A mother wakes her two little girls in the middle of the night and hustles them into the bathroom where they lock the door and hide in the tub. Outside, heavy thuds reverberate. “We’re practicing for an earthquake,” she tells her daughters. And just as Californians go about their lives on unstable ground, so does the family in Tawnysha Greene’s A House Made of Stars. Greene uses spare, concise language to tell their story with devastating clarity. In spite of its oppressive atmosphere—or perhaps because of it—the novel includes moments of sublime beauty. Greene took a few moments to talk with me about her book.
The narrator of your novel is a young girl of about 10 years old. Why did you choose to tell the story through her voice instead of an adult character?
I chose to make the narrator of A House Made of Stars a young girl because in doing so, I could use a simpler, more honest mode of storytelling. There are so many issues addressed in this book—poverty, illness, abuse—and I wanted to convey these issues in the most direct way possible. Children are far more honest than many adult narrators and can be acutely aware of their surroundings, so I decided that I needed a younger protagonist if I wanted this same kind of directness in my narrative.
Your narrative portrays domestic violence within a larger context. Financial hardship, mental illness, and lack of access to child care and health care all contribute to the situation the mother and daughters find themselves in. How prevalent do you think these issues are in domestic violence cases?
While stress certainly makes these episodes more likely, domestic violence can occur in any kind of relationship or situation. I chose to create a narrative in which domestic violence occurs but one where there is hope and a way to get out. I hoped that in doing so, I could instill a small sense of encouragement and show that victims of domestic violence can survive against all odds and emerge to have their voices heard and acknowledged.
Both daughters have issues with their hearing, yet their father forbids them to use sign language in his presence. How does deafness contribute to the overall arc of the story?
The deafness acts as an additional separation between the children and the father. While the father knows sign language, he chooses not to engage with his children in this way, and squelches any attempt they make to communicate with him. Communication is power in this book, and as the book progresses, the narrator learns how to communicate for herself—first in secret in signing to her sister and her cousin, then more openly in letters, then finally in the call she makes at the story’s end.
The mother in this story has very strong views about the position of women in society, ones that the grandmother doesn’t seem to share. How do you think do you think she came by them and how do they affect her?
At the request of agents and editors who read earlier versions of the novel, I actually had to tone down the religious nature of the mother, because she seemed extreme in her beliefs. Even as I made these edits, I considered exploring her character more, because she was such an intriguing character for me.
Her parents divorced when she was young. Hurt by this separation, she decided that her family would remain intact when she married. While her husband abuses her children, she honestly believes that she is doing the right thing in keeping her family together. However, in doing so, she keeps her family in her husband’s grip and allows their situation to become more and more dire.
In the end, I decided that exploring her backstory too much would distract from the central narrative, so I included only hints of her life that her daughter, the narrator, could observe. This way, the novel was more focused and readers could still see bits and pieces of what might have been behind the mother’s decisions in the novel.
The father’s penchant for violence looms in the background of this story and informs almost all his wife’s and daughters’ behavior. But we learn some details about him that humanize him and give us some insight into his character. What inspired you to include these details?
The father’s character was an especially difficult one to write, because he appeared too flat in a lot of my earlier drafts. He was reckless and violent, but he was not as believable as the other characters, because he did not have the same kind of redeeming qualities as they did. So I explored ways in which I could humanize him more and explain his actions. I added scenes with his sister in which she shares painful details about their past. I gave him a burn scar that runs from his neck down to the top of his hand. I gave him reasons for his pain and anger.
Instead of making him a stereotypical abusive father, I aimed to make him a wounded man who never healed from his past. This way, I could still write him as an antagonist, but as one who was a more rounded and well-developed character.
Some of the scenes in this book include very graphic depictions of physical abuse and its aftermath. Were these as difficult for you to write as they were for me to read?
They were. I had some of these scenes in mind long before I wrote them and dreaded the days that I would have to delve into these scenes. Writing is a very immersive experience for me and even when I am not writing, I am playing the scenes in my head, thinking through them and how I would put them down on the page. I didn’t do this for the more violent scenes, though—I pushed those away, because I was afraid of them, although I knew I would eventually have to write them. So they came to me in nightmares when I couldn’t push them away anymore, and I had a lot of nights where I would wake up in the middle of the scenes that ended up in the book.
While the narrative became ugly and frightening during these scenes, I knew I had to keep writing. As I grew closer to my narrator and her family, I felt the need to bring her to rest, peace, and comfort. It was a relief to get past these scenes, because when I reached the end of the book, I knew it was a safe place for her. I could leave her in that forest at the end of A House Made of Stars and know that she was going to make it.
The narrator’s mother keeps her indoors and away from people until evidence of her beatings has faded. What do you think motivates her to do this?
If people saw the evidence of abuse on her children, they would judge her and her husband, and some would even intervene. The mother knows that this would increase her husband’s stress level thus causing more angry outbursts. She thinks she is protecting him from stress and the family against more violence, but in reality she is only covering up his actions and allowing them to continue.
The father’s sister does something similar when the narrator calls the police. She takes the phone from their house, thus breaking their communication with the outside world. She, too, does this to protect the father.
The narrator draws strength from the stories she reads and listens to – stories about the constellations, about Greek gods and goddesses, and about the women in the Bible. Do you think this is a common coping skill for children in these kinds of situations? Is it an effective one?
I think it’s soothing to think about myths and stories when you are in an unfortunate situation like the narrator in A House Made of Stars. These narratives are an escape. When the narrator looks through a storybook of women from the Bible, she gravitates toward the ones who were brave–women like Esther, Deborah, and Jael. These stories not only take the narrator away from what is happening in her own house, but they illustrate the courage that she will need to stand up against her father and be brave as these women were.
In the novel’s most desperate moments when the family is sleeping in parking lots and scavenging for food, the narrator begins writing letters and leaving them behind for people to find. What do you think happened to all those letters?
I imagine that some of them were found. At first, these letters are only descriptions of where they are and what they are doing, but the narrator eventually gets smarter about how she writes these letters, leaving more detailed clues about their location and how dangerous their situation has become.
The letters act as pieces of witness as the narrator gathers her courage for her final decision in A House Made of Stars. They are letters for others to find, but more importantly, they are letters for herself–written truths that her mother can’t explain away.
The novel’s title comes from the narrator’s view of a constellation as a house tipped on its side. At the end of the book, she revises this image into something more hopeful. What do the stars symbolize?
The actual constellation is Cepheus, named after the king who chained his daughter to the sea. It also resembles a tilted house, and I wanted this image to be illustrative of the narrator’s own family. Her family is like that house: headed by a powerful father, but broken and askew.
At the end of the novel, the narrator rights this house in the sky. She does this as a gesture of hope and faith that they will make it and leave that forest for a better and brighter future.
The character calls 911 twice in the novel. The first time isn’t helpful. The book ends with the sound of sirens responding to her second call. What do you think will happen to the family when the sirens arrive?
While A House Made of Stars certainly ends on a hopeful note, the narrator is still hanging around my thoughts, letting me know that her story is not yet finished. So I am writing a sequel to the book that takes place twenty years after the police find her family. Older now, she looks back on her childhood in a journey to heal from her past. It’s a difficult and complicated journey, but I am hopeful that she will find peace and happiness.
If you or someone you love does not feel safe in their home, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is open 24/7 at 1-800-799-7233 (1-800-799-SAFE) or http://www.thehotline.org/. It is okay to call just with questions.