There is almost never justice in my books except for the makeshift justice wrought by people who have been abandoned by their societies. With my characters forced to navigate by their own innate sense of right and wrong I can explore justice in broader dimensions, including its spiritual and cultural context. The actors in these dramas come from sharply different cultures, with markedly different perspectives and motivations, but they are joined by the common goal of resolving terrible injustice. I have worked in many diverse cultures around the globe and am convinced there is a sense of justice ingrained in the human DNA — it is this instinct that drives my plots and empowers my characters.
Some reviewers have characterized your novels as police procedurals set in other cultures. How do you react to those characterizations?
Only if a procedural can be defined as any plot in which evidence mounts to expose the truth could my books be called “procedurals” –and if the definition is that broad then I would argue that nearly every novel is a procedural. I don’t write the formulaic CSI scripts that too many mystery writers today aspire to emulate. I would place my books instead at the other end of that spectrum, as “anti-procedurals.” Police and other authorities are directly and actively opposed to the efforts of my protagonists, who seldom have access to scientific or forensic resources. The elements that drive to the truth in my novels are often not so much logic-driven as they are cultural and even spiritual.
How can you solve a real world mystery through spiritual means?
The indigenous people my protagonists have befriended live in intensely spiritual worlds. In the most obvious examples, evidence behind underlying mysteries –why a symbol was painted on a body, why a particular rock or tree was defaced, why certain people refuse to assist—can only be explained from the perspective of those worlds. In my last novel, Original Death, my protagonist was asked to resolve murders in the spirit world. Many of the motives in my books can only be understood from the perspective of indigenous religions and spirituality.
Does this explain why there often seem to be two very different investigations underway in your books, one a traditional fact-based inquiry and the other a quest focused on the spiritual world? How do you reconcile these?
My protagonists, Shan Tao Yun and Duncan McCallum, have the tools of a scientific education, and may think in terms of cause and effect. But their companions—Tibetans and native Americans—think more in terms of spiritual causes for real world effects. In a very real sense the crimes in my books arise in two worlds, and my main characters learn to look at facts from the perspective of their friends, in ways that are counter to their “educated” instincts. Ultimately neither approach can claim an answer—it lies in an interplay of the two.
You are often cited as the “writer of faraway mysteries.” What challenges arise in bringing those faraway venues to life?
Writing novels set among a distant people involves the same challenges as writing historical novels. Histories, and news reports from faraway lands, can be sterile and impersonal. Novels focused on peoples distant in place and time, when done well, can transport the reader to the stark realities of those lives, allowing the reader to experience those lands, and that adversity, on a much more personal, even visceral, level. The challenge is to bring the reader into that foreign culture, or distant time, in gradual, subtle ways, building on believable, and engaging, characters. To be successful I have to ease the reader into that world, let them learn about it because they want to join the journey of my characters in pursuing the truth.
Your characters do not rely on a lot of material objects—they live simple lives, close to nature. Do you deliberately try to reduce life to the basics in your books?
Transporting readers to an undeveloped world like Tibet –or the colonial American frontier—allows them to experience lives stripped of material attachments. I often wonder about the effects of our heavily material culture on our emotional, spiritual, and even intellectual development. I know when I venture into the wilderness and leave the modern comforts behind I never fail to feel a very real uplifting in my spirit. Does the material culture that surrounds us distract an important part of our consciousness? Does it starve our spirit? Certainly it insulates us from the natural world, which is very much part of life for traditional Tibetans, just as it was for those living on the American frontier.
One of the many fascinating aspects of the traditional Tibetan world that underlies Soul of the Fire was that it had no machines. Even far into the 20th century, before the Chinese invasion, many Tibetans expressly rejected machines, fearing that they would impede their spiritual development. Most of the wheels they used, for example, were prayer wheels. They favored the bow over the gun, because they considered the bow a useful tool for meditation and self-awareness. When the British tried to introduce the miracles of modern technology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Tibetans saw the devices as mere foreign curiosities. What a contrast, and what an example, that world would have been had it been allowed to flourish without violent interference.
ELIOT PATTISON is an award-winning author of the Inspector Shan series, set in Tibet, and the Bone Rattler series, set in colonial America. A frequent visitor to China, his books and articles on international policy issues have been published around the world. Pattison entered China for the first time within weeks of normalization of relations with the United States in 1980 and during his many return visits to China and neighboring countries developed the intense interest in the rich history and culture of the region that is reflected in his books. They have been characterized as creating a new “campaign thriller” genre for the way they weave significant social and political themes into their plots. Indeed, as soon as the novels were released they became popular black market items in China for the way they highlight issues long hidden by Beijing. A former resident of Boston and Washington, Pattison resides on an 18th-century farm in Pennsylvania with his wife, three children, and an ever-expanding menagerie of animals.