The Storms of May
Q: Did you draw on your background as a counselor with troubled teenagers as you wrote The Storms of May?
A: Five of the book's characters are a lively, profane, angry, forlorn, exuberant, and loveable gang of kids who resemble in some ways the girls I worked with in reform schools and group homes. Many group home kids had been violently and sexually abused as children but were trying-with great courage-to recover from early traumas and to live like normal teenagers, pursuing stable futures. My former wife and I worked hard to help them stay in school, keep part time jobs, join in group therapy sessions, and make the house a safe and even enjoyable place to live. Ruth and Mike, the house parents in the novel, are trying to help in this way, too, without a lot of social work training behind them. Like them, I had lived in Africa as a teacher-which was really the only training I had. Ruth and Mike encourage the girls to grow up independent and strong, but also try to keep them from going wild and misusing their freedom. With these goals, their lives are inevitably full of events both humorous and disastrous.
Q: But you say the novel is not just about kids.
A: It's not. Ruth's adventures are at center stage, and her sometimes-stormy relationship with Mike develops in unexpected ways throughout the book. The anxieties the kids feel about sex and love, work and life, are felt by everyone, including their house parents. Despite the explosive events that often occur, the satisfactions that Ruth and Mike get from their job are more intense than any of their disappointments. I found this was true for me, too-I loved working with these kids, and I believe that my enthusiasm comes through in the novel.
I should say here that all the book's characters are invented. I have protected the privacy of all the kids I worked with.
Q: The novel's main character, Ruth, had a troubled past like some of the girls she is now trying to help. Is there anything of you in her?
A: Of course. Madame Bovary, c'est moi. Ruth's mixed-up adolescence caused her some of the same confusions as an adult as mine did. Like me, Ruth has discovered that helping other people is a good way to understand one's own life and to recover from old wounds. Louise Erdrich, in one of her novels, says "You heal by taking on the pain of others." This gradually becomes Ruth's philosophy, too, as well as that of Paco, the ex-con who is trying to put his criminal past behind him by trying to save young drug addicts. Paco's attempt to make a new life for himself ends tragically, because he cannot escape the culture of violence he has come from. Ruth succeeds, encouraged by Paco's courage, and inspired by the strength of her husband, Mike. She also takes strength from the girls, who reward her efforts with gratitude and affection. Like Ruth, they are resilient and appealing.
Q: What about Ruth's husband Mike-does he resemble you in any way?
A: He's a visual artist, struggling to find a way of integrating his life into his art and to survive in a world that has little appreciation for the kinds of kids he works with or the original art he is creating. I was struggling to start my writing career while working as a house parent, so I understand what Mike is going through, trying to juggle two lives. He's better at it than I was; one of the nice things about writing fiction is that you can re-write your past. Mike's winning the girls' trust is his most satisfying accomplishment, and it was mine, too. When at the end he paints their portraits, he displays his respect and affection for them; his motives are the same as mine as I wrote the novel.
Q: Being house parents to a pack of troubled teenagers puts a lot of strain on Ruth's and Mike's relationship. Do you see their marriage being helped by their experience, too?
A: The kids bombarded them with desperate needs, challenged their authority, constantly tried to draw them toward emotional chaos-so of course, their marriage was strained. May, the girl in the novel's title, is the stormiest of the girls, and the tricks she uses to out-maneuver Ruth and hang onto her boyfriend, Paco, disrupt the household's stability. Ruth's marriage is tested by her own attraction to Paco, too. But this is a novel in which mature love triumphs-though the two main characters are in their twenties.
Q: How does love survive the Storms of May?
A: At first, with a lot of drama, conflict, and amusing confusion. The young couple lives close to an atmosphere of hot romance, making Ruth yearn at times for the wildness of her own youth. But in the end, Ruth's and Mike's affection for the girls helps them to understand how precarious real love can be. They discover how important it is to enjoy and nurture their own relationship, making it a safe haven in a world threatened by violence and despair.
A Garden of Demons
Q: How did you get interested in Sri Lanka, the setting for A Garden of Demons?
A: I first visited the country while I was on the first of two Fulbright grants to India in 1986. The United States Information sent me to several universities to lecture, and I fell in love with the extraordinary beauty of the place. I've always loved the tropics, and this was the lushest, greenest spot I'd ever visited. In later years, I made long visits to a family I knew there, a British woman married to a Sri Lankan man who owned a rubber plantation in the South. I got to know one small area intensely--which is the way I like to research all my books. The plantation in the book is much like the one my friends owned, but by the time the final draft was finished, the characters and plot had become my own inventions.
Q: Are the characters like your friends in Sri Lanka?
A: Lila, the young girl who is the main character, is a little like my friends' daughter, and also a little like my own daughter when she was young. But Lila is also like the daughter of friends I knew in Kenya in the 1960s. They're the real models for the adult members of the book's family. The British husband and his African wife, and their precocious daughter, lived on a coffee plantation on the slopes of Mt. Kenya, an area in which the "Mau Mau"-the guerilla freedom fighters-had been active during the 1950s. Like the Japanese soldiers hiding out on Pacific Islands after World War II, some of the guerillas were still hiding in the forests on Mt. Kenya and attacking local farms. The previous owner of my friends' plantation had left behind a journal in which he described in detail the barbed wire fencing he had surrounded his place with, and covered his verandah and windows with, as well. I copied some entries into my journal while I visited their home. There was still an atmosphere of menace about the place, and I transferred it to Sri Lanka, where a civil war has been raging for many years.
Q: In A Garden of Demons, the family has to confront terrorism, in the form of combatants in Sri Lanka's civil war. Did you ever encounter violence while you were there?
A: No, I stayed out of its way. But most of the people I met had vivid stories to tell about encounters they'd had with government troops or rebel guerillas, and the stories were much bloodier than any in the book. The country was in a state of shock and apprehension while I was there, much like Israel or Northern Ireland or Colombia must be like today. But terrorism is a problem people in America have learned they have to deal with, so this theme in the novel is speaks to a much larger audience than those who are just interested in foreign conflicts. A Garden of Demons is about the toll that the constant threat of violence takes on the lives of ordinary people like the book's characters, and how they learn to summon the courage to deal with extraordinary events.
Q: Lila, the young central character in the novel, is very artistically gifted. Does this help her face up to the troubles that are threatening her idyllic life on her family's plantation.
A: Her artistic talents help her to envisage what might happen with frightening vividness. Having an active imagination can help people see and hear the forces that disturb them, and then transform them into pictures, pieces of music, or words. Externalizing her fears helps Lila confront the terrifying pictures in her head that have arrived there because of the violence going on around her. Once she has put the pictures on paper, outside herself, she can stop being preoccupied by them, at least for the time being. On the other hand, she feels things more intensely than other members of her family, and this makes her feel a little strange and alienated, though she never doubts her family's love for her, which becomes stronger as the story unfolds. Being an artist makes people very vulnerable to fears, but also gives them a powerful way of dealing with them-transforming them into something magnificent, like Picasso's Guernica or Britten's War Requiem.
Q: As your novel's title implies, the story is full of demons. Did you ever meet any in Sri Lanka?
A: Probably, but I just didn't know they were demons, who can take the shape of people or animals if they want to. A belief in ghosts, spirits, demons—good and bad—is very common in Sri Lanka, and even educated people enjoy telling about them. Sri Lanka is famous for its devil dancers and devil masks. The exorcism of ancestor spirits that takes place in the novel is based on several stories I was told about such rituals.
Q: Did you encounter any demons during the two years you spend in India?
A: Again, I must have, without being aware of their true identities. While I was collecting folk tales in rural villages for my book, The Pomegranate Princess, people used to tell me that there were a lot of witches in the next village, but none in their own where everyone was too clever to believe in them. But I heard children who overheard these statements laughing about them. When you live in countries where these sorts of beliefs are common, you have to begin taking them seriously, even if you don't actually believe in them. When I taught in Africa, my students frequently came down with illnesses they believed were caused by curses, and they had to be sent home to the native doctors to be cured. Spirits are an important part of folk religion everywhere-and animism is probably the largest religion in the world.
Q: You wrote about Madame Blavatsky and spiritualism in your previous novel, Shadows and Elephants. Were her beliefs in the world of ghosts similar to the ones you encountered in Africa and India?
A: European and American spiritualist was a 19th Century phenomenon that was a reaction against Darwinism and orthodox Christianity, but it was rarely as important a part of people's lives as animism is in Africa and India. During Madame Blavatsky's travels in India and Ceylon, she enjoys finding miraculous "evidence" that reinforce her occult beliefs. She first developed them as a child visiting tribal people who lived in the remote Asian area that her father, a Czarist government officer, administered. But you don't have to go to India to find spirits. A Spiritualist Assembly church in a town near where I live in upstate New York has seances every week all summer long, and I've often gone there to hear what people's spirit guides-who are often Native Americans--have to say. These seances are right out of 19th Century Americana.
Q: How did you get interested in South Asian demons, spirits, and folklore?
A: I did a masters degree at Makerere University in Uganda, where my thesis was about the conflict between animist religions and Christianity, and I later earned a Masters Degree in anthropology at UCLA. My first Fulbright research project sent me into the desert state of Rajasthan, in India, where I got to know the folk culture and learned about local beliefs. I met people who couldn't read or write but had beautiful, fascinating literature in their heads, and they were happy to tell it to me so that I could write it down and show it to people in America. My book, The Pomegranate Princess, is now being used as an English Language text in schools in Rajasthan, and I get hand-written aerogrammes from students asking me for more stories. I write back that they should ask their grandparents, and they'll hear all the tales they want.
Q: Have you used folklore themes in your other novels?
A: My first one, The New Life Hotel, is set in East Africa, where I lived for three years, and some of the characters get into a lot of trouble because they don't give ancestor spirits enough respect. Wolf Tickets is set in a girls' reform school in upstate New York, but there's an important chapter in which a Puerto Rican girl holds a seance that leads to a riot that nearly destroys the place.
Q: Have you ever written about your own life?
A: Indirectly. The boy coming of age in Night Train Blues is a little like me. Growing up in a wealthy home in Connecticut; he has "the best childhood that money can buy," though he's too lonely to appreciate it. He reappears in Queen of the Silver Dollar as a patient in an upscale mental hospital/rehabilitation center, where many of the patients are battling the demons of alcoholism and drug abuse and mental illness. It's no accident that people living in extreme conditions have attributed their anguish to demons. My interest in these spirits probably started in Connecticut, not Africa or India or Sri Lanka. But I've learned, as Tennessee Williams famously said, you have to learn to love your demons as well as your angels.
An Interview with Five Points Magazine
Q: Your essay Gratitude (vol. 15# 1&2) chronicles the time your family vacationed in Guatemala in 1954 and was inadvertently caught up in the country's coup. This led to some very tough moral decisions including one involving an ex-Nazi. Why the title Gratitude?
A: I discovered as I wrote many drafts of the essay, that the main thing I was feeling for my parents, so many years later (long after their deaths) was Gratitude to them both for taking me to Guatemala and then for helping to save my life. Realizing this was a source of both great sadness and exhilaration.
Q: Children of the Maze (vol. 13# 13) is fascinating journey of the younger you visiting a prison in Jaipur India where you are exposed inmates such as a Spaniard involved in terrorism, the 'under trials' in prison for years as they wait for court dates, and female inmates whose children remain with them until age six. Having taught English in the American prison system you draw many comparisons between the two systems even as you and your guide come to a startling conclusion about the actual service 'outsiders' provide to inmates. If the American inmates and Indian inmates could get together what do you think they would share with each other?
A: I never met any of the male prisoners in Jaipur except briefly, one of the cooks, so I don't know how my American prison students would respond to their Indian counterparts. I did assign the essay to my students at Auburn Prison in NY state; they related to the way the Indian under trials were treated, having been shoved around various holding pens waiting for their own trials, but I doubt if they could really understand the ghastly conditions I observed in Jaipur. I've interviewed women prisoners in the US; very few of them had been able to keep children born to them in prison for more than a day or so. So I would imagine they would envy the Indian women prisoners who kept their kids for six years, since trying to keep up with absent growing children was what preoccupied them so much of the time.
Q: In Gratitude you eat street foods forbidden which leads all kinds of complications and in Children of the Maze you accept food by a prisoner which leads to 'words' with a warden. Can you talk more about the role of foods as a means to rebellion.
A: In Guatemala the street food was filthy and caused a lot of sickness among locals, not just dumb tourists. In India, most the street food was great because you could watch it being cooked and eat it right off the little sidewalk braziers. So I was used to eating food like that; the ovens in that prison were flaming hot—no risk, as far as I could see. In all total institutions—the armed forces, prep schools, hospitals, prisons—meals are enormously important in ordering people's days and dramatically effecting their morale. On rare occasions when people rebel by rejecting food, you can tell that their rage at the institution is unusually intense.
Q: Both Gratitude and Children of the Maze plumb the depths of personal morality and collective morality. What are the connections between the two for you? Do you think the world is become a more 'moral' place, or not?
A: Personal and collective morality: we're effected by collective values and behaviour more than we think we are, and people who are able to separate them (like those who protected Jews in Europe during WWII) are unusual and often heroic. I think the social worker in the Jaipur prison was—as I had years before—discovering personal qualms about working in a place that harboured such collective evil. Can one hope to do good in a place of detention where authorities have to harshly repress people's normal human needs for wanting love and freedom—needs of people who have, many of them, denied their victims the chance to love and be free? It's very tricky. I think I helped a few of the at-risk kids I worked with, but not enough of them, and I ultimately decided the "juvenile justice" system was too oppressive for me to remain part of. Teaching in adult prisons is different; as a weekly visitor, I can help men gain confidence they need to survive both inside and outside—by helping them learn to use their minds and develop more empathy for the rest of humanity. Education does that, anywhere. Therapy does too, but rarely inside prison walls.
As for the witch temple in India—the collective morality was based on folk beliefs about exorcism which forced me to stop romanticizing folk culture. These beliefs contains wonderful literature and art, but also damage and exploit people cruelly. It's a continuum, from sublime to vicious and tragic. Witchcraft, at least what I've seen of it in South Asia and Africa, is very scary business, based I believe on the ugliest aspects of human nature. But then I believe that all beliefs in supernatural phenomena are projections of human nature. Ultimately you have to accept your personal devils, I think. Then you discover they're not so different from the public ones you often criticize vehemently.
Is the world becoming more moral? We're about as full of angels and demons as we ever were, and probably always will be.
Q: Can you talk about your process of writing and revising an essay?
A: I try to let it flow freely and fast, then revise and revise and revise until I can't stand to any longer.
Q: You write novels as well as essays. Which medium do you think allows for a 'better' truth?
A: Novels. Too much reality is bad for you.
Q: An essay, novel, short story, or poem you believe should be essential reading?
A: Germinal, by Emile Zola. Also Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis, especially in the US.
Q: A book you wished you'd written?
A: Any one of the many unfinished ones that are still in my drawer.
Q: Is there any classic novel you wish you'd pushed through in your teens?
A: Teenagers should never push through books or be made to do so. Shakespeare was nearly ruined for me by over-eager teachers. Teenagers should read everything that appeals to them.
Q: Which essay or essayist has most influenced your work?
A: James McConkey's "Court of Memory" books. Brilliant.
Q: Your wife, Alison Lurie, is also a novelist. What are the benefits, or not, of being married to a fellow writer?
A: We understand the peculiarities of being novelists, realize that it's essential to spend part of every day with imaginary people. We also edit each others' final drafts—very helpful.
Q: What role do you think literary journals play today in a writer's life, as well as in the overall conversation about books and reading?
A: Literary journals help keep writers writing and enjoying each others' work. Unless you're already famous or very very lucky, you can't publish short work any place else. Later, you can collect your stuff and make it into a book. I just published What Can You Do: Personal Essays and Travel Writing. Many thanks to Five Points and other journals for providing me a place to first see the short pieces in print.