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A journey into the 'Blue Desert' with Celia Jeffries

On the podcast: In "Blue Desert," Celia Jeffries tells the story of a young English woman abducted by a nomadic tribe into the Sahara.

In "Blue Desert," Celia Jeffries ’08 tells the story of a young English woman abducted by a nomadic tribe into the Sahara. In this episode, Celia talks about writing a story in a culture and time completely separate from her own as well as her long path to getting published.

About our guest

Head shot - Celia Jeffries
Celia Jeffries

Celia Jeffries work has appeared in numerous newspapers and literary magazines including Westview, Solstice Literary Magazine, and Puerto del Sol, as well as the anthology Beyond the Yellow Wallpaper. She has received grants from Turkey Land Cove Foundation, The Massachusetts Cultural Council, and La Muse. Celia holds an MA from Brandeis and worked in news and educational publishing before earning an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley. She has worked with writers at all levels, from elementary school to university both here and abroad, and in many different communities, including incarcerated, literacy, and ESL programs. Her own writing has been nurtured in the community of writers in Western Massachusetts, where she is a founding member and served on the steering committee of Straw Dog Writers Guild, and where she offers workshops at Pioneer Valley Writers Workshop. Read more about Celia.

This is our final episode of 2021. We'll be back in February with new shows. Email news@lesley.edu if you have ideas for future episodes!

 

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  • Transcript

    Georgia Sparling

    This is Why We Write a podcast of Lesley University. Every episode, we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing and the writing life. My name is Georgia Sparling, and today I'm welcoming Celia Jeffries to the show to talk about her debut book, "Blue Desert." Celia, thank you for coming.

    Celia Jeffries

    Thank you for inviting me.

    Georgia  

    So I wanted to start out talking about your book "Blue Desert," as I said. And for those who haven't read it yet, it seems sort of or at least, that's how I describe it, like kind of a dreamy story of this young, impulsive English woman named Alice George, who gets kidnapped while she's living with her family in Morocco in the early 1900s. And she ends up spending several years in the Sahara desert with the Tuareg people, which hopefully I'm pronouncing that right, a tribe of nomads who are known for wearing these blue robes and head coverings that kind of stain their skin. So the novel goes back and forth between Alice's life in the desert and her relationship with Abu who's the head of this tribe. And then also, many years later, well she's in her 70s, or 80s, I think.

    Celia 

     70s.

    Georgia  

    And it's the 1970s. And she's back in London, where she's from, and her past kind of comes back. And so I thought it would be a great introduction to hear a passage from the novel, I'd love if you would read us some.

    Celia 

    This is a slightly spoiler here, but I don't think too much of one. So it's something that comes out later in the novel. And this is Alice's telling her story to her sister, and now she's sitting back, coming to terms with her own decision. "And now I will tell myself the truth. It is possible to live with things out of reach, a limited life to be sure, but it is living. Breath goes in and out of the lungs, blood sweeps through the body, muscles expand and contract. It can keep one very busy, this eating and breathing. It's the mind. It's the thinking, it's the synapses firing wildly in the brain and skipping the heartbeats, that trips things up. This is why I left my son in the desert, why I made the choice to walk away, afraid of who he would become: a man of violence, a man without boundaries or borders, a man like his father. But really, was more afraid of who he would become if I took him out of the desert? A man with no tribe with tight boundaries and borders? A man constrained by false expectations? Fear, my fear. That is what set him free."

    Georgia  

    Great. So writing a book that's set in a different time and a different country with a completely different culture seems very daunting to me. So why did you decide to do that? Where did your story come from?

    Celia 

    My story originated with a voice I had, you know, writers have voices in their heads. And I would be writing and this voice came to me a number of times, and I knew it was the voice of an older woman looking back. But that's all I knew. So as the voice kept coming every once in a while when I'd be writing, I finally allowed the character to drive the story. And I know it sounds really strange [laughs], but I was in a writing workshop at one point and I was writing this story and there was a French woman there. And she turned to me when we were reading aloud and she said "You're writing about the blue men." And I said "Who are the blue men? And then she explained the Tuaregs and of course the French knew this story much better because they colonized Northern Africa. So I started looking up and researching and I became fascinated with this. This is a supposedly hostile environment and this tribe has learned to live within it and they are also a matriarchy, which I found fascinating. As I allowed the character to develop, I moved towards the environment that she was in and then the story started happening.

    Georgia  

    So have you ever been to this area of the world? I was just really immersed in the story and it felt very much, I mean you could feel like the hot days and the sand and imagine the camels. I just felt very transported to this place. So I was curious like how you did that? Have you been there? How do you get into that mind frame to be able to write?

    Celia 

    Thank you. I'm glad to have that experience. I wrote it, I stayed within imagination. As I said, I had done a lot of research and I had watched movies but I did not go to the Sahara until I finished a couple of drafts so that I had the whole, the complete story. And then I knew I had to go to see what it felt like, what it smelled like, what it tasted like. And it's always fun to do the research on a piece because I got there, I took a 14 day, "adventure tour. "So we went all through Marrakech in Morocco, and we went across the Atlas Mountains. And that's the first time I was like, "Okay." I had her being abducted by the driver, and then being saved by the Tuareg tribe within one day. Well, you can't get across the mountains to the Sahara, in one day, particularly not 1910. So I had to go back and look at that. So yes, we camped and rode camels into the desert for four days. So we were beyond any roads or anything. And there were, I think, six camels and 12 people. So we took turns riding and walking. And if you've ever ridden a camel, you are happy to walk [laughs]. It's quite an experience. But I was amazed to be confirmed in a lot of things that I wrote without really knowing. I'd never met a camel, but I got a lot of things right. And I was just even more fascinated by the desert than I was within my research. I don't know that I captured it, but the experience of being so clearly in the world without anything between you and the sky in the land was just transformative.

    Georgia  

    Were you able to meet any people, any Tuareg people?

    Celia 

    Yes, but unfortunately, not in a way to interview. And partly what part of the problem is that their way of life doesn't really exist anymore because of all the change, which in the 70s, because of all the changes in the boundaries, they're not allowed to, they can't cross the Sahara like they used to. And now today, unfortunately, there's so much strife in that area. So they're not surviving the way they used to within the desert.

    Georgia  

    Did you have any trepidation about writing about that culture knowing that it was so foreign? And even just like the different, trying to get into maybe the motives of this people at a time that's so removed from our own?

    Celia 

    That's a question that comes up rarely. But given the world we're living in today, the question of do you have the right to write about a culture is definitely in the forefront. And I think when you're writing, you're writing into what you don't know. You're writing to learn something. So the answer to your question is no. When I was writing, I was not worried about that. I was more fascinated by these people. I was not writing from their point of view, until there's one little passage where Abu is talking about his life. And that I did imagine, but from all the research and the things I had read. I think that we're so concerned about this today. It's probably one of the reasons that I'm one of the few novels that has a bibliography in the back. Because I did really read just about everything I could find about these people. So the answer is I wasn't afraid to write about it, I was fascinated and really respect this culture.

    Georgia  

    Yeah. So I'd love to talk a little bit about the structure of the book. As I said, it kind of evolves between the past and well, it's not the present, they're both the past I guess. 1910 and 1970. And I'm curious, what purpose did you want that to serve? Why structure the novel in that way? It also goes between different perspectives, mostly Alice, but also her sister, her husband. Yeah, as you said, there's Abu in one short area.

    Celia 

    I was trying to solve the problem of writing from the first person point of view, which is very limiting, and would not be able to tell a full story from one person's point of view. And when I was first starting the book, I was totally in Alice's head, and she was an older woman going back in memory and I was sort of falling into an unreliable narrator. Because it was a big question; is this true? Or is this an older woman who's kind of losing it a little? And so finally, I decided to do it in three points of view. There's the third person point of view, which I open with. And then she goes into her memory, which is an interior point of view. And then she's telling her family the story she's never told anybody. And that is first person point of view. So I was able to, in that way, tell the story three different ways. What she's telling the family, how the family is hearing it, and responding to it, and then how Martin, her husband, is able to use his contacts to verify what he's hearing and to look into. So you get the story in three different ways.

    Georgia  

    What challenges did you have in constructing the story that way and kind of mapping it out?

    Celia 

    [laughs] A lot of challenges because I really had to literally map it out. Because I had the foreword story, she has one week that she can tell this story before the family will find out anyway. And she has to deal with it. And she has to come to terms with things that she's sort of put away for 50 years. And so, I was going back and forth with, first I did a timeline, and I did day by day, it was one week, Monday, Tuesday. And finally, I had a writing residency, and I had plenty of time and space and I literally laid out the pages and shuffled them to see. So the other piece of it was to have a heading on every section that was time in place: London, 1970, Morocco, 1910, etc, as sort of landmarks for the reader, which I hope worked.

    Georgia  

    Definitely. Let's talk about your characters. Alice is, [laughs] she's very much like this free spirit, she's on the artsier side. And then you meet her sister who is kind of this stodgy, keeping up appearances type of person. And then there's her husband Martin, who maybe is a spy [laughs] or at least is intriguing. And then Abu, this enigmatic man in the desert who kind of talks in these, I don't know, lofty, one sentence aphorisms? I'm not sure what what you'd call it. So how did you form these characters? Like, are they based on people you know? How much of yourself is in them? I know you said that Alice kind of came to you, her voice.

    Celia 

    I think that there's everybody I've ever met is probably somewhere in here in one shape or form. Alice is not me. I'm not as, I've probably could have been described as head headstrong when I was young, but I'm not as courageous I think as she is. And there's a bit of me in Edith. When I went to do Edith, I had a lot of fun because it was like, okay, here's the one who held the family together, but Alice is getting all the attention. I had it both ways; I was able to write as the free spirit and I was able to write as the "well, I'm the one who's really getting the work done." I think that what was a surprise to me in writing this is I started out thinking this was going to be a love story of Alice and Abu and somebody that she's loved and lost. But as the story progressed, it really, to my mind, became the love story of Alice and Martin. And within that is how did people survive trauma? And how does a marriage survive? And both Alice and Martin came of age at a time when the entire world changed: World War One, the catastrophe of that. And when Alice returns to England, it's a world that's totally different than the world she left. But the two of them recognize each other as survivors from these and never really questioned each other, just total acceptance. And that to me was the greatest love of all is to accept each other.

    Georgia  

    There's a lot of nostalgia I feel like that Alice is experiencing about her life in the desert, and it feels like she never really fit. Well, I don't know, does she ever fit into into either world? So I'm curious, like what are you saying with that?

    Celia 

    That's a really good question because I think something that sort of drives the story is, where is home? You know, is home the place you were born? Or is home the place where you really came alive? And I think for Alice, what you might be feeling is nostalgia, she was totally alive in the desert. She was living a life she never thought she could have lived. And yet, that wasn't her home. She wasn't of that tribe. And again, as you point out, when she comes back to England, she doesn't really fit in there, either.

    Georgia  

    Yeah. I think anybody who's probably lived out somewhere else can relate to being a foreigner finding home in multiple places. So I'd love to talk a little bit more about your writing and your writing life. Is "Blue Desert" your first novel that you've finished? I know a lot of people write a few [laughs] before they get one in print.

    Celia 

    This is my first and I could say I wrote a few novels trying to write this in that I rewrote this story so many times. I mean, I brought it to Lesley when I was doing the MFA program, and it's not at all the story that I brought to Lesley. It's very different. So maybe I learned a few things. So I've definitely written many stories in the process of writing this story. But it's my first novel, and I'm in the process now of writing what I thought was a memoir. And as James Baldwin always said, "You don't get the book you want, you get the book you get" [laughs]. And I am thinking maybe that this memoir is actually fiction. So I'm trying to figure out how to tell this story.

    Georgia  

    And what was your background? Were you always writing or doing other things?

    Celia 

    I've always been writing. I wrote, I was a journalist for quite a while, I worked for newspapers, I worked in educational publishing as an editor. So I always consider those wordsmiths. I love writing, I love telling the story, figuring out how you tell the story. And then I taught. I've taught at high school and college level. And one thing that happens is in the midst of writing this, and I put this book away a few times, put it in the drawer, I joined the Peace Corps in my 60s.

    Georgia  

    That's amazing.

    Celia 

    And they sent me to Botswana, which is Southern Africa, but it's a desert community, and a very tribal community. So that was quite intriguing to land there. And I think a lot of that added to what I was writing.

    Georgia  

    When did you start Blue Desert?"

    Celia 

    I started it, I don't know exactly when, because as I said, it was piecemeal and it was a while before I figured out "Oh, maybe this is a novel." But definitely a couple of decades ago.

    Georgia  

    Oh wow, okay. [laughs] So when did you know that it was finished? Or that it was at least as finished as you could get it to be?

    Celia 

    That's always the biggest question because even now, when I give readings, I find myself editing as I'm reading. I'm going "Oh, okay."

    Georgia  

    I mean, we can all edit forever if we wanted to. [laughs]

    Celia 

    But I think the story was finished when I landed on the ending and the final scene, which actually, I'm not going to give that away because that's a bit of spoiler. But that was a surprise to me. Often when I'm teaching writing, and in writing workshops, you often don't know the story or the beginning until you get to the end. And then you can say, "Oh, now I know how to get there." And you go back and see if everything moves towards that ending. And there are writers like John Irving, who claims that he always writes the last sentence first and then he writes towards that sentence. I can't keep that in my head. I'm just following the the characters around hoping they'll tell me what the story is.

    Georgia  

    Right, yeah. How was it transitioning from a more journalistic style of writing into a novel?

    Celia 

    I think that the same elements of story are there. It's always: what is the story? And who tells it? And how do they tell it? But with a novel, it's so much freedom and sort of a baggie monster. I loved the constraints of journalism, because I learned to write, you'd had to do a lot of rewriting in your head, and I would say this book was in my head for years, even if I wasn't working with it. And for me, like John Irving, who gets the last line, I could never start a piece of journalism until I knew the first line, which of course, is the lead of a story. But I think that I really learned to compress language and you know, you have to choose the right words. I think having the constraints of a deadline and a word count really helped me learn how to write. And then of course, you're in print the next day. So if you make a mistake, there it is. So that I loved about the novel, I could keep fixing, fixing, fixing, which you could do forever, as you said.

    Georgia  

    Yeah. I know, for me, I always have to write the first the first sentence too. [laughs] I know a lot of people don't do that. But I'm like, where am I going if I don't know where it starts? [laughs] And so tell me a little bit about your path to publication. How did you go from your finished manuscript to this beautiful book?

    Celia 

    Thank you. That was a very checkered route. At one time I had two different agents. And it's been such a long time putting this book together, that the whole world of publishing has changed. And I mean, I was sending it out in manila envelopes, and now you do it all online. Both were agents who had been in the business a long time, and sent it off to major houses in New York. And I was getting rave rejections, "Love the story, love the writing, not quite for us, etc, etc.," which usually translates "we don't think we can sell this for a number of reasons," and none of which were ever said. My second agent was getting, my first agent, we kind of parted company when I went in the Peace Corps, because I was ready to just like "Well, maybe I'm not a writer." And my second agent, really still wanted to keep trying and looking for a publisher. But as I said, they've been in the business a long time. And so they had a lot of connections, but every time she would get in touch with someone, they were gone, or now, everything's been consolidated and there's only a few publishers. And so the world of publishing was really going through major changes. And basically, I got impatient. And I just thought, "I'm not getting any younger, I've had some health issues. If I want this book in print, you know, little red hand, I'm gonna have to do it myself." So I did look at independent presses. And, I mean, they'll publish four or five a year or whatever. And that was going to take a long time. And so I looked at hybrid publishing, or what's sometimes called collaborative publishing in which the publisher chooses you. It's a selective process, but you are involved. In traditional, you hand it to them, they spend all the money, take all the risk. In hybrid, you work together, you pay for some of the work and then you get a higher royalty, and you get a little more control over your book, which I was very happy with. So I looked at a number of them, and then I chose one, because I was very impressed with what their editor had to say in the evaluation. So I worked with a really good editor, they also allowed me to have my own designer. And I signed the contract with them and the next day the world shut down for COVID. And I thought, "Okay." [laughs] But the amazing thing is I signed the contract and a year later, the book was in print, and that would not have happened in traditional or even in some other independent presses. So I would say my path was wandering on the desert for years and years in the desert of publishing, and then getting impatient and saying, "Okay, I'll do this."

    Georgia  

    It all worked ou. And the cover is beautiful. We were talking about this before I hit record, but it's just like the perfect cover.

    Celia 

    Well, when my designer showed up with this cover, as we said, it's a John Singer Sargent sketch, and it was done when Sargent was traveling in Northern Africa, so it was actually done at the same time period as the story, which just makes me happy.

    Georgia  

    Yes, amazing. So we've all heard the saying "Write what you know." I heard somebody else say "Write what you want to know, I can't remember who. So we talked about this a little bit, that you did a lot of research. What advice do you have for writers who are writing about subject matter that isn't necessarily something they've had direct contact with, but who do want to make sure they're writing truthfully and authentically? While still having, obviously, your creative license?

    Celia 

    I think we all have human hearts, no matter who we are, where we grow up, what our background is. And I think that any writer is really looking for that human experience. Write from what you know, but as you say, write what you want to know. And I didn't live in the Sahara, I didn't live in 1910. But I have had periods of exile in my life. I've certainly had periods of headstrong or making mistakes or doing things. So that's what I would turn to when I was writing is, my emotional truth that I knew that I could express. And the best writing advice I have ever heard was "Write wildly and revise very heavily, revise ruthlessly." So if you can give yourself the freedom to write whatever you want, all of that can be changed or looked at again. If you're writing with an editor sitting on your shoulder, you're probably not going to get very far. Because any artists needs to go within to some subconscious or some larger conscious in order to connect with other people.

    Georgia  

    Yeah. And one last question. So the name of the show is Why We Write, so why do you write?

    Celia 

    I write because it's how I express myself. Some people pay it, some people sing, some people dance. And I think self-expression is important to every single person, even if they think they don't have a particular talent. I write because I'm fascinated by words. I'm fascinated by the power of words. And I write because that's how I connect with the world.

    Georgia  

    Great. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show.

    Celia 

    Thank you. It's been a pleasure to talk with you.

    Georgia  

    Thank you for listening. For more information about our MFA program, our other podcast called Who We Are, and of course, to learn more about "Blue Desert" and Celia Jeffries, check out the link in our show notes. This was our last episode of the year and we'll be taking a break for January while we talk to more authors from the Lesley University community. Thank you so much for tuning in this year.