The Mercy of Thin Air is Ronlyn Domingue’s first book although she has been writing for 28 years “in one capacity or another”. Things are looking promising for this full-time writer who resides in Louisiana. Her debut has been recognized as a Borders Original Voices Award in Fiction Finalist (2005), a SIBA Book Award in Fiction nominee (2006), a Book Sense and Redbook Magazine Pick and has been translated in eleven other countries.
Moe: Looking back was there something in particular that helped you to decide to become a writer? Did you choose it or did the profession choose you? When did you ‘know’ you were a writer? Were you a good writer as a child? Teenager? Etc.
Ronlyn Domingue: My third grade teacher noticed I was a precocious reader and let me spend several hours each week reading and writing on my own. I started my first novel in that class, a mystery called Ghost Mountain. I knew at the age of eight I wanted to be a writer. It’s hard to judge one’s early work, but teachers and friends thought I had talent. Now, if I read something I wrote as a young person, I can see flickers of promise but most of it is just awful.
I hardly wrote fiction at all during my 20s. It wasn’t a practical thing to do. I knew the odds of getting published, much less what it would take to make a living as a fiction writer. During those years, I had what I call my “dead baby dreams.” In the dreams, I’d lose babies to abortion, stillbirth, or adoption. I felt very guilty about the fact I didn’t want these children. One morning, I woke up and realized those dead babies were my unwritten books. I broke the code and never had another dream like that.
From that point on, I became serious about my work. I took some fiction writing classes for fun, and then decided to get an MFA in creative writing. Although all of my past jobs involved writing in some way, I never called myself “a writer” until I got my first book deal.
Moe: What inspires you?
Ronlyn Domingue: That’s a mystery. What resonates with me—and what sticks in my head long enough to become a story—is unpredictable. I like it that way.
Moe: Every writer has a method that works for them. Most of them vary like the wind while some seem to follow a pattern similar to other writers. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Ronlyn Domingue: I don’t have a typical writing day, but I do have a predictable process. I spend weeks to months doing research and thinking, a few days of reflection on the plot and scenes, and several weeks of writing 8 to 16 hours a day, three to five days a week. Then it starts all over again, then again if necessary, until I know it’s done.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read? Do you write right through or do you revise as you go along?
Ronlyn Domingue: The first question isn’t easy to answer. I had different friends read each draft of my first novel, but only one person read all four of them. Draft 1 took three years, but each subsequent draft took only months. That may not happen with the next book. I try to write all the way through, but sometimes, it’s so clear a revision must be done to some part that I do it right then.
Moe: When you have your idea and sit down to write is any thought given to the genre and type of readers you’ll have?
Ronlyn Domingue: No. That interferes with the act of creation.
Moe: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Ronlyn Domingue: I know almost everything before I write. The fun for me is figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B to Point C. The mystery–and discovery–is in the details.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Ronlyn Domingue: I read as much as I can about each subject. Whenever possible, I do personal interviews. Except for the between realm in The Mercy of Thin Air, I visited each place I wrote about. We’ll see what happens with the next one.
Moe: How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters? Where do your characters come from? Where do you draw the line?
Ronlyn Domingue: Traits are universal. Personalities are unique. If people I know “see themselves” in characters, they’re reading into what’s there, not what I intended. I’ve come to discover that I always have a least one thing in common with each character–I understand him or her in some essential way. Perhaps that’s merely empathy. I’m not sure. If I knew where my characters came from, it would take a lot less time to get to know them.
Moe: Writers often go on about writer’s block. Do you ever suffer from it and what measures do you take to get past it?
Ronlyn Domingue: If I get writer’s block, that usually means I haven’t done enough thinking about my work. I’ll dive into research again, take long walks, or “think aloud” on paper to break through.
Moe: When someone reads one of your books for the first time, what do you hope they gain, feel or experience?
Ronlyn Domingue: Every outstanding book I’ve read made me question my perception of the world and taught me something new about being human. I hope my work has that effect on others as well.
Moe: Can you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
Ronlyn Domingue: (1) Writing the book is the easy part. (2) Your job isn’t over once the book is published. You must participate in some way to promote your work. (3) Enthusiastic bookstore staff and readers are more important than even the best reviews.
Moe: How do you handle fan mail? What kinds of things do fans write to you about?
Ronlyn Domingue: Right now, I’m able to answer every person, and I hope I’m able to do that for a long while. I consider each piece of fan mail as a gift—someone ACTUALLY read my work and enjoyed it enough to write me. To date, readers have shared stories about loved ones similar to the characters or commented on the way the book made them feel. A few have told me The Mercy of Thin Air helped them through their grief of losing people they loved.
Moe: What’s your latest book about? Where did you get the idea and how did you let the idea evolve?
Ronlyn Domingue: The Mercy of Thin Air is set in 1920s New Orleans and present-day Louisiana. Raziela Nolan is in the throes of a magnificent love affair when she dies in a tragic accident in 1929. In an instant, she leaves behind her one true love and her dream of becoming a doctor—but somehow, she still remains. Immediately after her death, Razi chooses to stay between—a realm that exists after life and before whatever lies beyond it.
From this vantage point, Razi narrates the stories of her lost love, Andrew, and the relationship of Amy and Scott, a couple whose house she haunts almost seventy-five years later. The novel entwines these two fateful and redemptive love stories that span three generations and, in the end, allows Razi to confront a secret she’s held for more than a lifetime.
An incredibly smart friend of mine says this novel is a love story, and it’s not, and a ghost story, and it’s not. As ambiguous as that statement is, I think it’s dead-on, no pun intended. The reader is given great latitude to decide what it means to her, or him.
Where did the idea come from? Years ago, I had an idea for a novel about a poltergeist who moves from house to house playing practical jokes. All I had was a series of incidents, funny ones, but the character had no name, no gender. In 1999, I imposed the short story form on this novel idea—which then forced me to come up with a story in the first place.
The novel’s evolution had a lot to do with Razi as a character. She was incredibly strong-willed. She knew who she was, and I had to be patient enough to listen to her. One of the most important events in writing this book came when my mentor, James Wilcox, read the first draft and asked me, “What does Razi think she is?” I had no clue. The conceit of the novel was all in place—she was some entity that could see, hear, smell, and taste, one that had a flawless memory—but really, what was she? Or as Jim had so correctly put it, what did she think she was? Science was not one of my favorite subjects in school. Physics and chemistry were torture. No one is more surprised than I am that I ended up spending so many hours reading and thinking about quantum physics, but I had to get into Razi’s head.
It’s difficult for me to articulate how this novel changed over time. It was an organic process, one that forced me to rely on intuition in a way that surprised me. In my day to day life, I am organized, methodical, but when I’m writing, I give myself up to the creative process.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Ronlyn Domingue: I’m drawn to character-driven stories that are superbly written and well crafted. An occasional foray into magical realism is a treat. I know I’ve found a wonderful book when I find myself thinking about it when I’m NOT reading it.
Moe: When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
Ronlyn Domingue: I love great food and enjoy cooking, especially for friends and family. Yoga and yard work are crucial for my mental health. And of course, I like to read. . .
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Ronlyn Domingue: Read good novels/stories and figure out how they work. Identify at least one friend who can give constructive criticism of your writing. Distance yourself from unsupportive people. Accept that writing is a time-consuming, active endeavor–talking about writing isn’t writing, it’s daydreaming. Figure out your process (write every morning, write only on weekends, etc.) and make it work for you. Develop the wisdom to know when your work is not yet publishable, and when it is. If you want to publish your work, be persistent despite rejection. Remember EVERYONE gets rejected, no matter how well s/he writes. Always, always, be gracious and courteous.
Moe: If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
Ronlyn Domingue: A teacher (I’ll get back into the classroom one day.)
Moe: What is your favourite word?
Ronlyn Domingue: Esoteric
Originally published 4/6/2006 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.