Tuesday, January 03, 2012

An interview with Lou Drofenik, re. CAST THE LONG SHADOW

Cast the Long Shadow (2011) is Lou Drofenik’s fourth novel

1.      Your novel Cast the Long Shadow is one of initiation and emancipation. How much truth is there in this?

When I reflect upon it yes, you are right this is a novel of initiation and eventual emancipation. I had a very clear picture of Charlie Scicluna growing up during the war years in Malta. A teenager who is quite lost, confused by what’s going on around him. The shock when he sees his neighbour burnt to death,  the deprivations of the war years, his father’s aggression, his own premonitions and  his mother’s death. Then there is his love for his cousin Angelina and what happens between them which wakes him up from a kind of total confusion. I also had a very clear picture of Edward Pisani growing up in a foster home, away from his family, the knowledge that his parents have actually received money for him. The anger and frustration he feels on the island and then his eventual migration. I feel that for Charlie and Edward migration freed them from a past which held them in bondage, gave them a new identity - a new life almost.

2.      The recurrent motive of the racing pigeons, Charlie Scicluna’s frequent dreams. Symbolism as one of the major narrative mechanisms you use in Cast the Long Shadow. How do you react to such a statement?

Many of our neighbours in Birkirkara where I grew up and many of the older migrants I met here, were deeply involved in raising and racing pigeons. For some it was more than a hobby, it took over their lives. For migrants, keeping pigeons was a link with their past, it was part of their culture, part almost of their Malteseness. They also had that knowledge which they brought with them and they used it. Thinking about your question perhaps for pigeon fanciers to see a pigeon soar high up in the sky and then return to its loft was a symbol of freedom and faithfulness. Yes perhaps Charlie’s pigeons were symbolic of what he yearned to do. As for his dreams they were part of his makeup. That’s how I saw his character forming and developing, he was a person who was gifted with dreams.

3.      Other narrative mechanisms are the appeal to the sense of smell in relation to domestic-familiar spaces, and of colour in relation to childhood. How important are these in your prose, also in relation to memory?

I think smells are so evocative! They take me straight into that place and time of memory and bring up visions clearer than if I video taped them. The distinctive smell of fig leaves on a hot day and I’m a little girl playing in my grandmother’s garden, the smell of burnt onions and I’m in a neighbour’s house. And colour too, coming from a place where the sea and sky of my childhood were so beautiful arriving here on a bleak August day with the grey sea beating under a leaden sky. Oh that was a sight which tore my heart apart! I think in writing, these images and smells come without knowing, they are there tied to the people who inhabit my work.

4.      It seems that you give great importance to space in relation to action in your novel. Why is this?

Do you mean the space here? Perhaps this is because one of the things which up to this day (after fifty years living in this country) still fills me with awe; is the space. The breadth of the sky, the long endless country roads, the immensity of the oceans, the never ending beaches. Space moves me and that perhaps is why it works itself in the characters’ lives and what they do.

5.      Family, the past, childhood and memory are  important elements. Do they only have a narrative function in the novel, or is there more to them?

No I think they are deeper than that. While  I was writing Cast the Long Shadow I slowly came to the realisation that Charlie and Anton were taking me inside their moral world. Their upbringing, very different from one another, impinged quite strongly into their migrant lives. The decisions they made were always based on the values they brought with them from their countries. Both Charlie and Anton, treated their families well and would do anything for them. They brought with them the value of family and though neither of them went to church they were quite moral persons.

6.      The writer’s starting point is biographical and personal, while his/her finishing point is universal. How much is this so in your case?

You are right. In Cast the Long Shadow the first page, although it is written in the third person  is personal. I actually wrote that when the second draft of the book was finished and I was reflecting on the story on one of my long walks. I could see quite clearly where the second half of the novel had come from, it had been there all the time lurking in my subconscious waiting for the right time to reveal itself. It seemed right to put it down at the start of the book, I think it not only gives the story a personal touch but a kind of look-ahead to what the story will have inside it.

7.      Action in your novel spans from 1939 to 1967; Malta just before the Second World War and during this conflict, and post-Independence. Is there a specific reason behind this choice?

No not really. Writing this book was like a dream, the characters came to me, I did not seek them out. That’s when the Scicluna family lived. Of course being a post war child myself the stories in Cast the Long Shadow must have been incubating inside my head for a very long time. It also happens to be a very  interesting time to write about, so much happened then, so many millions of stories still to be told.

8. Cast the Long Shadow also deals with a number of daily social problems in modern society. What is behind this: realism, moralism, simple description of the facts or more than that?

That’s a very interesting question! I think it’s realism. So many choices we have to make in our daily lives and some of them are so difficult and their repercussions are so long lasting. George Scicluna’s decision to look after Neville’s stolen goods almost killed him, Pawlina’s decision to be sterilised affected not only herself but the husband who loved her. Men and women have to make many hard decisions, no matter where they live and no matter what the hierarchies (be they religious or political) dictate.

9. The reader of Cast the Long Shadow notes that you insist on woman’s strength and determination, and on the other hand you tend to unveil man’s vulnerabilities. Why is this?

In this novel I was moved to write about male characters. I didn’t set out to unveil their vulnerabilities, on the contrary I wanted to find their moral strength. I didn’t want to write about male aggression, there is too much of that.  I was looking beyond that. I wanted to look at goodness. I wanted to see how  decent men coped with moral dilemmas. How would a man react when his wife died after a botched abortion? How would he raise his child through this heartbreak? How would another find it in his heart to forgive his wife for not telling him about her disease and what she did before she married him? How did Sam Scicluna find solace after he lost his family in one fell swoop? Each of these men found a way to cope with the situations in which they found themselves. Of course it wasn’t easy, but they did it. I really wanted to go inside their heads, find out what was inside their hearts.

10. Many of the sections are given the names of the characters you describe and develop in your novel. Why?

I think this is a way of sectioning the book and reminding myself who I’m writing about.

11.  Reconciliation with oneself and with others around us. How important is this in Cast the Long Shadow?

Yes I think this is an important theme in the book. I see Lily as having reconciled herself to her past and also Edward. I think the day he cried In Lily’s kitchen was an opening of his heart, leading to the time when he pours his story out to Ange, telling her what his parents had done to him. I think that’s when he forgave them.

12.One last question: can you describe or list the different phases during the process between the conception and the publication of Cast the Long Shadow?

This was a very enjoyable book to write and it only took me about six months to finish the first draft. I usually start writing at six in the morning till eleven, have a break for lunch, go for a walk and then do the dreaded housework. This book came to me when I was in Torquay (a beachside suburb)  with my daughter and her husband. There was a surfing carnival on, and I heard a a competitor with a Maltese name called out. I thought I can write a book about a Maltese man coming down here, living close to the ocean. I did a few drafts and didn’t like them. Then as if he was there waiting Charlie’s name came up. There were a few stories at the back of my mind I had heard from Maltese men about their war years in Malta, about coming out here, their settlement  years, their trials. I had lots of notes from my travels to Malta and Slovenia and going over them a story started to take shape. I finished a first draft and gave it to my editor. She loved it. I gave it to a second editor and she also said it was good. The manuscript won a first in the Northern Region Literary Awards and they published it. This book has done well, it has been read by book groups and individuals and the feedback from readers has been very positive.

(An interview by Patrick Sammut)

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