Interview: Christina Meldrum
Current Mood: awake
While working as a litigator, Christina Meldrum started to make court scenes of her own - on the page, that is. Those drafts turned into her debut novel, Madapple, a mystery with many layers. Let's peel them back, question by question...
What or who planted the seed for the story that became Madapple?
When I was an undergraduate studying comparative religion, I was fascinated by the many parallel mythologies that cross religions and cultures. I was surprised to learn that many aspects of the Christ story, in particular, can be found in other traditions. I thought it would be interesting to build a sort of mystery around some of these overlapping traditions.
Then I went to law school and began working as a litigator. During this time, I spent my days formulating arguments for my clients. I would select and emphasize those facts that best supported by positions. In each case, opposing counsel would do the same, emphasizing those facts that best supported her argument. In theory, truth somehow filtered through: the judge or jury would sort through the extreme arguments and parse out what was fair and true. In actuality, each argument oversimplified reality, and the ending result, while perhaps as fair as was feasible, often had little to do with truth.
It was this experience as a litigator, combined with my background in comparative religion, that spurred my writing of Madapple. In Madapple, I wanted to explore how we humans, in our attempt to understand the world, at times simplify and thereby distort it. I wanted to think about how we create categories, based on what we want or have felt or believe is socially acceptable, and then divide the world into these categories.
Specifically, I wanted to explore the dichotomy between science and religion. As Aslaug, the protagonist of MADAPPLE, says, "Science describes the world, it doesn't explain it: it can describe the universe's formation, but it can't explain...how something can come from nothing. That's the miracle." Yet religion absent science also seems insufficient. If God exists, would not nature be a means by which to understand God? The more I researched the natural world in my writing of MADAPPLE, the more convinced of this I became.
Ultimately, I hoped MADAPPLE would be a contemplation on faith: faith in God; faith in science; and the way in which faith can both open the mind and confine it.
The finished book is over 400 pages. Did the manuscript grow or shrink significantly during the revision and editing process?
Madapple took me a very long time to write. I wrote a great deal that did not end up in the final version. That said, once I had the skeleton for what became the final version, I added a lot more material. The process of writing Madapple was very much a learning process for me.
Madapple flashes back and forth between a murder trial and the events which led to the tragedies, a technique that's present in many film noir movies and mystery stories. In what sequence did you write the story?
I don't really write in a linear fashion. I write in layers: I add them, then I strip some away. Then I might go back and add similar layers again. I did this with the trial sections and Aslaug's narrative. I did not write the narrative then the trial scenes, or vice versa. I just layered both in over time.
The cover art by Jonathan Barkat is simply gorgeous! Was it shot exclusively for this book, or did your publisher (or publisher's graphic designer) come across it while working on the jacket design?
I love Jonathan Barkat's version of Aslaug and her world. My publisher knew of Jonathan's work and hired him to create the jacket art, believing he would be the perfect artist for the job. I agree! Jonathon read Madapple and then he created the jacket art based on his reading of the book.
What are your favorite flowers?
I truly love all the plants in Madapple. I know that may sound hokey, but each of the plants in Madapple came to feel almost like friends to me. It's for this reason that I created the plant library on my website. Each of the plants is amazing in its own way. It's the diversity and versatility of the plants that I find most remarkable.
I should be calling you Doctor Meldrum. How would you describe your experience at Harvard Law School?
The best part about being at Harvard Law School was being around such talented, interesting people. Friends from Harvard went on to work for the Justice Department, as prosecutors and defense attorneys and as human rights advocates. Some clerked for the Supreme Court. Some went on to teach. And some, like Amy Gutman, who was a year ahead of me at Harvard, went on to write, like me. For the most part, the students there were passionate people who really engaged life. I loved that part.
Have you any advice for high school students that want to pursue careers as doctors or writers?
I guess my advice would be to pay attention - to not become dulled to the world or to your own gifts. No matter one's profession, I truly believe we each have gifts to give. Really being aware of the world -- that is, appreciating its diversity and the way each of us individually adds to that diversity -- is, I believe, an important step toward having a meaningful career, no matter what that career turns out to be.
Tell me about your work in Africa.
In addition to studying comparative religion in undergrad, I also studied development. Based on this, I had an idea of the type of development organization I believed would be most effective. I decided I wanted to spend time doing grassroots development before attending graduate school, hence I did research to find an organization that shared my development philosophy. The organization I found was located in Ghana, hence that is where I worked. Not surprisingly, I learned that my theories about what would work and what actually does work were quite different! Since then, I have continued my work in Africa. Most recently, I am on the advisory board of Women of the World Investments, which is a micro-financing organization that provides loans to women-led businesses in West Africa.
What are your ten favorite books of all time?
Today, I would say (in no particular order):
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyesvsky
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyesvsky
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Ecco
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
The Stranger by Albert Camus
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
Servants of the Map by Andrea Barrett
Visit Christina's website.