The Interview: Bookbag Talks To C B Calico

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To C B Calico

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Summary: Rebecca was impressed by Dandelion Angel and had quite a few questions when debut author C B Calico popped into Bookbag Towers to chat to us.
Date: 31 August 2015
Interviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

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Rebecca was impressed by Dandelion Angel and had quite a few questions when debut author C B Calico popped into Bookbag Towers to chat to us.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

C B Calico: Although I hope that anyone can enjoy Dandelion Angel and identify with the main characters, I must admit that when I close my eyes and imagine my readers, I see mostly women, among them daughters who grew up with unloving mothers.

  • BB: How would you describe your novel? Is it an allegory? A thriller? Women's fiction? Linked short stories? A set of miniature family sagas?

CBC: Dandelion Angel is a novel consisting of linked short stories or vignettes that focus on important moments and developments in the characters' lives. In the future, I intend to write for a broader audience, but Dandelion Angel could indeed be classified as Women's fiction. In terms of structure, the book is shaped by trauma; just as trauma shatters memory and identity, the novel is organized in a way that's somewhat fragmented, presenting the characters episodically.

  • BB: Why did you decide to set the book in your native Germany?

CBC: In many ways, Dandelion Angel is a personal novel. While the characters and events are fictional, they were nevertheless inspired by my own experiences—and those are very much tied to Germany, to growing up in a country that's been through tremendous upheaval. Two of the mothers in Dandelion Angel experienced childhood trauma that is inextricably linked to history: Ute witnessed the firebombing of Dresden while her family was homeless and displaced, and years later, Petra was grossly maltreated at the state-run nursery in the GDR where she spent her early years. Interestingly, Germans have spent decades confronting—on so many levels—their Nazi past and its legacy, including the country's separation. However, only few have considered what experiencing war, witnessing genocide, or living in a totalitarian state has done to individuals, and families, psychologically. I don't mean to say at all that Germans are victims here—but I believe that living through extreme, terrifying circumstances can cause profound psychological damage. Those born in the 1930s, 40s, or 50s who have not confronted their own trauma became possessed by it, and blindly passed it on to the next generation, born in the 1960s and 1970s, like the daughters in Dandelion Angel, who could be compared to immigrant children whose parents had come from a world so radically different that they had enormous trouble relating to their kids. I thus believe Germany is the perfect setting for a novel that deals with generational conflict, mental illness, and family dysfunction.

  • BB: How did Christine Ann Lawson's book help you structure your own?

CBC: Lawson's metaphorical classification of the borderline mother as hermit, queen, waif, and witch inspired me to write a novel about four sets of mothers and their daughters. To explore all that I wanted to, including the mothers' childhoods, I created three separate yet parallel cycles within these four storylines and ended up with twelve chapters that converge in the end.

  • BB: What made you choose third-person over first-person narration for getting into the heads of your main characters?

CBC: First person narration offers many exciting possibilities, but I felt it might be too confusing, as Dandelion Angel would need four different first-person perspectives and not just one. Of course, it can be done, and there are always alternatives and ways of doing things differently. I felt though that third person narration is best, too, because of the fairy tale elements in Dandelion Angel that I will address in more detail later.

  • BB: On the surface, you seem to have the most in common with your character Jo. Out of the four women, is there one you identify with most strongly?

CBC: I share Jo's deep love of animals, and my career choices are similar. However, we are also quite different. I have something in common with each of the daughters—with Caren, who desperately tries to win her mother's approval, with Irja, who breaks with Ada to protect a loved one, and with Mandy, who wants to have nothing to do with Petra. Their stories, in a way, reflect different stages of my life as well the road not taken: their lives sometimes follow paths that I didn't see or choose. Maybe that's the beauty of writing: it gives you the opportunity to explore, to ask what if, and to be someone else, someone who's similar yet also completely foreign.

  • BB: There's an almost fairytale quality to some of these stories ('The Queen's Daughter' and 'The Witch's Daughter', especially). Did that occur to you as you were writing, and have you consciously drawn on any fairy tales when crafting your characters' lives?

CBC: Since I drew on Lawson's symbolic classification of hermit, queen, waif, and witch, I was aware from the very beginning that there would be a certain fairy tale quality to at least some of the stories. Nevertheless, Dandelion Angel's almost supernatural or magical elements were not deliberately planned but rather grew, organically, out of stories that sometimes unfolded in ways I had not foreseen. Fairy tales, despite their apparent simplicity, are deep and complex; they hold profound truths about children's relationships to their parents, and they ultimately are encouraging, as we see unlikely heroes who are small and seemingly weak overcome formidable opponents. Fairy tales are an appropriate context for my book, as it deals with mother-daughter relationships, just like Snow-white, Cinderella, or Rapunzel, and countless other, lesser-known tales.

Interestingly, the famous evil stepmother figure that dominates so many of the Grimms' Märchen was, in the original, the biological mother. Maybe the Grimms felt they needed to protect their readers from the dark and disturbing truth that some mothers are callous and driven by murderous rage. The fairy tale framework, by the way, was another reason why I chose Germany as the novel's setting.

  • BB: In several cases the mothers' behaviour can be explained by traumatic experiences from the past. Does this in some way 'excuse' their emotional callousness or downright abusiveness?

CBC: Traumatic childhood experiences explain, but do not excuse, the mothers' behavior. Many believe that borderline personality disorder is caused by severe adversity suffered in childhood. The mothers in Dandelion Angel are not responsible for their illness: they didn't choose to have a personality disorder, nor do they bear any responsibility for the terrible things that happened to them when they were young. As adults though they have options: they can try to get better and heal.

  • BB: Two of the women seem to break free from their mothers by the end, while the other two do not. What do you think makes the crucial difference between remaining co-dependent and developing independence?

CBC: I somewhere came across the term radical acceptance and believe that it is a crucial step in breaking free from abuse. Those who grew up with a mentally ill parent need to come to terms with the fact that the relationship will not simply get better. It's also important to take a hard, honest look at the past, see the abuse for what it is, and draw the consequences. Often, these involve drastically reducing or breaking off all contact. In Dandelion Angel, both Irja and Mandy do so: as they develop independence, they must go through these most painful but ultimately liberating processes. I doubt it's possible to do this in isolation; those who break free often connect with others who've had similar experiences. That's why three daughters in Dandelion Angel—Jo, who distances herself, albeit slowly and cautiously, and Irja, and Mandy—find and support each other (as well as Tom, Caren's husband), while Caren remains hopelessly enmeshed with her dysfunctional family. Her childhood was a nightmare, but despite her mother's continuing cruelty, she defends and loves her, even if that means destroying herself, her marriage, and her young family.

  • BB: What's next for C B Calico?

CBC: After Dandelion Angel, I experimented with different genres, especially thrillers. I am currently working on a manuscript tentatively entitled The Haunting at Black Wolf Creek, which could be classified as eco-horror. Rio's Case, a novel I just finished, will be published next year. It's the first in a planned series of books for change—part of the proceeds will directly go to various animal welfare organizations and charities. The book is about a young woman, Emily, whose life becomes unhinged after her friend dies in a horrific mountain climbing accident. Em survives, but is ravaged by guilt and crippled by chronic physical pain. Disillusioned and desperate to find meaning in her life again, she starts volunteering at a cat rescue and a nursing home, but instead of finding solace, she encounters a psychopathic serial killer and must fight for her life. Good thing there's Rio, the brave alley cat who keeps an eye on her...

For a quick peak at Rio's Case, please find below the opening page:

One of the most common and disturbing factors found in many serial killers' histories is their unusual or unnatural relationships with their mothers. (Rebecca Taylor LaBrode, Etiology of the Psychopathic Serial Killer)

1

Emily

The mountain's hard-packed snow is blinding. On a narrow, zigzagging path beneath a serrated ridge, she scrambles up the windswept rock face toward the icefall when all of a sudden her boot slips. Momentarily her feet are high up in the air, above her head. She falls and is surprised when there's no pain at all as she hits the ground. For a while she slides fast on the ice, like a living toboggan, down the steep alpine slope. The sensation is not entirely unpleasant until she sees her body, as if from above, shoot toward the edge of a massive crevasse. She tries to scream, but no sound comes out. She has to stop sliding further but can't; the safety harness around her hips and pelvis has come undone. Desperately, she looks at the members of her team, moving on, getting smaller and smaller, without turning back. Her feet hang over the edge for what must be less than a second, although time seems to have slowed down. She will fall to her death, but no matter how hard her legs kick, she can't stop, she can't get away from the edge. Her left hand hangs on to a protruding shard of broken, rugged ice. With superhuman effort, she lifts her free right hand to search the hard, frozen ground, but the thick glove keeps slipping, unable to hold on. She's dangling above the abyss. She knows she shouldn't, but she has to turn and look down. The crevasse is deep, so deep there's just black nothingness at the end, but no actual bottom. She finally manages to blurt a panicked Help, but the others are far away; she can't see anyone anymore. And then, suddenly, there's a dark figure, standing at the edge of the crevasse, looking down at her. Help, she pleads, but the figure doesn't move. She looks up at whoever it is, a black outline against the blinding sun. Before she can say anything else, she will have to let go, her arm is cramping. She can't hang on any longer, but her fingers seem frozen, refusing to lose their grip; maybe she can pull herself up again, she thinks, when there's an ear-shattering crack: the ice shard breaks, and she falls, deeper and deeper, into the gorge.

Emily woke up screaming, tears running down her face. Her pillow was soaked with sweat. The heavy down comforter was a jumbled mess on the floor; she had kicked it off the bed in her sleep. She breathed, deeply, in an attempt to calm down. She looked at the ceiling and tried to feel grateful that it had just been a dream, a nightmare. It's over, she thought, and slowly got out of bed. I'm here, alive. But she didn't feel relief. Survival is over-rated.

  • BB: That's definitely something for us to look forward to - thank you for letting us see it, and for chatting to us.

You can read more about C B Calico here.

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