By Daniel Ford
Armed with a pot of coffee and Dimitry Elias Léger’s debut novel God Loves Haiti, I made it through the multiple blizzards that struck the Northeast in recent weeks without enacting Jack Torrance’s final moments in “The Shining.”
The novel is set during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, however, there’s so much hope and warmth packed into Léger’s inventive prose and three-narrative structure that you almost forget about the overwhelming tragedy that killed more than 200,000 people and left 1.3 million Haitians homeless. If the resiliency, love, and, yes, humor, of Léger’s characters doesn’t make your heart go goudou-goudou, then you should seek medical attention immediately.
Léger kindly answered some of my questions recently about his early influences, the state of journalism, and how he put his heart and soul into God Loves Haiti.
Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Dimitry Elias Léger: Probably when I was around 10 years old. I was a natural born raconteur who used to get in trouble inventing funny-sad stories about troublemakers to entertain my cousins in the wee hours in the morning whenever I visited them. I felt I had to publish novels after my son was born, and I began dreaming of an international career. Living abroad over the past 10 years made fiction writing the most attractive use of my writing skills as other opportunities shrunk to nothingness.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
DEL: Arsene Lupin novels by the French author Maurice Leblanc, comic books, Prince (especially his music from "Purple Rain" to "Sign 'O' the Times" era), and Spike Lee and Steven Spielberg movies.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
DEL: I have to turn off or tune out the world when it’s time for me to write. If I’m at home, I have to wait until my wife and children are asleep, and my friends are otherwise too busy to be online. Essentially that’s meant working most productively from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. During daytimes, I go to cafés without Internet access, and I listen to music—mostly Bjork or Latin and world music where I can’t follow the lyrics—to block out the conversations around me. I do outline, but only so I could have a sketch of the arc the novel should follow. I don’t stick to it rigidly. I like chapters to have arcs too, and I listen to the music of the writing to tell me when a chapter should end to surprise readers.
DF: What do you think of the current state of journalism and why was it something you pursued when you first started out?
DEL: In many ways the current state of journalism is similar to when I started out 20 years ago. To make a good living, command large audiences and do award-worthy stories, no matter the medium, there were only a handful of organizations that could make all those things possible. The significant difference today is the media through which you could start out before getting to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time Inc., or Condé Nast and the big five publishers is varied. Bloggers write for the Times. Visual journalists do sophisticated on and offline. I studied journalism undergrad after two years of studying marketing. After banging my head repeatedly and futilely against the accounting course requirement for marketing majors, I decided to make life and college easier for myself by devoting myself to the one thing I did well, and easily, which was reading, reporting, and writing. Journalism was the best and easiest way to try to make money as a writer straight out of college. And you didn’t have to pass any accounting or any science courses, another Achilles’ heel, to earn that bachelor’s degree and break into magazines.
DF: Your book has an inventive structure that incorporates romance, politics, and religion in a country I think a lot of people in the U.S. might misunderstand, especially following the earthquake. How did you develop that structure and what were some of the aspects of Port-au-Prince you wanted to illuminate for readers?
DEL: I don’t mind that people might misunderstand Haiti. How many people truly understand their own countries, much less a foreign one? Besides, can countries really be understood? To me, countries are like people, families, or marriages, some basics in common, but each are as different from each other as snowflakes are to each other. The hardest thing we can do in this world is walk in other people’s shoes. In my novel, I try to seduce readers into walking in the shoes of a handful of Haitians with PTSD as they walked around and drove around Port-au-Prince and New York City. And they were a certain kind of Haitian, too, smart, self-aware patriots. My driving question was, what’s it like to love Haiti when many metrics suggest you should know better? The answers came in the zig-zag thoughts and emotions of the characters. Since love is hardly ever linear, the structure of how these people dealt with their loves in their loneliest hours emerged naturally in the form the novel ended up in.
DF: How much of yourself, and family, friends, etc., and your experiences in Haiti did you put into your main characters, themes, and settings?
DEL: I put my heart and soul into God Loves Haiti. How they were parsed out into each character, the themes, and settings of the story is beyond my ability to explain. It’s for readers to explore and hopefully make their own. Love stories are so complicated. All the characters are nothing yet a lot like me. We do share one striking trait: a love of Haiti that, like all such affairs, can be costly, risky, and ridiculous.
DF: When you finished God Loves Haiti, did you know you had something good right away and how did you go about getting it published?
DEL: Yeah, I knew I had a good, original, funny novel. Once my agent read half of it, he agreed, and then I promptly finished writing it. I suspected the process of finding a publisher would be fraught like searching for a needle in the proverbial haystack, so I didn’t want to dilly-dally in writing the book to completion. It took my agent two years to find the perfect publisher. A week after a novelist told me to hang in there because, she said, six years is the unofficial average time for a first novel to find a publisher, boom, we found a publisher. And my editor, and the entire team at Amistad/HarperCollins, were indeed perfect fits for the novel. From day one, my editor made loving and believing in my novel’s bright future with critics and readers seem like the most natural and normal of outcomes. I love her for that.
DF: Your book has gotten terrific reviews from the likes of Junot Diaz and others. Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next?
DEL: Novelists far older than me with multiple novels under their belts gave me the same advice: enjoy this moment, this first year after publication, especially with the success the novel’s had, because it goes by fast. So I’m savoring, refusing to be rushed. Winning the respect of Junot and the other great writers who dug my work was a long time coming, and I dreamed of it since I first read their first published pieces 20 years ago. I intend to continue to write more novels, but I’m in no rush to stop enjoying this period, when my personal tastes coincided with those of the literary fiction reader.
DF: What advice would you give to up-and-coming writers?
DEL: Write like you’re part of a continuum of novelists. Know the history and highlights of your genre and your settings inside and out. Novelists should be like painters, building and riffing on traditions that go back centuries. Also read a lot of poetry, and poetic prose, since you are what you read. And for god’s sake, have a sense of humor.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
DEL: My neighborhood in Haiti was the epicenter of the earthquake.