May 31, 2016
Ron Tanner, author of Missile Paradise, and Jim Magruder, author of The Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall, discuss their new novels.
Ron Tanner: Let’s dispatch the most obvious question first: in 1983, you were a grad student at Yale, where you dormed in Helen Hadley Hall. Your novel, Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall is about a diverse, rowdy, and randy group of grad students at Yale in 1983 and they live in Helen Hadley Hall. How much does it matter that this story is autobiographical?
Jim Magruder: With two exceptions, the entire cast is based on people I knew. That said, there is a lot of me in every love slave (“Becky Engelking, c’est moi”) even if only one of them most corresponds to the facts of me in ‘83. It turns out readers don’t care who was real and what was invented. They create their own versions of the characters as they go along.
RT: How did you manage to orchestrate the lives of your nineteen central characters, most of which get equal time in the novel. Why not take it from the POV of one or two?
JM: The first draft of Love Slaves in 2001 was twice as long and more than doubly cumbersome. There were years of revolving narrators—Randall owned a draft; Silas had a draft; there was an omniscient narrator at one point—and none of them worked, because a) how could Randall know these things happening in Becky’s mind? And b) How can we reconcile the intricate prose and baroque tone with one sole, twenty-two year old narrator? Basic POV stuff I never learned, because I hadn’t formally studied fiction.
All of my characters, by the way, unlike yours, are terrified of nature and never go outdoors. Your book, however, has three hair-raising sea voyages, one in a typhoon. Did you have a subscription to Boy’s Life magazine when you were young? Did you read London and Thor Heyerdahl and Conrad? Were you an Eagle Scout? Whence your singular ability to write gripping moral adventures?
RT: Yes, I was a Boy Scout, yes I had a subscription to Boy’s Life, yes, I read Kon Tiki, and, yes, I spent a lot of time outdoors. I built forts in the woods, went for long woodland hikes with my friends (each of us equipped with our fathers’ Army-issue knapsacks and canteens), fantasized about living in tree houses, and so on. When I lived in the Marshall Islands, I spent hours on the reef every weekend, once got lost in the jungle on an uninhabited island, and loved clambering over and into the amazing mounds of rusted armaments and vehicles of World War II detritus heaped on the beaches.
JM: With Missile Paradise you have to assume every reader starts at zero with the Marshall Islands, but I never felt lectured; in fact, the more I read, the more I wanted to know about this crazy archipelago and its people. What strategies did you adopt to get all the information you needed into the novel without boring your readers?
RT: When it comes to learning about the Republic of the Marshall Islands and who the Marshallese are, there’s simply too much to absorb in a single sitting. These are a people that early Spanish explorers called “Las Pinturas,” for their thoroughly tattooed bodies. This huge archipelago—over 1,000 sand-speck islands scattered across 750,000 square miles of the Pacific—was the haven of pirates and, reputedly, the crash site of Amelia Earhart. Before being conquered and diminished by Westerners, the Marshallese were the best navigators in the Pacific, capable of traversing thousands of miles of open ocean by reading the waves, the clouds, and the flight patterns of birds. They became some of the most ruthless warriors in the eighteenth century and then some of the most devout converts to Christianity in the nineteenth century. Their story is so fascinating, there’s no room for lecture, only wonder and admiration.
JM: My favorite character in Missile Paradise is the Cultural Liaison, Art Norman. I think John Goodman should play him in the movie. Art says at one point, “We go for the wrong reasons and we do almost everything wrong, but it’s better than not going or doing at all.” Words to live by in 2004. How about in 2016?
RT: Yeah, I love Art Norman. Fundamentally, I’m an optimist who wants to believe that humanity is capable of beautiful, selfless acts. But also I’m old enough to have been disappointed by human behavior too many times. Most people do best when they are contained by community, that is, when they have to account for themselves. They do their worst when they approach a situation unchecked and anonymously. There are exceptions, of course. But, for the most part, we humans bear close watching.
My favorite character in Love Slaves is your narrator, Ms. Helen Hadley herself, the long dead namesake of the graduate dormitory at Yale. She’s an expansive personality, wise and worldly. How did you come to the brilliant decision to use her as our guide?
JM: I suppose I could have cut a decade off the process if I’d read that copy of The Lovely Bones I bought back in the day. Or listened more closely to Joe Gillis’ posthumous voiceovers in Sunset Boulevard. During the dawn hours of 11.11.11, I was wheezing in my bed at the VCCA, needing to pee, and hating how the writing was going. After the bathroom trip, I took two hits of Albuterol, an aerosol asthma med. Whilst tossing and turning and hating the writing, I had the eureka moment: What if Helen Hadley, sitting in a framed portrait on the very first floor, has been watching and listening all along, and decides to tell the tale of her favorite year?
Her age, her patrician background, and her decades of observation, made the tone and the wild diction swings and the “historical third” point of view possible. Helen doesn’t intrude very often, but when she does, you pay attention to her.
RT: The emerging AIDS crisis frames your tale, making for an interesting and thematically important undercurrent of tension. But you had to use it carefully, right?
JM: The novel covers a nine-month academic year from September 1983 to May 1984. In the first draft, however, AIDS didn’t get mentioned until February, a narrative strategy that unconsciously mimicked my “head in the sand” sexual strategy back in the day. Our mutual pal, Jane Delury, read a draft and mentioned that she sat up straight when the gay men in the dorm meet to discuss their responses to the epidemic. So I moved that scene from Chapter 8 to Chapter 3. During the final overhaul, once I shifted Silas and Randall closer to the center of the book, I made sure they had a meaningful conversation about the gay plague in their very first meeting in Chapter 2.
You, Ron, are great at compressing years of time into one or two paragraphs, which is daunting to me. Also, your metaphors are brilliant. (“His heart churns in his chest like a chipmunk in a paper bag” is my absolute favorite.) Your characters are wide-ranging and dimensional, and you write the natural world like nobody’s business. What would you like to get better at?
RT: Thank you. I’d like to get better at plot. The demands of plotting kill me. It’s one thing to write well, it’s quite another to tell a good story. The latter calls for a plot that moves with the inexorable drive of a speeding bullet. I’ve written several novels that I’ve never sent out and may never revive because they have little or no plot. A plot-less novel is like a person without a beating heart.
In your book, I found plenty of beating heart, plenty of plot—it’s rowdy and often madcap, but also dramatic in the literal sense. Is it my imagination or does the story pay homage to A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
JM: I know the play well, so Shakespeare could have seeped in. I do believe comedies end with weddings, and busy comic novels ideally should endeavor to have their multiple plot lines collide in a dramatic climax. For example, everybody winds up at the Night of Joy at the end of A Confederacy of Dunces, to witness Ignatius getting attacked by a parrot. In Love Slaves, it’s Nixie and Walt’s rehearsal dinner at the dorm.
RT: It’s worth noting that you’ve titled this love slaves, not sex slaves. Are you a hopeless romantic?
JM: Absolutely. I have always wanted everyone I care about to be partnered and having the best committed sex they can as often as possible with each other. My characters are young enough, and inexperienced enough, to think that sex and love are congruent vectors. Bless their hearts. They’ll learn.
JAMES MAGRUDER is the author of Sugarless; Let Me See It; and The Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall. His translations of French plays have been produced all across America. He wrote the book for the Broadway Musical Triumph of Love. Magruder teaches at Swarthmore College.
RON TANNER’S awards for writing include a Faulkner Society gold medal, a Pushcart Prize, a New Letters Award, a Best of the Web Award, a Maryland Arts Council grant, and many others. He is the author of A Bed of Nails (stories), Kiss Me Stranger (illustrated novel), and From Animal House to Our House (memoir). He teaches writing at Loyola University-Maryland and directs the Marshall Islands Story Project.