Novelist and teacher Janette Turner Hospital was born in Queensland, Australia and has lived in Canada, France and India. She previously has published six novels (Oyster, The Last Magician, Charades, Borderline, Tiger in the Pit, The Ivory Swing) and three story collections (Isobars, Dislocations and Collected Stories). She has won numerous awards, and her work has been translated into twelve languages. Her new novel, Due Preparations for the Plague, has already won the Queensland Premier’s Award for Fiction–the first of this year’s big Australian literary awards. Janette Turner Hospital is currently the Professor and Distinguished Writer in Residence at the University of South Carolina.
The publisher of Due Preparations or the Plague refers to it as an "elegant literary thriller," which as you will read below is a description she eschews. The story follows two people who don’t know each other as they respond the aftermath of the death of one of their parents—Lowell, his mother, and Samantha, her father, in an airline hijacking. And then Lowell’s father, a long-time intelligence field operative, dies under mysterious circumstances, and Lowell joins Samantha’s obsessive search for answers to the central explosive event of their lives. Within this context, Hospital presents a haunting section that refers to Boccacio’s Decameron in a very original and poignant way—prompted by her viewing a documentary on the WW II London Blitzkrieg and the images of huddled, gas-mask-wearing people in underground shelters.
Robert Birnbaum: What caused your turn from being a medievalist to writing fiction?
Janette Turner Hospital: A dearth of options. I had multiple career disjunctions. I was a high school teacher in Australia, and then I married, and my husband was awarded a fellowship to do his doctorate at Harvard. So we came here [Cambridge] in ’67. My qualifications were not accepted to teach high school here. Every time you move countries, your qualifications are not accepted, and you have to start from scratch again. So I became a librarian at Harvard and got half way through a library science degree at Simmons, and then we moved again. Then I did my graduate work in medieval literature when he was teaching.
RB: You moved to where?
JTH: Kingston, Ontario. One of Canada’s top three universities, Queen’s is there—which is where I did my graduate work. Then we went off to a village in Southern India, on sabbatical.
RB: Why India?
JTH: My husband’s research.
RB: He was doing research in Sanskrit?
JTH: Sanskrit is a dead language except that it is spoken by the temple pundits and Brahmins. So we had to acquire another language, Malayalam. We were in the state of Kerala, a little strip down the southwest coast.
RB: Near Goa?
JTH: Goa is on the Southwest coast, but it’s not in the state of Kerala, which is further south. Goa is its own little world.
RB: So people say.
JTH: Yeah, so my husband was doing research on the temple in Trivandrum on the iconography of the temple. Which is fascinating but I’m sure you don’t want to digress into that.
RB: Perhaps another time.
JTH: Except that I have to say it’s so interesting because they have images on the side of the temple of Vishnu and Krishna and Marx and Lenin. All up there, a pretty interesting combination. The communists in Kerala go and make puja at the temple when they want a good election outcome.
RB: What’s puja?
JTH: It’s an offering of gifts to the gods.
RB: Okay, so now you are in India…
JTH: I wrote a short story, tapped out on a little portable manual typewriter that was subsequently stolen, and mailed it back to the Atlantic and it was an Atlantic First. So that got me started.
RB: What year was this?
JTH: I mailed it back in ’77 and it was an Atlantic First in March of ’78.
RB: Want to venture a guess whether somebody could do that today?
JTH: The chances then were slim. The only thing I had going for me was I was too innocent to know what the odds against it were. I subsequently came to know Michael Curtis, who told me that they received several hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts per week. I just knew nothing about the literary world.
RB: Did you send your story anywhere else?
JTH: The year preceding that, when I was ostensibly writing my Ph.D., I had begun writing short stories, and I knew no better than to keep sending them to the Atlantic and the New Yorker.
JTH: I didn’t even have a Writer’s Manual. I looked up the fine print on their mastheads.
RB: So I guess we can say things have changed.
JTH: The odds against it were very high then. I think I was protected by my innocence.
RB: Beautiful. Have you sustained it [innocence]?
JTH: [chuckles] Blind optimism is what every writer has to have to keep going because the odds are not good —it’s good to have a working spouse with an income.
RB: To look at your biography, you were born in Australia, lived in Canada and the US and another English-speaking country, India. So big deal—it’s all pretty much the same. But it isn’t, is it?
JTH: No, it’s hugely different, and I always felt that moving from Harvard Square in the ’60s to Kingston, Ontario was a bigger culture shock than moving from there to a village in Southern India where you expected difference. In a way culture shock has a more disorienting impact when you are not expecting a new place to be different and when no else is expecting you to be having adjustment problems. I thought I would go mad my first five years in a little college town [In Canada].
RB: Up until recently Canada seemed to be just another part of the US. People rarely look at English-speaking places as having significantly different cultures.
JTH: Canada has always resented the fact that it is regarded that way. When you move from country to country the biggest hassles are bureaucratic ones. And getting your credentials recognized. Nobody recognizes anybody else’s.
RB: Yeah, I moved from Massachusetts to New Hampshire….
JTH: Bureaucracy can drive you nuts anywhere.
RB: Bureaucracy is its own country.
JTH: Kafka wrote the novel on that topic for all time. The Castle and The Trial, both of them.
RB: What adjustments did you have to make in moving to Columbia, South Carolina?
JTH: Well, huge adjustments: but in another curious way, it feels like a displaced homecoming to me. I joke in South Carolina that I grew up in the state except it was in Australia. The state of Queensland, which is my home in Australia, has many, many similarities to South Carolina —climatic ones, a feudal political system. The premier of Queensland for thirty years, Joh Bjelke Pterson, is a carbon copy of Strom Thurmond. They governed their states as though they were little feudal fiefdoms, and their administrations were corrupt as hell, and all their buddies get all the perks. It’s still like that in South Carolina. It is beginning to change.
RB: Yeah, the patriarchs die [laughs]. Although in a feudal system it may not matter.
JTH: No it doesn’t because Strom’s son is US Attorney, the state’s top federal prosecutor. He received the appointment when he was only two years out of Law School, and he certainly did not distinguish himself as a student. One of the SC’s top political scientists was quoted as saying that his appointment was the equivalent of having a recent Medical School graduate perform open-heart surgery. Both the state of Queensland and the state of South Carolina have a bad history of race relations. But we didn’t have a civil war in Queensland. That has been the biggest and most fascinating thing. I knew zilch about the Civil War before I went to the South. And all of the seven years that I spent in Boston, maybe it came up in conversation twice. Now I’d been told that it would seem, as the Civil War has not yet ended. I thought that was exaggeration or poetic license. It really is like that. You can’t go to a social event without it coming up in discussion. It’s an obsession. It’s a cult. It’s a mythic rite. It’s a whole ethos about the South. It’s weird, but it’s fascinating to me, and writers like to live in fascinating places.
RB: What is in it for people to sustain this mythology?
JTH: This may seem like a non sequitur, but it’s like Samantha in Due Preparations for the Plague. If something has impinged massively and tragically in your life, there are two ways of dealing with it. One is Lowell’s way within the novel: repression, and the other is obsessive preoccupation with the event, which is Samantha’s way. Losing the War of Secession is clearly a big wound in the South’s psyche, to have lost that war and to have lost it on Southern soil. It was Southern fields that were burned. That’s something I have come very aware of since I have been here in the South. 90% of the people who fought in that war were not slave owners. They were poor farmers who were scrabbling and living on the soil. From their point of view the Northerners came down and burnt their crops and put their families at risk.
RB: Why weren’t they angry at the land-owning patricians?
JTH: Yeah, that’s where I learned there was a mixture of truth and an incredible degree of denial when the South says all the time that the war was not about slavery. On one level, that’s totally ridiculous because it was precisely about extending the right to own slaves to the new states. In another sense, for most of the people who fought, it was not about slavery. It was about saving their crops and their houses. So I’ve inevitably become interested in the Civil War. But what I am interested in is its ongoing intense psychological effects in the South. It was very interesting to be in the South at 9/11. For most Americans it was the first time that the psychic shield of American invulnerability was shaken. I kept hearing on the talk shows that people felt personally unsafe. In the South, that’s the only part of America that never had that sense of invulnerability. It’s always felt and still feels the underdog threatened without the right of hitting back. It’s only partially accurate, but it’s a very strong feeling in the South. I don’t know how, but it is going to inform my writing. I never know how things show up in my work, but sooner or later everything does.
RB: Will you be developing a drawl? [both laugh] Of course, there is a seemingly never-ending question about Southern writing, part of which claims that strong story-telling tradition, as if there isn’t such a thing elsewhere…
JTH: It is a stronger tradition in the South. Take the difference between the North and the South in the matter of dinner parties, for instance. Dinner parties in Boston were lively debate sessions about politics and ideas. In the South, there is this Old World manner/courtesy thing that people will not get into heated discussions. They don’t discuss politics at social events or dinner parties. What they do is tell these family anecdotes. So storytelling, in that old Dickensian 19th century way, is still a living social thing in the South. These tales tend to get tall and elaborated.
RB: Is it possible also that it’s a result of southerners staying closer to home?
JTH: They do stay closer to home.
RB: Which suggests that they are more in contact with their families.
JTH: They are very family oriented. If they move they come back. An interesting example is Allan Gurganus. Who is from North Carolina, gay and has every reason to leave the South—he lived in NYC for many years. He is back in North Carolina and is quite passionate about the South, though he has New York liberal kind of views. He wrote this wonderful op-ed piece (June 8, 2003) about the Atlanta bomber with this wonderful sentence that so captures the paradox of the South, "Manners are important in the South, even to our bombers."
RB: I thought that was a brilliant piece, and it was interesting to compare the Eric Rudolph story to the Unabomber—earlier this year I had read Alston Chase‘s book on Ted Kaczynski. People apparently helped and hid Rudolph.
JTH: It’s still that Southern psyche. Protecting him from those Federal Yankee Northerners, "We protect our own."
RB: Do you notice a difference between North and South Carolina?
JTH: I haven’t been in North Carolina enough to form an opinion.
RB: Have you noticed that there are many writers
in North Carolina and not as many in South Carolina?
JTH: I have picked up the South Carolina view on this issue. Which is that they are the aristocrats and the North Carolinians are the plebes. They call them tarheels. Virginia and South Carolina are the two aristocratic, southern states and they jockey for supremacy between themselves. South Carolina is pretty miffed that Virginia claims itself as the heart of the Confederacy when in fact South Carolinians know that is in South Carolina.
RB: Hmm, Robert E Lee and the Lees?
JTH: He kidnapped the Confederacy. South Carolina was the first state to secede, and the first shot of the Civil War was fired there though of course Robert E. is much revered in South Carolina, as everywhere in the south.
JTH: There are many other fine South Carolinian writers: Josephine Humphries, Ron Rash, Carrie Allen McCray, Rosa Shand, Cynthia Boiter, Sue Monk Kidd, and Pat Conroy, among others. But Percival Everett is brilliant. Quite Swiftian, I think. A savage but brilliantly intellectual, satirical mind.
RB: Which seems to be amplified coming from someone so mild-mannered and unassuming.
JTH: He reminds me of a couple of other people that I have gotten to know well and admire hugely —other African-Americans born and bred and still in South Carolina. One is Judge Matthew Perry, who is a US District Court Judge. He was the lawyer for the student who integrated USC. He himself came back as a decorated war hero from Korea but was not allowed to study law at USC. That is how recent desegregation was. It’s really a shock. USC was not integrated until until 1963. I asked Matthew Perry once—he had told stories about coming back from Korea and the black soldiers were not allowed to eat in the same place as the white soldiers from South Carolina—"What did you do about the anger? You must have been mad as hell not to be allowed to these things?" He said, "I had a very good mentor in Thurgood Marshall, who always said to all the young lawyers, ‘Lose your head, lose the case.’ You couldn’t afford anger as a strategy." Cleveland Sellars is another example. He is now head of African-American Studies at USC. He has published an autobiography: The River of No Return. He was one of the founders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and was student leader of a peaceful protest that came to be known in South Carolina as the Orangeburg Massacre. State troopers shot and killed three of the students and Cleveland was shot in the back of the leg and spent a year in jail as a felon, charged with conspiracy to commit violence. He subsequently got a Ph.D. at Harvard in education, but could not teach in South Carolina because of his "criminal record." It wasn’t until Rhett Jackson, founder of the Happy Bookseller (a superb independent bookstore), who was on the parole board, made a huge and successful effort to get a pardon for Cleveland, that he was able to be hired by USC. I asked Cleveland that same question, "How did you deal with anger?" His answer was: "I knew that the anger would destroy me. That it would corrode me. So I never wanted to find out which policemen had shot me because I knew I would become obsessive about it. I didn’t want that. I wanted my energy for other things."
RB: I’ve heard similar stories about victims of oppression in Nicaragua and Argentina….
JTH: It’s an awareness that anger is going to destroy them, not that they don’t have the right to feel it. I don’t know if I could do that. It’s an incredibly mature place to be able to get to. You can assent to that intellectually, but it’s not so easy to make anger disappear.
RB: Well, okay. So you’ve written another book?
JTH: [laughs] Are we going to discuss it?
RB: Sure. I saw your novel Due Preparations for the Plague referred to as a thriller.
JTH: That’s a publisher’s marketing term. The only reason it’s being called a thriller is because of the horrific accident of its topicality due to 9/11. That it happens to be about something that is a gut issue for us. Of course, I had no way of knowing that was going to happen when I was writing the book.
RB: You have compared terrorism to the Plague?
JTH: It seems to me a very apt metaphor. As was the case with the Black Death, one cannot ultimately protect oneself from attack. No matter what precautions you take, extra airport security, extra visa requirements for people, not letting travelers leave transit lounges, ultimately there is not any way to protect yourself. A determined terrorist or suicide bomber will get around all those things. As with the plague, too, for different reasons. In medieval times people didn’t know what caused the plague or how to protect themselves.
RB: Well, there was The Devil.
JTH: Right, that’s another interesting parallel in both cases there is an overwhelming need to find a cause because that would give you a sense of control. The two causes that came up most frequently in the Middle Ages and again in the 18th century with fresh outbreaks were either it was God or the Devil. Or God punishing people for sinful lives. If everyone would just get his or her lives right with God again then the plague would vanish. The other cause was the Jews poisoning the wells. So a few Jewish pogroms would make people feel they were getting a handle on the plague. The fact that there was not the slightest evidence that a pogrom against the Jews lessened the spread of the plague didn’t matter. Blaming the Jews made people feel safer. There are inescapable parallels with the current administration linking Iraq to 9/11. There’s been no evidence of that, but blaming Iraq made people feel safer, made them feel as though something was being done to control terrorism.
RB: Do you think many people worry about being attacked now? Is that ‘top of mind’, that inelegant marketing phrase?
JTH: Right after Sept 11 a lot of people worried daily for a time and then we went back into our normal state of denial which means that terrorism happens to other people, not to us. It does affect people who are flying. It sure would affect me if I lived in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.
RB: Suicide bombing is a plague.
JTH: Yeah and in the same way there is no way to protect yourself from it. Which is how the plague felt to medieval Europe. But it’s true that on the whole we can’t live functioning lives without living in massive states of denial. It’s same with cars. The statistics for car deaths are pretty big, but we all get into our cars everyday and believe that accidents happen to other people, not to us. And unless we have that state of magic denial we couldn’t function.
RB: You certainly carry off the thriller part of this story, but there is more to the novel.
JTH: I’m not sure that it’s an asset to have the marketing people describe it that way. People who are looking for thrillers have a very formulaic pattern like thing they are looking for—and my novel is going to annoy them because it has all sorts of things that they are going to find extraneous to the thriller. There is a niche category that John Le Carre has made his own which publishers and reviewers now tend toward calling and people tend to be thinking of now as the literary thriller category. I certainly love Le Carre’s work and would consider it an honor to be lumped in with him, but I think of him simply as a fine literary writer whose topic happens to be what he knows about because he was a spy. And similarly this book is an accidental thriller— in that what I am interested in is the inner lives of people long after disaster has hit them. And also—I didn’t start out planning to do this in the novel— trying to imagine the inner life of someone who was an intelligence agent.
RB: That’s scary, isn’t it? Talk about a hall of mirrors.
JTH: It’s only a thriller because it is about these topical things. And yes it is scary…the more I thought about it and tried to imagine this character, the more I though what a dreadful life this must be.
RB: Why choose such a life?
JTH: People enter that world because they are highly trained and highly intelligent and go in out of idealism—we have a way of life and a system of government that needs to be preserved. And someone has to be in intelligence work to know who is planning to attack it. So you go in with idealism, but it is the nature of the task that it requires all kinds of decisions of short-term expediency, which can get very murky. Also the great paradox at the heart of all intelligence services—I never thought about it until this novel—I went back and I read about Napoleon’s secret service. I realized that the paradox at the heart of all secret services is that the better you train an agent, the less he is going to trust anybody including his colleagues. That’s exactly what is happening now. The FBI doesn’t trust the CIA doesn’t trust the NSA. Information is not shared because nobody trusts anyone else. So intelligence agencies are programmed to self-destruct. I don’t know any way around that paradox. It must be hell to be in that world. It must make havoc of the private lives.
RB: I thought you might mention the compromise on values of decency and honor versus expediency…intelligence work ends up—if it all resembles the fictional portrayals— you end murdering and lying and cheating…
JTH: Initially in the early stages of creating Salamander, the character in this novel, I thought that intelligence agents must be very cold blooded. They must be able to disassociate themselves from the consequences of their actions. But it isn’t possible for a novelist (for me) to create a character like that—not if you try to get inside them. The ones that are cold blooded like Sirocco. I couldn’t get inside…
RB: You said ‘sirocco’? [a brief discussion of the pronunciation ensues]
JTH: Because I could not fathom, it is a great enigma to me—evil. I can’t do those characters from the inside. So they do remain distant. When I try to really imagine Salamander I imagine him as increasingly tortured and anguished and unraveling, falling apart at the seams, going mad.
RB: When we talked about the Southerner sense of vulnerability and the American attitude of invincibility I thought of Gil Scott Heron’s song "Military and The Monetary" [and his poem entitled Work for Peace] where he says, “Peace is not the absence of war, it is the absence of the rules of war….” After Sept 11, 2001 people claimed to feel vulnerable and I thought, "Are they kidding? That’s wrong (or wrong if they thought about it)." I don’t remember a time in my lifetime that there wasn’t conflict in the world and that given the so-called objective realities, was not threatening to America and this notion of peace. There seems to be this amnesia about the Cold war and fall out shelters and training school kids to "Duck and cover" and the Cuban Missile Crisis…
JTH: But they didn’t happen. And disaster hadn’t happened on to American soil before 9/11. If you grew up in Europe—this is one of the things I felt having lived in India where people are dying in the streets all the time, most of the world throughout history and even in the present has never had that sense of invulnerability that the Americans have had—and only non-Southern Americans. But most people throughout human history have not had that sense of safety.
RB: We can agree that it’s a sensibility whether or not it has any basis in fact. I would say it is an act of denial. Sure, Chicago has never been attacked. But when I grew up in Chicago in the Cold War years and I remember the air read drills and the propaganda—my sense of it was that it scared people…
JTH: Wouldn’t you have experienced that anxiety because of your family history?
RB: Well, sure. That also explains my left leanings and my identification with threatened and marginalized peoples. But must one have direct and original experience to have insights into past and present history?
JTH: That shouldn’t be so. But it is simply my observation that the average American life—even the Iraq war, hasn’t affected most people closely unless you are obsessively glued to TV or you had a son [or daughter] over there. Most people can ignore that it’s going on. The sad truth is that people’s capacity for empathy or for really seeing the full implications is minimal. Unless they’ve had personal experience….
RB: ‘People’ meaning Americans? Is that true of Australians and Canadians?
JTH: It’s true for everyone. I would say that the talent for self-protection and indifference is universal. But America has been more insulated from direct experience with the effects of war than most nations. In Australia, World War II came a lot closer. Darwin was bombed, and submarines were in Sydney harbor, and the Japanese were in New Guinea. And most kids I went to school with had a father or an uncle who’d been a prisoner of the Japanese—it felt close to Australian shores and an invasion was planned and if the war hadn’t ended when it did things could have gone badly for Australia.
RB: How about engagement with the realities of the rest of the world. Is it your sense that Australians are as disengaged from world issues as Americans seems to be?
JTH: Yeah, most.
RB: Canadians also?
JTH: Canadian always believed… they are the major peacekeeping force for the UN. They never had a revolution. They believe things can be done without violence and there is very little violence in Canadian history. Australians on the whole are laid back and disengaged although their equivalent of the World Trade Center was the Bali bombing. And that shook Australians badly, because Australians go to Bali for vacation the way Americans go to Florida or the Caribbean. But on the whole, yeah. The most common expression in Australia is either, "She’ll be right mate” or "No worries, mate."
RB: Not quite "Whatever." Your intent in Due Preparations was to put a microscope on a society under perennial stress?
JTH: No that wasn’t my intent. It was to do a modern Decameron. I was interested in what would happen if a group of people for whom all the signifiers of race and gender were elided —how would they interact with each other—my initial conception was that the novel was going to be just that. The captive scene, that’s the Decameron section.
RB: That was horrific.
JTH: I tried to show how people would make wildly erroneous judgments about other people based on who they thought they were. I just couldn’t figure out how to do it successfully without tying myself and the reader in knots.
RB: So the novel expanded outward from that.
JTH: I hadn’t begun writing it yet before the
initial intention began to change. I spent a lot of time thinking
about it. The kernel of the thought was that. I didn’t have any
intentions other than wanting to explore how the obliteration of
individual identity (from the wearing of gas masks would affect
the way people interacted). When I had to think of the practicalities
of why they might all be wearing gas masks — that’s where
the idea of a hijacked plane came up— then I started exploring
these other lines of thought. That led me into researching terrorism
and espionage. A novel grows so mysteriously and sometimes it is
hard for me to retrace the steps and detours and how it all came
about. When I really discovered what it was going to be about I
guess the main themes were how people negotiate massive trauma.
That’s something I have always been interested in all my work. And
I found myself exploring the two extremes of the methods of coping:
obsessive preoccupation (which is Samantha’s way) and complete denial
(which is Lowell’s way) and various stages in between. And somewhere
along the way, I found that I became fascinated by a topic that
initially I had no interest in at all—why intelligence agencies
always seem to sabotage themselves because of this central paradox
of the need to trust no one.
RB: If the operatives are good they can’t trust each other, trust anyone.
JTH: Right. According to historians I read, that’s what finally did Napoleon in. He had the most highly trained secret service in the world up to that point. People would not convey the knowledge to him that would have saved him. That issue slowly evolved as an interest on the way. The other thing was—this did come post Sept 11, in the final section of the book— what would happen in this society if a massive cover-up were revealed? And this I am writing against the backdrop of Enron, Haliburton and all the stuff that has come out about the FBI and the CIA post 9/11 and it seemed to me that some spin doctor would construe the whole thing as a hoax.
RB: Disregarding what the starting point was and the pathway, how do you gauge whether you satisfied your intentions?
JTH: That happens in the writing. I just wouldn’t finish it if there weren’t some inner click. I didn’t know this is what I was writing about but I’ve got it. And, in fact, I did come to a standstill a couple of times before the work came to a complete standstill for a month after Sept 11. Yeah, it turned out to be what it’s about and this is the best way I could do it up to that point. I never feel very happy afterwards with my novels, if I look at them again.
RB: Do you?
JTH: I don’t reread them, no. Sometimes when I am asked to do reading and I go back, I think, “Oh no that wasn’t right.” That’s what lures you in to the next book. You might get it right.
RB: How bad a feeling is that? [laughs]
JTH: It’s like a pleasant addiction.
RB: I’m not asking about what moves you to write the next book. I’m asking about the…
JTH: It’s a very unpleasant feeling.
RB: You don’t let yourself off the hook at all, "Saying you did the best you could do at the time."
JTH: Intellectually I can assent to that. But when you look at sections again and you wish you could edit them or do them over, you think, "Oh My God! It’s out there forever." That’s hubris for you.
RB: As a medievalist you assume it’s going to be out there forever.
JTH: I really don’t assume that. I know books don’t have a very long life span. On the other hand, it only takes one copy of a book to survive… like the Library at Alexandria, once they’re out there in people’s minds and on the record. And you think, "If only I could recall it, fine tune it…"
RB: How much editing advice do you take?
JTH: It depends on the editor. I have actually been blessed always with editors who are both tough and very smart and very in tune with the writing. My first four books the editor was someone who grew up in New York but who had moved to Toronto, Ellen Seligman. And she was very, very good and would be tough, and if I got my back up and said huffily, "You haven’t understood what I am doing" —the usual defense mechanism of writers. She would say, "That’s fine it’s your book. If I have this reaction probably some reviewers will. But if you are quite clear in your mind that this is what you want to do and that won’t bother you." Then I would go and think about it a couple more days….
RB: [laughs] Would a male editor have handled you that way?
JTH: Have put it in that diplomatic way? Probably not. The editing process is very valuable. And an author ignores it at his or her peril. It’s the first cold pair of eyes reading your manuscript. By the time you are finished you have been living with the damn thing for so long that you are married to it. You can’t tell any longer. Your reading of what is on the page is contaminated by all your prior thinking and prior drafts. It’s good to be challenged and told, "Okay, that was your intention but that is not what I am getting here." I resisted something on this one and I was right to resist though I was nervous. Right from the start I have had dual or triple editing and it taught me to be a wonderful diplomat.
RB: Meaning being edited in Australia and the US?
JTH: Simultaneously in several countries and sometimes the different editors disagree also and you are treading on eggshells trying negotiate to get one final version. Christopher Potter, a brilliant British editor, and Jill [Bialosky at WW Norton] both were pressuring me to not have ten hostages. They didn’t want the ones that the reader didn’t already know as characters in the book. I said, "Look, this is a Decameron. Right from the start in my mind, the very moment of the conception of this novel, there were going to be ten people wearing gas masks. If I change that it’s not my book anymore." My editors were afraid that it was too many talking heads. So I did shave it down—some of those monologues were originally longer. But I wouldn’t yield on that point. The Decameron section was difficult to write. It is so much easier to write anguished frenzy than it is to write this radiant calm. I was really petrified that the hostage section would be seen as sentimental or as sugarcoating the horror. That was my main fear because that would be anathema to any literary novelist, and this was the section that I was writing when 9/11 happened. 9/11 changed the tone of the bunker scene. I recast the scene from one of anguish to one of almost ethereal calm because I felt I had to honor the tone of those final cell-phone calls from the top floors of the Twin Towers and from the doomed planes. The transcripts of those calls amazed me and moved me profoundly.
RB: It never occurred to me that there were various English-language versions. It’s not acceptable to have an Australian edition and an American edition?
JTH: Well, it’s complicated. It’s preferable to try to get one final version. They usually do make little changes. Anyway, I was apprehensive about the Decameron section. The reviewers seem to be agreeing with me.
RB: I have seen you quoted as saying your favorite authors are pre-Enlightenment. Are there contemporary writers that you like nearly as much?
JTH: Oh heck yes. Let’s start with two dead American authors. Henry James and Faulkner, I adore. And of living ones, I think Joyce Carol Oates is amazing.
RB: She has been accused of writing too much.
JTH: I’ve accused her. It’s so damn intimidating. But she’s brilliant. I think Percival Everett is fantastic. I just read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, which I thought, was great.
RB: Are you obliged to read a lot of contemporary writing?
JTH: That’s funny way to put it. I want to.
RB: There are people who are put off by contemporary American fiction, complaining that it is too writing school, writing for other writers.
JTH: Well, a lot of it is rather tedious and self-indulgent. But there is also some very exciting contemporary writing going on. I do always make my graduate students read non-American fiction. Because I do think the confines of current American fiction are really narrow. I have them read Kenzbro Oe, Alessandro Barricco, the Italian, and also French novelists. Just really to say, the novel is anything that novelists have made it. And this is something I reproach my graduate students with—students in France, even undergraduate students are far more familiar with contemporary American literature and with other European literatures than American students are with anything outside America. It’s a consequence of being so huge as a culture and dominating publishing.
RB: Well that’s a generous interpretation. There is also xenophobia. The other side of the invincibility.
JTH: It’s a shame. Americans are short-changing themselves.