This spring, I became captivated by The Land of Decoration, a debut that made our list of the Top 10 Best Books of April. Grace McCleen's visionary novel (widely compared to Emma Donoghue's Room) grapples with immortal questions, especially for children raised in religious doctrines at odds with mainstream belief: how do you feel your way to the truth when faith blurs with madness, when pious parents may be oblivious to your pain, when your sense of Divine control dissolves? As I've watched the customer reviews roll in, it's been fascinating to see how the book resonates with readers on different levels, depending on their own childhood experience and beliefs.
Judith, a bright 10-year-old in a poor Welsh valley, gets bullied for her faith in the impending End Times, and her life with her devout widower father feels oppressively quiet. So (almost as an act of creative self-defense) she makes an intricate replica of her town within her room, expanding and populating a world made from candy wrappers, shoe laces, sticks, and other cast-off bits. Then she discovers that her actions in her miniature world give her miraculous abilities (to save or destroy) in the real one, and what seemed like the voice of God may be something more sinister.
McCleen's writing felt so visceral that I believed it must spring from an intensely imaginative spirit or the power of personal experience. Now I know it's the result of some miraculous combination and a rare talent.
Her website offered clues into the remarkable scope of her creativity, including beautiful paintings and sculpture, and a village of 140 little people she made "when I wasn't well and awake at night a lot." Her bio says she's "interested in sound, in the spiritual dimension, in miniature, and the natural world," all forces she unleashes in this book. I also found myself beguiled by her songs, amazed by her note that at the time she recorded them, "I thought I was going to lose my speech," a circumstance that makes her vocal poise all the more remarkable. The haunting "Preacher's Daughter" thematically overlaps The Land of Decoration.
I reached out to Grace to find out more about her experience with writing the book, and how her art and music inspire her writing, and vice versa. Here are the highlights.
How did you first hear Judith's voice"”or did her story arise in part from your own life?
The passage opening The Land of Decoration came from a long unworkable novel, out of the blue one day, and I asked myself who would be speaking, what their environment might be. I was very ill at the time, and every paragraph and page was a feat in itself. I think that struggle reveals itself in the depth of the emotion in places (which perhaps verges on the melodramatic), and the pedestrian, 'numb' prose in others, as I was feeling either numb or very great emotion.
At its core, Judith's story is about the power of belief. What do you believe in? Have you experienced what you'd call miracles?
I don't believe in anything at the moment except emotional patterns laid down in childhood (and perhaps before that), which are very hard to shift. I have never experienced what I would call a miracle.
You're intensely creative. Are you one of those people who believe you're a conduit for a creative spirit, or do you have to work to stay inspired? Which medium is most important to you?
I am addicted to work, so a lot of the time I don't think I'm channelling anything valuable at all; in fact my work obsession gets in the way of it. But sometimes - often when I am feeling great emotion - things come easily. The medium of music makes me most happy, words least happy, that is why I am giving writing up.
[Note: The last piece of this answer made me very sad until I saw on her website that she already has two more novels done and intends to finish her fourth this summer--so at least this won't be the end of her writing for us (yet).]
You recorded the songs on your website in your bedroom, at a time you thought you were going to lose your speech. What was that experience of almost losing your voice like for you?
The experience of almost losing my speech was deeply traumatic. But I was losing other bits of my body at the time, my balance, and feeling in my hands and feet for example. It was like being in a waking nightmare.
How does your songwriting overlap with writing stories, and vice versa?
I often write rhythm first for prose rather than words, and with music the words often come along at the same time - at the very first instant - as the notes.