Our writer Natalia Davies interviewed Dana Mills to find out what inspired her to write her novel Leah.
Hello Dana, I see that you have lived in many different places; did you find the inspiration for Leah in a particular location?
Yes, the setting for Leah was inspired by the small seaside town where I live, which is also remote and exposed to the elements. As in any small community, it is quite parochial, and word spreads fast through the grapevine. Despite its idyllic setting and laid-back lifestyle, there can be a strange undercurrent of discontent and adversity. Whenever something out of the ordinary takes place, not only does it rock the whole community but it also generates a sense of unease bordering on the eerie.
Are there any histories, small or large, that you know of that inspired Leah?
I can’t say that there are, no.
Would you say your work is in any way grounded in personal experiences?
To a certain extent, I suppose, though not in the storylines per se, but more in terms of general life experiences:it is the interactions between characters, the way people relate to each other, their different personalities and their circumstances that inform my work. For instance, I have never experienced what Mar does, but by placing her in a setting similar to my own (a remote place with a small-town mentality), I do draw on how it affects my emotional and psychological state of mind.
What was appealing to you about creating a protagonist who is an artist?
Well, artists are very similar to writers, aren’t they? They work in solitude, observe the world around them with a critical eye, and aspire to interpret their perceptions and emotions through their craft.I wantedto create a character who craved solitude in order to accomplish something fundamental in her life: to paint. I could’ve chosen a writer at a writer’s retreat, but somehow it seemed that the threat of a retinal detachment for a character who relied on sight, on colour,and who was inspired by what she saw might be more poignant.
Throughout the novel, the protagonist embarks on a process of a self-discovery. Without giving too much away, is there any specific message you seek to send out to your readers at the end of the novel?
The theme for the novel is ‘The heart knows what the eye cannot see,’ which is why, ironically, the most perceptive character in the novel is el ciego, the blind one. At the beginning of the novel, Mar, the protagonist, comes across as judgemental and aloof,much like the villagers themselves who turn their backs on Sebastian. She also finds herself on an island where nothing is what it seems. Gradually, her preconceptions are shaken asshe becomes entangled in Puerto Franco’s past, against her will. Forced out of solitude and with her guard down, she learns to be less critical of herself and others. In a nutshell, one has to be receptive and open-minded in order to see things for what they are.
Is the presence of spirits in the novel intended to be metaphorical as well as psychological or real?
Yes, it is intended to be both. The spirits can be interpreted as any haunting thought or belief. Once one is seized with an idea or an impression, it becomes hard to let it go. The villagers are possessed by intolerance and fear. They are their own jailers, imprisoned in their own explanation for the strange happenings on the island. Spirits are whatever we need to face in order to be at peace. They do not have to be ‘demons’, they do not have to ‘malevolent’ but they control us nevertheless.
When I read the book, I thought love was a theme that was beautifully nuanced.
Would you say the novel is about motherhood, romance and friendship in all of their complexities?
It’s about love in all its forms, the most pure being maternal love, which makes a woman vulnerable yet, at the same time, powerful. Romantic love can be possessive and destructive (Oscar and Manuela) and lust can sometimes be confused with love (Sebastian’s relationship with Manuela). True friendship is distinguished by loyalty, honesty, and camaraderie (Romulo and Pablo, Clara and Mar as the latter develops). Romulo acting as Sebastian’s surrogate father is a form of paternal love, and the maternal instinct drives Clara to protect and look after Sebastian who comes to represent the son she could never have.
Have you got any advice for aspiring writers on how to plan and write a novel?
A distinction is normally made between those who outline or plan their novels and pantsers, those who plan very little. If you’re starting out as a writer, I would recommend you start off with an outline and have a clear idea of the message you would like to get across to the reader. Work the bones of the novel, develop your characters, decide on the beginning and the end, and lay it all out. Once you start writing, you’ll likely veer from your outline as your characters take a life of their own. Which is the best part, really, the creative part where you can allow your imagination to run free. But an outline here will help you keep it in check, and will prevent you from going completely off course or getting stumped.
Will you intend to write more fictional novels within a similar setting and vein to Leah?
I really enjoyed writing Leah, especially since I opted for a fictional island, which gave me free rein to make of it what I wanted without having to be true to an actual place. I’m also encouraged by the good feedback and reviews the novel has received. I have just completed another novel, ‘The Memory of Loss’ which was selected for publication by Kindle Scout. Although it is different from Leah, and set in 1986 Cannes and WWII Paris, I think it possesses the sense of mystery that permeates Leah.
Has Leah so far been translated into other languages? Which languages would you most like to translate it into?
No, it hasn’t. I would like to see it translated into Spanish, Italian, and French.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Not initially. I knew I wanted to work with books and have done so through my career in editing and copywriting. And I’ve always been a lover of literature and an avid reader. When I became a stay-at-home mom, and could not find the time for freelance work, I decided to work on my own ideas and start a novel. This ended up being Beirut in Shades of Grey.
How have your professional experiences in editing and travel writing shaped your fictional writing?
Having to work with different styles and contexts has made me attuned to the language with respect to the audience.Knowing your audience is a fundamental aspect to writing as it determines style and rhythm. Editing has also taught me to be extremely thorough and to revise ad nauseam because, sadly, errors tend to crop up endlessly.
Feature by Natalia Davies
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