Bridge of Sand
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Q & A Bridge of Sand

Where did you get the idea for Bridge of Sand?

A novel idea always comes from many directions, and in fact the way I know its a novel is that some unexpected connection occurs in my mind, and then other images, ideas, characters seem to gather and attach there. When the conglomeration is unbearably heavy I have to get rid of it by writing it down.

If I had to pick one source for Bridge of Sand it would be this: twenty years ago I toured a paper mill and I was blown away (almost literally) by the massive power of it especially by contrast with the flimsy little sheet of white paper that I face every day, and which has a different kind of intimidating power. I decided to write a novel about a poet, a man who leaves his family for a sabbatical and inadvertently rents a cottage in a paper mill town. He sits in front of the blank page while tons of the stuff pours off the rollers behind him and cant write, of course. Then his wife comes South to patch up their marriage and instead falls in love with a black mill hand.

I had it all worked out. It seemed a good idea. I spent four years on the novel, which was to be called Paper, and every day of the work was dreary, forced, like the worst kind of dead-end paper-pushing. My editor read a hundred and fifty pages and asked me, What do you love about this book? It turned out the only thing I loved was the little store that had appeared quite incidentally. I loved that, and the character of Solly, whod also shown up out of the blue. I scrapped the novel, wrote three plays and a book of essays, and thought about the little store. I gave up the writer as hero. Its always a good idea to give up the writer as hero.

Why do you think it was the little store you loved?

I think it was because, like Dana, I grew up with a working class background, which I have voluntarily left climbed out of is the way I would have seen it as a girl but I feel a strong pull back toward the working class. When I moved to Florida I felt instinctively at home with people whose politics appalled me and who didnt necessarily feel at home with me. So I suppose Danas character grew out of that paradox. Dana opts to go back to her working class roots, which sort of leaves me free to be middle class. I seem to operate this way, by the way: when Im torn I write a heroine into one part of a dilemma and then live the other. When I finished Bridge of Sand, which I think youll agree is in many ways a love song to the Gulf Coast, my husband and I bought a house in Wisconsin.

Why does the novel start on 9/11?

Writers cope with the world by writing, and just about every writer in America has tried to cope with 9/11 by writing about it. But I was in Florida when the attack came, and it would not have been honest for me to write about someone who was in New York, or who lost a loved one on that day, as so many writers have. A couple of months later I met a woman who had given birth on 9/11 and who told me she felt the babys birth had been stolen from her. I was thinking about Dana a lot by that time, and this sense of being diminished by general tragedy seemed just right for her. I wanted to acknowledge that everything, everybody was changed that day, mostly in ways well never know about. The whole course of Danas life is changed, but by indirection, chance. I think thats why she muses on all the deaths that had to occur in order that she should be pregnant with this particular child.

Bridge of Sand is a sort of impossible image such a bridge could not hold up. Why did you pick that title for the book?

Its true a bridge of sand would be no use at all, and thats the first thought you inevitably have about the bridge between these two people and between the races. But I wanted to put that oxymoron out there and then undercut it in several ways. When Dana and Cassius first get together theres sand between them, but they bridge it. Dana travels over a bridge to Sag Island that is sunk deep in the sand a feat of unimaginable human engineering she says, which is strong enough to carry cars and goods and people. After the hurricane the earth itself collapses, but that brings people together. Even Dana and Kenishas hands meet under a sandcastle bridge. Also, theres the epigraph: A handful of sand is an anthology of the universe, which suggests that sand doesnt just bridge two places, it brings together everything, including all history.

Then do you think that Dana and Cassius could have stayed together?

Not in this place at this time. But I think that much of what impedes them is not race; its that they have to deal with the suspicions and hurts of race in addition to all the things that ordinary couples have to face. As Phoebe says, its not just a love story. Theres money and gender and a child to deal with. Theres class. I think theyre temperamentally very well suited to each other, but theyve suffered in very different ways in childhood. He was trapped, she had no home. So naturally she wants to settle and he wants to go. I do think that they might work all this out if they didnt have to do it with the weight of Americas history on their backs as well.

At least five of your eight novels deal with issues of race and bigotry: Descend Again, Eyes, The Buzzards, Cutting Stone, and now Bridge of Sand. Why? Why do you choose this subject so often?

I dont choose it. It chooses me. Ive spent many hours asking myself just that question, and I think the closest Ive come to answering it is in the one purely autobiographical scene in the novel, when Danas mother clumsily tries to explain why the cleaning womans daughter cant come back to play. I had such a first experience of hypocrisy, knowing that my mother was lying but not knowing why. Of all my childhood experiences, that encounter with hypocrisy would seem to be the most powerful, excepting only my experience of the solace of language.

Of course, in my own life this incident occurred some thirty years earlier than in Danas, but there are places in America where it might well occur today. We change over both time and space, in some places faster than others. On Sag Island, all of seven miles from Pelican Bay in the novel, mixed couples are scarcely noticed, whereas Solly and Trudy, two pillars of their community, wont acknowledge their liaison. Dana and Cassius finally cant do it either. But Danas son will. When my brother read this novel, he said, She's going to give birth to Obama! Everybody ought to have such a brother.

Are there other ways the novel is autobiographical?

The characters and events in fiction are always a mix of autobiography, observation, and invention, but in different quantities. In this book, Bernadette and Trudy are based on people I knew intimately. Herbie just showed up on the page one day. Adena started yapping and wouldnt shut up. Luther also came to me as a voice I know that voice has tones of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Martin Luther King, Jr. but also my mother! I always seemed to know what hed say and do, whereas Cassius was elusive, and I had to ask a former students advice on his authenticity.

The most autobiographical thing about the novel is the setting: the sea and sand, the towns and beaches and birds and people of the Gulf. And thats not unusual with me. Place is absolutely crucial to my fiction no doubt because, like Dana (autobiography again) Ive never truly found my home. In Cutting Stone, Eleanor finds her home in the desert but I was raised in Arizona and knew as a child that it was the wrong landscape for me.

Most of the story is told through Danas eyes, but every once in a while theres another voice, which seems to be more detached, as of an omnipotent author. What was the impulse to do that?

I needed that voice partly because I needed a historical perspective that Dana doesnt and cant have. She cant believe that wed go to war in Iraq, for instance. Shes a little more nave than I am she had to be or I couldnt show what she learns but partly also she just doesnt have the distance in time that the reader and I do. It also felt right just to shift tone from time to time to remind the reader that Danas is not the only possible perspective.

There are many images of the devil in this book. Why?

Ah. Writers confession. It gave me great pleasure to slip in a reference to the devil in just about every characters mouth I guess this was inspired by G.W. Bush to show how the nature and identity of evil keeps changing depending on whos talking. The first time devil is used, its in reference to the terrorists. The last time, Kenisha accuses Dana with it. In between, the word is bandied about from one character to another. None of it amounts to anything but name-calling. For a long while my working title was Devils Play, though it was mainly me doing the playing.

For a book with so much death, its also unexpectedly funny. Whats the function of comedy in this mainly serious, essentially romantic story?

People are funny. Pain is funny. Or as the Pennsylvania coroner puts it, the human race is a funny apparatus. So while were dealing with terrorists and hurricanes and mortality, the politicians are hilariously missing the point, the TV ads are selling lies, and murder is our central form of entertainment. Meanwhile most of the things we fear turn out to be harmless, and disaster comes out of left field. I do ardently believe that at some point or other, the worst that can happen to you will be ironic, or slapstick, or over the top in some way. If you refuse the impulse to giggle or guffaw, youre probably promulgating yet one more form of hypocrisy.

Do you think youve made the ending too pessimistic, given Obamas election to the Presidency?

Yes and no. When I began writing, the possibility was not even on my horizon, that we could as a nation choose a man of mixed race for President. Its a giant step forward, whereas Bridge of Sand speaks to the glacial pace of our progress toward equality.

But in another way, Bridge of Sand seems to me to mimic in miniature exactly this point in history. Dana and Cassius both assume that they can transcend race in their feeling for each other, just as we must assume we can transcend it in our national politics. But race comes in sideways, in small and large ways, often half-concealed or in code (as it was in the Presidential campaign). Frank racism still exists, but much more often we are thwarted by hesitation, self-consciousness, awkwardness, the mistake that betrays a residue from our most shameful history .

What do you hope readers take away from this novel?

I hope theyll read all night and have a wonderful time!

But of course I also hope that this book contributes in some small way to the national conversation that we must, now, have. I have heard a lot in my adulthood about liberal guilt, and the phrase itself is a kind of accusation. I wanted in Dana to explore the experience of someone who is a self-described knee-jerk liberal, who has repudiated the bigotries of her grandparents and parents, and assumes that she is free. But who has much still to learn about herself and her world, and must make choices about her identity in ways she could not foresee.

© Janet Burroway. All Rights Reserved.