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Sibella Giorello Interview

by C.J. Darlington

"Writing is like farm work. Solitary, demanding, and you don't do it for the money."
-- Sibella Giorello


Sibella Giorello was a features reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch for ten years. Her work has been awarded for excellence repeatedly and she's been nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize. Giorello received her degree in geology from Mount Holyoke College. Her first novel, The Stones Cry Out, won the Christy Award for best First Novel. Her third novel The Clouds Roll away came out in early 2010.


Sibella, were books a big part of your life growing up? If so, what books would you say influenced you most as a child?


Like most readers my books got entwined with my real childhood memories. "Harriet the Spy" meshes with the cement schoolyard in downtown San Francisco where I read it. "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" seems like it took place in the hovel-like house where we lived. The Lloyd Alexander books, Madeleine L'Engle -- I loved those stories that transported yet somehow made you feel even more rooted to where you sat. The sign of a really good story: instead of separating reality, a good book helps you see things more clearly.

How much of an impact did your grandmothers have on your desire to write? I hear they had some interesting stories to tell you as a child . . . :)

Yes, very interesting stories. Both pioneers in Alaska long before statehood, my grandmothers waited through nine boy grandchildren before they finally got a granddaughter. At that point, they poured every pent-up story into me. Wonderful and shocking stories -- kidnappings, betrayals, lost loves, abandonments. I loved every minute of listening.

You’re the type of writer who works best from an outline. How much do you need to know about a story before you begin to write, and how much did you know about The Clouds Roll Away when you started chapter one?

How did this rumor get started-- did I start it? Well, I take it back. I now despise outlines. Much more fun to set out for uncharted lands. Or mostly uncharted.

With The Clouds Roll Away, I took some well-intentioned advice to "grow up" and be a "real writer." I spent weeks completing a detailed outline. But when I sat down to write, I no longer cared what happened. The story turned into a yawn.

So I tossed the outline, prayed for a fresh start, and re-told the story about these strange people strolling around my brain. My editors are saints.

To start writing, all I need to know is this: the characters, the beginning, and the ending. That's it. Those work like compass points that navigate to the final destination. However, the ending always gives me the vapors. Some personal flaw, I decided, until I read a Dick Francis interview where he said it happened to him with every book.

It's pathetic how much validation I can take from another writer's misery.

The Clouds Roll Away by Sibella GiorelloIs research a joy to you or a chore? Why or why not?

Research is more fun than Disneyland, two days at the spa, and full ownership of a chocolate factory -- combined. The writing life doesn't get better than when you have permission to read widely, interview intriguing people, and dream about the book to come. That is heaven on earth.

Unfortunately, it comes to an end -- and a pretty ugly one at that. You must start writing. At that point, it's obvious that what you can write isn't in the same zip code as that lyrical vision blithely dancing through your imagination.

What you're writing stinks.

Usually, the story gets better with each draft. But that's why writing requires courage -- more than talent. When normal people realize that "dream book" can't be reproduced on the page, they quit. Writers keep going.

An Irish proverb hangs above my computer: "You'll never plough a field by turning it over in your mind."

We head back with your character Raleigh Harmon to Richmond for this story, and the racial tension is still prevalent. I didn’t realize how much race still played a part in some areas of the south. Did that surprise you at all when you first moved there?

Race still plays a part in the South -- and everywhere in America -- but it's more obvious in places where the demographics aren't homogenous.

When I moved to Richmond, a naive girl from Alaska, I was surprised by "reverse racism." I dislike that term because it's all racism, period. But my first Friday as a reporter, I walked downtown to the bank to deposit my check. When I got to the front of the line, the tellers kept calling forward anyone who was standing behind me. It took me several minutes to realize what was happening. All the other customers were black, and so were the tellers. And nobody batted an eye as I stood there, apparently some blonde blue-eyed monster. When all the black customers were done, I got called to the counter.

During the next fourteen years I spent in the South, I had similar experiences. It was interesting, and somewhat painful, since discrimination makes you feel less than human. But I was intrigued with the idea that people who were once oppressed would turn around and become oppressors. Once, I interviewed a Richmond city councilman, an avowed black supremacist. My first question to him was, "Why do you hate white people?" He didn't deny the question. He just stared at me for a very long time, then said, "You're the first white person to ask me." We ended up having a very honest -- and fun -- discussion over the next several days, as I followed him around his inner cityThe Stones Cry Out by Sibella Giorello district.

My time in the South was also blessed with fantastic black churches, and good friends who grew up in the South, black and white. But the oppressed-as-oppressors idea pulled, partly because an entire industry profited from it -- all the race charlatans like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. I mean, people actually listen to these clowns as if they have something worthwhile to contribute. Al Sharpton? Doesn't anyone remember Tawana Brawley? If not, Google it.

When I left Richmond, I didn't feel so naive, and the words of Solzhenitsyn rang in my ears. "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being."

And I wrote The Clouds Roll Away hoping to explore the South's many layers. It's a complicated place. Good and evil and racism -- the stuff inside every human being, including myself.

I love how your books take us to unusual places often not featured in fiction. In the case of Clouds it’s inside the home and career of a rap musician. And you don’t even like rap music? Could you share how you came to make it integral to your plot?

I can listen to Toby Mac's Rap, which my kids like, but my ear craves melody.

And Urban Rap has powerful undercurrents of "hate the white man." I had no idea how that music would fit into the story, but fortunately one of the Rap characters sauntered onto the page and gave me the finger. Then, I had a story.

Your books often share life’s bleak realities, but I’ve never felt like I was dragged through the gutter after reading your stories. Do you keep anything in mind when writing these gritty stories as far as how much to show, or isn’t it a conscious decision?

Actually, I don't consciously think about anything while writing. Conscious thought ruins fiction. The story should bleed out, and the writer shouldn't immediately tidy things up.

That said, the gutter doesn't look the same in light of Jesus Christ, though it's a delicate line to walk. Flannery O'Connor wrote perceptively about it, about Christian writers "distorting a talent in the name of God." She never did that; her faith wasn't pious, or something she tacked on to her stories. Her belief in a redemptive God was integral, so she could tell the story, warts and all.

As for gritty, read the Bible. That's as down and dirty as people get. And yet, it's still a love letter.

Sibella GiorelloWith the Raleigh Harmon series we have a fascinating subject in forensic geology, but do you ever feel pigeon holed by this label or is there just so much to the subject that you could never exhaust it?

Pigeon holes can be marvelous places, actually. They force you to explore things in detail. But geology is a large pigeon hole. My personal sandbox is the size of Earth, so I haven't even begun to exhaust the possibilities.

The best part about your stories, I think, is that not only are they suspenseful but they take the time to delve deep into the character of Raleigh. For example, the memory of her father is a huge part of her psyche and it motivates her to react to certain situations. Did you intend for that thread to continue in her stories or did it come about organically as she progressed?

You're really kind, CJ.

Raleigh's a complicated creature and her grief is permanent. That's true for anybody who's lost a beloved parent. That pain never goes away, even when the parent was a difficult person to love. In Raleigh's case, she lost her favorite, and only functioning, parent. And he was murdered. She's got a long road ahead to reach equilibrium.

The best definition of this predicament came from Saul Bellow. He said losing a parent was "like driving through a plate-glass window. You didn't know it was there until it shattered, and then for years to come you're picking up the pieces -- down to the last glassy splinter."

You’ve said about Raleigh that you “consider her a friend more than a doppelganger.” Still the case? :)

If Raleigh was my doppelganger, readers wouldn't get past page one. She's smarter, stronger, bolder, and goes to God with better questions. As my friend, however, we share common interests and tastes. For instance, we both like French fries dipped in mayonnaise.

You’re contracted to write a book a year for the next several years (YES!), but I’m curious… do you feel your better writing comes when you write fast and furious or when you take as much time as possible to mull over the words? Why?

Fast and furious works better than mulling. Mulling can quickly turn into brooding. But I wouldn't describe my writing The Rivers Run Dry by Sibella Giorelloas fast and furious. More like frantic and consistent.

As a runner, do you often find yourself hitting the pavement when you’re stuck in the writing process? How does running help you as a creative person?

If I'm stuck on a story, I can usually run and come home with the answer. But the sheer physical part is crucial. I'm not a sitter. My biggest hurdle to finishing a book has always been my chair. Somebody needs to invent a gizmo where I can type and run at the same time.

Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what are some of your favorite bands/artists?

No music when writing, ever. I know writers who listen to loud tunes and still write, but on this one, I'm with C.S. Lewis. You're trying to capture the inherent beats and rhythms of the story. Other music contaminates that process.

What is your favorite subject to teach your boys as a homeschool mom, and why do you enjoy it most?

History, no question. Five years ago, we started with Mesopotamia and we're finally reaching modern times. I have no doubts that chronologically is THE best way to teach history, particularly with young children. How can you understand Rome without Greece? Or WWII without knowing what happened at the end of WWI? History is a chain, with development and order. As an aside, recently there was a study that showed a huge percentage of British youth don't know who Winston Churchill is. I'll bet American kids don't either. But when I hear that, I think, "We're doomed."

Where is your favorite place to write?

My garret office. Window open. Oolong tea. And nobody else is awake.

The Mountains Bow Down by Sibella GiorelloIn one of our previous interviews you mentioned you’d love to work on a farm again. I can’t let the comment go! When did you work on a farm (and what did you do?) Why would you like to do the work again?

Oh, CJ. You're the Barbara Walters of online interviews -- no comment is ever left unturned!

The farm. Okay, it's sort of funny and revealing. I graduated from Mount Holyoke College and watched all my friends go off to make big splashes in the world. They all got great jobs and paid their bills. Me? I had absolutely no idea what to do with my life. None. I went home to Alaska, then moved to Boston to work as an office temp, and somehow, in the middle of winter, fleeing the city, I stumbled across this farm in western Massachusetts. They needed somebody to clean out the barns and set up greenhouses and repair irrigation hoses. The farmer almost busted a gut when this chick from a Seven Sisters college rolled up, begging him for a job that didn't even pay minimum wage.

But to this day, it remains my favorite job, ever. It was really hard work, every single day, from dawn to dark. I was alone with dirt, plants, and a landscape that looked lifted from a Winslow Homer painting. And it was where I realized my need to write. Not want. Need. On every break, I scribbled notes. Stories came pouring out of my fingers. Maybe it was the silence and solitude. Words kept me company.

But now I see another connection. Writing is like farm work. Solitary, demanding, and you don't do it for the money.

At this point, I probably don't want the farm job again. Too much manure.

What’s next for you book wise and what are you currently working on?

The Mountains Bow Down comes out in March -- Raleigh takes a cruise to Alaska. And I'm currently writing The Stars Shine Bright for 2012. I'm so excited about the story that I can't say anything. Nothing kills a good story like talking about it.

Parting words?

Thank you. Those are the best parting words, don't you think? Thank you.

I hope to utter them on my death bed.

C.J. DarlingtonC.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.