03.12.10

A Novelist's Biracial Struggle

Heidi Durrow’s debut novel captures her own struggles with her mixed-race heritage. She speaks to John Douglas Marshall about her new book and where she came from.

Heidi W. Durrow heard the rejections of her debut novel so many times over so many years that she had them memorized. It did not seem to matter whether the rejections came from editors, agents, contests, or publications. All said the same thing regarding a coming-of-age novel about a teen whose father was African American and whose mother was Danish, the exact mixed-race heritage that produced Durrow herself.

The engaging, 40-year-old writer has no trouble recalling the rejections or her reaction to them even though they are now behind her: “Everyone kept saying my book was not marketable—there was no way they could sell this thing. They said the main character was not universal enough—no one can relate to her situation. I took these ‘no’s as an inspiration—can I write this story better? But I never listened to those who said the story was not universal.”

“The central thing in the novel—being biracial—is the same for both of us,” Durrow relates. “I was also constantly asked, ‘What are you?’”

Durrow’s stubbornness has now paid off in sweet poetic justice. Her powerful little novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, is getting the sort of serious book-industry buzz and media attention that is generated by only a few debuts every season. That is happening, in part, because it was named winner of the 2008 Bellwether Prize for fiction, the biannual competition sponsored by Barbara Kingsolver that results in both publication of the prizewinning book (recently released by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill), as well as a $25,000 honorarium for the author. The Bellwether has helped vault Durrow way past all those misguided rejections that not only seemed a slap at her own heritage, but also at the mixed-race heritage of growing numbers of Americans, a population that is expected to near 10 million in this year’s Census being compiled by a government led by a president who is of mixed racial heritage, too.

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is not, however, some do-gooder civics lesson delivered from a speakers’ corner soapbox. It is a deeply human and affecting personal story coupled with a confounding mystery story. Young Rachel is the sole survivor of a fall from the roof of an apartment building in Chicago that claimed the lives of her mother and two siblings. But the aftermath of the haunting family tragedy is a hurricane of rumor and innuendo: Would a distraught mother force her children into this family group suicide? Or must they have been pushed, perhaps by her disreputable boyfriend or even a deranged stranger?

There was a girl in a northeastern American city who survived a fall under circumstances similar to those in the novel. Durrow clipped a news story about the incident and “obsessed” about the girl and her life afterward. The novel’s Rachel has to go live with her demanding, alcoholic African-American grandmother in Portland, Oregon, where the author herself grew up in a neighborhood so rough back then that she remembers a drive-by shooting by someone on a bicycle. There are similarities between the novel’s main character and the novel’s creator in the days leading up to the last summer of high school—good students, racial curiosities (or even outcasts) to peers at a large public high school in northeast Portland, although Rachel is much more attractive than Durrow was in high school, despite her cinematic good looks these days.

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The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. By Heidi Durrow. 256 pages. Algonquin Books. $22.95. ()

“The central thing in the novel—being biracial—is the same for both of us,” Durrow relates. “I was also constantly asked, ‘What are you?’ (her refrain became: ‘I’m black and white.’). We had the same struggle to fit in, so Rachel’s emotional truth is my truth.... But I certainly wasn’t pretty growing up. I had buck teeth, frizzy crazy hair, and a style that was bohemian at best, thrift store at worst. And for three years, I walked around smelling like bacon all the time since our quaint little rental house had a leaky wood stove.”

Durrow has gone on to achieve platinum academic and work success that Rachel probably could not imagine. She graduated with honors as an undergrad at Stanford (“What’s a Stanford?” her mother inquired at first mention of the elite school), then received a master's in journalism from Columbia University followed by a doctor of law from Yale. Durrow’s post-college career includes stints as a corporate attorney in Manhattan, a life-skills trainer for NBA and NFL athletes, co-founder of the Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival in Los Angeles (her current home with her husband), plus blogger with a podcast on mixed-race matters known as Mixed Chicks Chat.

Durrow, visiting Seattle where she was born, jokes that her résumé probably prompts others to wonder: “What’s her deal—she seems to get everything!” But the author did a lot of hard work throughout the last two decades, including her disappointing toilings as an attorney, a job that paid high wages for insane long hours but never truly engaged her heart as writing always did.

College summer internships as a reporter for Portland’s Oregonian, Newsday, and Newsweek had given Durrow a heady taste of the writing life. But whether her remarkable résumé would ever include “novelist” seemed much in doubt. She started The Girl Who Fell From the Sky back in 1997 with little more than Rachel’s voice, later supplemented that with alternating chapters in the voices of other characters, a popular dramatic technique but one that was forced upon her because she found Rachel to be too unreliable as a narrator for the entire novel. There were revisions and more revisions (“I had so much growing up to do and needed to learn to let Rachel have her faults,” Durrow says. “She’s no perfect character and I had to learn to be able to let that be seen.”) There were rejections and more rejections.

Then, at long last, came a voicemail from Barbara Kingsolver that sent Durrow in what she describes as “the laugh-cry-shake thing—I was completely undone.” She met Kingsolver later in Los Angeles, received a hug from the writer while Durrow herself worried “I might just lick her face with glee,” then was later introduced by Kingsolver to the large crowd at her book reading.

Of the Bellwether Prize, Durrow says simply: “It changed my whole life.”

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John Douglas Marshall is a critic for The Daily Beast. He was the longtime book critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it ceased publication in March.