When describing Gwenda Bond’s excellent debut novel, Blackwood, I’m tempted to offer a Princess Bride-style list of all of the interesting things contained in the pages of the book – history, alchemy, murder, theater, mysteries, pop culture, curses, and romance. All of those things are there, as well as tight writing, a terrific voice, and two of my favorite lead characters in quite some time, Miranda Blackwood and Phillips Rawling. Blackwood is a smart book, a unique take on the mystery of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, and what it means to find yourself. I was fortunate to be able to interview Gwenda about Blackwood, and that interview follows:
Kat Howard: I want to avoid the generic "where do you get your ideas from." Having said that, was there a specific incident that sparked your interest in writing Blackwood, or lead to the inclusion of some of the elements in the book? Can you tell us about it?
Gwenda Bond: Good, because I get my ideas at a crossroads from this guy with a suitcase… I think he may have a limited supply. I have to keep the location a secret.
Oddly, I do remember exactly when I had the idea for the story that became this book. It was on a road trip to North Carolina seven years ago. Christopher and I passed a highway sign that had Roanoke, however-many-miles, and it made me think of the Lost Colony (though the sign was for the city in Virginia, not the island, of course). I turned to Christopher and asked him if he’d ever read a Lost Colony story that brought the mystery into the modern day, set in the same place, and he said no. I knew it was a special idea—I could feel the story waiting there. I’m sure you understand what I mean when I say that; sometimes you have an idea, but it doesn’t really start accumulating mass, picking up momentum. This did. I had the characters of Miranda and Phillips almost immediately, and I grew up in a very small town in the south, so that played a part in how the setting developed. I knew I wanted the teenagers to be modern and specific in the same way the historical parts of the story were specific to their time.
KH: In your Note at the end of the book, you say you had "the odd experience of finding some historical support for just about every outrageous leap here." Can you share some of the joys - or frustrations - of writing fiction that involves historical events? Is there further reading you could recommend to people who become interested in the Lost Colony as the result of reading Blackwood?
GB: Well, I’m somewhat lucky with the Lost Colony, because it has been fictionalized in so many ways already. Even the way the story is usually related as ‘history’ is often factually fuzzy. So I felt I was on well-trod ground making leaps where I needed to. But I did do a lot of reading and research on the history of the colony, of alchemy (especially in the New World), and on modern Roanoke Island. Probably the most maddening thing was trying to settle on what my final tally of missing colonists would be. I settled on 114, but different sources will give different numbers. I was more worried about how the people who live on Roanoke Island would feel about the book. I’ve used many local landmarks and tried to capture a feeling, but I also moved and invented locations where needed. But I was just down there and got a great reception, and people seemed to really enjoy the book being set on the island, even a fictionalized version of it.
I definitely recommend David Beers Quinn’s Set Fair for Roanoke, Lee Miller’s Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony, and Walter Woodward’s Prospero’s America (which is more about alchemy and New England culture, but was influential on Blackwood).
KH: And of course, I have to ask if you have your own theory on the Roanoke disappearance.
GB: I believe at least some of the colonists probably moved inland and/or intermarried with local tribes. I suspect the Lost Colony DNA project will show that; they’re working to cross-match using genealogical research and testing, with a goal of identifying descendants of the colonists. Even if that happens, there will still be mysteries about why things worked out the way they did with the colony, and clues like the one found in John White’s map earlier this year may eventually help us understand more about that.
KH: You use theater and performance as a supporting framework for some of the major events in Blackwood. Do you have any theater background yourself? Do you see a connection between performing a story on stage and writing one in a book?
GB: I did a little high school theater, but the answer is not really. The Lost Colony show was simply too fabulous to leave out though; it just had its 75th anniversary season. And I was lucky enough to have a close friend who’d been in the chorus for several summers who was willing to talk about it with me. Plus, I love a backstage narrative.
I think there’s always an element of performance in creating any kind of art, whether it takes place in real-time on a stage or happens later when the reader picks up a book and reads it. All art is collaborative, in one way or another; it doesn’t fully exist without someone to receive and experience it. The meaning of a piece of art or a story to the artist is usually different; a big part of the magic is in how and what it communicates to someone else.
KH: One of the things I really loved about this book was the characters - they seemed very real. Did you have a favorite character to write?
GB: Thank you so much for saying that; getting my characters on the page is always a struggle. I really enjoyed writing both Miranda and Phillips, and especially their scenes together. And also Sidekick, who was based on our beloved golden retriever George Rowe the Dog, who passed away several years ago.
KH: It seems that one of the themes that Blackwood is interested is the role of destiny, whether that destiny is through family and genetics, or through the influence of alchemy and curses. Are you fond of the idea of destiny, or do you believe that we shape our own fate?
GB: I don’t believe in destiny per se, but I do believe that we’re less in control of our lives and circumstances than we sometimes like to think. And I very much think that for teenagers, it’s a potent question. You’re still trying to figure out how much about you the family/situation you were born into determines—you’re becoming separate from your family, constructing a separate identity, but so much of who you are is shaped by how you’ve grown up and the pressures around you to be one way or another. I do definitely believe that there are always decisions we can make, and that it’s an important moment when you realize that, though you may not have control over everything, you have control over some very important things. I believe in the ability to construct a destiny.
KH: One of history's most famous alchemists, John Dee, appears in Blackwood. Historically, alchemists were interested in things like turning lead into gold, or finding the secret to eternal life. Do you think modern alchemists would have the same preoccupations, or would they have different interests? Also, if you could have any alchemical power, what would you choose?
GB: Ooh. These are excellent questions. I would love to see John Dee in a high fashion job. A designer. Yes, John Dee as Versace. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? “This season is going to be all about the ruff collar and jewelry featuring the Monas Hieroglyphica.” If I could have any alchemical power, I’d want the gold, obviously. I would bathe in gold coins like a less feathered version of Scrooge McDuck.
KH: Where else can readers find your work? Are there any upcoming projects you'd like to mention?
GB: I keep an active blog at my website (gwendabond.com), where I point to nonfiction essays and reviews and that sort of thing. My next book will be out sometime next year from Strange Chemistry/Angry Robot. It’s an urban fantasy called The Woken Gods, set in a near future where the gods of ancient mythology awoke, around the world, ten years earlier. The story takes place in a transformed Washington, D.C., that is the main meeting ground of a no-longer-secret society based in the Library of Congress and a council made up of the seven tricksters who are the gods’ emissaries to humanity. A 17-year-old girl gets pulled into political intrigue between all of the above. I’m excited about it. And I’ve got a couple of other things in the works I can’t talk about yet, but fingers crossed.