Sibella Giorello grew up in Alaska. After majoring in geology, she realized her love for writing and got a job as a features writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Her stories have won state and national awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. She now lives in Washington state with her husband and sons. This is her first novel.
January 12, 2007
Author Sibella Giorello blends her journalistic experience with her educational background in science to write her debut work of fiction, THE STONES CRY OUT. In this interview, Giorello details her lifelong passion for writing, as well as her early hesitation to pursue it formally as a career. She also discusses how her book was inspired by her fascination with the South, shares some of the best and worst aspects of her writing process, and describes her varied tastes in reading material.
Question: When did you first start writing?
Sibella Giorello: According to my parents, I started writing before I could spell --- by dictating stories to family members. Both my parents were writers, so scribbling out stories seemed as natural to me as breathing.
But I never had formal notions about becoming a writer. In fact, I took as few English classes as possible in college --- partly because I didn’t want some Ph.D. ruining my love of books with high-brow theories about literature, and partly because I wanted to learn totally new things in college.
I grew up in Alaska, and always wondered how that landscape happened, so I majored in Geology. Unfortunately, science was not my greatest strength (and that is putting it charitably). Fortunately, I went to a school where the science professors actually cared. Most of them let me write research papers about geologic theories in order to nudge my grade back up the alphabet. Then a funny thing happened on my way to becoming a scientist: I remembered how much I enjoyed writing.
After graduation, I took a job writing newspaper feature stories and never looked back.
Q: How did you come up with the storyline for THE STONES CRY OUT?
SG: I moved to Richmond to work for the daily newspaper, and the South stole my heart. It fascinated me: a place so genteel, so polite, yet with all this blood on the land --- literally. Richmond produced this luscious human melancholia. The perfect setting for a writer!
I stayed busy writing feature stories about every oddball character in Richmond --- and loved every minute of it --- but I always wrote fiction on the side, just for fun. One day I heard the FBI had a forensic geology department. Light bulbs went off in my head. I called the FBI, went through a background check, and started driving up I-95 to the mineralogy lab in Washington, D.C. The Bureau’s lab technicians graciously answered my crime-and-geology questions (obviously, we could only talk about closed cases). One geologist mentioned a civil rights demonstration in New York City, where he rappelled a brick building to gather evidence. Again, light bulbs flashed.
As soon as I started writing the book, most of the elements fell into place. I just tried to get out of the way and stay honest to the characters.
Q: How do you develop your characters? Are they based on anyone you know or do you make them up?
SG: Characters spring from a strange mix of reality and fantasy. Sometimes you’re fortunate enough to meet people so delightful and unique, you can’t help but swirl them into the pool of potential characters. Richmond overflowed with such people; the South is well-stocked with peculiar delights.
That said, nobody shows up in my fiction “as is.” I’ve noticed that if I pluck characters straight from life, they end up looking like caricatures on the page. With fiction, your subconscious wants to play with reality. You have to make room for that. Otherwise it’s non-fiction, journalism, the recording of life before our eyes.
Q: What were your favorite and least favorite things about writing this book?
SG: I don’t focus on “least favorites.” If you start cataloguing all that’s awful about writing a book, you’ll never write the book. But I will say this: I didn’t always enjoy getting up at 3 a.m. But that was the only uninterrupted timeavailable because we home school. My kids are around all day. And I like being with them. I didn’t want to disappear mid-day or work into the night.
My favorite things about writing this book were many. Among them was getting to know the FBI. The Bureau takes a lot of knocks from the ever-sniping media which portrays agents as knuckle-draggers. But these guys (and gals) are amazing. Unfortunately, all the public hears about are mistakes and missteps. We never hear about all the hard work that nabs bad guys or stops bad stuff from happening.
Q: What inspires you to write?
SG: Strong experiences, good and bad. Not just death and pain, the usual puzzlers, but it can be something as subtle as a tone of voice or a certain gesture. I can dwell on an indefinable like that for days, weeks, months. Writing seems to be the only way I can make sense of the world.
And as I write, another world comes into being. It’s a glorious sensation. You can only wonder about what God felt, creating an entire world and then populating it with free will. At any given moment, He must be totally delighted, or despairing.
Q: What books are you reading right now?
SG: I’m always reading the Bible, that’s a staple. You can open that book to the same passage twelve times and receive a different impression each time. Yet it’s always what you need to hear at that moment. Truly, the Bible is a living book.
But generally, I’m a scattered reader. I like to let happenstance guide my choices. For instance, I comb consignment shops for really old books, especially those with an inscription on the inside cover that tells you the book held meaning for somebody. My latest find is 1001 INSPIRATIONAL THINGS, all kinds of stories, poems and journalism from the early 1900s that underscored the best of the human spirit. It’s marvelous reading.
And since we home school, there’s always a broad assortment of books running through the house --- books about spiders, castles or clouds; poems by Robert Louis Stevenson; stories about Ramona the Pest; biographies of Sumarian kings; and then all the stuff my kids write. Those are my favorite to read. Usually, our dog stars as the protagonist, facing daunting challenges that require true courage and determination. I learn a lot from those stories.
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