Hello. This is Jean Marie Ward for BuzzyMag.com. With me today is beloved fantasy author Delia Sherman whose latest novel, “The Freedom Maze,” is a 2011 Norton Award nominee.
Congratulations, Delia, and good luck tonight.
Delia Sherman: Thank you.
JMW: I understand “The Freedom Maze” was born in a dream. What was the dream about, and how much of it made its way to the finished novel?
Delia Sherman: Well, the dream was. . . I was in Maine, which is not where I live, for a year with my partner, who was teaching. I was very homesick for Massachusetts and for that entire world. I dreamt I was back in my old house and I was looking out at my garden, except that I was in the window seat of my study and looking out at the garden, except it wasn’t my garden, it was a maze. It was definitely a garden that I had not planted and it was definitely not a Massachusetts garden.
I was reading a book, as I said, in the window seat and I don’t remember what book it was, but it was a fascinating story and it was writing itself as I was reading. There was a figure of some sort that was laughing at me. It was one of those kind of non-narrative, conceptual, flitting around the edges dreams.
When I woke up, it stuck with me, unlike most dreams of mine which completely disappear the minute I get out of bed. What I retained the most clearly was the image of the maze. That’s really the only thing. The image of Sophie sitting in the window seat in her grandmother’s house looking out over this growing plantation and seeing a maze, both in its current growing state, and then there’s one scene where she looks back in time and sees it. She also sees another garden, a completely different garden in slave quarters, and this, that and the other thing, which were not in the dream, but that central image I knew I needed to write about. It took me many years to figure out how to do it.
JMW: Sometimes things do grow slowly in the brain while what Jenifer Crusie calls the girls in the basement are working on it.
Delia Sherman: Yeah.
JMW: The novel ultimately wound up being in Louisiana instead of Massachusetts, right?
Delia Sherman: Yes.
JMW: How did the transposition come about? How did the maze go from being in Massachusetts to Louisiana?
Delia Sherman: Well, it was definitely not a Massachusetts garden that I was looking at. It was not. When I first started writing this novel, this was in 1987, so I am dealing with memories that are very much blunted by time. I think I started to think about a girl in Massachusetts seeing this thing in a dream that was in another place and I thought secondary world. From all of the books that I had read growing up, there are a lot of things, like “Tom’s Midnight Garden,” where you look out and you see another time, another place.
Finally, I realized that it was a Southern garden and there were some things that I wanted to say about family, about the Civil War–well, not the Civil War so much because it’s not a novel about the War, itself, it’s more about the causes of the Civil War and the society that gave birth to the Civil War.
Both my mother’s and my father’s families are Southern, but mother’s had roots in Louisiana and I had spent time there and I had been traveling there. It all accrued into like a snowball of story. You can’t tell when you made a single decision, but it just became clear to me that eventually I was going to. . . Eventually I found myself writing this thing set in Louisiana.
JMW: Your activist book, as you call it. Did the Louisiana setting affect the identity of the creature, the trickster figure that leads Sophie into the maze?
Delia Sherman: It did, but not entirely consciously. I do not usually work by pure inspiration; I work by deduction and a series of decisions that I find myself making over time. But when I needed a magical creature and I knew because I was riffing off of E. Nesbit and Edwin Eager, that I wanted a magical creature like the [Samiad] or one of the other creatures that pops up, the Natterjack, in “The Time Garden.”
I was writing along and I knew it was time for this magical creature to show up. Literally, it just came out my pen. I had no idea where it came from. I had not thought about it. I had not considered it. It was one of those moments where you’re writing along and you’re back brain goes, “Here, I’ve made some decisions in your absence. Would you like them?”
It’s those magic moments that really make writing so much fun. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as I would like it to.
JMW: I think it’s not giving away anything of the plot to say that Sophie starts the Freedom Maze in the 1960s.
Delia Sherman: Yes.
JMW: What is it about the 1960s you find so appealing? Sophie starts out there. It’s the era of your “New York Between” Books, “Changeling” and “The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen.” What about the period is so fascinating for you?
Delia Sherman: There are actually three answers to that. The first one has to do with “Freedom Maze,” and it is more that in 1860 the Civil War started. In 1960, although there had been incidents in the Civil Rights Movement, they certainly came to a head in 1960. There was a great deal that happened in 1960 in the Civil Rights Movement. Therefore, 1960, 1860, there was no decision to be made.
The secondary thing is that I didn’t have to do as much research because I was a little younger than Sophie at that time, but that’s when I grew up. That is when I became a conscious thinking human being, in the ’60s. I was not yet a teenager, but I was a child in a world that I was beginning to. . .
I grew up in the ’50s, but up until you’re 9 or 10 or 11, unless your parents are very connected to the outer world, which mine were not, you don’t really know very much. This is just your little world, and when you first start to realize there’s a world out there and there are people who aren’t you and they have different lives and they have different ways of thinking, I think that’s really when you start becoming a human being, in that particular way. That’s my era; I am a child of the ’60s. The ’70s, to me, were simply an outgrowth of the ’60s and graduate school.
Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.