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Interview: September 11, 2009

September 11, 2009

Shandi Mitchell's debut novel, UNDER THIS UNBROKEN SKY, is the result of a project decades in the making, inspired by a tragic event in her family's history. In this interview with's Bronwyn Miller, Mitchell --- an award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter --- discusses the book's origins as a screenplay and explains how it eventually evolved into a work of prose. She also sheds light on some of the complexities of her characters, describes how her childhood surroundings in the Canadian prairies have impacted her both personally and professionally, and muses on how her story might continue after the book concludes. In the “Story Behind the Book” at the end of the novel, you state that the inspiration for UNDER THIS UNBROKEN SKY first came to you when you were 18, when you learned the true nature of your grandfather’s death, which “would become the catalyst for a fictional journey into the lives of two families consumed by the land they yearned to possess.” How difficult was it to write a novel with such a painful beginning? What made you keep coming back to this idea year after year?

Shandi Mitchell: The story really chose me. When I uncovered the facts that confirmed my grandfather hadn’t died of the flu, my search for my personal family history ended. It was a devastating tragedy, but there was nothing to learn, nothing to understand, nothing I could forgive. The pain I felt was for the families and all that they must have endured.

But a story kept calling me. I was fascinated by that time period. My grandfather’s death was only 70 years ago, yet the technological and social change that has transpired in that short span is astounding. Initially, I began to wonder what a character like Maria might have witnessed during her lifetime. During my research, I had discovered so many other forgotten stories and histories erased, both individually and collectively. The revision of the past intrigued me, as did the reliability of memory. I wondered if I could tell a story through multiple points of view and witness it through each character’s perceived truth. And then I began to wonder if I could have survived those times and what would have been my breaking point. Teodor’s voice came first proud and fractured and I just followed him.

Once I was inside the characters, I walked with them. My pain and joy came through them. There are moments in the writing of the story that tore my heart out. But, for me, that meant the characters were alive.

BRC: The descriptions of the harsh winters and living conditions are so vivid and realistic. How much research went into this novel? How important is it to you to incorporate authentic details?

SM: My research process is rather odd. Initially, it is very general. I try to understand the atmosphere of the setting and time frame. I do this by spending time in the archives and reading first-person accounts. I watch films documenting the times. I tend to work more from photographs than documents, probably because of my filmmaking background. I don't want my characters to be overwhelmed by historical facts. I just need to place them in a world. I draw from every part of my own life experiences and offer them to my characters. And then I start to write.

I follow the characters. If the characters bring something into the story, then I veer off and research the details: how to birth a calf, plow a field, how does a man pee…? When I couldn’t remember the details, I went back to the prairies and walked through wheat fields. Though I try and get the details right, I am more interested in the human heart.

BRC: After he is released from prison, Teodor rejects God and the church. Maria clings to her visions of the Virgin Mary and Katya clings to the “body of Christ” that she saved for years. Was the religious imagery intentional, or did it happen organically in the writing process? Why do you think their experiences made them react so differently to religion and faith?

SM: It came organically in the writing process. Because of their time and culture, religion is part of these characters. The religious imagery seemed also to connect with the mystery of the land and its unseen force. The unknown. Each character needed something to hold onto in this infinite space. For some, that strength came from religion and faith; for others the land itself. Life tested their beliefs and values, and in Teodor’s case he couldn’t accept a God that allowed such suffering; whereas Maria saw mercy, Teodor saw cruelty.

BRC: Was it difficult to write a character like Stefan? Did you have a favorite character while writing?

SM: Stefan is the character everyone loves to hate. But when I wrote him, I had no judgment. I had to see the world through his eyes, his justifications, his point of view. When I was inside him, I felt his pain. In a character’s mind, they are always right. And of all the unforgivable horrors and tragedies he instigated, he did do one “good” thing. That moral choice robs the reader of the justice they want for him. I’m amazed by how many readers want to kill him. The story does seem to provoke or blur lines of guilt and innocence depending on the character and circumstances. It is this “gray” that I had hoped to achieve.

I enjoyed looking through the children’s eyes as they tried to make sense of an adult world. Each child was given a part of me. For example, Lesya’s trembling leg is something I experience after a traumatic event, such as being the first to arrive at the scene of an accident. Ivan’s interaction with the animals comes from my childhood memories. All their fears, failings, innocence and play could have been mine under different circumstances.

I can’t say I enjoyed Anna, but it was fascinating to be inside the wilderness of her mind.

BRC: Do you have any thoughts on what happens to the Mykolayenko family after we leave them?

SM: I have great hope for them. I think Maria’s strength will carry them forward. The human spirit has an extraordinary capacity to heal and persevere. There are a couple of characters I worry about, but they are young, and there is so much life yet to unfold.

BRC: What would you like readers to take away from UNDER THIS UNBROKEN SKY?

SM: My hope is that readers will feel these characters’ lives; enter their world; walk the fields; and look up at the sky.

BRC: You are also an award-winning director and screenwriter. How did your film experience help inform the writing in your first novel? How are the two endeavors similar?

SM: The two mediums certainly inform each other. Film has brought a strong visual sense, drama and character arc to my prose writing. Prose has taught me to step deeper inside the characters, to allow the setting to inform the characters, and to create mood and atmosphere through the details.

In film I can write:


Rain falls.

But in the novel, I had to determine the quality of light, describe the prairies, the time of morning, the type of rain…it took a lot more words!

I also discovered in the novel that I could be inside the characters. I could hear their thoughts. That is more difficult to do in film, unless you use voiceover. Or you use other visual language to reveal a state of mind: color, the shot, sound, editing, light, dark… elements that I also use in fiction.

I found the novel could hold a larger story, more characters, and more complex themes. In the novel, there were no budget constraints! A screenplay is the blueprint, the heart of the film, but it is a starting point. It takes the collaboration of many other artists, actors and technicians to create the vision. In the book, the canvas was mine.

In film, time is the framework you work within. You only have 90-120 pages. Structures can be very rigid. Act 1, Act 2 and Act 3 turning points can be written to an exact page number or minute. A novel’s structure can be much freer. I could introduce recipes, newspaper clippings --- the ephemera of life to create a more personal story.

Research! In the film world, as a director, I merely add the word 1938 to the script and then I have dozens of people in specialized departments researching all the details and bringing me all the correct objects, wardrobe, foods, and I just have to choose which ones I like best. With the novel, I had to do all the research! That was shocking.

I love both mediums. Their processes are different. They share characters, dialogue, story, plot, theme…they are both hard work and rewarding. I am grateful that I have the chance to play in both worlds.

BRC: When you began writing, did you have a clear picture in your mind where you wanted the story to end?

SM: I did. I knew the end action, but I didn’t know how I would get there. I let the characters lead me. I do set guideposts that I want to reach, but I leave the story’s path wide open. I am often surprised and shocked by the choices the characters make. There was one occasion when as I was writing a scene I was pleading with the character, “No, no, no…!” But it wasn’t my place as the writer to stop them.

However, I didn’t know the final actions of Maria until very late in the process. I didn’t know the depth of her strength.

BRC: What part of the writing process do you find the most difficult? What’s the most rewarding part?

SM: Most difficult:

I have two words written on a white board beside my desk. “Begin” and “Finish”.  This is what is most difficult.

Most rewarding:

The times when the story is rushing forward and I am barely able to keep up to catch the words. And those times, when I am so deep inside the story that the characters seem to take on a will of their own.

BRC: So many aspects of the story are so visual, especially the prairie fire scenes. Have you considered adapting this into a film?

SM: I once thought about making this as a film. I even drafted a script long, long ago when I was too young and hadn’t lived enough life to tell the story. I’ve never looked back at it. When the story called me again, 15 years later, it wanted to be a novel. The first words came as prose. I haven’t considered how or if it could be adapted to film now. Maybe…

BRC: You spent part of your childhood on the prairies of Canada. How has that environment informed your work?

SM: The big sky and wide open fields certainly imprinted my heart. When I return to the West and step off the plane and find myself under that sky again, it can still make me cry. Its vastness, reaching from horizon to horizon, reminds me of my smallness. It feels holy to me.

And the land, which is billions of years old, reminds me that it was once an ocean. When I walk across its fields, I feel closer to nature --- the sound, the smell, the light. Time does not seem to have a presence in this natural order.

And yet, we humans in our short life spans map, fence and divide this land and claim it as our own. I love that audacity and desperation. But I also know that craving for a piece of land, a place that is mine, a place where I can root. Or perhaps feel safe. Is this a quest for freedom, or is it a type of imprisonment?

I think whatever story I write, the geography of the setting will inform the characters whether it’s the Atlantic Ocean or an urban centre. I don’t know how to separate environment from existence.

BRC: During the writing process, you said you realized “the story was about life, in all its beauty and savagery. It was about the moral lines that divide and join us. What is remembered and what is forgotten. And the fine line between those who break and those who don’t.” Which characters do you think are “broken” at the end, and which persevere? Were there any other novels or films that served as inspiration for you?

SM: One of Hemingway’s characters in A FAREWELL TO ARMS says in an oft-cited quote, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” For some I think this is true. But the quote continues, “But those that it will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of those you can be sure that it will kill you too, but there will be no special hurry."

I think the sky remains unbroken in my story. I believe humankind has an astounding capacity to survive, endure and even heal. We find reasons to keep on living and loving, and this is the mystery and, perhaps, salvation of the human experience.

I admire books and films that make me feel and take me into a world and let me live inside it. There are so many great artists whose works I admire, but I didn’t look to them for direct inspiration. They inform me, as do all my life experiences. But I listen to the voice of the story. It dictates its form.

Oddly, when I am working on a manuscript, I don’t read books. I rabidly watch films. And when I work on a film script, I don’t watch films. I devour books.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

SM: I’m planning to shoot a film next summer, so this year I will be deep into that film script and its development. After that, I will start the next novel, though I have been jotting down characters and fragments of ideas, so perhaps there is a story already calling.

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