Q and A with Rebecca Entel about her novel Fingerprints of Previous Owners
1. Tell us a little about your novel.
Here’s the jacket copy: At a Caribbean resort built atop a former slave plantation, Myrna works as a maid by day; by night she trespasses on the resort’s overgrown inland property, secretly excavating the plantation ruins the locals refuse to acknowledge. Myrna's mother has stopped speaking and her friends are focused on surviving the present, but Myrna is drawn to Cruffey Island's violent past. With the arrival of Mrs. Manion, a wealthy African-American, also comes new information about the history of the slave-owner’s estate and tensions finally erupt between the resort and the local island community. Suffused with the sun-drenched beauty of the Caribbean, Fingerprints of Previous Owners is a powerful novel of hope and recovery in the wake of devastating trauma. In her soulful and timely debut, Entel explores what it means to colonize and be colonized, to trespass and be trespassed upon, to be wounded and to heal.
2. You mentioned at a recent book event that you originally wrote half the novel from the POV of a white college girl from Wisconsin and half from Myrna's, a Bahamian woman, but eventually realized that the story needed to be told mostly through Myrna’s POV. How did you come too this decision?
I’d known for a while that Myrna’s portion of the book was stronger overall than the other narrator’s, but I’d started with that narrator and hadn’t thought about giving her up. I’d just been revising with an eye to strengthen that half of the book. The idea to let Myrna tell the whole story originally came from a conversation with my editor, and was supported by some other readers. It seemed impossible at first to make such a drastic revision – especially after so many years of writing – but within a few hours of tackling the opening of the book from Myrna’s point of view, I knew it was the right decision. And it’s been educational for me to recognize that even more than five years into a project, there might still be a totally new way to view it.
3. Related to the above - how did you settle on the structure of Fingerprints? You have short “bench story” sections in the voices many of the islanders your main character Myrna knows, along with chapters told in Myrna’s voice.
I’m a slow writer, and the structure took a while as well. When I first worked on the bench stories, they were grouped together in one chapter toward the end of the book. That didn’t quite work, though, since the chapter became really dense and threw too much at the reader late in the game, I think. Some of the material from those stories ended up integrated into the main narrative, and then I worked on choosing a few stories that could be scattered throughout the book. I changed my mind about which stories should go where too many times to count. I have some strange notes from when I was trying out different orders that almost look like Sudoku boards.
4. You’re a professor of Caribbean and African American literature and you’ve spent years studying these fields, and Fingerprints of Previous Owners is set on San Salvador where you’ve also taught classes in literature. What skills do you draw on to write fiction that might be different from when you write scholarly work?
These two kinds of writing are so different that I don’t even really think of them as the same act. But there are some similarities: whether I’m writing or analyzing literature, I’m thinking about small details, and the larger patterns they might add up to. In scholarly work, I’m trying to connect tiny moments in a text to larger ideas whereas in fiction I have to hold back and allow readers to piece things together and come to the larger ideas on their own. In fiction, I get to play with language as much as I’d like. And while clarity is the goal in scholarly work, in fiction sometimes I’m going for something else: subtlety, ambiguity.
5. The ravages and the weight of racism, imperialism, and slavery figure prominently in this novel - from where did the idea for Fingerprints of Previous Owners originate?
I was doing lots of research about slavery and imperialism in the Caribbean for the Caribbean literature class I was teaching, but my creative work always comes from small details, not big themes. I started taking notes for what I thought was a short story based on some things I saw during my first couple of trips to the island that struck me as just strange and puzzling: a beach where garbage washed up from all over the world, a tourist snorkeling in a pool yards away from the ocean, and the ruins of the plantations that were so overgrown we needed machetes to reach them (and in some cases couldn’t find what we searched for). I didn’t know what the book would ultimately be about, but those are the things that stayed with me, and as the story came together, those weights you mentioned were inextricable from the place I was describing and the characters’ lives.
6. Myrna and the other islanders have such engaging voices - are some of them based on people you met when you've been teaching on San Salvador?
All of the characters are purely fictional, but there were roles on the island that have struck me and influenced the characters I created. For example, my students got to meet with the person in charge of the landfill to hear about how garbage is handled on the island, and that became an important part of my story. There’s a shop owner in town who has generously spoken with me at length about her decades-old business and how some things have changed over time, so I made sure to create a character who ran a shop in her honor. In the end, though, I fictionalized the island, and the characters are all from my imagination.
7. What are you working on now, if you don’t mind sharing this?
I’m working on another novel, this one set in Cleveland, where I grew up. I’m still figuring out what it’s all about.
Rebecca Entel is Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Cornell College, where she teaches courses in creative writing, multicultural American literature, Caribbean literature, and the literature of social justice. Her short stories have appeared in such journals as Guernica and Joyland Magazine. Fingerprints of Previous Owners is her first novel.