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Donna Gillespie Talks About Writing

Marjorie Giles interviews Donna Gillespie, Author of The Light Bearer.

Donna Gillespie's first novel, The Light Bearer, won immediate acclaim from Publisher's Weekly, The Washington Post and became an instant best-seller in Germany and New Zealand. The Light Bearer, a carefully researched historical novel was published by Berkley-Putnam in 1994. A mass market edition was introduced in 1997, with improved cover design and placement among history and new age titles in the bookstores.

Gillespie was born in Gainesville, Florida on July 21, 1948 and received her formal education there, finishing at the University of Florida 1970 with a degree in Fine Art. She then studied with Leonard Bishop and developed her fascination for First Century European history into The Light Bearer.

Q: When did you realize you were a writer?

Gillespie: When? On some days, I'm not sure I am one yet! But seriously, I think I've always known, particularly when very young--though there was a long period in my life when the need to write lay dormant. After a time underground, it resurfaced strongly in my life at age 28. This was a period in my life when I was working three dull jobs simultaneously. One of these was cocktail waitress in a very slow bar, and, to keep from going mad from boredom, I started writing poetry on the backs of cocktail napkins, and imagining dialogues and scenes playing themselves out in the air. On a good night, this was as entertaining as sitting, rapt, in a movie theater.

It occurred to me that this obsessive story-making might be a sign I was a writer, and I decided to test out the premise by enrolling in a writing workshop. To my delight and amazement, my short stories were praised, and I was on my way.

Q: Relate the details of the German translator coming to San Francisco.

Gillespie: Those heady days before the book came out were the best days of my publishing experience, when I still expected great things. As the publication date came closer, my editor told me the German translator was flying out to San Francisco to meet with me--the news was all the more exciting because she said translation rarely happens with first novels.

He arrived and we went everywhere, discussing the manuscript over breakfast, lunch and dinner, all provided by the German publisher. I began to feel like an overfed Cinderella! I was working as a telephone operator in a San Franscisco luxury hotel, down in a cramped, airless, windowless, sub-basement room beneath the hotel. The translator was staying on the top floor of the same 5-star hotel. Whenever he had a question about something in the manuscript, he would just dial 'O' for the operator, and would discuss it with me in my cave. It was kind of an odd moment! Once, he came down to see where I worked, and his first comment was, "In Germany, this would be illegal."

Q: Describe the concept and procedure of your over-arching conflict, and how you get your supporting characters to build tension.

Gillespie: There's something paradoxical in my approach to writing, and in the way I develop material. On the one hand, I think very organically about it: Writing comes from the deep unconscious. The material grows like a tree. Outlining feels like forcing nature and I'd rather follow the wild promptings of the unconscious. There are times when I think my approach is probably exactly the reverse of what a sensible writing teacher will tell you to do.

I'll work on the prose first. (Common sense would tell you to work on prose last; after all, you might throw out the whole scene). However, I've learned that where effusions of prose occur, there the unconscious mind is alert, interested. I've learned to trust that there's a reason for this that might not be immediately apparent. It feels like fumbling along, using prose as a kind of dowsing rod to find underground material. At the same time, I'm fascinated by structure. As the story evolves and begins to shape itself (yes, shape itself, as if some outside force is modelling it like clay) I become very conscious of structure.

This is almost after-the-fact, though; I study it almost the way you might study the growth of a crystal--not because I mean to guide it by some logical set of rules, but simply because there's a certain beauty in watching the forms evolve, a fascination in observing the way the plot structure can guide and control the emotional reactions of the reader.

One way to ensure that tension never flags is by keeping to a structure in which a new conflict is always set up before an ongoing conflict is resolved, This will help bring a sense of continuity to the story--making certain the minor conflicts are subsumed under a greater, overarching conflict, whose resolution or terminal point won't come until near the end of the book.

Q: Do you notice similarities between yourself and Auriane?

Gillespie: Similarities between myself and Aurianne? My first reaction is, I don't think so! After all, she is a somewhat larger than life character. But then, I know she must say a lot about me, if only because we reveal ourselves through what/whom we idealize. I guess she's a perfected reflection of myself, or something like that! Another person's perfected reflection might look quite different.

One thing that I do realize about her: To be able to relate to her, I had to give her an art form--to organize her life around artistic expression; I couldn't have seen through her eyes for so many years, were she not a character who looked for transcendence through art.

And, as she was living in prehistory, I didn't have a lot of choices here. This is why swordfighting is, to her, more art form than methodology of war. It created what might seem an odd twist to the story--a warrior for whom swordfighting is not a means of bringing about death of an opponent, but a means for finding a oneness with the universe. Swordfighting is for her what writing is for me.

Her propensity for feelings of shame, her insecurities, can only be mine. I noticed that the course of her life reflects mine, so that the book might almost be called an emotional diary of the years I spent writing it. For example, she comes to a point in her life where she's stripped of everything that gives comfort and meaning, and must build her life up again from nothing. She learns that 'catastrophe is fertile'--in other words, that destruction opens the gate to new worlds. As she learns this, so did I. It's a bit like we grew up together.

Visit The Light Bearer Web page at

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