A Dust Bowl ballad
In Dust Girl, Sarah Zettel has masterfully combined magic and history into a mysterious novel set during the Dust Bowl-plagued 1930s. Callie LeRoux makes the ideal heroine for this clever mash-up: She's part fairy, biracial and sick from the dust that inundates her Kansas town. Not to mention, her love interest is a Jewish hobo and her mother vanished in a dust storm.
Zettel’s novel, woven with classic jazz and blues music, is a wholly original take on fairy mythology. She combines the spirit of the Depression-era Midwest with the magical conflicts between the Seelie and Unseelie courts of fairies. The result is a novel that can be experienced through all of the senses: Taste the dust; hear the music; feel the gritty wind; smell the sweat; and see the Dust Bowl through Callie’s eyes.
Dust Girl is a combination of historical fiction and fantasy literature. How did you come up with this particular combination?
Well, partly it was because I'd never seen it done. I've always been fascinated by U.S. history and folklore, and love stories that make use of it. I grew up reading all the Wizard of Oz books, so those were always a part of my personal mental landscape. At the same time, I discovered stories about Paul Bunyan and other work heroes and tall tales. Plus, when I was a kid, I came across a set of stories by Manly Wade Wellman about a man named John who had a guitar with silver strings [and] a set of magic powers, and who walked through Appalachia having adventures and confronting ghosts and monsters. Those stories knocked me back on my heels and remain some of my favorites. So all of this was very much in the back of my mind what I was thinking of when I started considering my own ideas for a new fantasy series.
Sometimes the reader can actually hear the blues music playing in the background of this novel. What was your motivation for making music such an integral part of your storytelling?
My introduction to the history of the Dust Bowl and Depression was actually through music. My parents were big fans of traditional musicians like Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger. I grew up listening to Woody Guthrie's recordings of Dust Bowl ballads. So, when I came to write a book set in that time and place, it seemed natural to me that the music be included.
"That kind of poverty can make a person strong in some ways and leave them very scarred in others."
Have you always held an interest in fairies, or did you simply choose to write about them and then embark upon the work of researching the appropriate lore?
I have always adored fairy tales and fantasy. I grew up reading traditional fairy tales and folklore, and my father was a science fiction fan from way back, so I went straight from the Brother's Grimm to authors like Tolkein, Andre Norton, Ray Bradbury and Lord Dunsany because that was what was on the shelves at home.
In the same vein, how much time did you spend researching the Dust Bowl era? You manage to evoke that time in American history so well.
I knew something about the Depression and the Dust Bowl from family history, the folk music I grew up with and of course authors like John Steinbeck and the haunting photos of Dorothea Lange. For extra research I read The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, which is an excellent book about those who weathered the "dirty years." Kansas State University has done a fantastic job collecting oral histories from survivors of those times and they've posted them online. That's where I found details like the windmills glowing green from the static electricity in the dust storms. Then, too, I got lucky. I found a memoir of a Kansas farmer from right near where I put Callie in the University of Michigan library, and while I was listening to Pandora radio on my computer, an Alan Lomax recording came up of Woody Guthrie describing how he lived through "Black Sunday," the day of the worst, largest dust storm in U.S. history.
You’re already an award-winning science fiction and fantasy author. What made you decide to try your hand at writing for young adults?
Some of the best and most exciting science fiction and fantasy happening today is happening in the young adult section. There's an incredible breadth of subject, an energy and an excitement in the new books. I really wanted to be a part of that.
The world you create in Dust Girl is so captivating and unique, yet it seems so incredibly real! How did you go about creating the tableau of this novel?
This is where being a science fiction author gave me a head start. I had practice at building worlds I'd never seen and imagining what it would be like to walk there. Of course, this time I had all these magnificent first-hand accounts to draw on, and long, broad history of American folklore as well.
You deal not only with the issue of racism but also with that of anti-Semitism in Dust Girl. Did you view these as peripheral themes of the novel or did you know from the beginning that you would be tackling these difficult issues within your story?
I very much wanted the book to address questions of identity. Frankly, it is not possible to discuss questions of identity in American history without discussing race and religion. You also can't talk about U.S. popular culture, especially in the ‘30s [at] the height of Jim Crow and segregation, without talking about race and culture. So it had to be there.
Callie reveals, “If I had to be crazy, I wanted my mama's kind of crazy, because she was never afraid.” What is your own mother like, and did you draw any inspiration from her—or perhaps from your own experience as a mother—in creating the mother/daughter relationship?
There's a lot of my mother in this book. She was born at the end of the Depression and remembered very well the toll it took on her family. My grandfather worked as a "line walker" for the Rock Island Line, and they never had enough. That kind of poverty can make a person strong in some ways and leave them very scarred in others. This was part of the dichotomy I tried to present in Callie's mother Margaret.
I understand you practice Tai Chi. Does the practice help you in your writing?
Tai Chi affects my writing primarily by enabling me to calm down and take a break from the process. One of the problems with being a writer is it can get hard to shut your brain off. It's always working, always struggling with this idea or that one. You need to be able to step away, take a mental break. Tai Chi helps with that. Also, of course, it helps to maintain physical health. Sitting and typing all day is really bad for you, so it's important as a writer to have a good exercise program of some sort for balance. It also has had the side effect of teaching me some martial arts, which do tend to show up in fight scenes.
So, you married a rocket scientist. Is he your worst critic or your biggest fan?
VBG. It's funny. I knew he was the guy for me as soon as we met. It was at a party at a friend's, and there I was, busy explaining to him what I'd discovered about wave motion in Lake Erie for a science fiction story I was working on, and he was not only paying attention, he was grinning. I knew at that moment this was somebody I could talk to about anything and everything. He's helped with every one of my books, whether it's designing ships and space stations for the science fiction, or helping bounce ideas around for the fantasy and mysteries. This includes Dust Girl. There I was, struggling with how to show fairies and fairy magic in a really American context. The idea of Hollywood and the movies being how the Seelie court—the bright, golden, shiny side of the American fairies—manifest themselves and their glamour in our world came easily. But what about the Unseelie court? The night side, the less obviously beautiful, but still tempting, still magnificent, still powerful? I was saying all this to Tim, and he looked right at me and said, "You want a court? ‘Count’ Basie. ‘Duke’ Ellington. ‘Lady’ Day.” And I had it as soon as he said it. The Seelie Court was Hollywood, but the Unseelie Court was jazz.
Are you willing to reveal any teasers for the next two novels in the trilogy?
Let's see. Callie and Jack's relationship continues to change and grow. Their travels continue as well, first to California and then to Chicago where they both have to come to terms with their families. Callie finds out she and Shimmy are a long way from being the only part-fairy people out in the human world, and that a prophecy can have more than one way of coming true.
Read a review of Dust Girl.