Author Interview: Martina Boone on Compulsion

Martina Boone author photoWhen I started Martina Boone’s debut novel, Compulsion, I knew I was going to enjoy it. Boone expertly blends elements of paranormal romance and Southern Gothic novels to create a unique mystery that is smart and engaging–complete with a vivid setting and complex supernatural elements. Compulsion has stayed with me since I finished reading it. I’m very excited to have Martina here to answer some questions about her Heirs of Watson Island trilogy. Persuasion, sequel to Compulsion, will be released on October 27, 2015.

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Martina Boone (MB): My daughter has a learning disability, and when she was old enough that it wasn’t cool for Mom to keep reading to her, she stopped reading altogether. That also took away her interest in subjects that were primarily reading-based, like history. I was thrilled when she got hooked on YA paranormal series, and she and I discovered young adult literature together.

When I started writing, I wanted Compulsion and the other books in the trilogy to speak to teens who love genre books, because that’s what started my daughter reading and connected us both with young adult literature. My hope is that I’ve laced enough history within the story to also raise some curiosity about the past and how it connects to current issues, both global and personal, that today’s teens will ultimately face and need to solve.

MP: What was the inspiration for Compulsion?

MB: In part it was the story of Eliza Lucas Pinckney. At the age of seventeen in the early 18th century, Eliza ran three plantations for her father and founded the American indigo industry, which accounted for one-third of the total Carolina exports before the Revolutionary War. Not only did Eliza fascinate me, but I couldn’t figure out how she wasn’t in the history books. One of her relatives, Thomas Pinckney, was listed one of the passengers on the Loyal Jamaica, who by his own admission was a privateer. The Loyal Jamaica was also accused of piracy, and the truth is a bit shrouded in historical mystery. Eliza and Thomas became cornerstones of the trilogy, but only the groundwork for Eliza’s story is in Compulsion. We won’t meet her more directly until book three.

The other bit of inspiration was the Fire Carrier, the ancient spirit responsible for the magic at Watson Island. I had a dream about a burning sphere drifting through the Carolina woods at midnight, spilling flames out onto a river, and setting the water on fire. Researching what might account for that, I found the Cherokee legend of the Atsil-dihyegï, the Fire Carrier, which is said to be a spirit or a witch so dangerous that no one knows much about it. Searching old texts about the Cherokee, I discovered that the war priest who carried the sacred fire to accompany a war party was called the Fire Carrier, and I found a lot more fascinating mythology and history. That was when things started to come together.

MP: Compulsion is the first book in a trilogy. Do you have a set arc for Barrie’s story? Can you talk about about some of your vision for the series as a whole?

MB: Barrie has an enormous arc. She arrives at her family’s ancestral plantation as a terribly sheltered girl who experiences panic attacks. She is presented with a number of mysteries and her family gift for finding lost things compels her to begin investigating. Continuing to stir things up and fight for her convictions (and her own misconceptions)—despite her need for a home, acceptance, and her developing romance—forces her to re-examine her gift, her values, her own beliefs and how she sees others, and her responsibility to herself. It also places her in mortal danger, so she has to find her courage. As the series continues, it becomes too risky for her not to delve deeper and deeper in search of the truth of the magic at Watson Island, but at the same time, that investigation opens her up to more loss and danger.

MP:  Compulsion is an eerie Southern Gothic with quite a big mystery. As a writer, how did you go about pacing this aspect of the story and deciding what to reveal when?

MB: A lot of this trilogy is about the smoke and mirrors of story, bias, and perspective, the idea that both story and history are living entities that change according to the personal, cultural, and information lens through which we view them. Barrie arrives knowing nothing about Watson Island or her family’s history, and as she learns more, it constantly adjusts the lens through which she and others around her view themselves, their prejudices, and what they thought they knew. That made pacing a challenge, because I had to lay the groundwork for all three books within the first book. Simultaneously, working within the Southern Gothic framework over the course of a trilogy instead of a single book, I had to leave the characters room to grow morally in each book. Barrie starts with very limited knowledge, and Eight starts with the cultural misconceptions of someone raised in his environment. That meant starting with some mysteries and fallacies that won’t be resolved until the final book, where everything builds toward a Dan Brownish surprise based on both mythology and physics.

My solution was to give Barrie leeway at the beginning of the first book to stumble around, misunderstand things, get in trouble, and embroil herself in danger. Once she’s in danger as a result of her actions in book one, she’s never really out of danger through the other books. Each answer leads to new understanding, fresh questions, more danger, and higher and conflicting stakes.

MP: In addition to the mysteries surrounding Barrie’s family and the island’s founding, Compulsion also includes supernatural elements including a spirit called the Fire Carrier and other creatures called yunwi. Can you tell us more about these aspects of the story? Will they be explored further in the subsequent books in this trilogy?

MB: The story of the Fire Carrier and the yunwi (technically Yûñwï Tsunsdi), the Cherokee Little People, are the framework of the trilogy. The legend Cassie Colesworth tells Barrie and the different versions we get in each book are fictionalized, but there are many different Cherokee myths and folktales that I’m weaving together with some of the archeology, anthropology, and recent historical revelations about the huge numbers of enslaved Native Americans, the holocaust of indigenous peoples in North and South America through first contact with European diseases, and the importation of early slaves from the Congo. In addition I’m inspired by commonalities within broader folklore, mythology, and anthropology.

The Lowcountry area has a unique nexus between European, American Indian, and African American history, belief systems, cultures, and magical systems. The importance of that and how it came about is often overlooked. Very few people know that at the turn of the 18th century, 30 to 50 percent of the slaves in the Carolinas were American Indians, and most of those were women and children. Before 1720, far more enslaved Native Americans were exported to the West Indies through ports including Boston, Salem, New Orleans, and Charles Town (Charleston) than enslaved Africans were imported. American Indians built cities and served the households of the northern colonies, and helped scout, lay out, plant, and police the plantations of the south. The botanical and medicinal knowledge of both Native Americans and enslaved African Americans helped save colonists and enslaved populations alike from a variety of diseases. Culturally, all of that is tangled with Western views of magic and spiritualism.

As the trilogy unfolds, Barrie is under pressure to solve problems that leave her no choice but to uncover the true history of the plantations, the truth of the bargains her family made with the Fire Carrier, and why he and the yunwi are on the island. That in turn gives her present-day dangers to fight through to keep her family and her loved ones safe.

MP: The characters in this book, especially Barrie, have some great names. How did you go about finding the perfect name for each character?

MB: Thanks! : ) I often struggle with names, but the names for the main characters literally were a gift. They were simply there for me when I needed them, and they speak to both character and location. Barrie’s given name, Lombard, comes from the crooked street in San Francisco where she was raised, and all Barrie knows at first is that it’s a reminder from her mother not to trust crooked men. She only learns about her mother’s tragic, forbidden romance with her father when she arrives on Watson Island. Eight’s family has been naming firstborn males Charles for so long that they’ve long since slipped past Juniors and Seniors, but the nickname also speaks to the way Eight so often feels he’s seen as just one of many Beauforts instead of an individual.

Many of the last names come from historic families in the area or slight twists on the historical names. Eight’s family name, for example, comes from the town of Beaufort, South Carolina, which is a little south of my fictional island near the site of the 1514 landing of the Spanish explorer Pedro de Salaza, which established the encroachment of Europeans on Cherokee territory. That name, in turn, comes from Henry Somerset, Duke of Beaufort, one of the Lords Proprietors of the Carolina colony. The slave names in Persuasion come from various historical documents.

MP: Compulsion brings the island and Watson’s Landing to life practically making them characters in this story. Did any real locations help inspire these fictional places?

MB: Watson Island is loosely based on Edisto Island, SC, although I had to make quite a few changes to suit the story. The plantations are likewise inspired by plantations in the Charleston area, with the exception of Colesworth Place, which is a mixture of the slave cabins of Boone Hall and the ruined standing columns of Windsor in Georgia.

I have been very fortunate to work with Andrew Agha, an archeologist who has done digs on a number of Lowcountry plantations and lectures about quite a few of the elements in the trilogy. We’ve spent countless hours discussing the archeology, history, and anthropology of the area, and mapping and configuring the three plantations. Readers will be meeting some archeologists and embarking on a dig at Colesworth Place starting in Persuasion. Beyond that, Watson Island is a small town like many where I’ve spent a lot of time. In the best possible way, they draw you in and make you part of the fabric of the place, until you’ve sunk in so deep it makes it hard to leave. That’s a bit of the feeling I wanted to convey. Small Southern towns are very different places from big Southern cities. I hear my mother-in-law’s voice every time I write Pru’s dialogue.

MP: While we’re talking about characters, did you have a favorite character to write in Compulsion? Is there any character you were particularly excited for readers to meet?

MB: I love Eight and Aunt Pru. Mark completely stole my heart and became a much larger character than I intended him to be. But I have to say that I adore Barrie. She’s stubborn and loyal and determined, and because she’s starting in such a weak, sheltered place, she makes so many mistakes en route to becoming a strong person. The idea of allowing yourself to fail as a means of developing strength is something I wanted to pass on to my own daughter and to other teens who have a hard time seeing themselves in characters who start out more confidently.

As far as new characters? There are two I’m excited to introduce to readers in Persuasion. Berg, the Marine sniper turned archeology student, is smart, kind, and altogether swoony. But Obadiah, the conjurer/shaman fascinates me. I wanted to twist the trope of the “magical negro,” and Obadiah isn’t there to simply save the day. He’s integral to the mystery of the Fire Carrier overall, because his magic is integral to the way that belief systems outside our own have been viewed throughout history. I still don’t know whether he’s good or evil, which makes him a delightful surprise to write.

MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?

MB: I have an adult project that I can best describe as Rebecca meets Gone Girl meets Fifty Shades. As for YA, I’m vacillating between National Treasure meets Russian spies meets Percy Jackson in Washington D.C. and a paranormal thriller about experiments with different types of intelligence.

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

MB: Read widely, write as much as you can, and don’t be in a hurry. You can work on your first book for as long as you like, but once you’ve sold it, you have to turn the next one around in a few months. Your ability to experiment with craft has to take a backseat at that point, so if you rush to pub, you’re going to miss out on your best chance to learn at a comfortable pace.

Thanks again to Martina for a great interview.

You can see more about Martina and her books on her website.

You can also read my review of Compulsion here on the blog.