Tales of the New World is supposed to be about explorers, so why are Jim Jones, Anton Chekhov, and someone that seems likely to be your father doing as subjects of the stories?
I use the term explorers very loosely, and I also believe that exploration and colonization go hand in hand, so Jim Jones running off with the Rainbow Family to Guyana, an act of colonization, becomes relevant, and particularly bizarre as we’re watching it happen in the modern age. Of course Jim Jones made the act of wearing sunglasses look beyond the pale, so I guess he brings a level of weirdness to everything. But I do think that if the Plymouth pilgrims had committed mass suicide, we would be making all sorts of parallels. And couldn’t Jamestown be read as mass suicide, or at least a massacre—an obvious harbinger of things to come? Did Jim Jones know from the start the narrative of Jonestown? Looks like I could keep going with that story…Anyway, Anton Chekhov was writing a play about Arctic explorers when he died, and he had a fascination with the explorer Przhevalsky, so he seemed an obvious choice for me. Also, because explorers usually write accounts, or have someone close to them that does (Magellan has Pigafetta) I wanted to lens Chekhov this way, although Chekhov’s book about Sakhalin—non-fiction and the longest thing he wrote—is overshadowed by things like The Cherry Orchard and Lady with A Pet Dog. I felt like I was turning over rocks and finding bugs with this one. And as for my dad, the story revolves around the writing of his undergraduate thesis, which is on the Carthaginean explorer Hanno. And my father’s the kind of guy who goes after life with an explorer’s curiosity.
Great, but why write about explorers?
Well, for one thing the research is fun. Also, my sense is that we’re approaching an era shift—a transition into a different age (queue Hair soundtrack)—and one place to look at that and the repercussions is to look at the concept of exploration—Golden Age and otherwise—where these people, confronted with something new, wrote down what they saw and returned to the Old World with their flawed accounts, which ended up defining the New World to everyone else. Explorers present an interesting perspective.
Ultimately, you’re becoming a historical writer.
As Faulkner says, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
Good enough. Why historical material?
As opposed to what? The present? I’ve read and enjoyed a few interesting books lately by contemporary authors, who move ten years into the future to make conclusions about current culture: a valid technique. My technique for writing about the present is valid too. I project our concerns into the past. I don’t need to project forward and write speculatively about future technology—which is not of personal interest—to make conclusions and draw parallels about how we live.
Why don’t you write a contemporary piece that looks at the culture? At ordinary people?
I’ve been mulling that over. There’s a scene in Anna Karenina—about halfway through—where Dolly has a moment alone on a coach ride and this woman, who we’ve been led to believe is fulfilled, shallow, and predictable, gives us a look at her profoundly complicated and affecting inner life. Tolstoy gives us ordinary people and makes them extraordinary. So that contemporary piece sounds like a good idea.
Anna Karenina isn’t exactly contemporary.
On the contrary, it defines contemporary: it’s a book that never ages.
You’re writing a book about the friendship between the Irish revolutionary Roger Casement and the sculptor and adventurer Herbert Ward. That’s hardly contemporary.
I’m writing it now!
And I would hesitate to class a revolutionary and an adventurer as ordinary.
But they are. Everyone is ordinary. Anyone who feels otherwise is lying to herself.