Once in a very rare while a writer appears and knocks your socks off. Their prose transcends much of what you’ve read before. Their story touches you so deeply it settles to reside in your soul.
Much has been written over the years since TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was published about how it stands tall among other wonderful works. If there is any fairness in creation ACCIDENTS OF BIRTH will come to be looked upon as its equal.
The beauty and pathos of Christina Carson’s story reaches out and wraps its tendrils around your heart. So too do her words.
Centred in the small town of Ellensburg, Mississippi, this story follows the lives of a number of its inhabitants, both white and black, focusing on two families, the white Sutton’s and the black Ware’s who served them.
The story begins in the 1960s and opens with a funeral. John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King are still alive. They won’t be at the end of book 2.
Except for chapter 1, book 1 is told in the first person by Imogene Ware, a woman with more love for the human race than anyone could fairly expect of her, given her situation in life. The narration of book 2 widens to take in the voices of several other main characters, so we get to see the viewpoints from both sides of the fence.
It’s an ugly story. The racism, the hatred, the belief in superiority and inferiority are without any redeeming features.
Yet the story is told beautifully, and it leaves you feeling not repulsed by the inhumanity portrayed but uplifted by the generosity of spirit shown by the Ware family to their oppressors and—can I get away with saying it again—the beauty of the prose and Christina Carson’s skill as a storyteller.
My guest today is Christina Carson, an author with a lot of living and experiences under her belt. Her latest books, ACCIDENTS OF BIRTH books 1 and 2, are the first of her stories that I’ve read and to say I was impressed with her storytelling skills is certainly an understatement. I will be finding time for her others. Let me introduce you.
Alana: Christina, welcome. Let me first ask you a little about yourself. In your own words you’ve ‘worn many hats’ and ‘travelled many roads’. Would you tell us a bit about those hats and roads.
Christina: I started out intent on being a medical doctor, not my choice—
Alana: That’s a tantalising comment. May I ask whose choice it was and why you acceded to it?
Christina: …When I was three years old, my mother said to me, ‘Christina, you are going to be a doctor.’ Every relevant decision in my education from that point on was based on that assumption. Because pleasing my mother made life more bearable I never said no. Luckily science quickly began to fascinate me. But two years into pre-med I realized I wasn’t looking forward to the job, just the science, so I picked up an undergraduate research opportunity and found medical research was my place. By then the Vietnam War was front page news and just as I was heading into a PhD program my world changed radically. Because of my views I left the program, was turned out by my family and moved to Canada.
Alana: You’re saying there, I presume, that you were against the war. Why did that cause you to leave your job?
Christina: It wasn’t just the war, it was the realization that my country, the only thing left that I believed in at that point in my life, was selling wholesale lies to its populace and killing young men for personal and political gain, not defense. That may sound naïve, but growing up in the 1950s in the US created a very Pollyanna view of life which I acquired from my parents—meaning the USA was above reproach. The Vietnam War made it all too clear that was not true. As I struggled to determine what my response to the war was going to be, I realized I couldn’t live in the States any longer. Since my parents had severed their relationship with me I crossed the border into Canada and never looked back. My position, my graduate degree and everything else, I left behind. In Canada I taught for a few years but then wanted out of academia and that’s when change ran rampant through my life. First, I worked in the trades and then was a sheep farmer for 15 years in the far North.
Alana: That’s a heck of a change in direction.
Christina: It certainly was, but I felt I needed it. Life went rather smoothly for the next 15 years, and then the bottom fell out again, and I lost everything that mattered to me.
Alana: I’m sorry to hear that. Would you care to share the story behind it?
Christina: Due to a marriage breakup I had to leave the North and with it my farm, my community, the man I loved, and a life I treasured. I moved south to Vancouver and started over once again. I was deeply unsettled and moved from magazine ad salesperson to stockbroker, corporate consultant, contributing editor to Canada’s then only financial magazine, then in a period of financial ruin anything I could get to stay afloat. Some of it was thrilling, some of it hell, but years later it certainly serves my writing.
Alana: You weren’t exaggerating with the many hats and roads! Where do you call home now? Is it permanent or do you envisage moving again at some stage?
Christina: My home of heart will always be Canada. I should have been born there. It felt like home from the get-go. The title of my latest novel ACCIDENTS OF BIRTH came from hearing myself rationalize my birthplace and why I didn’t want to go back. I’d say being born there was just an accident of birth. I doubt I’ll ever return to Canada, and I am finally seeing the beauty of living in the Deep South. In a most fascinating way it is like stepping back in time, both alluring and instructive.
Alana: So how did you end up in the Deep South?
Christina: My present husband, Bert, was born and raised in Alabama. He’s traveled the country widely but prefers the South. So I followed him here.
Alana: And what are you doing now, workwise? Are you a fulltime writer or are you pursuing another career in parallel with your writing?
Christina: Bert and I have a small photography business, which strangely requires an inordinate amount of time. Thus is takes me ages to finish a novel. I can only write in our slow months, which is about the most inefficient manner in which to write a novel that I could imagine. I would like to write full time, but I don’t know if that will happen.
Alana: Your husband, Bert Carson, is also an author. Have you found that both of you being writers creates problems in the household or does it actually ease the way, so as to speak?
Christina: We both share a passion for writing and that is a marvelous passion to share. We are not in any way competitive with one another; in fact, completely supportive would be the accurate description. I’ve always thrived on sharing things of meaning with the one I love, and now Bert and I have several such points of intersection.
Alana: ACCIDENTS OF BIRTH—where on earth did the story idea come from? It’s an amazing read. It seems a world away from your own experiences and yet it rings so completely true and believable.
Christina: That is a conundrum, even for me at times. The initial spark came from wanting an experience of true mother-love at a difficult point in my life. Crazy as that sounds for an older adult, it was the initial inspiration. But the only place in my life where I had experienced such all-inclusive love was from two Black orderlies in a hospital in Pennsylvania when I was 16. I had never felt anything like what they offered to comfort me, and I never forgot it. Then living in the South I was privileged to meet many more Black women due to the nature of Bert’s and my work. Our photography business focuses on taking photos of little children in daycares. When we’re in towns or counties that are predominately Black, the daycare Directors are always Black women. I have met many through that experience and since our customers, the Directors, become like family, we have close ties with them. Over and over, these women show me that my early experience wasn’t an exception.
I was half way through another novel when I got the sense of a story that would let me, in a ‘writerly’ way, spend time in the company of the very people who had taught me about love. I set my other novel aside. I brought up a blank screen and the first chapter felt like it fell out of the sky. Then in chapter 2, Miss Imogene, who was only to be a supporting character, since I feared how the sense of hubris in writing outside not only your world experience but also your race might appear, stepped out and took over. She made herself the protagonist. I, at that point, was merely the scribe. By then I could hear the dialect in my head and I could hardly keep up with the story that flowed onto the page. I fell in love with Miss Imogene and in the end she healed her world in an amazing number of ways as well as healing mine too.
Alana: I fell in love with her too. I love her philosophy on life. All of your books including ACCIDENTS OF BIRTH are categorised as literary fiction with some sub-genres happening for each. Do you feel that it quite captures the spirit of the stories you tell?
Christina: I will be the first to admit I am genre-challenged. The best category would be contemporary fiction, but if you are selling through Amazon that is akin to stepping into oblivion. I write about love but my books aren’t romances. I write about human interplay, but without the pounding metronomic rhythm of modern fiction. And I always seem to include an underlying current of the spiritual and metaphysical. If someone can tell me what genre that belongs to I’ll kiss their feet. So I chose literary fiction as it permits the most latitude in topic and form of presentation. Your sense, Alana, was most accurate. I don’t really fit there.
Alana: Your bio says you’re a long way from finished, so tell us what’s in the works next for Christina Carson, novelist.
Christina: In truth, what that statement referred to was the larger project of my life, a never ending desire to attain a greater awareness about what we are and why we are here. I refer to it as human cosmology, and it is my life’s work. There is no finishing that one, so indeed I am not finished.
Alana: And your writing?
Christina: I plan to go back and finish the novel Miss Imogene interrupted. I don’t as yet have a title, but it is historical fiction only because I wasn’t sure it could happen in these times. The story relates the experience we all have—we come into the world whole, open, connected with life and filled with wonder. But then the pressures to conform begin. The protagonist, Tibatha Nase, has had enough freedom in her childhood that she rebels as she senses her circumstances closing in on her. She moves West with the large migration of those seeking new beginnings in the 1850s. In the process she walks right into the Indian Wars, the Sheep and Cattle War and the genocidal action of the American government toward Natives. If she thought she was confused before, she now faces a tragic scenario she could have never imagined. It takes years for her to regain her balance and finally find her place in the world.
I have a contemporary novel sitting in the back of my mind presently. I’m calling it The Mobius Strip [a one-sided surface]. It asks if life is a Mobius Strip, a situation we can never leave, or is there way out? The protagonist is an older woman, now a widow and in a state of penury that has her feeling defeated and frightened (The US can be a cruel place to live for old, poor people). She has taken great risks in her life to take a road less traveled hoping to understand the nature of human reality, but now feels like a dreadful failure. Surely it shouldn’t have brought her to this end. In the ugly little concrete block apartment building she’s been forced to move to she meets a crazy Vietnam veteran whom she befriends, a man who knows all too well about life’s disappointments. As well, through seeming serendipity, she crosses paths with a successful young IT entrepreneur who works in the field of artificial intelligence. These two new acquaintances set up a triangle of relationship that becomes the next phase of her life. Neither knows she has been a student of mind and consciousness, for she seems quite broken when they meet, but when tragedy strikes she begins to see a bigger picture of how life works, perhaps even a way out.
Alana: There sounds as though elements of your own story may be finding their way into that one. Before I let you go would you tell us a little about your other published novels.
Christina: My first novel, SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN, is set in a wilderness community in western Alberta. I was really homesick, so that gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in a world I knew and loved. It asks a question, like so much of my writing does. In this case it was: what is it we do that drives our children from us? It haunts the protagonist, for her only daughter has been missing for 8 years and not until a neighbor child ends up on her doorstep, also on the lam, does Anne Mueller realize she must find the answer or perhaps create the situation again. She is assisted by her wise Native friends and the very wilderness in which she lives as it pits her against her worst fear to bring her to a point of reckoning. It is a great book for parents and children to read together.
I switched to something a tad more metaphysical in my second novel, DYING TO KNOW. In it a young woman faces cancer but is insistent that she’ll not take the traditional route of treatment after having cared for her mother dying from cancer. As one reviewer said, ‘ … but it is not a book about cancer’. And he was right. It is a story about the search for the real nature of health and well-being, for the reader lives each day with Calli Morrow in her search for an alternative view of life and healing. As another reviewer deftly summarizes: ‘… in the undercurrent of the story, the careful reader will see the struggle with the paradoxical world and the taffy-pull of the scientist with the philosopher’. It is a book that gives the reader much to ponder.
Alana: Christina, many thanks for giving us your time today.
Christina: Alana, I am most grateful for your invitation. I am particularly delighted that this will touch Australia more directly as your country has always had a pull on me. In fact, just before I met Bert, I was seriously considering moving there. I appreciate the time and effort you give these interviews. Thank you indeed.
This is not my usual author interview. When I contacted Laurence O’Bryan to ask if he would be interested in participating in one he sent me back an already-prepared Q&A. Rather than delving into the author as well as all of his works, this focuses mainly on the novel I reviewed, THE MANHATTAN PUZZLE. So, for those of you who would have liked to get to know the author a little better, you will be disappointed. But if you’d like to know the story behind the story, and isn’t that all of us, here it is—Laurence talking about Manhattan.
Q: Laurence, describe your connection to Manhattan?
Laurence: I have been to Manhattan, the site of my latest novel, THE MANHATTAN PUZZLE, only four times. Each time it was different and so was I. Manhattan became part of my dream of prosperity. If I had enough money, in my fantasy, I would leave Ireland, visit Manhattan and enjoy all the interesting things that the city could offer. Later, after 9/11 and the financial crash, my impressions of the city changed. They became darker. There were forces battling over the island and innocent lives were being lost.
Q: What things about this place make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Laurence: I imagine the whole of Manhattan as a museum. It exists as an entirely man-made object, a piece of intricate jewellery or a giant snow globe with dollar bills cascading. Every street in Manhattan seems imbued with style, either gritty, trashy or glitzy, but there is nothing boring about it. I know of no other place like it.
Q: Did you consciously set out to use your location as a ‘character’ in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
Laurence: Manhattan, the mid-town section around Grand Central Terminal, is a character in THE MANHATTAN PUZZLE. It exists in the streets around the terminal and in the imaginary BXH Bank headquarters, a 1920s era skyscraper with a secret underneath. I couldn’t write a story about Manhattan without that presence coming through strongly, like Marilyn or Frank Sinatra swaggering past you as they head towards a limousine.
Q: How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you? In other words, similar to the last question, are you conscious of referring to your specific city or locale as you write?
Laurence: I believe place is a vital part of any novel. I went deep under Grand Central to feel it and to smell what it is like. There is a cinnamon-like smell on the lower tracks. I do pay specific attention to details like that, the feel of the stones under your feet as you race along the tracks, the smell, the noise of a train on a distant track.
Q: How does your protagonist interact with his/her surroundings? Is she a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect your protagonist?
Laurence: My main characters are blow-ins, like me. They are there to solve a puzzle. They don’t make much of their surroundings, they are too busy surviving, but the city is there, behind it all.
Q: Has there been any local reaction to your works? What do local (ie those who actually live in your novels’ settings) reviewers think, for example. If published in a non-English speaking country are your books in translation in that country and, if so, what reaction have they gotten from reviewers?
Laurence: I have had great responses from readers in New York. Not one has given me a negative comment yet. This is a good thing for me. If I had dropped a few clangers I am sure they would have been noticed by sharp-eyed New Yorkers.
I’ve also written about Istanbul and Jerusalem. Both novels have been reviewed by people from those cities and the Istanbul novel has been translated into Turkish. Aside from a few minor points, such as below, there has been no negative comment about my use of these locations.
Q: Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share—the more humorous the better (we all have).
Laurence: A tricky one this. I wrote a novel set in Istanbul. In it I placed a sea bus to the Princess Islands in one location on the Bosphorus shore of the city only to find when it was being translated that the location was wrong. I also misnamed a tower, allocating its creation to the Venetians, not the Genoese!
Q: Of the novels you have written set in this location, do you have a favourite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
Laurence: In THE MANHATTAN PUZZLE the tracks under Grand Central and a secret platform form an important part of the middle section of the book. That part of Manhattan, deep under Grand Central, is a location I love. It’s not a long section in the book but it links the modern part of Manhattan to an imaginary older part, which I have created. It is a factual place that is hidden, which I have used to link to an imaginary place.
Q: If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
Laurence: I would live in Manhattan, in the Village, for the vitality, the energy all around, the great bookshops and the constant flow of people and stories.
Q: Who are your favourite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
Laurence: The writers I have enjoyed most include Robert Graves, whose series set in Rome and beyond was definitely inspired by place. Conan Doyle and the Sherlock Holmes series was also greatly involved with place, from the smoke-filled streets of London to the mists of Devon. In the modern era I enjoy Wilbur Smith’s adventure series and Barbara Kingsolver’s novels. All these novels feature place as a key element. I also enjoy Michael Connelly’s novels. He brings LA to life for me.
Q: What’s next for your protagonist?
Laurence: Sean and Isabel Ryan are off to Nuremberg. I am writing the novel at the moment. It’s about modern fascism and betrayal. It also takes the puzzle at the heart of the series one more step forward.
Laurence O’Bryan’s first novel, THE ISTANBUL PUZZLE, was short listed for Irish Crime Novel of the year in 2012. He still lives in Ireland. You can find out more about him and the series at www.lpobryan.com.
Laurence’s thrillers have been translated into ten languages. THE MANHATTAN PUZZLE was published by Harper Collins in the US on 26 August 2014.
I very nearly didn’t read on from the opening of this book because it is confronting. However, I dislike giving up on a book so quickly and persevered. Glad I did, it’s a good one.
Throughout the story there were back story glimpses which I realised after a while were references to earlier books in the series. Yes, this is a series, so be warned. If you prefer to read your series in order then you’ll need the preceding two before you bury your nose in this one: THE ISTANBUL PUZZLE and THE JERUSALEM PUZZLE. But I have to say I didn’t feel disadvantaged as this one stands on its own.
The story follows Sean and Isabel Ryan, husband and wife, as they become involved in an international religious conspiracy that, if successful, will turn the world on its head.
The story/plot is terrific, as is characterisation. I believed in these people. My heart was in my mouth as to where O’Bryan was taking me in relation to one character later in the book. Was he going to die, and would it be horribly? You’re going to have to read it to find out.
The author’s use of language, description and dialogue kept my adrenalin levels elevated for pretty well the entire 400+ pages. And unlike other series I’ve read where the reader is left hanging at the end as though the next chapter is missing, this book is complete in itself. A definite plus.