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.

Helen is an American photojournalist--do you do photography as well? What inspired you to choose that role for her?

Again, to put the character in the center of things, to make her take an active role, I needed to make her a journalist. Who else runs toward the danger, not away? I wanted to give the reader a very visceral experience of the war, alongside Helen. Photography is perfect for conveying the images, the visual stimuli in a way that having her be a writer would not have. And Vietnam was the first war that was recorded extensively in real time so that pictures, moving and still, were in the newspapers, magazines, on the television each night. We feel we know that war because of the journalists who risked their lives to bring it to us.

Do you think that a photojournalist's perspective on the war differs greatly from the perspectives of others involved?

I think that Vietnam was especially unique in the freedom that it gave to reporters. When Helen goes to Vietnam with no professional experience and little idea of what she will encounter, that's not far from the real stories of some of the famous journalists who built careers and reputations during that war. But that freedom did something else--it allowed the press to get the real story, not the story fed to it by our government, by the press briefings from the military. On the ground, out in the bush, the truth was impossible to hide. The soldiers on the ground knew it. So did the civilians. Many journalists were sickened by what they saw, they got angry, they became activist. It's pretty commonly accepted that the press turned the tide of public opinion in the US. There was no precedent for that in any other war. Nor has it happened since.

The Lotus Eaters talks a lot about the exciting and thrilling "high" or "addiction" that people can get from war; can you tell us more about this idea?

Especially after the movie, The Hurt Locker, there has been attention on the more sensational aspect of being addicted to danger, but I was going for something more complicated than Darrow and Helen just being addicted to war. Don't get me wrong, there was definitely pride in being good at your job. There was competitiveness in getting the cover, in winning awards. I didn't want to portray my characters as saints. But still, many of the journalists were incredibly dedicated, and they cared deeply. Going back to that freedom they had, they felt they had it in their ability to change the course of the war, the fate of millions of people. Pretty heady stuff. Or you can narrow the focus to one human being. Nick Ut (AP) taking the picture of Kim Phuc, the young child burned by napalm. After taking the picture, instead of making sure the film got out (with the conditions at the time, there was a real chance it could have been destroyed), he drove the girl for hours to a hospital, made sure she got care. Without him, she might have died. And he stayed lifelong friends with her, to this day. So rather than addiction, I'd say I focused on the all-consuming nature of the work.

We couldn't help but fall in love with Linh--a Vietnamese man who develops a deep relationship with Helen. In the midst of seeing his country ravaged with loss he always seems to maintain an underlying genuine optimism for the future. How did you feel about Linh while writing his character?

I started as a short story writer, and I had written many stories about Vietnamese immigrants starting new lives in California after the war. Linh was an extension of that. Really, Linh is the heart of the book. Especially when you are dealing with the most extreme darkness, war, it is too easy to be destroyed by it. I was absolutely humbled reading the many accounts by the Vietnamese of how they survived the war and its aftermath. My husband and I know a local Vietnamese broadcaster, a lovely woman, who was still a child during the fall of Saigon. She so casually tells of coming to this country with nothing, starting her own business and working eighteen-hour days, seven days a week, for over a decade, to afford to bring the rest of her extended family over. And she treats the hardship so lightly. As if it were nothing. People like that were the inspiration for Linh.

What are your own thoughts on the Vietnam War? Do you feel differently about it after writing the novel?

I was not really a student of history before I took up the novel, but now I feel that maybe it is the only thing that we should study endlessly. Because Vietnam is right now, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and whatever lessons were learned then are not preventing us getting in new wars now. The cost of war in lives lost, cultures devastated, the legacy of war spilling over and affecting new generations, is beyond comprehension. One of the real pleasures in going out on tour has been talking with the many vets and others who were actually there. The war is still fresh for those people. The lessons learned. But the collective memory does not seem to be there.

My husband and I live near a canyon where we go hiking every evening. About a year ago, two soldiers wearing pale desert uniforms were hiking there. They told us they were getting ready to be shipped off to Afghanistan. My husband had been there in the seventies, and when he told them that, they were filled with questions. "What's it like?" He told them how vast the distances were, how cold it got in the winter. They were so young. They had no idea. Who could answer the real question, which was, What are we going to find there? Vietnam might as well be ancient Troy as far as they were concerned, but I felt a lump in my throat.

Can you tell us more about how you came to choose the title, "The Lotus Eaters" and what it represents?

The title came from the lines in The Odyssey describing the lotus eaters, "who ate the honeyed fruit of the plant lost any wish to come back and bring us news," and "forget all thoughts of return." I'm fascinated by people who have real passion. The average person is going to do his job, stay safe, and go home. They are going to keep that mental distance from events. But I'm interested in the person who has such passion that she forgets all thoughts of home. Is she reckless, selfish? Addicted to the high of war? Or is it something from which she simply cannot walk away from? Nick Ut and the little girl. I recently came across a quote from Diane Arbus: "I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn't photograph them." That is the simple reason that Helen stays.

Who do you read for enjoyment? Where there any particular writers that you feel helped influence your writing and research for The Lotus Eaters?

There are so many great writers my only regret is that I'm such a slow reader! My pantheon of all time greats, all of whom influenced this book would look something like this: Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway. Contemporary writers such as Tim O' Brien, Robert Stone, Philip Caputo, Bob Shacochis. I love Joan Didion, J M Coetzee, Joy Williams, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Ondaatje. Right now I'm just starting to read Peter Carey, Jean Thompson, Barbara Kingsolver.

Are you currently working on a new novel? What can readers expect for the future?

I am deep into my second novel. It's set in contemporary Southern California. It takes place on a citrus ranch, one of the last holdouts, with developers encroaching all around it. My characters are living a sequestered existence there. They are passionate and stubborn. Notice a pattern?

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