Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
It was author Jen Lancaster who pointed me in the direction of this amazing novel. Thanks Jen! I would have otherwise missed out on one of the best novels of the year. I keep of mental list of must-read books and when a friend asks for a recommendation, these titles are on my lips. Oh yes, this is one.
A good book can do so many things. It can transport you to another time and place, it can awaken and evoke emotions you did not know existed, it can intrduce you to a new idea and it can give you chills and make you cry. The Mercy of Thin Air did all of the above.
I feel so lucky to interview the author of this gem, Ronlyn Domingue. I have to warn you, take break from reading anything after The Mercy of Thin Air. Any other book will probably pale in comparison and you will make unfair assessments of your current reading material. Just sit and page through People magazine or something. And then, and only then can you resume reading another novel.
I could probably sit here forever and keep writing about how great this book is. Just take my word for it and visit Ronlyn's website here.
After doing all the physics research for this book, would you say you are less fearful or worried about dying than before you wrote The Mercy of Thin Air?
I’ve never been afraid of death, although I worry about how I will die. (My request--painless, quick, and clean, in that order.) I don’t recall ever obsessing about what would happen after my physical body ceased to be. That seems odd, especially because I was raised Catholic and the fate of one’s eternal soul is nothing to take lightly. When I researched quantum physics to figure out what Razi thought she was--she wouldn’t call herself a spirit or a ghost--I didn’t expect it to affect me so deeply. I was introduced to ideas that gave me a real sense of comfort and wonder. There were alternate universes, a rational for reincarnation, the idea of merging with the beauty of the universe itself. This science was more spiritual than I could have imagined.
Being humans on earth, our imaginations and realm of experiences only takes us so far. Is it possible there is something beyond what we cannot grasp?
I believe so. There is something beyond, after we die, but no one can agree on what that beyond is. I’ll let the theologians and scientists duke it out. For now, I’m content with the ambiguity. It seems to me, though, intuitively we know there’s something else. Those moments of transcendence we have in life, that’s an experience of oneness with something beyond ourselves.
Some people receive this in prayer, or through their vocations, or experiences with nature. Those are glimpses into a secret about existence. Our curiosity about it keeps us going, as much as our brains and organs.
The book is so masterfully written, it's hard to believe it is a debut novel. Did you do a lot of writing before this book?
What a tremendous compliment. Thank you. I started writing when I was eight years old, and well into my teens, I wrote more than my fair share of short stories, poems, plays, and the start of a novel or two. I was the dork who sat in the back of the classroom, head ducked down, immersed a world that escaped through the tip of my pen.
Once I was in college, I set aside any literary aspirations and studied journalism. I soon learned that I wasn’t cut out for that career, but the jobs I did get always required strong writing skills. Throughout my twenties, I dabbled with fiction, but it was half-hearted. That is, until I had years of these dreams in which I’d lose babies to stillbirth, abortion, or adoption. The “dead baby dreams,” as I call them, stopped when I realized the babies were my unwritten books. I’ve never had another one since. After a couple of years of stumbling on my own, I decided to boot camp myself--go to graduate school and get my MFA in creative writing. It was the right decision. My thesis, two drafts later, became THE MERCY OF THIN AIR.
What was the editing process like? Did you have many changes to make?
Editing was minimal. I spent a lot of time on research and thinking before I wrote each draft. By the time I was actually writing, I didn’t have to worry about what would happen, but how to tell it. I’d say 85 percent of what you read is exactly what I wrote on the first try.
My agent, Jandy, recommended minimal changes before she sent it out. I added sentences to some scenes and wrote a new one—the orphanage scene, which is one of my favorites. All of that work upfront paid off, because once Atria picked it up, my editor, Sarah, recommended subtle changes, and very few at that. She did, however, ask me to go back to the moment Razi dies. Excruciating as that was for me--to endure Razi’s death again, not because I had to make a change--Sarah was right, and that scene is even better because of her suggestion.
After she died, why wasn't Razi supposed to indulge her sense of touch?
Ah, yes, the third rule of being between. It’s a matter of desire and consequences. The ones who are between want their physical bodies back, even if they don’t say so or think about it. When they touch inanimate objects, it reminds them of their bodies and, as a result, their unsettled pasts. They become deluged by memory. When Lionel plays the cello toward the end of the book, that’s what’s happening. Then if they have contact with another who is between or, even more harmful, one of the breathing (the living), they’re raw energy. They’re what the flesh kept contained, a force they don’t understand. They’re dangerous, more so when the desire to feel another body becomes uncontrollable. I won’t be a spoiler about the details.
Were you concerned at all about comparisons between The Mercy of Thin Air and The Lovely Bones, both having narrative voices speaking from after their death? (I must point out that anyone who has read both books can say they are two entirely different novels from page 1.)
Of course, but I couldn’t obsess about it. THE MERCY OF THIN AIR began as a short story in January 1999. A few months later, I began to develop it as a novel. I remember when I found out about THE LOVELY BONES, sometime in 2002, when I saw an interview with Alice Sebold. I choked on my Cheerios—oh no, her novel had a dead narrator, too. I purposely didn’t read her book until I was in the last throes of my own. No point in tainting my process. I was relieved to see how very different they are.
Alice Sebold happened to be at the start of some collective unconscious zeitgeist going on--in this case, the afterlife or something like it. Glen Duncan had one in 2004, Connie May Fowler in early 2005, there’s a new one out by David Long. My wish is that readers search for the individual merit of a novel, especially when it’s marketed as similar to previous popular work.
What kind of life do you think Razi would have lived if she hadn't died so young?
The one she planned. She would have been an amazing doctor and a steadfast advocate for women’s rights. Although Andrew was a surprise, I believe those two would have figured out how to make their relationship work. Razi had the ability to compromise, deep down, but not on her convictions. He loved that about her. And she loved him. . . For the record, would you believe me if I told you I used to lapse into fantasies about their long lives together?
The book is also a passionate love story between Razi and Andrew, a love that never died. What are your thoughts on true love, do you think we all only have one great love in our lives?
I absolutely, without question, believe in true love. I’m a cynic about nearly everything else in life, but not about this. Most people get a few loves in a lifetime, puppy loves, unrequited loves, deep loves. A great love is a one-time event. It may last a few weeks, or a few years, or a lifetime. I have friends who, even if they are attached or married, will still mention the great loves that didn’t last. There’s such longing, even in their resignation. Honestly, though, I’m biased. I’ve been with the love of my life for 18 years. If we didn’t love each other the way we do, I’m not sure I could have written this novel.
Are you going to come out with another novel sooner than the four or so years it took to write The Mercy of Thin Air?
No pressure, right, Cindy?! I’ve had the second novel in my head since 2001--it started as a short story, too--and the research has begun in earnest. I know that the next one will be more difficult to write than the first, emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually. Some of the issues I’m researching include the Vietnam War, ecology, and urban development. (That shouldn’t sound too crazy considering I researched 1920s culture and history, the women’s movement, and quantum physics for THE MERCY OF THIN AIR.) Honestly, I hope it doesn’t take four years, but if I does, I hope it’s worth the wait.
You live in Louisiana- has the devastation of Hurricane Katrina touched your life personally? Has it inspired your writing in any way?
I was born and raised here. I spent most of my life ashamed of being Southern. But after Katrina, that vanished. I realized that I’m connected to this place and its people in profound, undeniable ways. Other than that revelation, has Katrina touched my life? Sure. My friend Matt’s family had ties to New Orleans going back generations. They lost his parents’ home. One of my best friends decided not to stay in the city and moved to North Carolina. You can’t believe how much pain people are still in. You can feel it in the city itself.
I was there last week, and although there’s more normalcy, it’s still a place where people are grieving. They have every right to be. As for my writing . . . two days after the storm hit, I stood in my dark kitchen, wet as the air itself, (we got hit by the west edge of the hurricane) and realized there is no way I can write my next novel without mentioning Katrina. I know the second novel will delve into a sense of home, the connection between landscape and memory. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita shattered that for millions of people. I’m compelled to explore these issues, both out of empathy and my own vulnerability.