Paradise (Not Yet) Lost: A Conversation with Jaimee Wriston ColbertBy Christine Sneed
April 05, 2018
In Vanishing Acts, Jaimee Wriston Colbert’s new novel and sixth work of fiction, the author takes us to the Big Island of Hawai’i, where she grew up body-surfing, listening to stories about the volcano goddess Pele, and later as an adult, on return trips from the mainland, observing the alarming signs of her beloved island’s changing ecosystem, due to drought and other environmental stressors.
Through her storytelling lens, Colbert chronicles the effects of the traumatic transformation Hawai’i is undergoing as its rare species and forests disappear, a theme that also informs her fifth book, Wild Things, a linked story collection set in upstate New York.
In Vanishing Acts, as Colbert’s characters struggle to understand each other and the sometimes disastrous choices they make, the planet’s distress mirrors the Johnstone-Winter family’s own turmoil. Gwen, whose mother Madge has been afflicted by dementia, uproots her teenage son Buddy from their home in Maine after Gwen’s affair is discovered by Buddy’s father. By moving Buddy and herself 6,000 miles away to Hawai’i with the pretext of caring for Madge whose condition is deteriorating, she severs ties between Buddy and his father too, leading to a series of events that Gwen soon regrets.
Gwen herself lost her father, the surfer-artist Jody Johnstone, when she was a young girl, a loss that continues to echo through her and her mother’s lives. One of the pleasures of reading Vanishing Actsis witnessing how Colbert heightens the mystery surrounding Gwen’s father’s disappearance by making him one of the point of view characters. Jody’s fascination with Houdini is dramatized in the chapters he narrates, and the spirit of the master illusionist presides over this novel as well.
I had the chance recently to correspond with Jaimee Wriston Colbert about her lushly detailed and suspenseful new novel via email and Google Docs.
Christine Sneed:You grew up in Hawaii but have lived for a long time in western New York, a region which has figured into other books you’ve published (Wild Things, most recently). Would you say that in your books, the setting comes first, the story following?
Jaimee Wriston Colbert: As humans our own stories are inevitably part of the immediate world we are living in, and so too as a writer, setting is never just a backdrop to my characters’ lives—it is as essential to their stories as the air they breathe. I am often inspired by the landscapes I’ve lived in, but as “story” is about characters, when I write about a place I’ve lived in, my stories generally reflect how a community of characters live in a particular landscape. Vanishing Acts is set mainly in the volcano area of the Big Island, Hawai’i island. My grandparents lived there and I spent many years exploring the wildness of such a landscape–they lived just a little above Kilauea Caldera. I still go up there whenever I am back visiting family in Hawai’i. Vanishing Acts, like Wild Things, is eco-fiction, which means it not only features the environmental impact of humans in our natural world, but the effects of climate change on our environment.
Thus in Vanishing Acts, an ongoing drought has rendered the Volcanic rainforest, usually lush, pungent, and dripping with moisture, dried out and brittle in the strange Hawaiian winter heat. From life on a land where the long-erupting volcano contributes splendor, wildness, and a culturally-rich mythology, along with the poisonous sulphuric vogthat blows across the island, killing parts of the native forests, my hope is that the setting of Vanishing Actsis a reminder of the power and beauty of our world, and its deeply imperiled plight under the stresses of climate change.
Vanishing Acts has several diverse points of view—what are the main reasons why you decided to make this a novel with more than one narrator?
From the start I imagined this story being about generational conflict–a family that loved one another, but were so fixated on their own problems and desires that they couldn’t seem to express this love. I literally heard three separate voices in my head: Madge, the grandmother and matriarch, a once powerful, don’t-mess-with-me woman who is losing her ability to function in the real-world due to TIA shower strokes, and lives more in her memories; Gwen, her daughter, who has blown apart her marriage due to an affair, turning to the bottles (wine and Xanax) for comfort; Buddy, Gwen’s brilliant teenage son who had wanted to be an entomologist, but as the novel begins gets caught up in his lust for his mercurial girlfriend, agreeing to run away to Honolulu with her and live with her drug-dealer uncle.
Each of these characters have (or are trying to have) their separate lives, but of course they are a family, each dependent on the other to varying degrees, and toward the end they literally become “the ties that bind.” I felt if I told the story in a sequential manner, with a linear movement forward, but from each of their perspectives, I could explore how such a family functions, and of course dysfunctions!
Gwen and Buddy are both struggling to find their way in the aftermath of Gwen’s decision to move them to Hawai’i. Gwen seems to me an especially good example of a parent who means well but is making a controversial decision by taking her son very far from his father. Would you say that as a writer you’re most interested in the flaws rather than the virtues of your characters?
Janet Burroway said in her classic craft book, Writing Fiction: “In literature only trouble is interesting. It takes trouble to turn the great themes of life into a story: birth, love, sex, work, and death.” I’d say the characters in Vanishing Actsare pretty much involved in all of these! And, I would add, not dealing with them very well.
So yes, as a writer I’ve always been more interested in flawed characters, because for one, they are more representative of our struggles as human beings–most of us want to think of ourselves as basically good, but our various challenges and temptations sometimes make us behave quite badly. It’s this “bad” behavior that is interesting to me as a fiction writer. Once Gwen was in love with her husband, and she still desperately loves her son, but the daily grind, apathy, maybe even falling out of love to some degree overtakes her marriage, and she ends up having an affair. It is this, of course, when discovered by her husband, that completely derails the marriage.
She also has a drinking and pill-popping problem she won’t admit to, and ends up making a spur-of-the-moment decision to flee, back to her homestate, Hawai’i. She just assumes her teenage son would want to be with her, never thinking about what 6,000 miles of forced separation from his dad might do to Buddy. This kind of “trouble” that a well-meaning character causes out of selfishness, really, not thinking from her son’s perspective, can set a plot in motion.
Let the chips fall as they may, so to speak, and it’s where they fall–and how the other characters react, that interests me in fiction. Buddy’s reaction is to run away to Honolulu with his girlfriend, who is bearing her own secrets and selfish intentions–more trouble!–and more plot complications to take the reader on this fictional journey.
Your novel is structured in short chapters and it reads briskly–did you initially choose this structure or were the chapters ever longer?
Ok, here is where I bare my soul! I have published six books of fiction, and this novel, the sixth, was begun before the previous three. Begun, and finished, maybe fifteen times, twenty? It was my problem child book, and at one time it was just Gwen’s story, written in first person; another time it was Buddy’s story, also first person. At one point it had a Hawaiian healer in it, who in subsequent versions became a ghost, and now she is just Kiki, Gwen’s cousin. Instead of a ghost we have Jody Johnstone, Gwen’s dad, a big-wave surfer who believes he has discovered the physics formula to make himself invisible. In fact, he does disappear from Gwen’s life, but not from his chapters in the novel! All of these versions had, along with point-of-view and perspective changes, structural changes. When I finally decided it was all of their stories in equal measure, I came up with the present structure, where the perspective changes from chapter to chapter, but the larger story–the part all of them play in each other’s story, the “ties that bind,” moves forward in a linear structure. Thus some of the chapters are shorter, so the reader hopefully never loses track of ‘what the other guy is doing’ in this generational muddle of dysfunction!
As you noted above, Gwen’s mother’s Madge is living with a deteriorating body and mind, but we nonetheless have access to her thoughts in the sections of Vanishing Actstold from her point of view. How were you able to get so convincingly into her head?
Both my mother and grandmother suffered from dementia in the last decade of their lives, so I have an increased sensitivity toward what that’s like. Madge has a different situation, in that it’s the TIAs causing hers, which lead eventually to a debilitating stroke. But having spent as much time as I did with my mother and grandmother, I had a sense of how Madge’s mind might work. Most dementia sufferers live in their pasts, to some degree, as they lose their short term memories, and Madge has such guilt and regrets over what happened to her husband, along with still working through her anger at his disappearance.
I felt a lot of compassion for her, flawed as she was as a mother to Gwen, and of course Gwen holds a lot of anger over that. Madge is grappling with so many ghosts, and loss, her own mother’s premature death and Jody’s disappearance, along with the communication difficulties she experiences due to the TIAs, that I felt I owed it to her to get her right. And her husband, the love of her life, will always love the ghost of the girl he met at a Blue Cheer concert more. Madge doesn’t know this, but I do, and feel the weight of that sadness, how arbitrary and unfair love can be. Not to mention she had a pretty lively past, go-go dancing in bars for one, so it was fun to be in her head at times!
What were the books (or films? or artwork?) that influenced you most while you were writing Vanishing Acts? Buddy’s girlfriend/tormentor-in-chief Marnie Lo, for example, is, to my lights, a good example of a femme fatale, despite her youth.
Oh dear, I’ll get an F for this question, I’m afraid. Because I started Vanishing Actsthree books ago, and am a voracious reader/film watcher, I’m afraid I would never remember if there was a particular book or film that may have influenced me, nothing comes to mind anyway. I’ve read and seen too many. I do have a print of a painting of Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, done by Howard Hitchcock, a distant relative and a one-time renown artist. I think of it quite a bit when depicting Pele, her beauty, power, and mystery emanate from it. You mentioned Marnie, but rather than being inspired from a book or movie, Marnie is the “tough girl” I secretly admired and wanted to be when I was growing up. Manipulative, of course, but she calls her own shots despite her damaged background–probably my polar opposite when I was in school!
Houdini’s spirit informs the title and infuses this novel’s narrative arc, as do ghosts and the legendarily vengeful Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele–would you say the concept of magic, i.e. illusionists and their trade as well as the spirit world, have always intrigued you?
Yes, yes, and yes! In Vanishing Acts’ original drafts, as I mentioned previously, I had both a Hawaiian healer with spiritual powers and a ghost, a “real” talking ghost who counseled Gwen. I would show it to people and somehow the consensus was that the healer was “boring,” and the ghost unbelievable. Then I put VA down, wrote other books, and when I came back to this one I decided to get my magic fix from the source, Houdini! And because I love obsessive characters, Jody’s obsession with Houdini ended up informing the book, and making Jody a principal player at the end.
Hawai’i is a very spiritual place, and most of us who grew up there have ghost tales we can tell, and have experienced. Some of the ones I used in Vanishing Actsare classic, such as the Night Marchers. Almost everyone born or raised in Hawai’i has something to say about them; you really don’t want to mess with them. I was taught about Pele from my own family at an early age, and my elderly aunt will still regale you with tales about her, how she picked Pele up one night hitchhiking on the side of Volcano road. The land, history, and Hawaiian culture are magic.
As I see it, this novel is ultimately a redemption story, but also unequivocally about loss, family turmoil, and loneliness–are these the themes you consider your writerly touchstones?
I guess they must be, as I do seem to write about dysfunctional families a lot! There is something about the family unit that challenges me as a writer–the bonds between characters fraught with emotion, history, the baggage we lug about, and yet ultimately there is always that chance for forgiveness, redemption. The other thing this book brings up though, which more and more seems to be at the forefront of my writing, is living in nature, an embattled nature, stresses caused by climate change.
Hawai’i is a unique and beautiful land, with its own ecosystem, where so many species have disappeared or are threatened. I describe the drought in Volcano, and of course the monarch butterfly is used symbolically throughout the novel. While not native to Hawai’i, these beautiful creatures are becoming endangered worldwide. So I guess that’s my other touchstone as a writer, the very land we live on, our environment, how we are all connected.
What was something you learned while writing this novel that you continue to think about often?
The physics of waves! I wasn’t a great surfer growing up (though I was a fearless body surfer), but it was kind of expected when you’re a teenager on Oahu. I took out my board upon occasion, and managed my three seconds of standing up. I liked the ritual better than the reality–strapping it to my mom’s Falcon station wagon, waxing it, strutting with it into the water wearing my bikini and a decent tan (I’m paying for that tan now, you won’t catch me out there without a hat and sunblock!). But I did have a big wave surfer boyfriend, and wow they are a crazy lot.
Extreme sports do seem a little nuts to more timid folks such as myself. So to pull off Jody’s obsession with surfing, and his own belief that with the right speed, fetch and wind velocity, there was a certain forty foot monster wave one could surf into invisibility, I had to read up on the science of waves, and figure out a physics formula of sorts that would make this seem plausible–at least to Jody! I love science, up until the part where you have to use math, so this was both vexing and fascinating, and perhaps my favorite part of the novel is when Jody paddles out to take those monster waves. I was right there in the lip of one with him, the closest I’ll ever get to those things!
Lastly, what are you working on now?
Another novel, and this one is a departure for me, as it has an historical component, 1850s on the Isle of Skye. It’s about the Clearances, a shipwreck, and the contemporary descendants living in coastal Massachusetts. It’s also about climate change, drowning, heroin addiction, and a women’s prison! Of course there’s a turbulent family drama, and a magical element, which I won’t spoil the surprise about quite yet. In other words, let’s see if I can pull it off!
Jaimee Wriston Colbert is the author of six books of fiction: Vanishing Acts,her new novel; Wild Things, linked stories, winner of the CNY 2017 Book Award in Fiction, finalist for the American Book Fest Best Books of 2017, and longlisted for the Chautauqua Prize; the novel Shark Girls, finalist for the USABookNews Best Books of 2010 and ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year; Dream Lives of Butterflies, winner of the IPPY Gold Medal Award for story collections; Climbing the God Tree, winner of the Willa Cather Fiction Prize, and Sex, Salvation, and the Automobile, winner of the Zephyr Prize. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including The Gettysburg Review, New Letters, and Prairie Schooner, and broadcast on“Selected Shorts.” She was the 2012 recipient of the Ian MacMillan Fiction Prize for “Things Blow Up,” a story in Wild Things. Other stories won the Jane’s Stories Award and the IsotopeEditor’s Fiction Prize. She is Professor of Creative Writing at SUNY, Binghamton University.
[…] Jaimee Wriston Colbert (ep. 99) won a 2018 International Book Award in Fiction for his story collection, Wild Things. His new novel, Vanishing Acts, was a finalist for The American Fiction Prize in Family Saga, and an Indie Excellence Best book Award in Literary Fiction, and you can read about it here. […]