Interview with Rita Leganski, Author of The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow
Jaime Boler: Thank you, Rita, for letting me interview you. I have to tell you how much I loved your magical story. Through his silence, Bonaventure Arrow spoke to me, and I heard him loudly and clearly. I’m very pleased that She Reads chose it as the March Book Club Selection. Did you always want to be a writer?
Rita Leganski: I’ve always enjoyed writing, whether it was a school assignment or just as a pastime. At times in my life when I’ve felt unsettled, story writing helped me through. When I decided to return to school as an adult, I deliberately chose to study writing.
JB: Reading this very Southern story, I was surprised to learn you grew up in Wisconsin. You began reading Southern writers at a very young age. How old were you? Who were your favorite authors?
RL: I suppose I was in middle school when I was transported to 1930s Maycomb, Alabama, by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Huckleberry Finn did his part as well in luring my imagination southward. As my tastes and abilities grew more sophisticated, I added Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner to my list of favorites.
JB: How have these beloved Southern authors influenced your writing?
RL: I think their greatest influence on me has been their artistry with voice and tone, as well as feeling at liberty to bring in supernatural influences and just downright crazy folks. Those writers taught me to let the setting actually be one of the characters.
JB: Prior to beginning this story, had you ever visited New Orleans or Louisiana?
RL: I had never been anywhere in Louisiana before going there to do research for Bonaventure Arrow. One doesn’t merely go to New Orleans; one experiences it. Everybody should try it at least once. If for no other reason, go for the beignets – fried doughnuts covered in confectioner’s sugar!
JB: One of my favorite things about New Orleans! The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow began as a short story when you were in graduate school. When did you begin working on the story? And how did you come up with Bonaventure Arrow?
RL: I began the short story in May of 2009 and completed it in June. It was my very last assignment before graduating with a Master’s in Writing. The professor had pleaded with us to give him something different, so I decided to try my hand at magical realism. I can’t honestly tell you how I came up with Bonaventure Arrow; he was just always there. In the original thirteen-page short story, he is nine years old (not seven) and William has been killed in Korea. As I recall, the only characters in it were Bonaventure, Dancy, Grandma Roman, and Trinidad Prefontaine. That story did make its way into the novel, but well into it. It comprises the scene in the kitchen with the Blue Bottle fly and the scene in which Grandma Roman takes Bonaventure to Bixie’s.
JB: Bayou Cymbaline, though fictional, feels so real. How did you come up with this “magical, haunted, and lovely place steeped in faith and superstition—the ideal home for a gifted little boy who could hear fantastic sounds”?
RL: I needed to locate the story in a unique place, one that was near enough to New Orleans to be under its influence, but not overshadowed by it. I have referred to my fictional town as a metaphorical house of God because it was home to so many different types. I named it Bayou Cymbaline because of associations and semantic characteristics of those nouns. Bayou sets it geographically and Cymbaline was borrowed from Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Cymbeline (I changed just one letter to make it my own). Like that Shakespearean play, THE SILENCE OF BONAVENTURE ARROW deals with innocence and jealousy.
JB: Your use of magical realism is close to the divine. I’d put your name right beside Isabel Allende and Yann Martel. How did characters like Bonaventure and Trinidad and others and even your setting allow you to use this literary tool to your advantage?
RL: Wow! What a compliment! Thank you very much! Magical realism sets writers free. It invites the fantastic, the unbelievable; the downright bizarre to come into reality and both change it and leave it alone. After all, it’s reality that acts as a measuring stick for the magic. Bonaventure and Trinidad move through the same reality as everyone around them, yet they are set apart by their otherworldly gifts. New Orleans is kind of the same way; it’s a place of commerce and residences, but there’s also this ever-present vibe that’s not quite namable. Joy dances with sorrow in New Orleans. This duality of natures worked to my advantage because it gave me leeway to let the supernatural in.
JB: Who is your favorite character in the story?
RL: Coleman Tate. He was an interesting character to write.
JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing this book?
RL: The toughest thing was to keep the flow going while trying to tell backstory. Preserving some sense of chronology was difficult; it seemed I had to constantly move whole sections to do it. Probably my most interesting difficulty was to bring in an element of suspense AFTER the novel had been completed. Believe it or not, The Wanderer was not part of the original version.
JB: How fascinating! I can’t even think of the story without him. What kind of research did you do? Find anything you’d like to use in a future story?
RL: Even though THE SILENCE OF BONAVENTURE ARROW is a work of fiction I wanted to get it right, especially when it came to Catholicism and New Orleans. To that end, I adhered to only credible sources. I spoke to historians, archivists, and folks in New Orleans during the time I spent there doing research. I also consulted various digital collections and online libraries as well as consulting with people in Catholic ministries.
I save all my research. No doubt, I’ll reach into it for some future story.
JB: So many early readers love Bonaventure. Has the advance praise surprised you at all or did you always expect Bonaventure to pull at the heartstrings of readers?
RL: I can honestly say it has surprised me. It’s such a different sort of story that I wasn’t sure how it would be received. I only knew how much I loved Bonaventure.
JB: Ever thought of moving to the South, but especially to New Orleans?
RL: Not really, my family is in the north. But I’ll definitely return to the South for vacations.
JB: What do you like to do when you are not writing?
RL: I love to read, knit, and crochet. I also love to renovate – give me a paint brush and some wood flooring and I’ll be happy for a long, long time. I’m an exercise freak, too. My husband and I enjoy travelling, hiking, and snowshoeing. He loves to cook, but I need a map to find the kitchen.
JB: If a reader asked you to give her a list of five Southern writers that you consider required reading, who would be on your list and why?
RL: Carson McCullers – She’s best known for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, but The Member of the Wedding is actually my favorite McCullers work. I also love her very long short story The Ballad of the Sad Café. Her characters are works of art. She finds the extraordinary under layers of human weakness.
Harper Lee – There are no words to adequately praise To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout Finch may very well be the best reminiscent narrator ever.
Flannery O’Connor – Though she wrote a few novels, O’Conner is best known as a master of the short story. She had a gift for exploiting the peculiar and bringing about endings that manage to be both fascinating and macabre as they blindside you. If I had to pick a favorite work of hers it would be a tie between “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “The River”.
Tennessee Williams – He had a gift for bringing charm to the gritty. His titles are some of the best: “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” are a couple that pull you right in.
William Faulkner – If you want to learn how to write quirky characters, read Faulkner.
JB: An amazing list! Which book or books are you currently reading?
RL: I just finished THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY by Rachel Joyce. I loved it.
I’m currently reading THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.
JB: Those are actually two of my favorite novels. Will you go on a book tour? If so, which cities are you visiting?
RL: Yes, I will tour. It’s in the planning stages at HarperCollins.
JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow?
RL: That when it comes to forgiveness, accepting it is just as important as offering it. Also, I would hope that readers would become in tune with the miraculous that is all around us all the time.
JB: Are you working on anything new?
RL: I’ve actually begun three different projects. I’m hoping that sooner or later one of them overpowers the other two.
JB: Thank you, Rita, for a wonderful interview! May you venture forth into bestseller land.
RL: Thanks for inviting me!
Follow Rita on Facebook
The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow is the She Reads March Book Club Selection. For reviews, a chance to win a copy of the book, and discussion, visit She Reads. I am also giving away a brand new copy of the story. Please fill out the brief form below. I will choose a winner using random.org on Friday at 3 pm ET. Good luck!