Women Who Lead – The Art of the Story: Crystal Fletcher

What happens when you are a bright Canadian woman traveling to Indonesia for a year, and then decide to do some more backpacking into Thailand, and Laos, and Cambodia, Vietnam, China? If you are like my guest this week, Chrystal Fletcher, you find in you a book that has to be written. Now Crystal’s book is based on truth, and yet it is a beautifully and illuminating story. Actually, many stories of characters that she met in her own journeys and has discovered way of telling them in an intriguing past, present kind of format.

Just imagine for a moment how the juxtaposition of what one sees as one move through diverse environments throughout Southeast Asia. Take for example the magic of the angular watch, lead to being instructed by celestial hands. Or, the mystery of the plain of jars, a 500square mile diamond shaped region in Northern Laos or hundreds of ancient stone jars dot the landscape. There is the photography of the landscape. There is the beauty of the flora, the trees, the jungle, and yet there is carnage that has been left by all who witnessed the war. And some for us the unknown wars that took place in those regions, for example the unknown genocide against among people in the jungles of Laos. What Crystal Fletcher does is that she brings us into the life stories of what was happening in the warzones during the Vietnamese war, during the takeover in Cambodia, and in the genocide in Laos. She does it through three characters male: one a monk, one a raven fighter pilot and one an army veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress in Thailand. These characters die in these struggles and tell the story of what happened and what they’re seeing as life progresses from the lens that only they have, which is not being part of this earth but being all knowing in what they can see in past, present and future.

Then, Crystal layers in three women living in today’s reality, and yet each one terribly affected by these warzones. There’s a woman in a Thai jail serving a life sentence for killing her husband. There is a woman in a refugee camp, who has had to deal with death through every aspect of her arrival into that refugee camp and her life for 30 years inside of that zone. And then, an entrepreneur, a woman looking for a new reality, looking for having a child, looking for another future. And yet all through three are effected by the devastations of the destruction that has taken place before them. The third piece is the interweave between the three male narrators and the three female characters how their connections start to make some sense in how they’re related to each other. This is called The Beauty Beneath the Banyan. It is a beautiful series of stories told by someone who not only can depict the magnificence of her surroundings, but captures raw devastation of what war leaves. Let’s listen in to my conversation with Crystal Fletcher.

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Lesley:  So, I am delighted as can be to have Crystal Fletcher on this program with me the author of “Beauty Beneath the Banyan.” And I’m just intrigued, Crystal, by how you’ve taken three male characters, three female characters, three countries and time is both the past, the present and imply the future and it’s in death and in life. I mean, these are complex elements to be working with. How did you come up with the type of pattern that you would create with these characters in life, these characters in death and be interplay between the three of them.


Crystal: What I wanted to do, I really believe that to understand the present you have to understand the past. So when I was writing, I structured all of the writing from the past of the first section in the novel. And to keep it simplified I wrote each woman’s story consecutively, until I have all three finished and then sat down and brought the ending together otherwise it would get a little too confusing.


Lesley:  So let’s just now go back into the premise of where you situated these three different countries. Why the locations did you choose for this story to be taking place?


Crystal: Well, about back in 2003, I left Canada and lived in Indonesia for a year. And when I finished my teaching contract, I spent six months in Southeast Asia. Put the backpack on and away I went and went through Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and just fell in love with the people, the region, and just really had my eyes opened. For example, in Laos, this little tiny country but a lot of people can’t even pronounce the name. I wanted to see this place called the playing in charms. But to get to these historical artifacts which were just incredible, fruit sections which had impaired of unexploded ordinance. And for me, I just found that really shocking in driving around this tiny little country, seeing expenses constructed the out showcasing and it’s just kind of a quo. I would like to learn more about this area and that’s kind of what got things going about Vietnam. That’s how it started, just the impact of seeing what war had on countries so many years later.


Lesley:  And I think that’s why I found it so fascinating because just to give the audience a bit of a taste, you have three male characters who were affected by the Vietnam war but also how the war affects did trigger into Cambodia and into Thailand. And so, here we are, a war that’s taken place for decades ago, but there’s something about these three male characters who have died in that war or post-war and how they are bringing life really the universality of what death is in terms of war.


Crystal: Yes exactly. And I’ve always been intrigued by reincarnation and that we’re all connected. So, I really felt that by using the three male narrators who really do see for the novel of what it was like in Thailand, in Laos, in Vietnam. They gave the backgrounds of war but also because they are dead, there’s a belief that the dead see everything and that’s what kind of made them the perfect narrator for the story. It’s that they could be seeing everything before it happened and while it was happening.


Lesley:  Because they’ve transcended the current life form. And so, you chose a monk in Cambodia, and American raven fighter pilot in Laos, and an American soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in Thailand. What is it about these three archetypes that you wanted to get inside of?


Crystal: Well I think part of it again, it feels to have something influence that I have while I was traveling. For monk, in particular, have the pleasure of the Banyan temple while these monks were sitting inside chanting. And to be present with that and to feel the energy that came from monks while they were chanting, I just really wanted to take that feeling in that surrounding and peace, and bring that aspect into the novel, even though monk was very tormented by what he’d seen with the camp… I was intrigued by monks and that’s kind of how he came into the scene with respect to soldier. I think post-traumatic stress and there was something that only now it’s really coming to light, and people are having a better understanding. So I wanted to bring a character that would convey the pain and what it’s like so many years later. As far as Raven goes, while I was doing a research for the novel, I discovered this kind of mavericks who flew their planes during the Vietnam War. They were flying an airbase where that was neutral, so they really weren’t supposed to be there. But I love his spirit and people lived what he was doing. He believed what he was fighting for. But once he got involved with the local people and formed relationships with the monk tribewhile the CIA was there training them. They felt that they couldn’t be on the ground because it was a neutral country but it will be okay to support the monk hill tribe in the war if they did it by air. And I love the way he, in particular, plant from being for the war but also the human nature of him that came fell in love with… And I wanted to convey all of those aspects to their marriage as well because war is complicated.


Lesley:  Well, you know, I mean, I think so for me one of the most powerful pictures that I’ve seen was in armistice in the First World War. They did a treaty for Christmas day, and you can see the cigarettes going back and forth between the German and British trenches. And so, in that moment in time when a peace moment was called, we could become our being human beings again. And it’s striking as you put it how it’s not simply about “I believe in this and here I go” because life’s not that simple. You meet real people in real time, who carry a different part of conflict and you’re affected by it.


Crystal: Absolutely. And I think for me another part that was really important certainly growing up any exposure I had to the Vietnam more live was like wearable movies, a very Americanized perspective. So to me, on this soil right on the ground, seeing crisis that the war have hit and then going to the war museum, and seeing incredibly graphic photographs of the damage that each and one did to not only the country ‘s side but the people. The birth effects that are happening so many years later, it was really important to come back, and say, “You know what, there’s more than one side to any conflict.” And that was another reason for wanting to write the novel.


Lesley:  And then we’ve got these three female narrators who have found death in the actual war. And then it moves to part two where there are three women, again, three different countries, three very different stories. You have this Thai prisoner, a Cambodian entrepreneur and the Asian refugee. Tell me the story again. I’d like the audience to hear a little bit about the story of Thai prison because that’s a crevice that you bring to her.


Crystal: Oh and Lesley, she was so fun to write. She was just so fun to write because it’s not too often that you get to go into that headspace of someone who has been so frustrated with outcome of their life that they would actually murder their husband. And she came about in Northern Thailand they have a prison and they a rehabilitation program there. And the women in the prison learn how to do massages and all kinds of spa treatment, and it’s how I came to discover this actual prison. I was waiting to go to Burma and a gentlemen from England came in, and he said, “Oh you should really go to the spa, they’ve got great treatments there,” and that’s how I was kind of intriguer to the prison.


Lesley:  Did you actually go into the prison to get the spa treatment?


Crystal: Yes.


Lesley:  My goodness!


Crystal: This lovely gentleman was also very social. He was retired. And he started to share this story how he had much very similar to the novel. And that he was communicating with one of the women from the spa and was very much in love with her. He shared the letters that he had letters that he had written to this woman with my friend of mine who were traveling together. And I was absolutely captivated by his story and that he could be so in love with this woman who was in prison, who had murdered her husband. And that began the fascination Izra. Again, her life is complicated and how assumingly normal individual came to the right circumstance and frustrations could actually kill someone.  She has said to write in the sense that she’s very different from who I am as an individual, but I’d like to think that I have a little bit of fight in me but not to the extent of Izra. She is a survivor. Any woman can go to jail and come out to the other side. She was incredible.


Lesley:  She has such a force of character. But then let’s go to the grandmother refugee, who lives 30 years believing in her heart of hearts that her grandchild is still alive, and then realizes that that’s just how her mind has helped her cope living in refugee camp.


Crystal: I think for me was more of that story is great love. You know, there has a great part of life that specially occurs. There are so many circumstances that happen. And for her, after that war, she spent so many years in this refugee camp. It’s how do you survive these things? And I think people do what they need to survive. And for her, it was keeping the only family member left to her alive for all those years. And I think that’s just really kind of what I wanted to do with her, was to keep the part of her spirit alive and that’s how she did it.


Lesley:  Well she’s an absolutely fascinating character. And then as we move into part three, the interweaving of all six characters starts to begin. And what was your intention with how you wanted to weave the males who have lived through the Vietnam War, and then the females who’ve had such serious aftermath reality from that war? What was your intention of how you wanted to bring them together?


Crystal: Well, I’d love to tell you that it’s really well planned. But I think as you start writing, you’ll be more familiar with your characters sometimes things change. And, I knew from the beginning how I kind of lied to connect, I don’t give too much away the male narrators with their female counterparts. But after writing the story, I really struggled with how I would connect monk with the present day Cambodian entrepreneur so that did evolve and changes apply. And sometimes in your mind has got an idea what you’d like things to go, it just doesn’t work. There was a little bit of changes that I think the bottom line is, I’m a firm believer and that everyone is connected. There’s an end, we will touch somehow. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the other side of page or in Canada when we have that connection. And that’s why it was so important and I believe very powerful to connect those of us who are alive. That’s what I was hoping to do with those characters.


Lesley:  Well there’s such a beauty to your writing and such an ethereal nature. So, even though you know you’re reading about a character who is not living on the planet as we know it, but there’s still very much life in how you view their voice into the story. And so, I want to now go into a little bit of understanding, when you started traveling did you think you’re going to be writing a novel or is it something that just emerged out of the traveling experience?


Crystal: Lesley, it was something that emerged out of the travel experience. I’ve always kind of into my writing and my text space was only building some children’s books. But after traveling through Southeast Asia for six months and seeing the aftermath of the people, it just had to be a book. It just had to be a book because you’re so impassioned and empowered by what you’ve seen and you want to share that with other people. And when I sat down and came home, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, how am I going to integrate back into Canadian society again?” It was just like pursue this dream and write it down, and share with people that you’ve seen. And if it has such a big impact on my life, I was hoping that it would influence other people in some way as well. Because when you’re in your home, in your own little bubble, you tend to see what’s in front of you but the world is such a big place and there’s so much more going on. And being able to write a book and bring it to life with characters is sometimes a lot easier to understand listening to something on the news.


Lesley:  Well, you know what, what I found as I was reading was that each of your characters is an archetype that I could relate to. So, you know, the monk with his belief setting yet he struggle. You know, I mean, the woman who is so mad with what her husband has done ends up running over him. I mean, they’re not things we would’ve done but the energy of the character, the archetype of that character does exist in some portion within us. And I think that’s what a great writer does is that they tell the story in such a way that these elements of yourself are being pulled out into reality, and we have this kind of conversation with them as if you’re inside of that story as well. And I think that’s where your writing has such a powerful force.


Crystal: Thank you. I mean, that’s actually one of the hardest things to do too when you’ve got so many characters that are important –the six characters—to give them all a unique voice. And indeed voice that people can relate because people can’t relate to some element of your character, then I don’t think the character is that successful as you’d like to be. And it’s harder to get that feeling of compassion, or anger, or how you’re feeling with that character unless that element is there.


Lesley:  So then, what advice do you have for women out there who are themselves feel there’s a story? And I think I really love about your work is that it’s not an autobiography, it’s not a new story or a travel log of what you did in these areas, places. It’s actually you’ve taken a story within a story, within a story and told it. So if somebody is sitting here and saying, “I think I have that ability to really bring a novel to life,” what’s the advice you’d give them about how they would proceed?


Crystal: Well, I would say, don’t think about it too much. Just do it. And while you’re writing don’t worry about the filter, just write what’s in your heart, what’s in your head because the more you’ve been into it, characters speak to you. And for me, I think being new to writing, there were times when I thought, “Oh my goodness, my mother’s book club will be reading this.” For instance, with Raven, Me and Maverick, his language, he would’ve been dropping all kinds of inappropriate language. And when I was writing it, I couldn’t bring myself to write, when in fact that would’ve been every two seconds. So I would say, let your character’s voice come through. Don’t filter it.


Lesley:  How did you go about getting published? What’s your advice around that?


Crystal: Oh my goodness, patience and persistence and to target. Targeting is one of the most important things, and to try and get published was like a full-time job. Once I target it, I kept setting stuff out and be prepared for rejection and that’s okay. Just keep believing because no one else is going to believe in you like you believe in yourself, and just keep at it, keep at it, keep at and it’ll happen.


Lesley:  And so, who were you ended up being published by?


Crystal: York University.


Lesley:  Okay wonderful. I mean that has been a relief when that final agreement came through.


Crystal: Oh my goodness, Lesley, I was just so delighted and so excited because it was a dream. It became a dream and began pouring your heart and soul into something, like this was 18 months of writing. I can’t even explain the feeling, it’s just like here comes the dream rolling out. And I would wish that for anyone who has a dream to just put your heels down and just go for it. It is so worth it. And even now, I look at the book and it just makes me smile. And to walk into chapters, like I’m bringing in my phone and took pictures of my book on the shelves. It’s just so indescribable, I love it.


Lesley:  I think that actually captures it. I remember going into book stores and taking my book out and putting them on the front of the shelves, just to make sure that people would be walking by could catch a glimpse. I go to different cities across Canada and my first little job was to check out the book stores and see where I was placed. And I think that’s the fun part of actually seeing the realization of that kind of dream.


Crystal: Yeah, it doesn’t roll.


Lesley:  Not at all. Now, just before we go, tell us a little bit about your next book, the one that you’re writing right now.


Crystal: It’s called Preventive Change. And because I have written so much about what was going on the other side of the world, it was time to write about something what’s going on in our backyard. So it’s about a first nation’s group called the Beothuks from Newfoundland, and they’re now extinct. And it’s based on a true story of one of the chiefs, and it’s story of how he was killed by the warriors. And the intention of this was to bring attention to the first nations, but also how with the passing of the time the things do get better but we still have a lot further to go. Because I do talk about the sea gypsies in Burma and that the main premise. Sorry I’m tripping on my words here.


Lesley:  Not at all. Now, just tell me about the sea gypsies in Burma. What’s the connection with this first nation chief? You have to read the book to find out?


Crystal: And that’s part of it. It’s like, what would these two groups possibly have in common? And it’s more than you think. The way we treat people doesn’t change with the passing of time. How the first nations and sea gypsies and so many other groups in this world, you have to fight for what you really believe in your culture how you are and about maintaining but yet adapting in modern times as well.


Lesley:  And I think that’s holding to that historic, dramatic heritage DNA, and yet allowing evolution take place and not leaving if something is behind it actually needs to be part of the next stage. So, as a writer, you get to do some genetic formation, absolutely fabulous. You know, I’m sorry to say that our time has come to an end and it’s been wonderful. What I take away is the enormous kind of activity between all of us that when you step back far enough or not in distance but in awareness, you can see the intricacy of how we are all part of this massive network, and your story telling does a beautiful job of bringing that to life.


Crystal: Well thank you, Lesley. I appreciate it.


Lesley:  Well, let’s stay tune for your next one.


I was intrigued by Crystal’s choice of the Banyan. And when I looked it up, I discovered that it’s a fig that starts its life as an epiphyte which is a plant growing on another plant, where it seeds, germinate in the cracks and crevices on a host tree or on buildings and bridges. It’s different than a parasite because a parasite removes nutrients and other elements for life that it requires from its host, whereas a banyan doesn’t do any such thing. It literally uses that host in a cool creative way for it to bring life to its fix. If you think about it, that’s the kind of layering that Crystal Fletcher does in her storytelling, to be able to be to capture the essence of death during war and life post-war and to do so in the interweave of six character’s lives. This is storytelling at its best. It is my premise that leaders are in fact required storytellers. We can’t possibly understand what’s going all around us if we can’t observe it in that layered fashion, if we can’t see what once occurred is still finding its way in the current reality, if we don’t understand the lives of those people who were leading have multiple generations of DNA that are equipping them to make the types of decisions they’re making today. If we don’t see that complexity and all its intricacies of connectivity to what’s happening in today’s world, then we can’t possibly be an accountable, responsible leader. The very skills that Crystal Fletcher uses to create her story and then to tell it are in fact absolutely critical skills of good leaders. You can find out more on Crystal Fletcher and her work at www.crystal  C-R-Y-S-T-A-L  fletcher F-L-E-T-C-H-E-R-dot-com. There you’ll have a chance to not only have an excerpt of her book “Beauty Beneath the Banyan,” but also look into that story that she’s telling us about in terms of something more close to the Canadian experience and that is in Newfoundland. So, you know where to find me. I’m at lesleysouthwicktrask.com, at womenwholead.co. Also, you can find me on facebook at Women Who Lead Radio Show. I certainly want to hear from you. Stay tuned to the post this week as more about Crystal is shared with you. Remember, this is your show, I am your host Lesley Southwick-Trask. See you next time.


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