The Author: Soraya Palmer
The Book: The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter and Other Essential Ghosts (Catapult, 2023)
The Elevator Pitch: My debut novel follows two Caribbean American sisters who grow up in Brooklyn with the folk legends of their parents, one day realizing these stories may be real.
The Rumpus: Where did the idea of your book come from?
Soraya Palmer: My parents are both storytellers and introduced me to a lot of the folklore in my book. When I was growing up, everyone on my father’s side had a story about a time they encountered the Rolling Calf in Jamaica. Only they never told these encounters as stories. They were real. I was always fascinated by the ways that magic and folklore can show up for formerly colonized people—almost like we’re decolonizing our own imaginations. I wanted to write a book where these stories were used to imagine alternate realities—one where these imagined realities were real.
Rumpus: How long did it take to write the book?
Palmer: A long time! In some ways, I feel like I was working on this book all my life. My family stories and many childhood books of folk and fairytales all went into my book. I remember looking at illustrated fairy tale books and making up my own stories to go along with the pictures before I learned to read.
My freshman year of college, I wrote short stories about families who told stories that ended up in my novel in some way or other. The first full draft of my book was my MFA thesis at Virginia Tech. That was in 2014, nine years before my book came out. In between those years, I found an agent and went through many drafts until my book went under contract in 2020. And even then, there was still a lot of work to do. The Human Origins of Beatrice was released three years later.
Rumpus: Is this the first book you’ve written? If not, what made it the first to be published?
Palmer: It is! Considering how long it took me to get it published, I definitely could have given up and moved onto another project, but I was pretty determined.
Rumpus: In submitting the book, how many no’s did you get before your yes?
Palmer: I am lucky that my agent shielded me from this reality. She sent me a few really thoughtful passes from editors, but I have no idea how many places she actually queried, thankfully.
Rumpus: Which authors/writers buoyed you along the way? How?
Palmer: There was one moment in my MFA program after a particularly hard workshop where I remember being in tears (I was workshopping a part of a vampire novel I was working on at the time—the horror). And when I got home and opened my mailbox, my sister had sent me a copy of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. She had borrowed it years ago and I completely forgot about it. I remember opening that book again for the first time and just feeling the pure childhood joy. It made me remember why I wanted to write in the first place.
Lynda Barry had a similar influence on me. Her work really gets at the idea that creativity is something that is natural to humanity and not just something that gets crafted to be sold to an audience. The business side of writing and the hyper-criticalness of the MFA world can make us forget about the childhood parts of ourselves that once saw writing as fun and limitless. She allowed me to blur the lines between fiction and nonfiction, and fantasy and realism whenever I was feeling stuck.
Another huge influence for me was Toni Morrison, especially Song of Solomon and the way it uses “The People Could Fly”—one of my all-time favorite folktales—to create her own story of liberation. The last line, “If you could surrender to the air, you could ride it,” is one of my favorite quotes and ended up as an epigraph in my book.
Rumpus: How did your book change over the course of working on it?
Palmer: Because the book came together over many years in pieces, there was a lot I needed to do to make it feel more like a novel as opposed to a short story collection. My editor was a huge help in terms of making sure that each character arc felt really complete. There were characters that ended up being cut out and new chapters that were added. I’m so grateful for all the help I had in making this book happen.
Rumpus: Before your first book, where has your work been published?
Palmer: I had a few stories that ended up in my novel that were published in lit journals like Ploughshares, Callaloo, and Calyx. My only online publication to date is an essay in Hazlitt and I have some other essays in Ninth Letter and Black Warrior Review.
Rumpus: What is the best advice someone gave you about publishing?
Palmer: There are actually two things that might seem like opposites at first: one is to trust in the revision process with your editor and the other is to fight for the things that feel integral to your artist spirit. On the first point, there were definitely times that I felt skeptical of the things I was being asked to change. Like many green writers, I felt like I knew what was best for my book. My solution was to create a copy and make all the changes, knowing that I could always go back to my original version if I wanted to. But when I re-read the changed version, I found that at least 90 percent of the time the changes made it better. It gave me a newfound appreciation for doing heavy revision work and introduced me to the gift of working with an editor.
On the second point, for the maybe 10 percent of times the notes really didn’t agree with me, I was often afraid to say no. But I’m so glad I did. I think the real key was figuring out the things that were truly essential to me in my work as opposed to the things I was just being stubborn about.
Rumpus: Who’s the reader you’re writing to—or tell us about your target audience and how you cultivated or found it?
Palmer: I write for Black girls and women who feel lost, who have stories, and who miss the imaginations of their childhoods. I thought about stories that saved me as a child by showing me what was possible. And then I thought about the stories that were missing. Stories about Caribbean girls growing up in America are more common now, but they were much harder to come by back then—especially when you think about the stories that center queer and nonbinary Caribbean girls. I guess in some ways I was writing this book for me.
Rumpus: What is one completely unexpected thing that surprised you about the process of getting your book published?
Palmer: I was taken aback by all the love and support I received from my community. From extended family to friends and acquaintances I hadn’t spoken to in years, I felt held and connected to people in a way I really hadn’t expected. The response from my readers has also been incredibly surreal. When you’ve never published a book, you don’t understand what it means to communicate to the world through your writing—that is until strangers start writing you nice notes on Instagram and wanting to meet you at book festivals. When I first started writing, there was a safety in only having to imagine my audience. And then as my publication date got closer, I started to prepare for the worst possible reactions—racist hate mail, people who stopped speaking to me because they thought I was writing about them, but honestly the love has really been overflowing. I feel so blessed.
Author photograph courtesy of Soraya Palmer