Carole McDonnell is a gifted writer. I first encountered her work when I read WIND FOLLOWER some years ago. THE CONSTANT TOWER is an even more ambitious novel with the same profoundly multicultural and spiritual voice. I wanted to interview her on the blog–my first author interview here–because she is on the long list of nominees for the CLIVE STAPLES AWARD (see yesterday’s blog post). I’d like her to make the shortlist. Her novel deserves it. Deserves to win, imo. But in any case, deserves to be more widely read, especially among folks who love SF and who love God–though one certainly doesn’t need to belong to any religion to enjoy this exciting, rich, poetic, complex novel of family conflict, tribal wars, personal growth, love, trials, adventure, and discovery.
So, here’s my Q and A with Carole (links to her web presence sites are listed at the end):
Q. Before we get to any questions on the book/story, could you give a brief introduction of who you are and what you write and even, perhaps, why?
Hi, thanks for interviewing me, Mir. My name is Carole McDonnell. I write, Christian multicultural fiction and Bible studies. I’m not sure why I write, or maybe I write for many reasons. I write to live, I think. I write to share what I know about this life. I write because like any little minority girl, I grew up subtly making mental adaptations of televised stories — “Why isn’t Juliet Black? Why didn’t the writers create a black girl in Single White Female?” I write to people Christian fiction with minorities and to people secular minority fiction with Christians. I write to make a little money. I write because certain characters come to me and I love them so much that I want to share them with the world. Thus, I have to finish a story..so other people can get to know my characters.
Q. The novel is long and complex. But if you had to give us one sentence to encapsulate the heart, the core of this novel, what would you say? What would you say was the core theme?
Oh gee, so many there are so many themes in the book. But if I could choose one, I’d say it’s about the main theme is about clans we are born into –racial, spiritual, cultural– and how sometimes we don’t quite fit into that clan. As a Christian, an ethnic minority, etc. But families, clans, gangs, are not our true home. We will find found families, especially the found family of “called-out ones” as the church is called. Still, we’re humans and we’re kinda stuck. Also, the constant tower represents the true religion and how it is there for any who can recognize it.
Q. Can you comment on what trigger (s) inspired this story, the seed that set your imagination growing about Psal and his world?
I dreamed of a world where an old couple woke up to find that the landmarks, trees, houses, roads, in their neighborhood were all moved. Then one of them said, “But the tower is constant.” After that, some of the characters started appearing to me in dreams to introduce themselves.
Q. Your novels WIND FOLLOWER and THE CONSTANT TOWER both use a world-creation situation that I call “bringing the globe together”: you bring cultures together as if the continents had joined and they were forced to affect one another directly. It has a sense of otherness and “usness” at the same time. Where does this global vision of yours come from that gives such a unique multicultural flavor to your tales?
I was a little so-called Oreo who grew up pretty much alone and stuck inside watching PBS when not in school. We also were in a building that didn’t have much blacks. I was in an integrated public school in Brooklyn. The public school had a mini-school within it, made up of 120 special kids, of whom only three of us were black. It was a weird kind of subversion. My best friends were artists and musicians, and they were Orthodox Jewish, secular Jewish, and unitarian. I spent my time chilling with gay music teachers, little old Jewish ladies, or Jamaican women. In college most of my friends were gay guys. I was always kinda other and kinda among friends all at the same time. The PBS thing was also influential. My mother had this terrible fear that we would “come home with the belly” (not something that would ever happen but my mother was a proud Jamaican type) and so I spent my childhood watching tons of archaeology and anthropology programs on TV and watching Janus Films — Japanese, Danish, Swedish, etc. Not to mention British programming such as Masterpiece Theater and cultural shows like “Great Performances.” There were also lots of literature books and archaeology/anthropology books around the house because my mother loved anthropology and archaeology. So of course I read them. I was always fascinated by marriage and courtship rituals. It was interesting to see how those cultures viewed their gods and how they viewed sin. I was especially fascinated with the Yanomamo– the fierce people.
Q. I loved the character of intelligent, sensitive, damaged Ephan, the albino, and while I understood why dramatically the story that had to be told was Psal’s, I found that I wanted to hear Ephan’s internal tale, too. Is there any chance that there will be related stories in future that give us other character perspectives, that add to the tales of this world? And will we any other novels set in this world in future?
Ephan would be the perfect hero of a fantasy and I didn’t want that. I hate tropes and I think as a Christian, we need tropes that reflect “God looks on the heart and not the appearance” and also “God’s ways are not our ways.” Christian fiction often tend to be about man’s ways. I wanted a hero who saved the world in spite of himself– God alone doing the work, even though Psal isn’t aware of it. Psal kinda stumbles into the conspiracy. He didn’t even set out to usurp his father’s rule. Psal is an emotional mess, touchy, and over-sensitive. He’s not the type one would think of as a savior…and he really isn’t. But to tell Ephan’s story would mean falling into the common trope of saviors. And definitely telling the story through Netophah’s POV would also be the wrong way to go. The story is told to a child who already knows Ephan’s story because Ephan is such a hero so I wanted to play with that idea.
I really love this world. If I could create a pleasure planet when I get to heaven, I would create a planet like Odunao. I don’t think I could add more stories to this world, though. Who knows? But when i leave a world, I tend to leave it.
Q. What was the inspiration for the idea of keening and towers with sentience that move?
So many stories are about the human mind. I wanted a story about the human heart. Christians are not supposed to trust mental faith but heart faith, and it’s our conscience and our heart that steers us. Everything in the Constant Tower is about the heart and so the towers are ruled and led by human hearts. There’s a touch of quantum physics there. There is also a level of empathy/telepathy/communication between humans and humans and between humans and other living or non-living things. I didn’t want to overdo it but there are moments when someone thinks a thing and then there’s a kind of lag time and suddenly the character he’s talking to then repeats what the first character thought. It happens when Nahas talks to Ktwala, when Psal talks to his father, when Ephan talks to Psal. That’s the way human communication often happens…but we aren’t aware of it because we have been taught to listen to words. But because the humans in CT are used to thinking that “hearing the heart” is no big deal, they have no problem with sentience. I also wanted to show that scientific development doesn’t mirror earth’s. The science in Constant Tower doesn’t say “steel age must follow iron age.” So the towers have solar crystals and there is a bit of quantum physics and the knowledge of astronomy.
Q. Can you define the term “unmaking,” and was there something in particular that triggered you to create this story phenomenon?
The god of this world wants to show people how lost they are without community. The history of Odunao was rife with bloodshed and this unmaking is a reminder to the people about their need to learn how to live in community. To be unmade is to feel one’s body being scattered and remade because –usually because of one’s sin against community– one has been cast out. It is a nightly meeting with one’s own death and one’s own conscience and it’s designed to make one think twice about acting against one’s community.
Q. THE CONSTANT TOWER offers tribal marital customs that might make some readers, particularly those of the conservative clans of the faith, uncomfortable. Could you define an eimi for our readers and talk a bit about how you chose this system for the marital formation?
American Christians tend to be pretty addicted to American culture and to legalism. The laws in Exodus were made for the Israelites but when we try to get someone saved, we don’t show them the good news of God’s kingdom or even the good news of salvation. We generally just show them that they were bad and now that they are saved they must be good for Christ’s sake and behave according to our laws. I do think we should behave sinlessly but Christ’s love and God’s love is more important and is the main thing. The Creator in Constant Tower has laws as all good Creators do. But he is also love. And he is a god of Odunao, not of Earth. He is against adultery, yes, but he is not against extra-marital sex. In fact, he commands it if a woman is alone (kinda like in Leviticus with brother/widow marriage.) And he is against incest, tribal-prejudice, and selfishness. When a Conservative Christian reads this book, he must try to not be American about his views. In the same way, if a conservative missionary goes to another country or into the house of a neighbor who is another religion, he is supposed to separate his Americanness from his proclamation of the kingdom.
The Wheel Clan is profoundly eugenistic, profoundly addicted to aborting sick children, profoundly imperialistic, profoundly committed to population control. In such a world, they use abortifacients. Women are always dying from that. So there is a lack of women. In addition, they prevent certain people from marrying. Before Nahas became king, his father was even worse. Hence, there is a lack of women. Since warriors are the only ones allowed to marry, and since longhouses can only hold so much, and because “the Wheel Clan loves children and every child should have a good home (as abortion activists always say)”..the result is that each woman must have two husbands.
Q. If a Christian reader shows concern that there is talk and some scenes that encompass sexual aspects of relationships, how would you address their reticence?
I will only say that I saw the characters doing and saying what they do and say. If that’s how a story comes to me, I can’t change it. Reading anthropology made me realize that many countries are not as uptight about sex as Christians are. I will also add that I don’t just write sex scenes to write sex scenes. Not only sperm is being conveyed. 😉 In Wind Follower, for instance, none of the sex scenes were joyful. There was temptation and cruelty and mindgames. In CT, we are faced with a sex scene– a great act of communication, one would think– but we have a character plotting evil at the same time.
Q. The songs/poems in the novel are beautiful, very well done. Do you have a favorite one among the songs/poems? Were you inspired by tribal traditions of any particular cultures, from Scripture, both? Can you recommend any of your sources in researching these traditional songs?
Thank you so much. I was a poet before I became a novelist. My favorite is Psal’s love song about Netophah’s wedding. Psal is the better poet, more so than Ephan. Or at least, as far as we know. I think the directness of Chinese poetry is what influenced me. The song of Solomon also. And general warrior poems and sagas as well. There’s a great book of Chinese poetry called Sunflower Splendor. I highly recommend it.
Q. Is there a scene or passage or chapter in THE CONSTANT TOWER that as a writer you are especially proud of, one that was very difficult but ultimately successful, or perhaps one that flowed fully from your heart and spirit and with which you are joyfully satisfied above others?
My favorite scenes and chapters. Favorite chapter #1: When Psal comes down from the tower in order to talk to his father about the three clans under one roof. The scene has so much in it: Psal’s fear of his father, foreshadowing of the Maldon disaster, another glimpse of Nahas’ personality, a hint of Psal’s spirituality, and the fatherly love Nahas has toward his sons. The picture on the back of the parchment is just so human, or at least so about human boys with raging hormones. My great love for Constant Tower is because there are these little throwaway moments of humanity in a book of epic fantasy. Not everything is related to war and clan issues, and yet…war and family are everywhere.
My other favorite is the battle with the unfleshed ones. I wanted to totally go all out with the spiritual aspects of the story. Throughout the story, we see all kinds of battles..but at last the real battle and the true battle is shown. And I could try my best to teach anyone — Christian or non-Christian– about the weapons of our warfare.
Q. What do you hope the reader takes away, ultimately, from this long and painful, but ultimately triumphant story?
I don’t know. I guess I want them to take away whatever they need to take away to get closer to Jesus. Every one of us are planting seeds in other folks’ lives, or are watering seeds that others have planted in folks’ lives. And we really don’t know what that person might need to understand. But God is able to make a reader see something in a book that brings them further in their journey.
Q. Any personal comments you’d like to make to those who have read and/or to those who may read this terrific story?
Please read it. I love these characters. I love Psal, and Ephan, and Nahas, and Cyrt. I love Ktwala, and the Voca Queen, and Maharai, and Gidea. I love, love, love Lan. And I so want everyone to meet and know them all. I also want to make a mark in Christian fiction. If I can pull Christianity out of its Tolkien/Lewis mimicry and make it become what it must be for our times, I would be so happy. And –oh yeah– I so want to make a tonna money.
Thanks, Carole. Here’s to a bigger readership and that “tonna money” for ya.
Author page at Amazon: