An Interview with Dana Chamblee Carpenter
Dana Chamblee Carpenter is the author of “Book of the Just,” the third novel in The Bohemian Trilogy. Carpenter’s award-winning short fiction has also appeared in The Arkansas Review, Jersey Devil Press, Maypop, and, most recently in the anthologies, “Dead Ends: Stories from the Gothic South,” and “Killer Nashville Noir: Cold Blooded.” She teaches at a university in Nashville, TN where she lives with her husband and two children. Visit her at http://www.danachambleecarpenter.com/.
Q: You give such an intriguing glimpse of history and culture that is often not touched upon. What drew you to write a story in Bohemia during the 13th century and the new amazing places “Book of the Just” takes us?
I don’t tend to start out with a setting in mind—how fun would it be to know your destination ahead of time? I go where the character takes me, and it makes for a much more adventurous journey. When I discovered the connection between Mouse and the infamous medieval codex known as the Devil’s Bible, I knew her story started in the 13thcentury in Bohemia because that’s where and when the codex was written. But once Mouse got me there, I fell in love. I sometimes wonder if, in a different life, I lived in that part of the world. The more I learned about the places and the people and the stories and the culture, the more I felt like I was coming home somehow. Similarly, practical aspects of the story took me to the places in Book of the Just. Parts of Australia are remote and shrouded in ancient mythical truths—just the kind of spot Mouse would go if she needed a place to hide. Likewise, the Book of the Just (a real book like the Devil’s Bible) and my research of ancient Hebrew history took me to the Middle East and parts of Africa. And again, I felt a visceral connection to these places and a deep respect for the people who live there. I love going to these places and I love taking my readers with me. Too often we get anchored in our comfortable spaces and forget how beautifully diverse the world is. I want to make the unfamiliar familiar for myself and my readers so we can appreciate our differences while reveling in the joy of all that makes us human.
Q: How does your career as a teacher influence your writing?
I really don’t think of teaching or writing as a career. Career seems like something you choose. Writing and teaching chose me—sometimes against my will. ☺ I guess that makes them a calling. Whatever we name them, they are both integral parts of who I am, entwined and inseparable. I see teaching as a form of storytelling. Education is about learning to hear the stories around us, to connect to them and empathize with them, to understand them so that we can learn our own stories—in truth and without posturing or judgment. And then, once we’ve listened to or read the stories around us, we must learn to tell those stories and our own. Storytelling is also a form of teaching. The journey of writing and research teaches me so much about humanity and the world and history and science, the known and the unknown. I learn and then I share that with my readers, and then my readers teach me. It’s the same process I go through as a teacher—I learn and share with my students and then my students teach me. I suppose the deep current running through all of it is an insatiable curiosity.
Q: Your writing intricately mixes history, thriller, and a feeling of mysticism and magic. What things do you see influencing these aspects of your writing?
I’ve always been an eclectic reader. I read everything, every genre, including poetry and plays, both “literary” fiction and “commercial.” (I’m not sure what those labels offer us so I’m wary about using them.) I love going to new places and new times, and I love playing with “what ifs.” When I go looking for a common thread in my favorite writers, be it Eudora Welty or Maya Angelou or Neil Gaiman or William Faulkner or Stephen King or Katherine Howe or Naomi Novik or countless others, I see that each of them and the stories I find most compelling reveal a world to me where there is so much more that we don’t understand than what we think we do. That’s the world I want to live in—full of the thrill of discovery and the play of what if. And that’s the world I want to create for my readers, too. The unknown, the mysterious, the magical lives among us in the everyday. We just have to teach ourselves to look for it.
Q: Did the first novel in the series, Bohemian Gospel, winning the Claymore Award influence the rest of the series?
Winning the Claymore opened all the doors for me. So, in that way, yes. I got the chance to prove myself with Bohemian Gospel, which let me move on to write The Devil’s Bible and Book of the Just. But in terms of the story, no, winning didn’t influence what came after Bohemian Gospel. I learned pretty quickly as I was working on The Devil’s Bible, that I needed to shut out reader expectations, marketing issues, publisher wants, etc. If you let that stuff get in your head, the story loses its authenticity. It was even harder to push that all aside when I was working on Book of the Just because it was the end of the trilogy, and I knew that readers would want to see certain things tied up (and tied up in certain ways). But I just needed to get into a quiet space and listen to Mouse and let her finish the story for me.
Q:The Devil’s Bible, the second in your series, not only won the Silver Falchion in Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror category but also Best Overall novel at this most recent Killer Nashville conference. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience with that? How does it feel to have this success coincide with closing out this literary chapter with Book of the Just in October?
Oh, my goodness, what a night! I didn’t see that coming at all! The overwhelming emotion that settled on me like a blanket, when Clay called out The Devil’s Bible as the winner, was gratitude. I have an incredible family that walks this journey with me and makes sacrifices to give me space and time to chase this dream, and I am beyond thankful for them. But my Killer Nashville family—and I do think of them like family—has also been there for me when I most needed encouragement or kindness or guidance. The award that night came when I was nervously awaiting the release of Book of the Just, wrestling with the insecurities that most writers have, but I also coming off a frustrating summer where everything but my writing was defining me. I came into the conference that year worried I was only playing at being a writer. I felt like a fraud. And then I went to panels and had quiet conversations with friends, met new ones—I was reminded that this tribe of writers was my tribe, where I belonged. Winning the Silver Falchions was the ultimate affirmation. I left Killer Nashville emboldened, but also inspired to take that inclusion and support away with me so I could gift it to other writers. That’s what I’m looking to do with every article I write and event I attend as part of the Book of the Just tour—I want to give what I’ve been given. I want to embolden writers to believe in themselves.