Q & A with Tatjana Soli on The Lotus Eaters
Can you talk a little about the title, The Lotus Eaters, in relation to the subject of the book?
When I first found my entry into the subject of the Vietnam war, a picture of the female photojournalist, Dickey Chapelle, I began to read about not only her life but of war correspondents in all the wars. I read about the phenomena of being addicted to the excitement, the thrill of war, which to outsiders seems pretty unimaginable. After a while, some of them are unable to break away and staying becomes a kind of death wish. Even if they go home, they are unable to return to normal life. They get obsessed by the high that is war, the sense of urgency and purpose it gives them.
But I also think the book is about transformation. Being transformed by the war. On an individual level, I don’t believe the solution to the problems of the world is staying insulated from them. All of the characters in the book take big risks, but the biggest risk is staying connected to another human being, risking one’s heart.
What are your obsessions?
(Laughs.) You’re right. Writers, especially novelists, are almost required to have obsessions, the kind that last you for years and years, through a whole book, or a whole body of work for that matter. I suppose one of my main preoccupations is about how to live in a fallen world. In this particular instance, a fascination, a fear, of violence. As a human being you want to work out the formula for how to confront it, how to be brave when faced with it, how to survive it. Another obsession, linked to it especially in terms of war, is dislocation. The emigrant experience of nostalgia and longing. So many of us now are far from home, and many will never be going back. Does that change the definition of belonging?
What was the attraction for you in writing about war? Parts of the book are pretty dark. Where does it all come from?
You sound like my mother. (Laughs.) I’m not a gloomy person. Really. When I’ve had a hard day, I like to pop in a romantic-comedy video like anyone else. Easy, non-threatening. But in books, I want more than just entertainment. I really believe that if you read the right book at the right time in your life, it will transform you. So going back to the obsessions, I’m drawn to writing about the difficult, the frightening. What do people cling to in a fallen world? The things that keep us up in the middle of the night.
And then there is a wonderful quote by Joyce Carol Oates when she was asked why she found violence so alluring as a literary subject: If you’re going to spend the next year of your life writing, you would probably rather write “Moby Dick” than a little household mystery with cat detectives. I consider tragedy the highest form of art. Enough said!
What are the books that “transformed” you?
Over the years, several. The first, the most powerful, was in college: The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. That book made me permanently on the side of the underdog. I never saw the world in the same way afterwards.
Why specifically were you drawn to the Vietnam war?
I think Vietnam is still a war that we can’t get to the end of. Our first great disillusionment as a nation. But also, unlike now, journalists had complete access, which is probably why we ultimately got the real story from there. Not all, but some of the journalists who went there were very young, totally untrained. They went with a kind of naiveté, a kind of romanticism that isn’t as possible today. The Graham Greene, Far East mystique.
Why a woman as the main character in a war novel?
I wanted to write a grand adventure for a female character. Vietnam was just the beginning of regular female war correspondents. Very few then, even fewer in WWII. I didn’t want to substitute a woman in a man’s role—turn her into a GI Jane. Because a woman was naturally an outsider in that war, she will see things that might be otherwise overlooked.
I recently read Flannery O’Connor quoted as saying that her work was about “the action of grace in territory once held by the devil.” If there is any grace to be found in war, it’s only in individual acts of kindness, only in the love of one human being for another. That’s all that preserves our humanity and culture to survive the aftermath. Otherwise war truly does destroy us. I think a female character naturally brings this aspect to the foreground.
The main character, Helen, is a photojournalist. Do you do photography?
That’s actually a funny question because I hate taking pictures, especially on vacations, although I admit I cherish them afterwards. What bothers me about pictures is the self-consciousness it brings. It takes away from the direct experience. The paradox is that it actually provides a barrier of imagined safety to many war correspondents. Because of my own aversion to taking pictures, I already had Helen using the camera as a sort of shield between herself and the reality of what was happening before her. I’ve since read interviews where photojournalists are astonished afterwards by the risks they took to get a picture, hardly remembering taking them.
Who is your favorite character?
As in, who do I feel closest to? Linh. I know that seems strange, since he’s the one furthest from my real life experience, but I understand his torn heart. I admire someone who is overcome by hardship and returns it with love.
How long did it take to write The Lotus Eaters?
Ten years from the first idea to holding the book in my hand. But during that time I also wrote and published many short stories, started two other novels, earned my MFA, taught. I felt bad about this until I read a wonderful essay by Christina Thompson called, “How to Write a Book in Ten Easy … Years.” As with the writers mentioned in the essay, I was riddled by false starts and doubling plots that threatened to turn into two (!) separate novels. I’m a slow bloomer.
As someone who has published short stories before publishing a novel, what do you find are the differences between the two forms?
It took me a while to realize that a novel isn’t just a long short story. They are entirely different animals, and it’s not a given that a writer will excel equally in both forms. It’s a different personality type almost. Short stories are more like poetry—intense, lyrical, super-saturated moments full of meaning. You can take more risks. Novels derive their power from the architecture of plot, the accumulation of images, the progression of time. I think the novel, more than any other art form, mirrors the experience of being alive.
Will you continue to write short stories?
Absolutely. I love the form and many ideas, experiments one thinks up, don’t call for the breadth of a novel. Writing novels is lonely work, so I like to always be working on some short stories, sending them out into the world and getting feedback.
Can you talk about some of your literary influences?
There are the classics that I return to regularly: Tolstoy, Hemingway, Conrad, Graham Greene, Jean Rhys. All genius storytellers above everything else so that you can reread their works and never tire of them.
Then the canon of contemporary authors, individual books I’m in awe of: Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers and Bear & His Daughter, Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Joy William’s Breaking & Entering.
What are you currently reading?
I binge read all the work of one author when I discover them. Right now I’m reading V. S. Naipaul and Jean Thompson. And I’m looking forward to the new Pamuk novel, Museum of Innocence.
Aside from writing, what is one talent you wish you had?
(Laughs.) I love opera. If I had Kiri Te Kanawa’s voice, there would be worse ways to spend one’s life than singing.
What are you working on now?
I’m turning a rather long and hefty short story into a novel. A very interesting process. Knock on wood that this one doesn’t take another ten years.