Author Interview

Daughter of Kura
Debra Austin

A Conversation with Debra Austin

You were a physicianan OB/GYNbefore you became an author. What prompted this change in careers?

A desire to sleep at night, along with a desire to turn a hobby into something more. Obstetrics, according to the old doctors, is ninety-nine percent boredom and one percent sheer terror, and I no longer enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes from a brush with the wings of disaster.

Readers often wonder what inspires their favorite authors. What first inspired you to write Snaps story? What challenges did you face writing about ancient cultures?

I have had a strong interest in human evolution for a long time. Reading shelves of texts on human evolution and following the scientific literature eventually led to a particular interest in African homo erectus. Although the only cultural artifacts to survive from this time period are stone tools (some made of stone from distant locales) and remnants of hearths, it seemed likely to me that people who were able to make fairly complex tools, control fire, and trade goods over great distances were probably also developing other interesting cultural attributes, like belief in the supernatural. Who was the first person to imagine a supernatural being or life after death? It must have been an interesting story.

The hardest thing about writing about the distant past wasn’t the research – there is just not that much known about the daily lives of such distant ancestors. The hardest part was avoiding anachronisms. For example, no clocks, so no minutes, seconds, hours, no “clockwise,” “noon” becomes “mid-day.” Every sentence has to be filtered through a time machine.

What kind of research did you do to prepare yourself for writing this novel? How did you find your medical background influencing your writing?

In addition to general reading on cultural and biological anthropology, especially on human evolution, reports in scientific journals on fossils found in east and southeast Africa from this time period were extremely useful. Much information on co-existing species can be found in these articles.

Every work of fiction is a result of the author’s experience. My undergraduate education has probably been the most significant influence on my writing. A liberal arts education is about learning to learn, about the value of ideas and the value of expressing those ideas clearly. Although my undergraduate degree is in physics, it is above all a bachelor of arts.

My medical background ranged from caring for high risk pregnancies as a specialist in maternal-fetal medicine to helping healthy pregnant women have their babies unmolested by medical interventions in an independent birth center I established and ran. As a result, the pregnancies and births in Daughter of Kura are probably fairly close to (pre)historical reality.

Why did you choose this early period of human history as the setting for your novel? Are there other periods of history, or other groups of people, that command your interest enough to become subjects for future books?

I was most interested in African homo erectus because it seemed plausible that the first vestiges of some interesting cultural characteristics might have developed in this period (religion, art, wearing clothing). All of these are great sources of conflict!

All the ways in which people occupy their time between birth and death are interesting to me, so any society is fair game for a future book. There will be at least one sequel involving Snap.

You describe an intricate matriarchal social structure for the people of Kura, which you say is somewhat based on the social structure of hyena packs. Have you found evidence of other similar human or animal cultures in your research?

Lots of people have theorized that some (maybe most) prehistoric societies were truly matriarchal, in which political power was held primarily by women, but there isn’t much evidence of this. It’s hard to get data about the social structure of societies that had no means to record their history. There are certainly lots of matrilineal societies, where family name and sometimes property are inherited via the mother, but they are not matriarchal in the sense of political power being held by women. Social animals have a great variety of social structures, but social insects (bees) and elephants are typical examples of matriarchal animal societies.

The families of Kura and Asiliin all their shapes and sizesreally come to life in this novel. Were any of these characters or their relationships with each other inspired by your own family?

All my characters are completely fictional. Ask me again when everyone I know is dead.

How do you think your modern sensibilities influenced your portrayal of these ancient people? How is your opinion similar or different from the reigning theories of the anthropological community? What caused you to accept or depart from traditional interpretation?

All fiction must come in some way from the experience of the writer, but in imagining Snap’s world, I’ve done my best to put aside my cultural prejudices. The characters in Daughter of Kura are depicted as more technologically and culturally advanced than there is evidence for in the fossil record. Many anthropologists think that human culture underwent a great leap forward at the same time as an increase in brain size between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. More complex cultural artifacts such as needles and other bone tools appear around this time, and so it is often suggested that language developed around this time as well. Evidence thought to be indicative of religious practices, such as representations of animal and human forms, is much more recent (30,000 years). Daughter of Kura departs from this interpretation because it seems plausible that cultural artifacts were probably being made for a long time before a specimen was accidentally preserved and then found by an anthropologist or archeologist. Articles of wood or bone would not survive intact for 500,000 years unless they are fossilized (replaced by stone), a very unlikely event, but they may have existed nevertheless.

In your novel, you depict a scenario in which the earliest stirrings of religious belief upend the way of life of the Kura community and its neighbors. What would you most like readers to understand about this clash after reading Daughter of Kura?

As science fiction writers know, readers of fiction want to see an essential human truth through an exotic prism. Daughter of Kura shows how conflict arising from differences of opinion about the supernatural looks through the eyes of one of the first to encounter it.

Your storys characters live in a rigidly hierarchical society. Is there a statement you hope Daughter of Kura makes about womens roles both past and present?

The wonderful thing about fiction is that the reader’s interpretation is more important than the writer’s intentions. I hope that readers feel free to interpret this representation of both women’s and men’s roles in any way they find entertaining.

Whistle explains to Bapoto that his ideas introduce an obligation into otherwise pure celebrationsan astute encapsulation of the major shift in perspective that may have occurred when religious ideas were first introduced in the ancient world and familiar to those with knowledge of modern missionary work. How do the opinions of your characters reflect your own ideas about religion and spirituality?

The best fiction illuminates but doesn’t answer the important questions. If this story reflects how religious ideas have been received in modern human cultures, I believe it has hit the mark.

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