January 18, 2013

Karen Lord

An author’s brave new world
Interview by
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Caribbean author Karen Lord has taught physics, trained soldiers, worked in the Foreign Service and earned a Ph.D. in the sociology of religion. In her new novel, The Best of All Possible Worlds, Lord manages to combine many of these experiences—along with her telling eye for detail—in the story of Grace Delarua, a mid-level scientist who has to work with a high-level refugee. Against the odds, the two begin to fall for each other. Although it begins with a tragedy, Lord’s inviting storytelling and range of voices make this novel a fascinating read, and we asked Lord, who lives in Barbados, a few questions about it.

What was the genesis of The Best of All Possible Worlds?
The precursors were the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami (more women and children than men were killed in certain fishing communities); gender imbalance in countries with prenatal screening and/or family size restrictions; and the effects of female-scarcity on societies. It didn’t become a story until one day I read a blog post about the Star Trek movie reboot, commenting that from what they’d seen of Vulcans offplanet, most of the survivors were likely male . . . and what would that mean for future societal dynamics?

From there I started some postcolonial musings. What happens when an empire is suddenly wiped out? How does a society transition from wealth and widespread influence to dependency and refugee status among those once considered inferior? I thought about the British and the Japanese empires during the 20th century. I imagined a benevolent and slightly aloof paternalism deeply shaken by unanticipated defeat.

I imagined a planet, Cygnus Beta, to provide a context to highlight those issues. Founded by refugees and adventurers from all over the galaxy, it is a place where groups have mixed and blended their genetic and cultural heritages while others have tried to hold onto a certain amount of tradition and homogeneity. The full gamut of preservation, adaptation and assimilation has been played out many times by different communities. I slipped in bits of history and myth when creating some of those communities. (In one case I was directly inspired by a modern-day news article about an actor who sliced his throat on stage when a prop knife was accidentally switched with a real knife!)

I took visual inspiration from countries I’ve visited, or wanted to visit: Guyana, Colombia, Trinidad, Montserrat, India, New Zealand, Australia (or at least the opera!), Malta, Wales, Jordan, Argentina and Iceland.

What happens when an empire is suddenly wiped out?

The Best of All Possible Worlds begins with an ungraspable tragedy and moves on leaving us in the same state as the novel's characters: with the ground swept away from beneath our feet. What drew you to this beginning?
With a tragedy of that magnitude your centre is shaken, your sense of up and down is destroyed and somehow, amidst the hugeness of the tumult, mundane life goes on, expecting you to have a drink of water, or a cup of tea, or get out of bed and get dressed. It’s almost laughable, but life doesn’t stop for tragedy even when you want it to. Grief is experienced as vertigo. How do people find their ground again?

Grace Delarua, who tells the story of The Best of All Possible Worlds, is at once highly observant and, although there are other reasons for it, a little obtuse. Why can't she see what others see? Was she based on anyone you know?
I have always found people to be variably observant. There are some things they are very good at noticing and other things that pass them by completely. There are, as you say, reasons for that, including fear and denial, lazy expectations based on deeply ingrained stereotypes and lack of key information. The worst offenders are those who are convinced that they are observant, certain that they are unbiased and completely unaware that they don’t have all the facts.

Delarua’s not directly based on anyone I know, but I was inspired by something someone told me years ago. She had to briefly work with a frivolous, chatty and completely irritating woman. Then, near the end of her stint, she got to know the woman better and discovered that she was extremely intelligent, hardworking and ambitious. In fact, they had a lot in common and she thought they could have been great friends if she hadn’t been stuck for so long with her bad first impression.

Was there anything about this book that surprised you as you wrote about it?
The romance surprised me. There wasn’t supposed to be any! I was also surprised at the explanation for psionic abilities [like telekinesis or telepathy]. It was strangely fascinating and I was tempted to write pseudo-academic papers on the topic. The Elves . . . yes, the Elves surprised me by being astonishingly plausible when by rights they should have been pure farce.

The biggest shock was inventing the savannah dog, then doing research on the name only to discover that there actually is a savannah dog . . . which looked like I imagined it and is located in the real-life region on which I based the Cygnian region.

How has your life changed since your first novel was published?
I co-write research reports for socioeconomic projects but I haven’t written an academic paper in a good while. I’m certainly not famous yet. The local newspapers are learning not to misspell my last name (there are more Lordes than Lords in Barbados). This year I’m going to the Adelaide Writers’ Week, which will be my first time in Australia, and I’m really looking forward to it!

I know you read far and wide. Have you read anything recently you'd especially recommend?
I love to recommend Caribbean science fiction, [like] Ghosts by Curdella Forbes (2012) and The Rainmaker’s Mistake by Erna Brodber (2007). I’ve gained a new appreciation for short story collections. I recently read Ted Chiang’s brilliant Stories of Your Life and Others (I know, I’m late). Karin Tidbeck’s recent debut collection Jagannath is beautiful, and The Weird anthology, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, is essential reading.


Gavin Grant is the publisher of Small Beer Press, which published Karen Lord’s debut novel, Redemption in Indigo. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Read our review of Best of All Possible Worlds.

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