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Interview With an Author: Andrea Hairston

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Andrea Hairston and her latest novel, Redwood and Wildfire
Author Andrea Hairston and her latest novel, Redwood and Wildfire. Photo credit: Micala Sidore

Andrea Hairston is a novelist, essayist, playwright, and the Artistic Director of Chrysalis Theatre. She is the author of Mindscape, shortlisted for the Phillip K. Dick and Otherwise awards, and winner of the Carl Brandon Parallax Award. In her spare time, she is the Louise Wolff Kahn 1931 Professor of Theatre and Africana Studies at Smith College. She has received the International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts Distinguished Scholarship Award for outstanding contributions to the criticism of the fantastic. Her latest novel, Redwood and Wildfire, is the winner of 2011 Otherwise Award and the Carl Brandon Kindred Award, and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Redwood and Wildfire?

I was teaching a course that investigated Blackface Minstrelsy and Wild West Shows and some of the students proclaimed that they would never have acted in those kinds of shows. That’s what we could say sitting in our comfy 21st century reality. I wanted to dig into the experiences of African American and Indigenous American theatre and film folk at the turn of the 20th-century. I wanted to bring to life their joys and the impossible challenges they faced. I wanted to celebrate people loving and believing in each other in a world that would otherwise make them invisible to themselves and each other.

Are Redwood, Aidan, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

My Grandfather and Great Aunt were inspirations as were Aida Overton Walker, a turn of the 20th century African American performer, and Zitkala Sa, a Yankton Dakota Sioux writer, musician, educator, translator, feminist, and activist.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

I was trying to write a near future novel and after 140,000 words I decided to write a screenplay about the grandparents of the major character. These powerful old tricksters kept interrupting the novel I thought I should be writing. I’d write long backstory digressions that gripped me more than what was happening in the present. So I decided to do the research and write a historical screenplay. That became the outline for Redwood and Wildfire .

Redwood has a unique sense of style that reflects who she is and how she is feeling at any given moment! Is her wardrobe inspired by your own? Do you have a piece of wardrobe that inspired one of her outfits? Or have you been inspired to create an ensemble for yourself based on something you wrote for her?

Redwood inspired additions to my wardrobe. I’ve been wearing fascinators ever since I wrote the novel.

How familiar were you with late 19th century Georgia and early 20th century Chicago? Did you have to do a bit of research? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write Redwood and Wildfire?

I taught a class, went to Georgia and the Georgia Sea Islands. After writing the screenplay, I had a writing residency at the Blue Mountain Center, a working community of writers, artists, and activists set in the heart of the Adirondacks, and got over 200 pages written and then finished the book a few months later.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

How much we don’t know! So many women filmmakers and theatre artists have been ignored. I knew this intellectually but the deep research gave me a visceral ache for the work these women did.

Do you have a favorite vaudeville performer? A favorite silent motion picture?

Aida Overton Walker, Charlie Chaplin silent films, and Metropolis.

Redwood and Wildfire ends with the beginning of another major adventure/chapter for the characters involved. Are you considering another novel that will take readers on that journey?

They appear in Will Do Magic For Small Change which will be out in October 2022.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

The Treeline—The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth by Ben Rawlence, There There by Tommy Orange, Trouble the Waters: Tales from the Deep Blue, edited by Sheree Renée Thomas, Pan Morigan, and Troy L. Wiggins.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Alice Childress
Pearl Cleage
Michael Ende
Frans De Waal
Anna Deavere Smith

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

The Whole Library.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

My Mother knew everything I was reading. She just asked me what I thought—so I had to be prepared to tell her.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

I could read anything.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

I’m a content girl.

Is there a book that changed your life?

The Whole Library.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

The Broken Ladder—How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die by Keith Payne.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

I’m a theatre person. I really enjoy the reread, the ritual read, the story that can get to me again and again through the days of my life.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I just watched Pan’s Labyrinth and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon again, and they were breath-taking on every level.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I’d be on Mount Desert Island in Maine or in the Bavarian Alps, with all my dear friends—riding my bike, appreciating the natural bounty and the beauty, talking art, eating good food, scheming and dreaming for the next moments of our lives.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

I can talk about what I want no matter what question is asked. This is my universe; I write the rules.

What are you working on now?

Archangels of Funk is a novel that takes place in the Massachusetts of my mind in an alternate present/near future after Water Wars have scrambled the world. Archangels is in the same world as Redwood and Wildfire, but it’s a standalone book. There are Circus-Bots, Cyborg-Dogs, Hill Town Wenches, and a Next World Festival.

Book cover for Redwood and Wildfire
Redwood and Wildfire
Hairston, Andrea

Spanning 15 years and ranging from a small community in rural Georgia to the metropolis of turn of the century Chicago, in Redwood and WildfireAndrea Hairston paints a moving, joyful, and disturbing portrait of our past and a mirror of our present. She doesn’t shy away from the racism that was, and continues to be, rampant in our country and our culture, nor does she allow her characters to be defined by it. Hairston explores the various types of entertainment that existed at the turn of the century, including minstrel and wild west shows, vaudeville, and a motion picture industry in its infancy. She illustrates how the songs and stories of minority cultures were mined, adapted, co-opted, and often perverted for the enjoyment of white audiences.

While Hairston does not turn away from the darkness of the world, neither does she limit herself to it. Her portrait of our world is also filled with wonders, both scientific and cultural, illustrating how vibrant, varied, and rich our world is made by the differences of the people that inhabit it. The resulting novel is much like life itself, moving between soaring heights and despair defining depths, bridging the gaps between those two extremes with hope, resilience, and just a bit of powerful magic.

Redwood and Wildfire is a novel of creation, destruction, and most importantly of all, possibilities.