INTERVIEW WITH AN AUTHOR: Emily Colin talks about her love of the South and craft of being a writer by Janet Oliver, LOL contributor
“The Dream Keeper’s Daughter” by Emily Colin debuted in July and has received nothing but accolades and praises since hitting the shelves. Ms. Colin was kind enough to answer a few questions for LOL readers about her novel and craft as a writer.
Livin Out Loud (LOL): Tell us how you came from Brooklyn to Wilmington.
Emily Colin (EC): I grew up in Brooklyn, and got very tired of being cold. I was a violinist, and had multiple musical commitments before my high-school classes started in the morning. My school was in Manhattan, an hour away, and so I had to get up early to catch the subway. I often didn’t have time to dry my hair before I left, and so sections of it would freeze solid. I can still remember the clinking sound they made when they banged against my face as I ran for the train. Every day, I wondered if it was possible for frozen strands of hair to break in half before they had a chance to thaw. That sort of thing will drive a girl to warmer climes.
I finished high school in New Zealand and my college acceptances came in while I was living there. I chose Duke University, sight unseen, never having set foot in North Carolina. Of all the places I was accepted, it was located in the state least likely to give me frostbite.
After I graduated, I worked for a professor who was launching her own small publishing company. Her primary investor founded a nonprofit publisher company of his own, Coastal Carolina Press, here in Wilmington. I moved here to help him get it off the ground. That was in 1999, and I’ve been here ever since.
LOL: You released a new book in July, “The Dream Keeper’s Daughter.” Can you tell our readers a little about it?
EC: “The Dream Keeper’s Daughter” combines love, rebellion, time travel and betrayal, to tell the story of Isabel Griffin, a woman who has done her best to move on since her boyfriend, Max Adair, vanished without a trace eight years before, leaving her heartbroken—and pregnant.
Isabel works hard to become a respected archaeologist and a loving mother to her daughter, Finn—a little girl with very unusual abilities. While Isabel is on a dig in Barbados, she receives a disturbing phone call. The hauntingly familiar voice on the other end speaks just four words—“Isabel. Keep her safe.”—before they’re disconnected. Isabel tries to convince herself the caller can’t possibly be Max. But what if it is, and Finn is in danger?
The book is set partially in modern-day Charleston and in 1816 Barbados, during the country’s historic slave rebellion. To write it, I had to do a tremendous amount of research on early 19th century Barbados life, as well as on the country’s history and the rebellion itself. It was very important for my representation of these details be as accurate as possible, so I traveled to Barbados—not exactly a hardship! I spent many hours in libraries, looking at 1816 newspapers on microfiche and reading primary historical sources. I drove around the island, visiting former plantations and abbeys, absorbing the ambiance, and speaking with librarians, tour guides, historians, and whomever was willing to chat—you never know when you’ll pick up an interesting tidbit of information! Back home, I read journal articles and books, wrote to scholars, and assembled a file cross-referenced by subject: Medicinal plants, dancing, music, religion, dialect, laws, military history, the slave trade. It took me a long time to write the sections of the book set in 1816 Barbados because I cared so much about getting them right. In the end, I was confident I’d done the best I could.
LOL: Is this genre one you have always been interested in writing?
EC: “The Dream Keeper’s Daughter” is written in a similar genre as my first novel, “The Memory Thief”: Both incorporate powerful love stories and a supernatural element. The supernatural aspects of the story are, in many ways, the most fun to write. The rules that govern the world we experience every day no longer apply, so I can be inventive, build on collective superstitions (such as the existence of ghosts) or other cultures’ folklore in order to create my storyline.
For instance, the time travel device I chose to utilize is a Thin Place—an ancient Scottish myth about a place where the “veil” between the living and the dead is thin. I figured that if it worked for communicating with the departed, then why not take it an extra step and actually go back in time?
LOL: How do you choose your characters and storyline?
EC: I shape my characters based on qualities I find intriguing, alluring or even repulsive in some way—as long as they evoke strong feelings. The inspiration for “The Memory Thief” came from a book I randomly grabbed off the shelf of my local library. It was a memoir by the widow of a mountaineer who had lost his life to the mountain. I started wondering: What kind of person is driven to risk their lives, climbing peaks that require supplemental oxygen, traversing dangerous crevasses, depending on shaky handholds and at the mercy of capricious weather?
Then I thought: What must it be like to love someone who lives that way, who risks their lives each time they go up on a mountain, simply because they’re that passionate about bagging a peak? That was the seed of my story.
For “The Dream Keeper’s Daughter,” the first image I had was of a woman running through the woods, screaming a man’s name as he ran from her, crashing through brush. I knew she never caught up to him—that he disappeared. I knew she loved him, and she was pregnant with his child. I knew this wasn’t the first person she’d lost; her mother had vanished years before, so this man was all she had. That was the beginning of the story.
The next step was to figure out where the man had gone . . . and once I figured out he’d traveled back in time, to the eve of the Barbados 1816 slave rebellion—a rebellion that held particular significance for his family—I was off and running.
My characters are people to whom I feel an intense emotional connection; otherwise I wouldn’t be able to spend so much time with them! Sometimes I love them. Sometimes I hate them. Sometimes I feel sorry for them. But, always, I care deeply for them. That’s what keeps me going.
LOL: What audience do you write for?
EC: When I’m writing, I don’t think about an audience, imaginary or otherwise. If I did, I imagine I’d be stymied, feeling the weight of a thousand eyes and too pressured to type a single word. Instead, I think about the story: Is the conflict strong enough? Is the world-building believable? Will people care about the characters? I write the best story I can, a story I’d like to read. After all, if I’m not passionate about it, no one else will be either. Then I give it to my editor, and let her work her magic.
LOL: What do you see in your future for writing projects?
EC: I’ve written a young adult novel I’m in the process of revising, so that’s high up on my list. I’m working on my third adult novel. Set in Iceland and Minnesota, it’s the story of a wolf behavioral specialist, love gone wrong, secrets kept, and ancient Icelandic legends.
LOL: Do you now consider yourself a Carolina Girl since living in Wilmington?
EC: Hmmm—what constitutes a ‘Carolina Girl’? I don’t drink sweet tea and I have only a passing enthusiasm for barbecue. But I do love so many things about this state: the abandoned, crumbling barns huddled in fields alongside country roads, and the drape of Spanish moss over gnarled branches of giant oaks; the briny taste of a basket of fresh-caught shrimp as the sun sinks into the Intracoastal; the crisp, tart bite of the first fall mountain apple. I love the blaze of autumn leaves along the Blue Ridge; the reclamation of Durham’s empty tobacco warehouses; the unrelenting hum of cicadas at twilight; the sun glinting silver off a pod of leaping dolphins; and the unexpected majesty of the wild horses of Shackelford Banks.
My heart, I feel, is evenly divided between Brooklyn and the Tarheel State—and that’s just fine with me.
Redares can pick up a copy of Ms. Colin’s books at local bookstores or check out from any branch of the local library. LOL
Janet Oliver is a retired librarian for NHC Public Library. Follow her on Twitter: @LovelyThingsNC