2011 National Book Award Finalist,
Young People's Literature
Dial Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Interview by Eisa Nefertari Ulen
Eisa Nefertari Ulen: Because your novel is set in the early 1900s, your characters reference great innovations of the early 20th century, like the motorcar, moving pictures, and the work of Sigmund Freud. On page 340, Briony says,
“I hate myself? Is that what he says? I can only guess at his feelings. I know what Dr. Freud would guess, but he’d be wrong.”
One gets the sense that the sharp, witty Briony might be speaking more generally about the work of Freud, perhaps with regard to women and madness. Were you making a larger statement about women with these lines?
Franny Billingsley: It never occurred to me. Briony’s observation about Freud is an echo of the lens through which she, for much of the novel, chooses to view the unconscious: She doesn’t believe in it—she doesn’t want to believe in it—partly because she’s convinced that she herself has no hidden subterranean thoughts or feelings. As she says in Chapter 14,
“You’re the girl with nothing below the surface. Scratch it and what do you find? More surface.”
“But do you really think I’m upset because of something that happened here months ago? Have you been reading Dr. Freud? Don’t tell me you believe in psychology!”
“Tiddy Rex sat beside me on the step; he slipped his hand into mine. ‘I’ll bide with you, miss. Happen you got one o’ them migraines?’
Oh, Tiddy Rex! If I were fond of children, I’d kiss that red-radish cheek of his.
‘Just a headache, Tiddy Rex.’ One has to believe in psychology to have migraines.’
Briony’s scorn for psychology is one of her defense mechanisms—if the unconscious doesn’t exist, then she (the “surface” girl) isn’t quite as set apart from the rest of humanity as she fears she might be. So much of the Freud thread (aside from defining setting and whatnot) is by way of teasing Briony’s unconscious fears to the surface and letting the reader, perhaps, know more about her than she does herself.
ENU: Though the spirit realm is rendered as a fearsome space full of evil to be battled with Bible Balls when your novel begins, it soon enough becomes clear that many of the Old Ones, as they’re called in Chime, are in fact benevolent, good, even in need of healing. In “Word Magic” Briony thinks to herself:
“I look about the Flats, I try to imagine it. Men will dig up the ancient trees…They’ll drain the swamp into a scab. The Old Ones will have nowhere to live. And if that doesn’t kill them, industry will. The factories and hospitals and shipyards that are sure to come…
And when the bog-holes are puckered shut, where will the Boggy Mun go? Will he go to the sea? And if he does, what then?
Is the sea too big to drain? Probably not. Look what mankind can create… we humans are inventing such astonishing things. I shouldn’t be surprised if, in time, we’ll be able to drain the sea.
And what of the Old Ones?
Only the stories will remain.”
Is this concern for the environment tied to concern for powerful women like Briony and the Chime Child, women who, like Briony, were tried and often hanged because they were so powerful? Is Chime one story that remains a record, though fictional, of a past where women were connected to Earth and Spirit, and a cautionary tale to prevent a future where even the oceans are drained?
FB: Yes, Chime is indeed a record for future generations, but it’s not about the connection of women to Earth and Spirit. It was, again, created for Briony’s needs, for her needs as a character, moving through her story. There are two strands to this, one is what I’d call Briony’s inner story, the other her outer story. Her outer story has to do with saving the swamp, and although it’s true that she loves the swamp, it has nothing to do with environmental issues—she saves the swamp in order to save her sister. Saving the swamp gives Briony something to do, it gives her an obsession (often very helpful for narrative energy), it gives her obstacles. It’s environmentally friendly, sure, but the real purpose is that it moves the story forward as she pursues her goal. It’s interesting that the bit you extracted is from the chapter called “Word Magic,” because much of Briony’s inner story has to do with re-discovering herself as a writer, a storyteller, and when she tells her own story—the result of which is Chime—Briony begins to re-connect with her artistic self. She begins to remember and understand the power—the magic—of words. I never thought about the fate of powerful women in history or fiction. I do think that Chime will exist as a cautionary tale for future generations, but from Briony’s point of view as a storyteller, her stories of the Old Ones will be among the stories that remain, preserving at least our memory of the wonders—the magic—that existed before we humans grew sophisticated enough to drain the sea.
ENU: Briony lies in a tradition of young female characters whose mothers and/or stepmothers are conveniently absent. Typically, these characters have their fathers all to themselves, are free of conventional parental control, and in this liberated state embark on exciting adventures. Strong female protagonists that have endured through the generations like Nancy Drew come to mind. But Briony’s relationship with her father is complex, a thing to be worked out as the novel unfolds. Her relationship with her dead stepmother, whom she believes she’s killed, is even more complicated. Is this motherlessness, and near parentlessness, important for us to understand your post-adolescent female protagonist, who in “A Crown for the Steam Age” says she “used to imagine myself into a wolfgirl and prowl and lope and sniff and howl” in the swamp every day?
FB: It is perhaps true that the absence of Briony’s mother allowed Briony to prowl and lope in the swamp when she was younger. But when Briony was thirteen, along came the stepmother and made Briony believe that she mustn’t ever go into the swamp again. The stepmother later died but this belief lived on. The stepmother effectively tamped down everything that was free and wild and instinctive in Briony—made her believe it was wrong. And so, although I had to get the stepmother out of the way to allow Briony to reenter the swamp (where the adventures take place), it is really Eldric, I think, who helps Briony get past that belief. Eldric, putatively the “bad boy” but really the most playful and least masked of any of the characters, is the one who can encourage Briony to strip off her own mask, encourage her to play and howl and laugh and enter the swamp once again.
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.