Dana Carpenter is brilliant. There, I said it. Brilliant, and beautiful, and funny and fun. She's the whole package, with a wicked imagination to boot. We met several years ago at a Nashville writers lunch, and our paths continued crossing until they were intertwined into a genuine friendship. And then Dana birthed a beautiful baby book. I was so excited to read it, because—FRIEND—and then . . . It is so rare for a book to surprise me—any book—but BOHEMIAN GOSPEL blew me away. An assured and exquisite debut, the story, the characters—it's NOT what you think, I will guarantee you that. I can't talk anymore about the book without giving it away. Suffice it to say, I was shocked this was Dana's debut, and I can't recommend it highly enough.
I had the great pleasure of interviewing Dana in person at Parnassus Books last weekend. I'm thrilled to share her in print today. Take it away, Dana!
BOHEMIAN GOSPEL is your debut novel—congratulations, by the way! Publisher’s Weekly called it “a deliciously creepy debut,” which I just loved. Fill in readers on what BOHEMIAN GOSPEL is all about.
Thank you! It all still feels a little unreal.
Ok, so about BOHEMIAN GOSPEL—We have a girl, Mouse, who has grown up in an abbey in 13th century Bohemia. Mouse has no idea who her family was/is, and she has a slew of unusual abilities that scare most people, even her. She thinks she’s been given these abilities for a reason—she just doesn’t know what that reason is. Then Ottakar, the young king of Bohemia, shows up at the abbey wounded, dying, and it’s up to Mouse to save him.
And to figure out who’s trying to kill him.
She heads off to the royal court at Prague, and the deeper she gets sucked into the deadly intrigue there, the darker things get, and the closer she gets to discovering her destiny. Which is anything BUT what she’d expected.
How did you come up with this story? Was there anything in particular that inspired you?
Mouse came to me. I saw her so clearly it felt like my own memory. She was looking out over a battlefield, toward one soldier in particular, and her face was this vivid mix of anger and sadness and determination. I felt all that with her. And I had to know why she was angry and sad and what she was dead-set on doing. I had to know who she was and where and when she was.
From beautiful landscapes and natural healing practices to religion and rich historical details, you make 13th century Bohemia come alive for 21st century readers—that’s no small task. What kinds of research did you do for this book? You must have done tons.
Oh yeah, I spent the better part of a year learning everything I could about the 13th century and Bohemia and medieval medicine. I might be able to save your life if we’re ever stuck out in the woods and you’re wounded—a few herbs and some spit and you’re good to go. And I’ve taken the virtual tour of Prague castle so many times I’m pretty sure I could navigate the place blindfolded. At first I felt a little weird when people would ask me if I’d ever been to Prague and I had to say no (though I sure do mean to get there some day!), but then I realized that I can never go to Mouse’s Prague castle anyway. It doesn’t exist anymore. And that sums up the difficulty (and FUN!) of researching this time and period—you have to sift through so much to find what you need and then you get to imagine the rest.
At times, I felt like I did when I was a kid and we went to pan for diamonds in the mines in Murfreesboro, Arkansas—impatient, hot and sweaty, frustrated. I never found a diamond in all that dirt, but I can imagine what it must feel like because I had that sudden rush of success, of good fortune when I would discover just the bit of history I needed—a sketch of the layout of the castle as it would’ve been in the 13th century buried in a tome about medieval battlements, a book of 12th and 13th century minnesinger songs (they’re kinda like troubadours) with translated lyrics (Hallelujah!), the archeological report of a recent dig at the castle that unearthed a glass goblet decorated with dolphins that would’ve actually been on Ottakar’s table in the great hall. That’s better than diamonds for a writer.
There is a creep factor to this book that freaked me out enough I couldn’t read it at night. Talk to me about your demons.
Okay, so I’m maybe smiling a little too much right now. I LOVE hearing that it scared you! (and it’s a little payback for the nights I’ve lost sleep because I had to make sure Sam was okay and for the worry over her since I finished What Lies Behind). Honestly though, I freaked myself out writing the scary parts in Bohemian Gospel. Can’t tell you how many times I ran from the bathroom and jumped into the bed because I was pretty sure there was something lurking in the dark, waiting for me.
My own “big bad,” the one I can’t seem to slay, is perfectionism. We’ve almost decided this is a good thing in our culture—you know, people will “confess” that they’re perfectionists with a wink and a gleam in their eye, when what they’re really trying to say is that they work really hard to do their best. But that’s not really perfectionism. Perfectionism is this insidious goblin that convinces you that nothing you do is good enough, that never lets you be content with what you’ve done, and that relentlessly shreds you with criticism and self-doubt. I swear I’m going to exorcise this bloody little devil one day though and then stake him in the heart.
Which of Mouse’s special gifts would you most like to have?
I’d like to . . . oh, wait. Well maybe I want to be able to . . . dang, not that either. As soon as you start “trying on” Mouse’s gifts, you realize why she thinks of them as curses. They’re cool but they come with a bite.
You’ve created quite a sympathetic heroine. Why do you think readers relate to Mouse so much?
I think so many of us are looking for where we belong in the world just like Mouse is. We believe we’re meant to do something with our lives, but we’re surrounded by a culture that tells us to buy stuff and sell stuff, that tells us what we’re “supposed” to look like and act like, and when we don’t fit in those boxes, we’re ostracized, labeled and shunned, just like Mouse is. Her battles are our battles. I hope that her victories also inspire victories in my readers.
Let’s talk process. As a professor and a homeschooling mom of two, you’ve essentially got two full-time jobs (!). How do you find time to write, where do you do it, and what are your favorite tools?
You know, every time I start to whine about not having enough time to do what I need to do, I think about how much you do. Good grief! I’d ask you the same thing (as I have many times)—how do you do it all? For me, the answer is I can’t help myself. Regardless of what else is going on, I have to write. When I don’t, I don’t feel alive, you know?
Oh, trust me—I know. I took three months off writing this summer, and I will never do that again. So I completely get that. But when do you make time to write?
The when is tricky because it changes all the time. What works for me is to look at each week and find those chunks of time not claimed by class time or kids. Then I protect those chunks of writing time like they’re my seat in a lifeboat. Because they are.
I can’t write at my office—too many students in and out and a glass wall where I can see the feet coming and going to the water cooler. Drives me nuts! And I don’t tend to do the coffee shop thing because I want all the minutes for writing—not navigating Nashville traffic. So I mostly write at home. Sometimes I’ll take the laptop outside, but when the writing gets intense, I need to be alone and I head to my bedroom.
I’m pretty simple in terms of what I need when I write—my laptop (I’m a Mac girl), wi-fi (for the necessary research), and something hot to drink.
Amen, sister. I’m a slave to a nice, steaming pot tea!
So music plays a big role in my writing—I’ve always got a “book soundtrack” of sorts by the time I’ve finished my manuscript. What did you listen to while you wrote this book?
Ooooh, I want that “book soundtrack”!
Well, since you ask, I put them all up on my website—half to share with readers, half as a audio scrapbook of sorts. I can’t hear a song and not think about what my characters were wrestling with or how a lyric inspired a scene.
I do the same thing. With BOHEMIAN GOSPEL, I listened to lots of Gregorian chants to help with the medieval mood. Laura Marling’s Alas I Cannot Swim and I Speak Because I Can were my anchor albums, played on repeat so much that the soul in those songs must have soaked into Mouse’s bones. And I played a fair share of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Sting’s If On a Winter’s Night was great for the Christmas scenes.
What do you do if the words aren’t flowing?
Walking. Driving/riding in the car. Playing with the kids. It has to be something in motion though—like actually getting my body moving gets the ideas moving again, too.
Who is your writing idol? Have you met him/her? If so, did you completely nerd out or keep your cool?
I have a couple and they don’t really go together at all. Eudora Welty and Neil Gaiman. Yeah, weird, I know. I never met Welty, but when I was working on my Ph.D. in Oxford, MS, I could’ve arranged an interview with her (my dissertation focused on her and Maya Angelou), but I was too chicken. Sometimes I’ll have a dream where I’m walking down her sidewalk and up her front porch. She opens the door before I get there and invites me in. The house smells like lemons because she’s made a lemon pound cake and tea.
What a peculiar, but telling dream!
I did “meet” Neil Gaiman once, if standing in line to get a book signed counts as meeting someone. My kiddos were with me, too, so I was on “mom-duty” and was helping my little guy (he was six at the time) give Neil a picture he’d made, inspired by The Wolves in the Walls. Neil was so kind and patient. And then, as we were about to walk away, he looked up at me and said, “Cool shirt.” (I was wearing a Doctor Who Weeping Angels shirt.) I said, “Thanks, you too.” Not too stupid, right?
No, not at all! I’d say that’s a pretty Fan Girl-Light moment.
Yeah, except he was wearing a very generic, very plain, totally nondescript black shirt. I think he smirked and shook his head before turning to the next person.
But later that night, on Twitter, I posted a picture of what Neil had signed in my book. I couldn’t make it out, so I tagged Neil’s assistant, Cat, and asked for some deciphering help. She couldn’t figure it out either, but she tagged Neil. AND HE RESPONDED! I totally squealed like my fifth-grade girl-self.
“Love from.” That’s what it said. I had “Love from” Neil Gaiman. <cue the angels singing Hallelujah>
Ok, your boldness completely paid off there! That’s awesome. What a fabulous memory.
So what’s your favorite bit of writing advice?
Don’t quit. There’s so much out there to tell you how to write better, how to write for the market, how to get published, how to market your book. And, yes, you need to learn your craft and educate yourself about the industry, but the most important thing is to stay with it. You get better by keeping writing. You learn about the market by keeping writing (and reading, which is integral to writing). And you give yourself time for luck to strike because regardless of how great a writer you are or how savvy you are, you will need a little luck at some point.
Word. Luck is paramount in this industry. Then again, I believe you make your own luck . . .
Ok, let’s talk a little bit about Dana the Book Nerd (don’t worry, you’re among friends!). What was your favorite book as a child?
Oh, my goodness, there were SO many! Books were my best friends. I loved the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, but I guess it was Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series that I’d go back to again and again. I remember counting the days until my little brother was old enough for me to read it to him—I just HAD to share it with someone. (Ok, that’s adorable!) And I read my Little House on the Prairie books until they literally fell apart.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I was in the third grade. I’d started telling scary stories to my classmates when we were waiting for the bell to ring at the end of the day. At first, I told stories I’d heard before, but when I ran out of those, I started making up my own. I’d write them down at night (and scare myself in the process—my mom got so fed up with coming into my room to check under the bed and behind the curtains) and then read them to my “audience” the next day. I was hooked.
And then I totally chickened out when I got to college and went the “safe” route instead—you know, the one that was supposed to lead to gainful employment. No one bothered to tell me that professors in the Humanities are hardly full of gain.
What’s your secret talent?
Well it was a secret, even to me, but apparently I’m a closet costume designer and hair and make-up artist. My family likes to dress up for Halloween in themed costumes (this year we’re going as characters from The Nightmare Before Christmas), and rarely do we choose costumes we can go buy. I once spent four months building a brachiosaurus head, body, and tail (on wheels) out of wire and papier-mâché. It was six-feet long and wiggled behind my little guy as we trick-or-treated in the mall.
Um, hats off to you, cool mom!
What have you recently read that you can’t stop recommending?
It’s your fault really because you introduced us, but Laura Benedict’s BLISS HOUSE and now CHARLOTTE'S STORY. They are SO good!
Right?! I’ll second that recommendation. Laura is the queen of the modern Gothic.
Are you creatively satisfied?
This is kinda like the true/false questions I flunked in school. I always ended up writing short essays explaining how the answer could be either true or false or both. I am beyond happy right now, loving the buzz of getting my first book out there and working hard on the next and I have so many ideas for more. But I don’t know that I’d say I’m satisfied—I’m always pushing myself to learn more and do better. And I’d like to get to a position where I can help other writers who are little farther back on the path.
What’s next for you?
I am working on the sequel to BOHEMIAN GOSPEL. I left Mouse in a not great place and I’ve got to help her out. And I’m also working on a new book that focuses on a family of witches in 1927 at the time of the great Mississippi flood. I’m getting to weave in bits of my family history so that’s fun! Not that we were witches or anything.
Mmmhmm, okay. I’m watching you . . .
What would you like to be remembered for?
Of course I’d love to leave a string of books for folks to read, but—cheesy alert—I’d most want to be remembered for being kind. <Cue violins and pictures of baby animals>
Alright, now for the really important questions:
• Beach or mountains? Mountains all the way. Like Anakin Skywalker, I hate the sand.
• Coffee or tea? I do both, but coffee is my go-to.
• Skydive or bungee jump? Skydive, for sure. I’d love the feeling of flying. The whole jumping thing is okay, but the idea of being jerked back up on a big rubber band makes my neck hurt.
• Chocolate or vanilla? Chocolate. Yum, chocolate. Going to get some now.
• Winter or summer? Can I say Fall?
• Cake or pie? Cake.
• Cats or dogs? Truly and honestly both.
• Pens or pencils? Depends. For writing in journals, a pen. For to-do lists and schedules, a pencil. But it has to be sharp.
• Truth or dare? Hmmm, who’s asking?
• Print or ebook? Print. I’m addicted to the smell of books.
Dana Chamblee Carpenter's award-winning short fiction has appeared in The Arkansas Review, Jersey Devil Press, and Maypop. Her debut novel, BOHEMIAN GOSPEL, won Killer Nashville's 2014 Claymore Award and has been published Pegasus Books.
She teaches creative writing and American Literature at a private university in Nashville, TN, where she lives with her husband and two children.