"Listening to the Deep Know:" Three Questions for Ronlyn Domingue

Today I'm so proud to have at BtO Ronlyn Domingue, the author of The Mercy of Thin Air (see description in the post below), which was published in 2005 and chosen as a Costco pick of the month for January 2010. The book received excellent reviews upon its initial publication and was both a 2005 Booksense pick as well as a finalist for the Borders Original Voices award. Jodi Piccoult called it "that rarest of first novels--a truly original voice, and a truly original story." But beyond the book, what fascinates me most is Ronlyn's process, and her concept of "listening to the deep know," which she elaborates on here. If this doesn't inspire you, I don't know what will.

1. It's been five years since the publication of Mercy, yet the novel continues to exist and draw new readers. (One of your fans even recently started a Facebook page for it!) How do you account for the continued success, and what is that like for you? Is it incredibly motivating, or does it make it a little hard to move on?

I can’t explain its success other than the mystery of luck. When I met my publisher in person in February 2005, I actually asked her why she chose my novel. “The timing is right,” she said. As it turns out, she was right because it was acquired by 11 other countries within a year and has continued to attract readers ever since.

Luck plays into the word-of-mouth support that’s been MERCY’s lifeblood from the beginning. Sure, I love this novel, and I believe it’s beautiful and has something to say about love, friendship, grief, even redemption. But at the same time, I recognize there are greater forces at work which have guided MERCY’s journey. There’s no way to rationally explain why reader after reader recommends this book, rather than millions of others, to friends.

Moving on isn’t the struggle. It’s the confrontation with expectation—my own and what I perceive from readers. Sometimes I find myself wondering if I can pull off in the second novel whatever magic MERCY had. Can I write a work that speaks to people like that again? And then I wonder about timing…what if I miss the slipstream? But that’s all ego. Deep down, I know I have to finish this work. I can steward but cannot control what happens after it gets published.

2. In the advice to writers section on your website, you talk about "listening to the Deep Know." Could you speak briefly about that here? What do you mean when you say that? And how did that play into your passion for Mercy?

A Deep Know is a moment in one’s life when there’s absolute clarity about what one needs to do. Often, it makes no rational sense. Intuition becomes the purest form of logic. Some people call it gut instinct or an ah-ha moment. In an article I wrote on the subject, I state that I knew I was meant to share my life with a friend before I was even in love with him. We’ll celebrate our 22nd anniversary in August. I also mention that one morning I woke up with the realization that I had to get my master’s degree in creative writing. The Mercy of Thin Air was my master’s thesis.

I knew since I was eight years old I was going to be a writer. However, our world is structured for the practical, the expected, the ordinary. I knew that, too. The latter filled me with excuses why I shouldn’t bother to write fiction or try to get published. But my dreams told me I needed to be writing, and an odd experience—or perhaps a sign—now and then pointed out the same. Eventually, I had to give in. I had to give it a try. Yes, it disturbed the balance with my partner when I began to spend a few hours each week, often at night, writing instead of hanging out with him. Yes, it unsettled me to think I might fail, I might never “make it” as a writer. Even though I did well in graduate school and had encouragement from several professors, I had some doubts.

At the same time, I “knew” my novel was important. There was so much energy in Razi the narrator, in the story. I couldn’t deny that I felt I was doing exactly what I was meant to do. If I’m totally honest, I “knew” MERCY would be published and do well, even though I couldn’t define what that meant. So I kept going. I trusted that my deepest Deep Know—I am a writer—would fulfill itself in a tangible way. It did.

No matter what your calling is, you will have to deal with fear of failure and fear of judgment. Not everyone will be supportive of you. That’s life. It’s corny, but if you truly believe in yourself and keep your eyes open for others who can help, there’s a good chance you’ll get what you wish for.

3. I know your new book won't "let" you "talk about it," but is there anything at all you can say? Can you talk a little about your process with Mercy and how different or similar the writing of this novel has been?

My process involves long incubation periods with little or no prose writing. Characters and the story come in flashes, such as an image in which I “know” its meaning or a line of dialogue. Nothing is linear. Very little seems rational. It’s a highly intuitive experience, even in the research. Sometimes, I’ll feel compelled to learn more about a subject with no clue at the time why it’s so important. Then, once enough of the story has revealed itself and I have the majority of the plot, I begin to write. I went through four cycles of incubation and writing with MERCY.

Novel #2 hasn’t been so tidy. There have been fierce feast and famine periods. The writing has been sporadic up to this point. I’m dealing with a book far more intricate and profound than MERCY, also one that’s more dark and troubled—and painfully beautiful.

The experience of working on a novel isn’t easy for me. I go deep into their realms, as far as they allow or drag me. When the shift happens and I connect with them and their story, I feel split between my world and theirs. When something happens to interfere with the connection, I get impatient and frustrated. But I’m on their time, reliant on their sequence of revelation. That’s why I can’t force a novel into being. I’m one of many components of the creative act. My will is almost inconsequential.

Bonus question: What are you currently reading?
The Ecstatic Journey: Walking the Mystical Path in Everyday Life by Sophy Burnham


blossoming said…
I like the way Domingue describes her process as involving "long incubation periods." I am going through one of those phases now, with a deep intuition that I need to write a book related to silence in some way, and that I need to do research by experiencing silence in various ways before starting to write. I don't even know whether it will be a collection of short stories, a novel, a work of philosophy, or something in between. It's reassuring to know that others have followed similar hunches and succeeded in finishing their projects, as I have never experienced such a powerful pull before in my life.

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