Friday, July 30, 2010

Tatjana Soli on Her Debut Novel, The Lotus Eaters

Tatjana Soli will be reading from her debut novel The Lotus Eaters at Elliott Bay Book Company on Saturday, July 31, at 2:00 p.m.

Tatjana Soli's debut novel The Lotus Eaters is not your average "war story." Rather than being told through a male perspective--or even a male soldier's perspective at that--the book details an American female photojournalist's journey into the depths of the Vietnam War. Overall, The Lotus Eaters' unique point of view was extremely refreshing, considering that many American novels surrounding times of war are written by men and solely about men. And to be honest, we love those stories and we can't blame them; those WERE different times, but such is the case today and Soli couldn't have asked for more appropriate timing with her debut novel. After all, this is 2010--the same year where we saw Kathryn Bigelow's low budget Iraq War film The Hurt Locker beat out her ex-husband James Cameron's blockbuster not-so-low-budget film Avatar. (And with good right!)

Besides the fact that Soli is writing about the Vietnam War through a female perspective, we as well loved the complexity of seeing the war through the eyes of a photojournalist and from the perspective of Linh, a Vietnamese man. Regardless of the death and demise surrounding his family and homeland, Linh is ultimately filled with forgiveness and hope for the future, rather than rage for the American soldiers invading his country. All of these aspects combined made The Lotus Eaters a fantastic read and needless to say, a welcoming new take on the effects and the destruction of the Vietnam War.

The Lotus Eaters delves deep into the Vietnam War and the politics of the 60s and 70s; how did you go about your research for the novel? Had you traveled to Cambodia or Vietnam before working on the novel?

My research was in two stages. I had always been fascinated by the war and read all the fiction, saw all the movies, documentaries, etc. years before I ever thought of writing about it. So that was research as hobby. Once I made that decision to write my own book, my research was all about getting the facts right. I read everything non-fiction about the war, from both the American perspective as well as the Vietnamese. But I also studied French colonialism, Vietnamese culture and language. Over the years I spoke with many Vietnam vets and also many Vietnamese immigrants. Bits and pieces accreted, which is an inefficient method, because you might only use five percent of what you have, but it's organic, the way we experience life itself.

What prompted you to choose the Vietnam War as your subject and setting for The Lotus Eaters?

I was a little girl when my mom worked for NATO in Naples, Italy, and then transferred to Fort Ord in Monterey, CA. This was in the late 60s. Things were going on that were very traumatic to the adults around me, if little understood by me as a child. I have memories that I would never use in fiction, they are too personal, but they fueled the longing to understand. So in the way memory works, I emotionally connected with that time in a way that was deeper than more current conflicts. I wanted to write about a character who bears witness to violence. How does a human being decide to live her life when confronted with a fallen world? But I also liked the remove in time from the war, the space that allows one to mythologize the experience.

It was so refreshing to read about Vietnam from a female perspective; can you tell us more about your choice in using Helen Adams as the main character?

As a young reader, I always loved adventure stories--Conrad, Greene, Hemingway--and I hated that the main characters were always men. The women were always staying behind, waiting and knitting socks. They were never active in making their fate. So I wanted a grand adventure for my heroine. I wanted her to be tested, to grow as a human being from her experience, so that was one motivation. The other is that as a writer, you always want to add something new to the existing body of literature. No writer will discover the truth of the soldier's experience in Vietnam as brilliantly as Tim O'Brien. That's not my story to tell. But bringing an outsider's perspective to the war--an outsider to the military and also an outsider to the world of journalists--that character can see things about the country, the people, and even the military, that is unavailable to insiders.

When I was still reading about Vietnam as a hobby, I came across a picture of Dickey Chapelle in Vietnam. I still clearly remember the shock of her wearing pearl earrings, and I couldn't get that picture out of my head. In all the reading I'd done, there had been no mention of women as photojournalists. Admittedly, there were only a handful, including one of my prime inspirations, Catherine Leroy, but I felt this deep recognition - this was my story.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Get to Know a Local Poet: Lana Hechtman Ayers

We've been fortunate in getting to know Lana Hechtman Ayers better over the past few years through working with her at the Port Townsend Writers' Conference and at Crab Creek Review, where she is the poetry editor. Originally from the East Coast, Lana now lives just across the pond from Seattle in Kingston, WA.

Lana's work has been feature in numerous publications such as Slant, Potomac Review, Cider Press Review, and Bitter Oleander. Besides working with Crab Creek Review, Lana runs Night Rain Poetry, which offers manuscript and poetry editing and writing workshop services, and she publishes the Concrete Wolf poetry chapbook series. She is also the author of several full-length collections of poems and chapbooks, including Dance from Inside My Bones, Chicken Farmer I Still Love You, and her latest book What Big Teeth: Red Riding Hood's Real Life, which serves as a prelude to her forthcoming collection, A New Red.

What first inspired you to take on the retelling of Little Red Riding Hood's story?

Red herself inspired me to take on the telling. As coy as it sounds, Red Riding Hood showed up on the page one day as I sat down to write. Then she just kept showing up. I would sit down to write about something else and there she'd be. It actually got to be a bit frustrating. I understand fiction writers are often stalked by characters until they give in and write their stories. As a poet, that had never happened to me before.

So then I decided to do some research into the fairy tale, maybe find out its significance. It turns out that there is a wealth of critical writing on fairy tales in general and Red Riding Hood in particular. Independently, scholars Jack Zipes and Alan Dundes have done extensive work collecting and analyzing all the versions of the fairy tale. And according to Catherine Orenstein's Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale, there is some version of the Red character in the folklore of nearly every culture on nearly every continent. And the moral lessons that seem implicit in each version of the tale vary greatly as well. Understanding how widespread, compelling and embedded the Red Riding Hood story is in the human psyche, I could finally give in and let Red take the lead.

Once I gave in, the poems came feverishly.

Would you say that What Big Teeth: Red Riding Hood's Real Life is more of a social commentary about women choosing the life they want, rather than the life that society wants them to have?

Yes, I would say that my collection What Big Teeth: Red Riding Hood's Real Life is concerned with women's expected roles in society. Even more than three decades after the women's movement exploded onto the scene, woman are still agonizing over choosing between work they are passionate about and their familial and domestic responsibilities. The Red Riding Hood of What Big Teeth never strayed from the path, thus never met the Wolf when she was a little girl. She obeyed all the rules and ended up as a young adult woman who was married and working at a daycare, who really had no idea who she was or what she was passionate about.

Would you say that most women generally choose the wolf over the "nice guy"?

This is a tough question to answer, so I'll try to do so in the context of the story. Hunter, the lumberjack Red Riding Hood marries, isn't a bad guy. He is definitely what one might think of as a macho guy. He is a man's man as they say and wants a wife who knows her place. In that way, he is almost more of a stereotypical "Wolf" and physically dangerous character than the Wolf of this story who is an artist. Although, the Wolf as an artist is dangerous to the status quo. Ultimately, it's not a question for Red of choosing a dangerous guy or a safe guy, but of finding a way to stop playing it safe in her own life, of learning to take risks and reach for her own goals.