Shandi Mitchell is the author of UNDER THIS UNBROKEN SKY. It is one of the most moving novels I’ve ever read. It’s written with such depth and passion that I decided to contact Shandi. I was hoping she might agree to a Q&A. She said “yes.” And I am so happy to introduce you to her.
Please tell us how on earth you came up with your heartbreaking story.
Stories, for me, tend to spark from a personal experience, a memory, or an encounter that leaves me questioning. When I was eighteen, I learned that my grandfather had not died of the flu in the 1930’s. This discovery unraveled my personal narrative of the past, and triggered a search for my family history. My research unearthed a devastating tragedy. I found the fact, but only the fact, and I wondered about the lives. As I sifted through the newspaper and archival documents, I was also struck by the tone and prejudice of the times that hinted at a deeper story. But I set it aside. I had no intention of writing a novel.
Many years later, I found the story calling me again. This time I wanted to know more about the world. I began researching the 1930’s. What I discovered were many other buried stories and histories revised-both personal and collective-spanning two countries. I became interested in the idea of what is lost, what we choose to forget and what we choose to remember. I wanted to write a story about the hunger for freedom and that razor-thin edge of those who break and those who don’t. And I wondered about aloneness and whether or not I could have survived.
Teodor spoke to me first. The scene was of him walking down the prison hall about to be released. He was reciting the speech that he had been practicing during his two-year incarceration and would say to the guards once he was free. He was proud and unbending. But when the doors groaned open, he said only “Thank you.” And I thought “Wow, who is this character?” So I followed him and he led me to the others.
You have totally captured the voices of both the adults and the children. How were you able to accomplish this?
Thank you so much. I am so pleased the characters felt real. From the beginning, I knew I wanted to write from multiple points of view and play with the characters’ subjective experiences and interpretation of events. To achieve this I try to get inside my characters and sometimes that feels as though I need to lose myself.
When a character first appears I start sketching to see who they are. I offer them all of my life experiences, fears, and shames and tell them to do what they want with them. I set aside my values and judgments. I look for their strengths and weaknesses; their hurts and wants; I create their psychological, social and economic world; and then bring forward all that has informed their fictional pasts. Layer upon layer they take shape.
Eventually, the characters start to breathe and I no longer feel that I am guiding them. I am inside their skin. That’s when I try to get out of their way, so they can tell me their story.
As harsh as this story is, and it may just be the harshest novel I’ve ever read, I found myself unable to put it down. Was it this compelling to write?
When I was inside the story it didn’t feel harsh to me. I was experiencing only parts of it through each character. I felt their love and their hope. I knew I was writing a tragedy and I could feel the tension building and the collision of choices compounding. I wrote in the present tense to set myself inside their world. I wanted to experience the same heartaches and moral choices. I wanted my heart to beat with the characters’ hearts.
It is wonderful that you were unable to put the book down. I have been told that I have been responsible for baths going cold, missed bus stops, sunburns, housework being ignored, and too-late nights. You are the first to ask me if it was as compelling to write. It was. The story took on its own urgency. As it progressed, my writing days grew longer and sometimes it felt as though I were chasing after the characters just to keep up.
The story entered my dreams and I would wake with a character’s voice in my head insisting on starting their next scene. Sometimes, I would find myself telling characters to wait their turn. When they refused to be silent, I would jot down on a notepad what they insisted I not forget. The last thirty pages were a manic run to the end. Sometimes writing does not feel like a sane profession to undertake.
And yes, at times, the writing was heartbreaking. I would stumble downstairs from my office – and my husband would ask what’s wrong? Sobbing, I would tell him what a character had done and that I couldn’t stop it from happening.
But I also went into the story looking always for the beauty- however fragile. I found solace in the children; a tentative touch between Maria and Teodor; the taste of borscht; the warmth of a horse’s flank; a perfect egg; or the wild, raw beauty of the land. I held onto Maria’s strength to lead me through the story. And as the granddaughter of a Maria, I had to believe that the future could be better.
I hope you are working on another novel. If so, would you share a bit of it?
I have begun to sketch ideas and listen for characters and I have tentatively begun researching other worlds, but I am still in the thinking and gathering mode. I’m working my way back to the quiet and slowly weaning myself from the demands of the real world.
Until I have a first draft, I likely won’t talk about it. I suppose I’m superstitious- worried that if I say it out loud before it has revealed itself- I might frighten it away.
But I am working on it and it is lovely that there are readers who will be waiting for me.
Thank you so much for allowing us into your world. And, yes, readers are out here watching and waiting for your next novel.