Q & A with Tatjana Soli on The Last Good Paradise
The Last Good Paradise is somewhat a departure from your first two books. What inspired the novel?
When I finished my second novel, I felt like I wanted a different mood and tone for my next book. My agent had mentioned liking a short story of mine that he’d read. He said that it seemed there was more there than what I had written. As I went over it, a new feeling developed — a bit of playfulness and lightness. It was a time in my life when I noticed many people around me reevaluating their life choices, and in certain cases making scary changes. So many novels are about coming-of-age, I thought it would be interesting to explore how things turned out, and what are the second acts in life all about. What if we made the wrong choice, or what if our desires change?
Can you talk about how the title relates to the book’s subject matter?
The title captures a phenomenon I’ve been thinking about for at least the last ten years. I noticed it when my mom suddenly started getting all these newsletters about retiring to exotic destinations. Baby boomers especially are at that age where they are looking for an idyllic place to live more fulfilling lives. I’m thinking about the stories one hears about people who sell everything and move to the California wine country to open a B & B, but that’s getting harder and harder to do so now they are going further afield. We’ve had friends move to Europe, Costa Rica, and Thailand. I wanted to write about the impulse to start over.
There’s a fair amount of humor as well as darkness in the book. Was that intentional?
That was the motor of the book. Before I started the first page, I intentionally labeled it for myself as a tragic-comedy. As a technical challenge, I wanted to play with humor, even slapstick and farce in places, but I wanted to juxtapose that with more serious parts, even tragedy. I think mixing these elements, shifting back and forth, creates a unique energy. In an essay by Karen Joy Fowler (a fabulous writer, you must read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves), she mentions Robert Hass talking about writing that can simultaneously be read as Shakespearean tragedy and a Mel Brooks comedy. That’s exactly what I set out to write.
The settings in your books are always distinct. What drew you to the South Pacific?
Probably the fact that it has been too long since I’ve been on vacation! Seriously, though, I’ve always had the fantasy of living on an island in the South Pacific, just like my character Ann. I drool over my tropical screen-savers just like she does, but it’s about more than just a vacation. I wanted to get at the fantasy of running away from it all. On difficult days, many of us fantasize about taking off, but few of us do. Then you hear a story of the most unlikely person suddenly making a dramatic life change. Especially when you reach your 40’s and 50’s, it’s sobering to think that our lives, no matter how good, will pretty much be the same from then on. Am I getting gloomy?
The book has a large cast. Was that intentional? Who is your favorite character?
In my last book I kept the action mainly to one place, and I liked the compression that it gave the story. What could be more limited, claustrophobic if you will, than a small desert atoll? Putting a large number of diverse characters together in such a place. It creates a pressure-cooker environment. Anyone who remembers the friendships and meltdown of summer camp, or even the average family vacation, can attest to the fact that one’s emotions are heightened in such circumstances.
I love all the characters in the book. They are seriously flawed but trying to live right, or at least their vision of right, but I have to admit I feel closest to Richard. I always had a secret fantasy to be a chef (I DID want to be a pastry chef), and I empathize with his mix of passion and doubt.
What are the currently reading?
I’ve been almost exclusively reading research material for the historical novel I am working on, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been accumulating piles of TBR books. Three books that I recently read in the last year and loved are: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson; The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt; and The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, by Bob Shacochis. The last is the freshest in my mind. It’s a big, old-fashioned novel in the best sense, recalling Greene and Conrad, but very much of our time topically. A wonderful read.
I’m in the middle of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It’s the best contemporary novel I’ve read in years. Every few pages I flip back to the author bio and think, how did I miss this guy? He’s from Tasmania and has won many awards in Australia, but somehow I missed his previous work. Just based on my reading so far I’ve greedily ordered all his past titles.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing up a historical novel. It’s too early to talk about, but I’m very excited.
What are your obsessions (now, compared to when we last asked)?
I have an ever-widening number of obsessions, many of which I gave to my characters in this last book: real estate, house remodeling, gardening, cooking, music. My constant obsession is writing and reading. Every new book is an adventure, and I’m a total research junkie. History is becoming a bigger and bigger fascination with me. Writers are like actors in that we get to inhabit other people, places, and time periods. I feel lucky every day I sit down at my desk.