Some writers know how to make the page sing, and despite The Mercy of Thin Air being her first published work, Ronlyn Domingue does it like a seasoned pro. She folds crisp description seamlessly into story and handles heavy thematic elements with a light but penetrating touch.
With evocative prose and an elegant dash of quantum physics, Domingue smoothly inserts ghost Raziela Nolan, who died in 1929 at the age of 22, into an emotionally turbulent contemporary household. Razi has been “between” worlds for almost 75 years, keeping tabs on fate of the guy she loved. Or so she thought. Turns out, she’s been following the wrong person, and although she knows it’s time to move beyond her “between” existence, she can’t leave the world behind until she finds out what happened to her lover.
An equally compelling contemporary plot winds around Razi’s history in a slow, subtle pattern that moves the story forward while gracefully fusing time into a sort of eternal Now. For anyone who’s ever wondered what it might feel like to live in a haunted house, this novel’s more playful moments does a delightful job of filling in the blanks.
The Mercy of Thin Air is a wonderful achievement, an engrossing, original read that defies conventional categorization. Which led to my first question for Ronlyn:
Would you call this a ghost story? Speculative fiction? Post-post modern mystery?
Ronlyn: It’s all three, depending on how deeply a reader wants to read it. For some, THE MERCY OF THIN AIR is simply a ghost story because it has the classic elements–places that seem haunted, unexplained incidents, and of course ghosts. As a work of speculative fiction, it suggests there’s an alternate world just as “real” as our own. My friend Ben would love that you suggested it’s a post-post modern mystery. He thinks this novel delves into serious ideas about existence, love, and memory with a postmodern edge. He’s also the one who says this book is a love story, and it’s not, and a ghost story, and it’s not.
C: This is your first published novel. Is it also the first book you’ve completed, or are there practice novels in a drawer? I noted on your website that you wrote a novel for your thesis. Is this the same book?
R: I dabbled with others. I started one when I was eight, another when I was in my teens, then had ideas for another in my twenties. None of them got far. Although I’ve had a few people, including my agent, press me on this point, I swear, THE MERCY OF THIN AIR is my first complete novel. It was my thesis, or at least the second draft of it was. The novel went through an evolution in its final drafts.
C: One concept Razi sets forth in the book is that of many alternative lives being lived at once. Where did that idea come from?
R: This came from my research on quantum physics. I can’t recall exactly what theory this is based on. It’s been a while since I read it. But essentially, the idea is that when two atoms collide, what happened is as real as what didn’t. Let’s say the atomic particles scatter in a way you can observe, like spokes on a wheel. They could have scattered mostly upward, and just because you didn’t “see” that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Another example: I decided when I was 13 that I didn’t want to be a veterinarian. It was a conscious choice. But in a theoretical alternate universe, there’s another me out there, who is a practicing veterinarian. It’s mind blowing when you read the actual science of this stuff. Might I add that even I like the idea that there’s an alternate world where Razi and Andrew lived their lives together.
C: There are several mentions in the book of reincarnation, Hinduism, and physics. You added just the right amount, I think, not overwhelming the text with theory, but being pretty clear that this was something that informs the deeper themes of the work. How did decide on the amount of research to include?
R: Good question. In the beginning, I researched quantum physics so I could answer my mentor James Wilcox’s question, “What does Razi think she is?” She would never call herself a ghost, so what was she? I had no clue that I’d run across concepts that were meaningful to the work as a whole. It’s hard to explain the writing process here. Some things work on an intuitive level. I sensed what was important and figured out how to weave it in. More often, though, I’d write a paragraph or sentence and realize weeks, months later, why it worked conceptually. And then, there’s the character Lionel. He’s the one who actively questions their existence between, so it made sense that he’d be the one to talk about these ideas.
C: I’m interested in the choices writers make. Your choice to put Razi “between” instead of in “heaven” for example. Alice Sebold does something similar in THE LOVELY BONES. How much did Sebold’s book influence yours?
R: Heaven is something most people imagine on some level, although there’s no consensus on what that is, other than it’s a good place to be. There’s a blip in time from the moment we’re alive to when we’re not–and what is that space like? I found myself intrigued by that the further I got into this novel. As for the THE LOVELY BONES, it wasn’t an influence. THE MERCY OF THIN AIR began as a short story in January 1999, and I started to work on it as a novel shortly after that. I didn’t read Sebold’s novel until I was nearly done with the last draft of THE MERCY OF THIN AIR. I was curious about her novel but didn’t read it so that it wouldn’t interfere with my creative process. I knew comparisons would be inevitable, and I wanted to be prepared when agents and others asked. Most people who’ve read both tell me that they’re substantially different, and I agree.
C: Yes, the portrayals of that space before heaven, and the descriptions, are totally different. Also, you went a bit further than Sebold in describing “between.” Hooking a between into the last breath of a dying person, for example. Did the idea for that come to you in a moment of inspiration? A dream? Or did you work hard to figure out technical details like this one?
R: That “last breath” bit was pure inspiration. I live for moments like that–when the answer comes in a zap, especially after I’ve been sitting at the computer for hours on end. The between realm itself didn’t come so quickly. I spent a lot of time thinking about it, what the rules would be, what abilities those who are between would have. As strange as it sounds, the parameters that the ones between abide by are what make their existence more believable to me, and I think to readers.
C: Some sections, particularly one late in the book, brought the Demi Moore/Patrick Swayze film GHOST to mind. Were you influenced by this film? What are other influences show up in this work?
R: I did see GHOST years before I wrote THE MERCY OF THIN AIR. If that movie did influence me, it was implicit. In terms of subject matter, WUTHERING HEIGHTS was deep in my consciousness–the agony of lost love and what it does to a person. Margaret Atwood’s short story “Death by Landscape” gave me permission to do what I wanted to do with verb tense. My childhood interest in the paranormal came through. I read lots of books about ghosts and the supernatural when I was little. And of course, my interest in the history of women’s rights and some of the activism I participated in during the early 1990s.
C: Your novel seamlessly flows back and forth in time. How did you plan those shifts? Were they organic or did you make deliberate decisions for pacing?
R: More often than not, the shifts were planned. What I mean by that is I had to figure out how the three periods of time–past, present, and between–fit among each other. I worked with a massive storyboard that had every scene in the novel summarized on little squares. Three time periods, three colors of squares. I had to decide what information was revealed in the course of the narrative and when it needed to appear. My storyboard helped me keep track of where the little cliffhangers were.
C: What kind of storytelling freedom does a writer gain when moving back and forth through time? What kind of challenges did you have to overcome?
R: Really, writing a story that’s not in chronological order isn’t that much different from writing one that’s linear. The catch is whether pivot points in the story are well-timed. Tell something too soon, and you undermine the narrative drive. Tell something too late, and you might have already lost the reader. THE MERCY OF THIN AIR was structured this way from the beginning. I never questioned the merits of its form simply because I couldn’t imagine telling it any other way. Funny how that happens.
C: As a reader, are you attracted to novels with non-chronological flow? I have noticed that commercial novels tend to label date and characters as chapter headings and literary novels tend to not indicate time or point of view shifts. Why do you think this is?
R: Yes, I’d say I’m drawn to stories that not told in chronological order. I find those works compel me to reflect on what I’ve read more deeply. As for the time stamps or character names at chapter beginnings, I think that has to do with assumptions about audiences. A commercial fiction reader wants entertainment, a fast read that’s easy to follow. A literary fiction reader expects to take more time with a novel, to consider not only the story but also the way it’s told. In either case, it’s still the writer’s job to anchor the readers in time with some clues and create distinct character voices.
C: The novel is written in both the past and present tenses… time is an issue here… one of your themes seems to be that time is an illusion. Does using present tense become a way to imply this?
R: There’s a Buddhist concept that all time is now. The past, present, and future are all contained in the present moment–simultaneously linear and cyclical. I still don’t fully understand that idea, but I think it’s beautiful. My use of verb tense in this novel was absolutely deliberate. For Razi, her past is her present. She chooses not think about Andrew or her life before she died, but that doesn’t mean she’s escaped or transcended either. Memory itself is timeless. Think about an especially painful or joyful moment in your life. How do you feel? You “know” that you’re here, in this present, but you feel those same emotions you did at the moment you experienced them. You might even get a sensation of smell or touch. In the midst of that memory, that is your present–no matter what chronological time tells you. I had to rely on the subtleties of language to pull this off in a story.
C: You started this book before Katrina hit New Orleans. I know from your website that you still live in Louisiana. How has Katrina impacted you? The book?
R: I’ve mentioned to people that I was a reluctant Southerner before Katrina hit. I’ve always been different from most of my fellow Southerners. But after that hurricane, I’m not the same. I had to go on my book tour two weeks after Katrina, and I was away from home for a month straight. I felt like I’d been torn from an umbilical cord. I mean, for the first time in my life, I got it. I understood why people didn’t leave their homes in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast–economics is one thing–but that’s where they’ve lived and died for generations. I share history, traditions, and memories with people I’ve never met. I’m connected to them. As for how Katrina impacted the novel, that’s hard to tell. I can say that I’ve had a number of readers share their good wishes for the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
C: Why this book? What was the impetus to write such an unusual story? It seems a pretty hefty challenge for a first book. You pulled it off beautifully, but wasn’t it a bit daunting?
R: First, thank you for the compliment. And now, why this book? I ask myself that question all the time. No one is more surprised than I am that this is my first novel. I’m not much of a romantic, I’m an open-minded skeptic about supernatural matters, and I was not a strong student in the sciences. But for whatever reason, this was the novel I was meant to write. I knew that deep down from the beginning. I did have periods of doubt about whether I could pull it off. Did I have the imagination, the mastery of craft, the knowledge to write this thing? Progress wasn’t measured in pages but in how I felt. When the writer’s high didn’t let me sleep or sit still, I knew I was on the right track. The night I finished the novel, I knew it was special. I knew my life would change because of it. And man, has it ever.
C: In what ways has your life changed?
R: The biggest change is an identify shift. I didn’t call myself a writer until this book sold. Even now, if someone asks what I do, I pause before I say I’m a writer. For years, I was a grant writer or project manager or something else. It’s not easy to let go of the ways I defined myself, although I’ve achieved one of my greatest life goals. (I’m sure C.G. Jung would have a lot to say about this.) Also, I expected THE MERCY OF THIN AIR to do well, but I’ve been surprised by the international attention. That wasn’t on my radar at all. And finally, the change I’ve enjoyed most so far is meeting people I’d otherwise never get a chance to. While I was on tour, I met bookstore staff and readers all over the country, people who love great books. My faith in humanity was restored because I experienced firsthand that people are wonderful everywhere. It’s a matter of having a moment to connect with another person one on one.
C: The title seems to connect to the idea of permeable dimensions, the thin layer between life and life after death. Did you know the title early in the writing of the book or did it come later? And why “mercy”? Because it was merciful that Razi and the others “between” got to complete the lives they’d left so abruptly?
R: I get goose bumps every time I’m asked about the title. That came when I was working on the last draft. There was something missing in the novel that eluded me for years, something that would hold the novel together on an intuitive level. So one night, I was plugging away at the draft and an image of stars came to me. Suddenly, I was writing about Andrew, Razi’s sweetheart, and his childhood fascination and fear of constellations–that they were real and if they lights went out, they’d be at the mercy of thin air. Really, I paced my office for several minutes to settle down and shake off the chills. I was that excited. I knew I’d found the unifying theme of the book. Readers likely have their own interpretations, but for me, the mercy of thin air is about how fragile we are as physical and spiritual beings. Without air, our bodies die. Without the ether–it’s an antiquated postulate in physics but I like the archaic concept–there’s nothing beyond us. The presence of both, of either, is merciful to us all.
C: In a book with many memorable passages, this is one of my favorites: “I am still Razi, and I still love you. How absolutely possible I always have and always will.” I think I love these sentences because they encapsulate the whole idea of the novel. It’s a thrilling, wonderful, sad idea. Thank you so much for writing it. What are you working on now?
R: I love that passage, too. Razi had really transformed by the time that was written, which was only days before I finished the final draft. In the last question, I said “the mercy of thin air” is the unifying theme, but I agree that Razi’s boundless love is the core. Without that love she has for Andrew, there would have been no story at all. Right now, I’m at work on my second novel. That started as a short story, too. Charlie is the narrator for the next one, and he promises to be a force to contend with, as much as Razi was. Looks like I have more sleepless nights ahead of me.
Thank you, Cindy, for hosting this interview and for recognizing this novel’s many layers. It’s been a pleasure.