't keep; the article ran in a newspaper, but what did it change for them? I'm still trying to make good on my word.

EU: While Dark Water is set in Fallbrook, California, New York also has a significant immigrant population. Recent bias attacks against people who “look Mexican” seemed to raise an awareness of the lives of immigrant workers, but then that attention disappeared. Why do you think the people who work all around us, people that Americans see every day, are still so invisible?

LM: In my experience, undocumented workers prefer to be invisible. It is by remaining invisible that they earn enough money to survive and to help their families. When things get bad economically, though, it’s a sad fact that people look around for someone to blame. It’s easier to fear, dislike, and blame groups of people who are unfamiliar or unknown. That’s why writing about Amiel, trying to make him particular and comprehensible and, I hope, sympathetic, was so important to me.

EU: Pearl’s eyes are two different colors, a trait called heterochromia. With his damaged vocal chords, Pearl’s friend Amiel is nearly mute. What would you want your readers to consider when thinking about these physical characteristics, which make your characters seen and heard differently by others?

LM:Amiel's muteness is both literal and figurative. Pearl has a voice, a car, a phone, legal rights, a house, and a family that wants to protect her. Amiel has almost no voice, but he knows how to survive. His strength is in what he can do, not what he can say.

As for Pearl's eyes, the heterochromia seemed like a way to show her ambivalence. She wants to cross the line into another world and see what it's like there, but she can never completely belong. She will always be both, not one or the other.


EU: You and your husband have written four books together. What is the process of writing a book together like for you? How do you manage to work together and live together?

LM: Each of the books we wrote together was, for us, an unexpected form of courtship. Tom's younger self, made fictional, courted a form of my younger self. It was a strange, writerly form of romance that I wouldn't trade for anything.

Our respect for each other's writing probably helps us to compromise on things like vacations (he likes beaches and I like brooding rainy countries) and the exact level of neatness that should be maintained in a glove compartment. If he's a little too disturbed by car clutter, well, at least he can write the best dialogue I've ever read.

EU: The 2007 wildfires that swept through San Diego County had a profound impact on you, your family, and your neighbors. If you had to choose one thing that this experience taught you and share it with young readers, what would it be?

LM: The question people most often asked each other after the fire was, "What did you save?" It was illuminating to hear what people wouldn't leave without—photographs, clothes, paintings, llamas. But we had a neighbor who was a few days from giving birth, and despite her understandable panic about which hospitals might be reachable during the fire, she and her family took with them the man across the street who suffers from schizophrenia. She didn't just ask what, but who.

Eisa Nefertari Ulen is the author of Crystelle Mourning, a novel described by The Washington Post as “a call for healing in the African American community from generations of hurt and neglect.” She is the recipient of a Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center Fellowship for Young African American Fiction Writers and a Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship. Her essays, exploring topics ranging from Hip Hop to Muslim life in America post-9/11 to contemporary Black literature to the gap between the Civil Rights generation and Generation X, have been widely anthologized. Nominated by Essence magazine for a National Association of Black Journalists Award, she has contributed to numerous other publications, including The Washington Post, Ms., Health, Heart & Soul, Vibe, The Source, The Crisis, Black Issues Book Review, Quarterly Black Review of Books, TheRoot.com, TheDefendersOnline.com, TheGrio.com, and CreativeNonfiction.org. Ulen graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and earned a master’s degree from Columbia University. A founding member of Ringshout: A Place for Black Literature, she lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn. You can reach Eisa online and read her blog at: www.EisaUlen.com.