Maximum Bob: An E-Mail Conversation with Bob Shacochis
By Askold MelnyczukSeptember 2, 2013
IN THE WOMAN WHO LOST HER SOUL, Bob Shacochis succeeds in giving us a love story, a thriller, a family saga, a historical novel, and a political analysis of America’s tragic misadventures abroad. The novel yokes the narrative drive of the best Graham Greene and le Carré to the rhetorical force and moral rigor of Faulkner.
It’s a love story about a sincere special ops guy named Eville (that’s right) and a mysterious photographer named Jackie, and it’s a family tragedy about a twisted father-daughter relationship. It’s also an excursion through the swampy backwaters of history, of the way the Second World War morphed into the Cold War, which rolled neatly into the war on terror, which may yet lead us to another cold war, and who knows how that will end?
Shachochis’s fully imagined, rich-blooded characters are swept along by forces beyond their control, surrendering their bodies and souls to an ideology fueled by a personal animus they never understand. We see up close how the violent clashes of 20th century political and economic systems are stoked by individuals with very personal agendas and skin in the game. One way or another, they’ve succeeded in persuading a lot of the world that their nightmares should also be ours. The rest of us are just along for the ride, but unfortunately, this train has no scheduled stops. Its destination remains a mystery, even to, maybe especially to, the conductor.
With a vision at once bitingly realistic and sweepingly romantic, Bob Shacochis has written what may well be the last Great American Novel. What other American writer has put as much heart into his creations, as much drive, as much history?
Bob Shacochis has published two books of stories, Easy in the Islands (which received the National Book Award for First Fiction) and The Next New World. His novel, Swimming in the Volcano, was a finalist for the National Book Award. He’s published a book of essays, Domesticity, and has worked as a journalist and war correspondent for Harpers and many other journals. His celebrated non-fiction account of the 1994 US intervention in Haiti, The Immaculate Invasion, has been compared Michael Herr’s Vietnam-era classic, Dispatches. The Woman Who Lost Her Soul publishes on September 3, 2013.
ASKOLD MELNYCZUK: Given the palpable excitement of the prepublication reviews of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, I wonder if you’d say something about the book’s journey to its present 600+ page incarnation. I read somewhere that it was going to appear in 2008. In an earlier interview you’d said your next novel would be set in Cuba and would be titled Liberty. Where did the present title come from?
BOB SHACOCHIS: Liberty was meant to be the third book in a trilogy that began with my first novel, Swimming in the Volcano, and then proceeded to a middle novel entitled The Magnificence of Everything that Burns. That novel, The Magnificence, had been under contract since 1994 or 1995. I worked on it until 2000, producing hundreds of pages, but I could never find the voice of the book. The prose sounded like bad Jonathan Franzen, a bit too sit-comish. But when I left Viking Penguin, it was still that novel I was taking with me, trying to shop. Rewriting its prologue and first chapter, I did finally find the voice I was looking for, and that was the book Morgan Entrekin bought to bring me over to Grove Atlantic.
Simultaneously, the voice of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul appeared out of the blue, ready-made, it seemed, and I began moving ahead with that manuscript and became obsessed with its characters. This was in 2002. After a few years, when it came time to show Morgan that I really was working on a novel and really was making some progress, I told him I’m sending you 250 pages but they’re not from the novel you thought you contracted from me, they’re from a new novel called The Woman Who Lost Her Soul. I mailed him the pages and held my breath. He responded enthusiastically, and so I carried on for another six years and 700 pages. The final draft of the manuscript was around 950.
Those are the cold facts and not especially interesting, I suppose, except to the serious bio-wonk. What is worth noting, perhaps, is the fact that each of my novels took me ten years to write. I forget who said this, but some writer said we inhale experience and exhale literature. And some exhalations are haikus, and some are sonnets, and some short stories and novellas, and some are conventional novels, and some, like mine, are doorstops. You’re not entirely in control of what you exhale or its form, and my exhalations as a novelist seem to come in ten-year spans. On the other hand, in the decade of writing The Woman, I kept a log — a time log — of when I wrote and when conditions in my life made it impossible to write. Adding up the entries, the aggregate of the time I spent writing the book was four years. The point being — Life happens.
Now I’m back to writing the novel that Morgan originally thought he was getting, The Magnificence of Everything that Burns, which is set primarily in Argentina and Cuba. I don’t know if the idea of a trilogy holds water anymore, but the intent — this has always been my intent — was to create a body of fiction that dramatized 30 or 40 years of American foreign policy. It just seemed to me that the literature of the most powerful empire in history needed a few literary writers to attempt the material in a dedicated manner.
America’s actions and decisions impact every single person on the face of the earth, as you know. And yet the shelf of books by American writers addressing the dynamics of our influence on the world has been puzzling in its spareness. I used to think that was true because we were not quite fucked up enough to produce writers with these sensibilities, like some of the Latin American countries. Well, now we’re certainly fucked up enough, and that shelf is expanding every year.
The three living American novelists I most admire who are on that shelf are Joan Didion and Robert Stone and Norman Rush, the first two both at various times in their lives field journalists out there in the world who had gone up river, so to speak. I’ve always said — and I’m not joking — if Tom Clancy had the talent or the desire to create three-dimensional characters, we might very well consider him our Tolstoy, given his ability to narrate the forces of power sweeping across the world.
Q: One of the novel’s great achievements is the range of characters it brings so vividly to life, including the father-daughter duo of Steve and Dorothy Chambers, as well as the singularly named Eville Burnett. Did you know at the start how intense the relationship between father and daughter would become?
A: Whatever the novel turns out to be in the mind of a reader — a murder mystery, an espionage thriller, an East versus West story — for me The Woman Who Lost Her Soul will always be primarily a daddy/daughter book meant to explore the dark side of male sexuality. So yes, I knew from the beginning how intense the relationship between Steven Chambers and his daughter would become, and every day I drew closer to that intensity and its nastiness, I dreaded the moment it would reveal itself and the ugliness it contained. And I suppose the main challenge of the book was to introduce the reader early on to a very unappealing young woman — Dottie Chambers — and then turn the reader’s judgment of her back on itself, once they understood how she became who she was, and her struggle to escape her past and her father’s gravitational force. I think by the end of the book most readers feel great sympathy and sadness for a character that originally they found repellent. That reversal is of course a writer’s trick, the same sort of trick that undermines the character of Tom Harrington, the human rights lawyer. Harrington is one of the world’s do-gooders, and the novelist’s only option is to turn Tom’s own morality upside-down, put him into a place, a crisis, where he has no other choice but to doubt the righteousness of his own intentions.
Q: Do you ever write a scene and decide it’s not right or true for the character? Are there scenes you wrote for them that didn’t make it into the book?
A: I don’t recall ever writing a scene that didn’t seem right or true for the characters, but it makes sense that I did and just don’t remember. Some scenes however were pushed a bit too hard and required a measure of restraint. For instance, in the section of the book set in Croatia, I have Steven’s mother, Marija, pull up her skirts and piss on a man she has just shot. My wife argued successfully to take that moment out of the scene, even though I wrote it in memory of my own grandmother, a saloon-keeper in Pennsylvania during prohibition, a big woman who once knocked a policeman to the ground and then squatted over him and pissed in his face. Anyway, there are really no scenes I wrote for the characters that didn’t make it into the book. However, there are certainly scenes I imagined for them that I rejected before I went to my desk and sat down to write. Also, scenes were added during the editing process that my editors felt were sorely missing. Sex between Eville and Dottie would be one example.
One of my editors also lobbied for some scenes that I wouldn’t include. Sex between father and daughter would be the main example there. Ah, and as I think about it, my primary editor, a brilliant young writer and editorial savant by the name of Brando Skyhorse, had me strike a scene set in Israel where Eville Burnette is told by Elena, Dottie’s adolescent friend from Istanbul and now an adult working for Mossad, that Dottie’s pregnant. Brando convinced me that I was overloading the deck here. Same thing with Eville’s mother, who I had dying from pancreatic cancer. Too much woe in a book already saturated by it.
Q: Dorothy’s father, who travels the world as a master-spy, has a singular method for teaching his daughter courage and independence. To find out where she’ll meet him for dinner or ice cream, she skips from one part of the city to another picking up clues along the way — from a newspaper vendor, or a waiter. It’s such a charming idea. Did you make it up?
A: Did I make up the process of Dottie’s father’s unique way of training her to be at home in the world of espionage? Not really. Tradecraft protocol for spies is pretty well known and has been around for centuries, its methodologies and tactics. I simply applied the protocol to a father determined to school his daughter in the family biz. On the surface, the process seems like the most wonderful childhood game. As you learn later on in the book, it constitutes an elementary education for an immersion into the most horrific events.
Q: Divided into five sections, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul brings us into a wild variety of seemingly disparate worlds. Yet the parts lock together like a cage door. When did you know you had an idea for a novel? Which part came first?
A: For a few years, while I was still struggling with an early and ultimately failed version of The Magnificence, I thought I was going to write a short story based on a young woman I met in Haiti who actually told me she had lost her soul and wanted me to take her to meet a vodou priest. Rust Hills, the fiction editor at Esquire at the time, had phoned me up to see if I had anything for the magazine’s summer fiction issue, and I pitched this story to him, but never wrote it. Then when it was clear to me that The Magnificence wasn’t working, I told myself, take a break and sit down and write that Haiti story you’ve been mulling over now for five years, and as soon as the first line was down on the page, boom, I couldn’t stop, and it took ten years to pull that train into the station, and I wrote it, structurally, exactly as you encounter it in the published book.
Q: Could you say something about how the book’s structure evolved? Every time I think you’ve pushed a scene as far as it can possibly go — you find a way to push it one step farther. In the process more layers of character are revealed. How deliberate is this?
A: The explanation for the structure is a bit dramatic — perhaps psychodramatic would be the more accurate description. The novel is divided into five interior books, and as I was closing in on the finish of Book One, I had to confront — for genuine medical reasons — the likelihood that I was about to die. Accepting that outcome, I decided to create a sense of closure around the denouement of Book One. Even though the narrative closure is misleading and downright false, Book One could still be published autonomously should I indeed croak. That sword of impending death was still hanging over me by the time I wrote Books Two and Three. If I died, Grove Atlantic would still be able to publish my unfinished work as finished. One novella — Croatia — and two small novels. By the time I was working on Books Four and Five, the medical crisis had passed, and I had every reason to believe I wasn’t dying quite yet, which means I was free to go ahead and write those last two books without fretting that they needed to close in a way that was a full stop, narratively speaking. That’s the simple explanation for why the book is structured the way it is. I was looking at eternity, trying to hedge my bets.
More specifically, plot-wise, when I reached the end of Book One and realized Tom Harrington was not the main protagonist of the novel, it was an easy an inevitable walk across the narrative street to Dottie and her family history and her more personal journey. Then, understanding that I was also writing a love story, the focus had to switch to Eville Burnette and his life and history, for the reader to understand how this love story was both highly unlikely and yet meant to be.
On the other hand, the structure is supremely organic yet not very common, because context can run on forever. Context is truly endless and eternal, and yet context is what contemporary people have very little time for. The venue where I find this structure utilized on a regular basis is cable television, but only on the Rachel Maddow Show. Her set-ups for her story of the day are structured just like my novel, and require a bit of patience from the audience, but boy do they pay off. She and her staff pluck all these seemingly disparate personalities and events and histories and themes and eventually weave them together into a context for the day’s Big News. Maddow and her producers and writers are the most brilliant act on television, for those first ten minutes of her show.
As for pushing scenes to reveal character, I’ve already admitted I tend to push them too far, but the narrative Platonic truth remains: action is character, and we only really know somebody at the extremes of their selves — the genuinely quiet moments and the moments when all hell breaks loose. The in-between we can fake — fake out others or, more devestatingly, fake out ourselves. The closer we are to the extremes of experience, the more we have to present ourselves as three-dimensional. Unless, of course, we’re politicians.
Q: The section “How Peace Begins” offers one of the most harrowing deliveries of the “horrors of war” I’ve ever read in fiction. You succeed in showing us the roots of the anti-communist mission that absorbed the lives of more than one generation. What took you there for Steve’s back-story? Where did research end and imagination take over?
A: Not to be too glib about my answer, but research ends when you realize you are over-indulging in it as a form of very pleasurable procrastination. I’ve been to the Balkans, I covered the war in Kosovo for Harper’s magazine, but I’ve never been to Croatia. I hope any Croatian who reads my book without any particular political agenda gives me a thumbs-up.
What took me there was my own back-story. My father was an Eastern-European first-generation American who was very much one of the Catholic Cold-War warriors who were so devoted to communism’s downfall. When, as senior citizens, my parents visited their parents’ homeland — Lithuania — for the first time, they came home a bit wide-eyed, because they had discovered that our surviving relatives in Lithuania were recluses, in self-imposed withdrawal, because their pasts were what you might call unsavory — for religious reasons and other reasons, they had been Nazi collaborators, and after the war, Stalinistas. America embraced these people after World War II, not the Stalinists but the Nazis, so it made sense to me that Steven Chambers’s own family was on the wrong side in World War II, then on the right side during the Cold War. And on the historical side of the West when Muslims began to actively resist the Western domination of the Middle East.
Q: Religion looms large for one of your main characters. Steve Chambers, father of the book’s leading lady, Dorothy, is newly minted as one of American fiction’s great larger-than-life villains — a contemporary Ahab, an unbuttoned Chillingworth. Steve is not only a “Friend of Golf” but also a committed Catholic. One astonishing scene takes place in Ephesus where Dorothy watches her Father crawl on his knees up the hill below the house where the Virgin Mary is alleged to have died, before bursting into the chapel at the top, raving at the top of his lungs. Could you say more about how you came to create Chambers? How do you understand the link between Catholicism and American policies, domestic and foreign?
A: If we teach writing, sometimes we tell our students to write about what they know; other times we tell them — I tell them this frequently, depending on how little they seem to kno w— to write about what they don’t know. As for Catholicism and politics, I took the first approach in The Woman Who Lost Her Soul. I grew up in the 1950s and 60s inside the Beltway — McLean, Virginia — inside a very zealous Catholic household. Another future writer and a Catholic, Maureen Dowd, was growing up across the river in Maryland about the same time. So was Frank Rich, I believe.
My father, who worked for the Navy for 30 years, and then became an elected Republican in the late 1970s — Fairfax County supervisor from the Dranesville district, home of the CIA — dropped out of the seminary as a young man, six months before he was to be ordained as a Catholic priest. I would see the Kennedy families at church every Sunday when I was a child and later a teenager, during the heart of the Cold War. The church would also be filled with people who worked for the CIA. In fact, all the kids I went to high school with had parents who worked for the agency. Our favorite pizza parlor in downtown McLean was also the CIA’s favorite pizza parlor. Anyway, Catholics in the federal government saw the Soviet Union as both an existential threat to America and a spiritual threat to humanity. They provided a perfect marriage between faith and policy, especially during JFK’s administration, a match that merely extended and broadened as other varieties of Christians swept into the White House in later years. I think one factor that made these Cold War Catholics a bit more virulent in their antipathy toward communism in those years was the fact that Roman Catholicism was more Eurocentric, and many of these people still had relatives who still lived in Europe on the front lines of the conflict, or relatives they had lost over there during the Second World War.
As for Steven Chambers, of course he’s partially modeled after my own father, who knew every one in Washington and ended up, when he was a Fairfax County supervisor, having quite an impact on the metropolitan area. There was a time he used to call crack-head Mayor Marion Berry one of his best friends. I remember one Sunday back in 1977 or 1978, The Washington Post featured my father on the cover of its weekly magazine. The cover was an illustration of my father’s face, his head crowned by a halo and the halo pierced by a pair of devil’s horns growing out of his skull. My father could certainly be a bad boy, but his malfeasance was a magnitude of order less than Steven Chambers. In some ways, at least. Enough said.
Q: Readers of Woman will invariably think of that great Anglo-Catholic novelist Graham Greene. Could you say something about his presence in your imagination? How has your relationship to Greene, or any of the other writers who mattered to you when you were younger, changed over the years?
A: I couldn’t really say Graham Greene himself has a presence in my imagination. His work of course does, and it inhabits me and influences me in an identical fashion to all the other great post-colonialist writers — Conrad and Maugham and E.M. Forster and I suppose Hemingway and the many others who inspired me by their engagement with the world, and their ultimate subversiveness toward the culture of empire. Those guys, that boys club. I struggle to remember the women who were doing the same thing at the same time. Zora Neale Hurston comes to mind, Jane Rhys, but few others, yet there were others and they were having a huge, but much-delayed impact. Of course when we click over to nonfiction, the doors to the clubhouse blow wide open — Isak Dinesen, Rebecca West, Martha Gellhorn. They were equal to the men in every respect except acknowledgment by the snoots whose job it was to bestow acknowledgment. Now I’d just as soon read Eliza Griswold as any boy-writer out there roaming the world today. And let’s not forget all those fabulous Victorian lady travelers, who had to leave their husbands at home because their husbands weren’t strong enough or courageous enough or morally complex enough to handle the journey.
Those are the macro-influences. At the sentence level, it started with J.P. Donleavy and Barry Hannah. And of course, I cannot end here without a saber raised in salute, on both levels, to Thomas Pynchon. I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow five times, which probably indicates some instability in my literary psyche.
Q: One of the book’s many surprises — some are downright shocks, and I’ll try not to slip in any spoilers — is the way you leave behind Tom Harrington, the humanitarian lawyer whom we meet in the book’s first section and who we expect will be our main point of view character throughout the novel. Instead, you shift your focus to a special ops guy with the unlikely name of Eville. Could you say something about that choice?
A: Literary philosophers like David Shields complain that the novel is dead because its artificiality cannot satisfactorily reflect real life. But I felt that making Tom Harrington disappear from the novel, even though the reader had every reason to expect he would be there from beginning to end, was a reality-based decision. People, people of significance to our lives, appear and disappear all the time, often without any explanation. That’s life, yes? To drop Tom, I understood, would be interpreted by some readers as breaking some rule of narrative, and although I recognized that, I also understood it was not breaking any rule regarding how our lives are lived. Hey, what ever happened to Jill, to Bill? Damned if I know.
Tom Harrington was always going to be too much like me to be a creative challenge to construct and compose and write. Eville Burnette was infinitely more intriguing to me, being so much different than me. Not alien, but different. Plus, if the book was to evolve into a love story, Eville had to be that guy to bear that burden. Tom and Dottie’s relationship was too corrupted from the minute Tom set eyes on her. Anyway, in some respects, I guess you’d have to say that the shift in focus from Tom to Eville was a type of default, after Tom allegedly solves the mystery of Jackie’s murder. At that point, his agency as a character is vastly diminished.
Q: With Eville, you’ve created a morally complex portrait of a kind of American encountered by people in the places we send our military but who remains a mystery to most of his fellow citizens back home. Did your time embedded with the military in Haiti influence or change your attitudes to those we pay to do the nation’s dirty work?
A: Sure, my time spent with the military in Haiti and then the Balkans absolutely influenced my perspective on the men and women America sends overseas to do its dirty work. And they are indeed unknown — and willfully so — by the vast majority of Americans, as someone like me is unknown by the vast majority of servicemen and servicewomen. The public’s attitude toward the military is inherently superficial. It’s binary — yes or no — without any of the nuance that would come from familiarity and understanding and empathy. Sympathy sucks, likewise antipathy. This divide in American society is unconscionable, but it can only be realistically corrected by a draft, which is a bad idea. Although universal service is a necessary idea if we want to create citizens and not merely consumers. Ask the corporate world which they prefer and guess what their (honest) answer would be. Too many of these conglomerates don’t give a flying fuck about citizenship. Whereas in the military, citizenship is a constant topic, an ongoing discussion, and although inevitably I encountered people in uniform who were unqualified assholes and probably sociopaths, most of the servicemen and women I interacted with were thoughtful, intelligent, ethical human beings who I would be proud to call my friends, regardless of the fact that I don’t often share their politics.
Q: Reacting no doubt to the vilification of the military during the Vietnam War our age is characterized by a kind of glorification of and genuflection before uniforms. Yet one of my favorite passages in Kevin Powers’ fine novel The Yellow Birds shows the main character, recently back from Iraq, sickened by the kneejerk way people say, “Thank you for your service,” when what they should say is, “Fuck you for your service.” Do you care to comment on how you see our public attitudes to the military?
A: Unless we’re talking about soldiers or sailors or airmen who committed atrocities — and committing an atrocity or a crime against humanity implies foreknowledge and intent — I’m not sure we should ever tell someone “Fuck you for your service.” Would you tell the cops and firemen who responded to 911 “Fuck you for your service”? If you don’t want to thank people who are at least ostensibly putting their lives on the line for you, even if you didn’t ask them to do that, then just shut the fuck up. But I want to be clear here too. The entire fucking debacle in Iraq was a war crime. If you want to tell somebody to go fuck themselves for their service, here’s a list: Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Doug Feith, David Addington, Richard Perle, Wolfowitz; I could go on and on here, and not one of these people ever wore a uniform except Bush, and that was a joke. Round them all up and send them to The Hague, as far as I’m concerned. Fuck you for your service, indeed.
Q: You’ve written a lot of journalism — from columns about “cooking” for GQ to reporting on the invasion of Haiti for Harpers. Is there anything you’d like to say about the current “state of the media”?
A: The mainstream media has always and forever represented the establishment, supporting its views and values and tongue-clucking at its peccadilloes. What newspaper and broadcast owners cherish most is the status quo. The Washington Post taking down Richard Nixon was an anomaly. Ditto The New York Times publishing the Pentagon Papers. Mostly the media doesn’t care who’s in the White House as long as the economy functions properly, as long as nobody decides it’s his job to rock the corporate boat. The other aspect of this that I consider pathetic is that mainstream journalists (both genders) have traded their balls for access, with few exceptions. My God, where are the Harrison Salisburys of the day. David Gregory is a disgrace, Woodward is beginning to seem like some crackpot, talk radio is downright treasonous, cable news harangues while the networks suck their thumbs. So, voila, God gave us the internet to scramble up the complacency, a complacency that exists in the face of massive, impending, and universal disasters. Is the world going to hell? Yes. What’s the Headline?: Last Cigarette Smoker Captured in Idaho.
Q: What place does fiction have in our media-soaked world? Will it survive against all this competition from the digital world? Will its place in people’s lives change?
A: As for literary fiction, it has forever been a specialty item in our society. It sells a certain amount and always will. It is, by nature, elite. It has a boutique consumer base. Just like the opera, it’s not going anywhere. What’s already been transformed however is its delivery system, and the noise machine that used to remind us that good books were important to our selves and to our culture.
Q: You’ve observed that we as a people have little appetite for hearing the truths of war. This firewall in our national imagination occurs at many levels — from the Pentagon disallowing photographs of coffins, to mainstream media doing little to bring us the word about how things really are on the ground. While there are exceptions of course, they hardly make a dent in the national consciousness. Yet as a walk through any video store would have revealed, when such places existed, that we’re obsessed by violence: serial killers, to zombies, to any number of Armageddon fantasies dominate the offerings. What do you make of this deliberate refusal to confront real violence while at the same time devouring fantastical enactments of it?
A: Regarding the truths of war, the very first truth is unless unimaginable violence — war or natural disasters — trampled you, you personally, into the ground — there’s no way you can bend your mind into the devastation of its reality. Soldiers know this when they come home from a combat zone — unless they can write their way into the experience, there’s no way they can open their mouths and communicate the experience to someone who’s never been there. And they are terrified of risking — and the terror is completely understandable — the rolling eyes and the yawns and the eventual indifference of their audience — wife or parent or kid or the person sitting next to them in a bar.
Essentially, the American public is schizophrenic about violence and war. As the wife of Tom Harrington says in the novel, the number one entertainment subject in America is murder. Why shouldn’t it be? From the minute Europeans landed on these shores, the bloodshed hasn’t stopped for a second. We are a nation that has killed itself toward the summit of beautiful ideals and exceptionalism and ultimately global power. Which has proved to be the more effective strategy — violence or idealism? Hey, it’s a toss-up. And this schizophrenia I’m talking about is mirrored and replicated in our most important institutions. At this stage in our national journey, we’re a very confused society.
But no one in Hollywood ever forgets — violence and disaster are box office, baby.
Q: Your granduncle was General Zhukhov, the most important Russian commander from World War II, who might be said to have won the war for the Allies. The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky has a poem celebrating him as Russia’s savior. Could you tell us a little about that side of the family?
A: Here’s a vignette from my boyhood I’ll never forget. My father is coming home from work at the Pentagon’s Navy Annex, situated on Arlington National Cemetery. He comes through the kitchen door and marches toward the front door, where in the nook behind the door is his own closet for hanging up his outdoor coats. He might as well be walking out of le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In almost every respect he’s a model for George Smiley. He sees me and beckons for me to follow him. My most sensory memories of my father come from this, and they are all olfactory — the smell of his trenchcoat, the slightly wooly smell of his fedora, the smell of his aftershave, the smell of his mentholated cigarettes. He’s carrying his briefcase and a copy of the day’s Washington Post folded into quarters. He sets down his briefcase, takes off his fedora, and places it on the top shelf of the closet. Then he turns to me, tells me to come closer, and unfolds the Post, so that the day’s headline story above the fold is revealed. The headline announces the death of General Zhukov in the Soviet Union. He taps Zhukov’s picture and says to me, “You should know this, this man is your uncle, but you can never, never tell anybody, or I will lose my job.” Then he refolds the newspaper into quarters, slides it under his hats at the top of his closet, and that’s the last I ever hear Zhukov’s name spoken in our house.
Growing up inside the Beltway in a house where Lithuanian was sometimes spoken, I never wanted to have anything to do with my Lithuanian roots, which are 100 percent. I simply wanted to assimilate and be any other American kid. Now, I’m enormously proud and grateful for my Lithuanian heritage. When I go to Cuba, the Cubans are always thrilled to learn of my ethnicity. Oh, Lithuania, the little country that told the big country to go fuck itself, they say, referring to the fact that Lithuania was the first nation to secede, bloodily, from the Soviet empire.
Q: How is it that all these years I’ve thought of you as a good ole boy from the south, consort of Hannah, McCorkle, and other mad dogs?
A: As for my apparent Southerness, a la Hannah and McCorkle, that involves alcohol.
Q: You mentioned in a lecture at Bennington that your wife’s family can trace its ancestry back to the Captain of the Mayflower. Could you say something about how your family histories have contributed to orienting your imagination?
A: As for my wife’s family, whose ancestral home was designed by Thomas Jefferson, and which contains two presidents and a trainload of mining engineers, their reluctance to let the likes of me through the door of their pedigreed environment has had a lot to do with my understanding of what America is, why it is, and how it has, and is, and will be forever changing.
Askold Melnyczuk’s first novel, What Is Told, was a New York Times Notable Book; his second, The Ambassador of the Dead, was selected as one of the Best Books of the Year by the Los Angeles Times; the most recent, The House of Widows, was chosen by the American Libraries Association’s Booklist as an Editor’s Choice. He received a three-year Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fellowship in Fiction; the McGinnis Award in Fiction; grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in fiction, poetry, and non-fiction; the Magid Award in Editing from PEN; and the George Garret Award for service to the community from AWP. Founding editor of Agni and Arrowsmith Press, he’s taught at Harvard and Boston University and currently teaches at the University of Massachusetts Boston and in the Bennington Graduate Writing Seminars.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Tulli’s concentration on the small-scale might be more comfortable for us if seen as feminine play rather than as a powerful lens on human brutality....
The subject of Renata Adler’s 1976 classic is language — the sounds, rhythms, idioms, and argot comprising the foundation and fabric of the world she depicts....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.