“I’m not going to win.” Those words came by email from The Lotus Eaters author Tatjana Soli on being shortlisted for Britain’s oldest literary prize. Recent winners of the James Tait Black Award include A.S. Byatt, Ian McEwan, and Graham Swift. Earlier winners read like an all-time literary greats list: E.M. Forster. Margaret Drabble. Nadine Gordimer. Evelyn Waugh. In its almost 100-year history, very few debuts have won, much less ones written by Americans.
The Lotus Eaters, as happens so often with first efforts, almost never saw its way into print. The story — about the Vietnam War, told from the perspective of a female photojournalist — was written, and revised, and submitted and rejected. And rewritten. And rejected. And rewritten again. By agents. By editors. Soli was told that Vietnam was considered a niche audience, all military and all male, and that a woman’s perspective, not a soldier’s, would be too limiting. The Lotus Eaters sold to St. Martin’s Press for a modest advance some ten years after Soli first conceived it — and then this quietly understated debut began attracting fans with pretty big pulpits.
Janet Maslin, writing for The New York Times the day before The Lotus Eaters was published, called it “haunting” and “quietly mesmerizing” – and that was just the opening two lines of the review. That weekend, it gained raves on the cover of The New York Times Book Review and in The Washington Post. It went on to become a New York Times bestseller, was named a notable book of the year by the Times and the ALA, and was a finalist for the LA Times Book Award. Still, Soli was as surprised as anyone when it was shortlisted for the James Tait Black.
And then it won.
Soli is back this fall with a second novel, The Forgetting Tree, about Claire Baumsarg, the complicated matriarch of a California ranching family, and Minna, the enigmatic young woman who comes to take care of Claire as she battles cancer. I had a chance to chat with Tatjana about her second novel, the James Tait Black, and what she’s up to next.
The Millions: While The Forgetting Tree is clearly a Tatjana Soli book — the gorgeous language, the plumbing of complex characters in challenging circumstances — it is also a departure from The Lotus Eaters. It’s set in contemporary California peacetime rather than 1970s Vietnam War, and it includes a larger cast of characters. Did you consider doing something closer to the first novel? How did this story come to be the one you chose to write about?
Tatjana Soli: I spent such a long time working on the first novel, doing tons of research, that I really wanted to get as far away as possible from both a war novel and a historical one. It was draining subject matter. Although you are writing fiction, there is the additional burden of historical accuracy that also made the writing process less free. I did write more short stories about the war that I couldn’t resist doing, extra material that didn’t find its way into the book, but I knew none of the material had enough heft for another novel.
As far as the second book, it’s mysterious how the subject matter seems to pick you, but I live surrounded by the old citrus orchards of Southern California so that setting spoke to me, or rather how those orchards are disappearing spoke to me. I wanted to write about a character who mourns that change and is angered by it. Although plenty happens from the outside, the second book is more character-driven.
My interest in the clash and misunderstandings between cultures definitely comes from where I live, and it’s been a huge influence in both books. I think there is the same concern for how one lives in both books. How does one bear witness during war? How does one overcome tragedy in a very personal, private life? Those were issues that compelled the writing.
It’s hugely disconcerting that you work blinkered as a writer — thinking you are on to fresh material — only to realize after the fact that you’ve returned to the same themes. I tell my students that you cannot control what you write, but only how you write and communicate that vision. The vision is out of your control.
TM: “The vision is out of your control.” I love that, and it makes me think of another parallel in the two novels, which is that the main characters in each — Claire and Minna both in The Forgetting Tree, and Helen, the American photojournalist in The Lotus Eaters — have left the worlds they grew up in to live elsewhere. Place is incredibly important in both novels, too. Not to get all psychobabble about it, but I know your mother immigrated to the United States with you when you were a child. Is that experience, do you suppose, involved in that subject matter choosing you?
TS: Well, I don’t want to get psychobabble in reply, but I can’t imagine anything more boring than writing about my own experiences. The way I look at it is that all of us, writers and non-writers, are a product of what happens to us. But for the writer, experience creates unique areas of sympathy. The types of stories that call out to you and not someone else. I was born in Salzburg, Austria, and came to the United States as a child, so being displaced is something that I have experience with, and displacement happens to be a major, worldwide phenomenon of our century. Due to wars, poverty, discrimination, genocide, or even opportunity, for whatever reason, lots of us are far from home, and we are probably never going back.
Wide Sargasso Sea is a major text in The Forgetting Tree. I remember my writing professor in college recommending for me to read it. She said, “This book will change you.” I think she meant that you will always question the accepted text afterwards, in this case, Jane Eyre. But what it did for me is make me want to be a writer. I totally got Jean Rhys from the first lines: “They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks.” Rhys was always on the side of the underdog, the outsider. She was born in Dominica and spent most of her life in Europe, primarily in England, which she claimed to hate. In the last part of Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette’s confinement in England is terrifying. I can picture Rhys reading Jane Eyre the first time and shaking her head: No, this isn’t the way it is.
It’s funny because I can put these ideas together retrospectively, but I never was conscious of it as I was writing. Even on my third novel that I’m working on now, I hadn’t thought of it that way, but again it’s about characters far from home.
TM: You open The Forgetting Tree with another character far from home in a sense: Octavio, who is if not a Mexican immigrant himself then a man who is steeped in that culture, at home on the farm but not necessarily in the world of the whites who own it. And you make some interesting choices in the book, starting with revealing in the prologue a tragedy that informs the events of the novel — told from Octavio’s point of view. We also see Octavio in the book’s closing, but much of the rest of the story is told from two other perspectives: Claire’s and Minna’s. Was the book structured this way from its inception, or did it evolve in the writing process?
TS: Those choices all evolved during revision. During my first drafts, I usually write whatever seems to have heat to it, whatever seems important, even if I’m not sure how to fit it in. My revision process then is a very deliberate distancing exercise — trying to think of how to present what I have to the reader. So I move things around. If I’ve done my job right, I’ve communicated that excitement to the reader. I struggled a great deal with the secret at the heart of The Forgetting Tree, how not to reveal it, and yet not make it a trick, and so the shifting viewpoints evolved naturally.
I never outline because the way my mind works, the outline rules out all other possibilities. I’d like to talk myself out of this conviction, but there it is. Lately, I’ve been playing with the idea of shapes, or movements, that represent either the whole novel or a part of it. Let me give you an example. Recently, I read Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, and I thought the ending was magnificent. Afterwards, when I heard him speak, he said he had this idea for the ending of holding these fuzzy flowers, like dandelions, and letting the wind scatter all those little seed heads in every direction. As soon as he said that, I recognized the feeling I got reading that last chapter. Somehow visualizing instead of outlining short-circuits the critic inside.
TM: Can you tell us a little about where Minna — who is one of the most fascinating characters I have read in a long time — came from? She doesn’t appear until 100 pages into the book. Was she in your mind when you started writing?
TS: Minna was there at the very beginning, but she was such a loaded character that I knew the stage would have to be set for her appearance. Claire would have to have gone through enough and be ready for that relationship. I also knew that she would be hiding her identity. Again, living in a very multicultural area of the country, I see how even open-minded people can live for years around a person from another culture and not understand what their life experience has been. They make assumptions. One example. I had jury duty. The case involved a man from a Central American country being accused of a fairly serious crime by a family from the same country. None of them spoke English well enough to understand the court proceedings, so interpreters were ordered for both sides. Suddenly we get into these long stories told by each side. It seems the man was a type of healer; he talked at length about some of the spells or incantations he performed. Well, the interpreters, the lawyers, the judge, no one knew what to do with this. They thought this guy was crazy. Then it came out that the family had actually hired him as a healer — they accepted the validity of these practices he was talking about. It was part of their culture. The whole case just broke down. The whole apparatus of Western justice fell apart.
TM: Fascinating. And The Forgetting Tree is very much about healing, with the tree of the title playing a role. Minna, not long after she meets Claire, calls the farm “a God place” that could heal Claire if she allowed it to. “Maman said trees healed you,” she says. At that point Claire is very skeptical of this, just as I imagine that jury was skeptical, but it isn’t the end of the magic — or the superstitions, anyway. Can you talk about how the “voodoo,” as Claire’s daughter Lucy calls it, came into the story, and what kind of research you did in shaping it?
TS: I actually enjoyed the research for that the most. There is a long tradition of Western fascination with vodou rituals, and there are many books about outsiders attending ceremonies, both in Haiti and in Haitian communities in the United States. Of course there are all the silly movies that play up the sensationalistic aspects, and they mostly get it wrong — things like putting spells on people and having zombies running around. I’m certainly not an expert, but mostly the rituals seem to be a combination of Christianity, brought by the French, and African myths and beliefs. During the most oppressive years of colonialism, vodou ceremonies were outlawed because they were a way for the people to empower themselves.
I’m not so concerned with questions such as is it real, but rather what is the effect? This was one aspect of the average person’s life in Haiti that they could take pride in. The vibrant Haitian folk art comes from priests and priestesses of the religion. Much of the music is associated with these ceremonies, and protest songs grew out of this tradition. In a country with a high illiteracy rate, songs were the main way to communicate. During the Duvalier years, popular bands would have their protest songs banned. Breaking the ban could mean imprisonment or death. So none of this was the Disney stuff we usually associate with vodou.
Minna, of course, grew up with this from a mother who had early on distanced herself from such “primitive” beliefs, but had returned to her roots eventually. Minna, in her survival instinct, uses the accouterments of the religion for her own purposes. Part of it is to make the world around her familiar, part of it is to obscure.
TM: Will you tell us a little about what’s next for you?
TS: I’m about two-thirds done with my next novel. It’s a comic one about a group of Californians on a South Sea island. I wanted to have a new challenge from the first two books. This is lighter in tone and has a large cast of characters. It’s been a fun experience so far.
TM: And will you indulge the rest of us in a moment of living vicariously? What was it like to learn — after working so long and hard on both writing The Lotus Eaters and finding a publishing home for it — that you’d won the James Tait Black?
TS: It was an out of body experience to be sure. No one, here or in England, was giving me any kind of odds. My mom and I booked a flight so that we could attend the ceremony because truly it was such an honor just to be nominated. It’s been won by Graham Greene (one of my all-time writer heroes) and D.H. Lawrence, as well as contemporary writers such as Salman Rushie, Zadie Smith, and Cormac McCarthy. Awards are always a lottery, but it was hugely affirming. The honest truth is that once it’s over, you forget about it. You go back and struggle over each page. The writing doesn’t get the least bit easier. It’s like a really incredible vacation — you go return to your real life. The biggest lesson I learned through the whole publication process is that whatever happens, good or bad (and there will always be a fair share of both), you go back to the page. That’s where reality is for a writer.