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Winter 2003, Volume 20.2

Conversation

 

Victoria Ramirez

Sophisticated Traveler — A Conversation with Novelist Kate Wheeler


Photo of Kate Wheeler

When Kate Wheeler's first book, Not Where I Started From, was published in 1993, critics responded with accolades. Wheeler was named a Granta "Best Young American Novelist," while the book became a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and was named a New York Times Notable Book. This short story collection features a number of tales that reflect Wheeler's upbringing in South America, where she lived with her American parents until her mid teens. Reviewers have noted Wheeler's ability to translate her cross-cultural insight gained from an overseas childhood into "deliciously memorable epiphanies," her writing studded with "sly ironies, and the occasional perverse twist of fate."
     For other stories in the book, Wheeler has drawn on a different cross-cultural experience abroad: her training as a Buddhist nun in Burma. While gems such as "Improving My Average" and "Urbino" clearly derive from life south of the North American border, the quietly humorous "Under the Roof" and the book's closing tale "Ringworm" harken to images and themes inspired by a familiarity with Asian life, especially that rarified slice a Westerner can glimpse in a religious monastery. Writer Don Lee's recommendation of Wheeler's book in Ploughshares tackles head-on what he calls the "immediate cynical expectations" of some readers who assume that stories will be a possible "saccharine embrace of everything metaphysical, all in the pursuit of enlightenment or harmony."
     But Lee attests to what readers soon encounter in the stories: Wheeler can speak of spiritual transport and knowledge as they occur in the practices of Eastern religions, but also as they can suddenly happen to each of us. At the same time, for those characters, such as the narrator of "Ringworm," seeking enlightenment, Wheeler knows enough to portray how inevitable the world's pull can be, derailing the search for stillness at the heart of Eastern spirituality.
     Considering that only one story in her collection portrays Americans on home soil, it's no wonder that novelist Robert Stone has written that in Not Where I Started From Wheeler reminds him of an E. M. Forster or a Doris Lessing. The advantage Wheeler offers us is that while Forster is British and Lessing South African, Wheeler's sensibility is quintessentially American, even as she writes from a standpoint of characters adept at cultures beyond our borders. Her prose can captivate by its simple power, able to relate whole states of slightly-unfamiliar being with a single word, ready to delight with a delectable sense of the incongruous. Such writing has won Wheeler's stories the O. Henry Award and the Pushcart Prize, in addition to being anthologized in such publications as The Best American Short Stories and Best Travel Writing of 2002.
     Wheeler's fans impatiently awaited the publication of her first novel, for which she received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts. Wheeler's novel When Mountains Walked hit bookstores in 2000 and received a positive response from both critics and readers. The Boston Globe called it a "remarkable first novel," and critics for the major newspapers quickly echoed that sentiment. Set in both contemporary Peru and 1940's India, the novel interweaves love, politics, and an exploration of two parallel marriages set in the fictional landscape of "the deepest canyon in the world." In a New York Times review, Susan Bolotin offers a sense of the novel: "Though the Rosario River is fictitious, Wheeler gives it concrete form. Here are torrential rains and dusty roads, homes that smell of animals, a river so cold it's painful, a jungle so impenetrable that it grows closed behind you. The background to the action is all very clear, observed by a writer who has trained as a traveler."
     Beyond fiction, Wheeler regularly writes travel pieces for the New York Times and was on assignment in Shanghai when the Twin Towers were bombed. Her articles on travel destinations in South America and Asia appear in publications such as Outside magazine, and regularly in the "Sophisticated Traveler" section of The New York Times. Spending six months in La Paz to finish her novel, Wheeler later recorded the experience in "La Paz: Memoirs of a Dancing Devil," telling us, "In La Paz, the sun shines from April to October, nightfall the only significant interruption. Two and quarter miles above sea level, the light of Bolivia's capital is so clear it begins to seem a form of cognizance. It showers like pure gold from the flawless paint-blue sky…."
     There's an obvious element in Wheeler's travel writing—and her fiction set in foreign lands—that goes beyond external description. Writer John Freeman has said of Wheeler: "For her, traveling is as much an internal journey as an external one—a way people can, as Rilke wrote, continue `living their questions.'" I like to invoke Thoreau on travel, for his emphasis in the conclusion to Walden reminds us that the most important lengths traversed are those within: "What was the meaning of that South-Sea Exploring Expedition, with all its parade and expense, but an indirect recognition of the fact that there are continents and seas in the moral world, to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored to him…."
     Wheeler's fiction constantly shows us through her various protagonists that facing the unknown can lead to adventure, an uncharted moment and place in a person's life. We soon realize, though, that the pursuit of adventure's thrill will also entail danger. She warns us that when adventuring you "face what you fear: the nerves release a blissful compound. Immersed in the physical world, adventurers titillate their neurons from without." Maggie in When Mountains Walked surely learns this as what begins as a search for identity within marriage inevitably takes her across unfamiliar terrain, literally mined with political and sexual explosives.
     Such interests might seem to conflict with Wheeler's other focus: life as a Buddhist and teacher of meditation. Along with such writers as Jane Hershfield and Peter Matthiessen, Wheeler is one of America's foremost commentators on Buddhist issues. She has edited and written the forward to Sayadaw Pandita's In This Very Life: The Liberation Teachings of the Buddha, in addition to writing articles for such publications as Inquiring Mind. Wheeler's "Bowing, Not Scraping," published in Buddhist Women on the Edge: Contemporary Perspectives from the Western Frontier (1996), has attracted considerable attention from those interested in women's issues in relation to Eastern spirituality and its practices. Teachers of religion and feminism regularly assign the article as required reading, for in it Wheeler asks, "What am I doing in a religion whose formal expression is a highly medieval, male, sexist hierarchy?" In this article she ponders how she can spiritually progress in the absence of female models from which to study and learn.
     It is as storyteller and novelist that Wheeler visited Weber State University last spring to take part in the university's 17th annual National Undergraduate Literature Conference. Devoted to undergraduate critical and creative writing, the conference regularly attracts students from across the United States, as well as from our own region. Wheeler joined novelist Ethan Canin and short story writer Matt Klam for several days of readings, student workshops, and question & answer sessions on writing and publishing. Wheeler seemed to enjoy hiking along the East Bench of the Wasatch Mountains above the university almost as much as meeting and
working with the students. They found her accessible, witty, and informative about the pleasures and pitfalls of surviving as a writer.
     Just after Christmas I drove from Long Island to Wheeler's Somerville home outside Boston for an afternoon of conversation with the author. As I stepped from the porch into the two-story yellow house that Wheeler shares with anthropologist David Guss, before me rose ceiling-high walls of book shelves. Although Wheeler had just returned from a travel assignment in Burma, she welcomed me into her home located a five-minute walk from Harvard Yard. Warmed by mugs of tea and a patch of winter sun bleaching her kitchen table, we talked about her life and her writing, for what turned out to be the first full-length interview with a writer who we should surely keep our eyes on.


Photo of Victoria Ramirez.

     Victoria Ramirez (Ph.D., SUNY-Binghampton) has studied in Scotland and taught English as a Second Language in England, Algeria, Nigeria, and Japan before assuming her present position as assistant professor of English at Weber State University. Her published scholarship includes essays on Thomas Pynchon and African women novelists and short story writers. An ongoing novel project focuses on Long Island during the Revolutionary War.

 

Being raised in South America well into your teens has provided you the materials—and even viewpoints—you' ve woven into stories in Not Where I Started From. I'm particularly curious about what your life must have been like, especially moving from country to country as your father changed jobs over the years.

 

Yeah, one of my stories called "Improving My Average" is exactly autobiographical. I did use to keep count of how many places we lived in, how long, and what was the average time we spent in one place. It was our life, and it didn't seem abnormal to me. I liked it, and I've seen it has had an effect on my psychology that probably can't be shared by anyone who hasn't had that type of experience. But it's both good and bad. It's filled with advantages but has some disadvantages
that go with it, too.

 

In some of your stories such as "Urbino" and "Improving My Average," there is a bi-cultural narrator. Each is fluent in Spanish and hangs out with the servants. But in your case, your parents would not have had such fluency.

 

So that's strange because it makes you feel less close to your parents because they can't know the things you know about the place where you are. As a kid you have all those receptive capacities kids have learning the language as a first language. It was kind of weird—I was on the outside in South America because I was from North America, and my parents were also North American. I wasn't on an equal basis with local kids.

 

Wouldn't your socio-economic class—living in a bigger house and all—separate you from most of the South American kids anyway?

 

Sometimes, but there are very wealthy people in South America…but it's true that there are a lot more poor people in South America than here, a sense of widespread poverty that just doesn't exist in the United States. Something I felt deeply as a kid was guilt about having more. I think writers in Latin America feel an obligation to the poverty situation. I know Octavio Paz has talked about it—that you always have to write with that in mind. But I also think that feeling like I was from some other place, and growing up in a Che Guevara era when we weren't welcome, where there were anti-American things on the walls, gave me a really strange feeling about myself. I asked, "Where did I go wrong?" I didn't feel comfortable in the United States either….

 

How much time did you actually spend in the States?

 

Every other year my dad had a home leave, so we would stay with my grandparents—which was pretty weird because when we were little we wouldn't have any kids there to play with. So we mostly did shopping at some mall—my father's parents lived in Florida. Since we didn't see them that much, well, it was fun, but everything was a displacement.

 

By the time you went to university you had a great big dose of living in the States?

 

When I was in junior high, my dad got transferred to Connecticut, and we lived in the United States for two and a half years. I got to the middle of 10th grade, then went happily back to Argentina. That's the time when you want to feel most secure, and I was so out of it. So I finished high school in Argentina, and then I didn't want to come back to the United States because I'd skipped a grade and thought it was legitimate to stay one more year in Argentina. But I also didn't think I should stay in South America and make my life there because I felt unwanted by them. I stayed a year and then went to Rice University in Houston, thinking I would escape to Mexico. It was comforting to think that I could get to a Spanish-speaking place in an hour. But then that was weird because everyone there was from Texas. It took me a long time to get used to that.

 

Did you study writing at Rice?

 

That's where I got started thinking I would do writing as a career. I floundered around a bit. I was going to be a geologist like my grandparents—both grandfathers and my father were geologists. Then I got to feeling that I should do something more in the humanities—but it took a while. I didn't declare my major for some time. Then I had a great creative writing teacher, Max Apple. He was really gung-ho and such an inspiring character—he was almost like a saint, a wonderful human being.

 

So Max Apple was the deciding factor in your becoming a writer?

 

Yeah, he made me think I could do it, but then I thought I wanted to make a living. Actually, I wanted to be a mountaineering instructor, which comes out in my work in When Mountains Walked. And that's been a strain in my family, because I think the geology thing in my male relatives' lives had to do with being outside a lot. We're not North Easterners, but more from the South and the West.

 

So you're a displaced Westerner. Fitting genealogy for Weber Studies….

 

I'm distantly related to John Wesley Hardin, the serial killer. My great-grandmother's sister was married to him, so that's pretty Western, isn't it?

 

I read somewhere that you'd made—how shall I put this—an abortive attempt to settle in New Mexico?

 

I guess you could call it that. That was in about `91 or `92, after I'd lived here in Massachusetts since about `83. I was attracted by the landscape and the bicultural or tricultural aspect which was similar to South America—but at the time I wanted to move there. I'd been on the road for a year. The idea of trying to figure out a new place felt quite fatiguing. I ended up moving back to Massachusetts. Also, there were some of the same conflicts in Santa Fe as there had been in South America growing up—the racial and economic divisions between Anglo-immigrant and Hispanic and Native American communities. I felt that I'd returned to some of the painful as well as positive aspects of my childhood—that was a mild shock!

But I have to tell you that I used to work for a paper and lived in Miami for a year. After my undergraduate studies I went to work for the Miami Herald. I did a lot of writing, and it gave me a great deal of confidence in the worldly side. And it served as the basis for my secondary career as a journalist: the thing I do instead of teaching is travel writing. It's a pretty good gig, but it's also unsteady, though you do end up with some money at the end….

That's why my mother forced me to get a job at the Miami Herald, rather than become a mountaineering instructor. Who knows where I would have ended up? All the people who wanted to be mountaineering instructors when I wanted to be one are now investment bankers. (Laughter)

 

Journalism would have been helpful preparation with all that writing for deadlines, and always for an audience?

 

Yeah, then I realized journalism wasn't me—the amount of time I would have had to spend in the Miami Herald's little farm system. I didn't have a degree in journalism, just English and creative writing. I suppose if I'd had more of whatever it takes to be a journalist, I would have studied for it. "The Proposed Runway Extension," "Shoddy Construction in West Dade County"—there was a lot of that. But one of my problems was that due to my bi-cultural upbringing, there really were a lot of situations I was reporting on that I didn't understand. I had a tendency to just think things were a certain way, and it would end up being a mistake. Things like, where old people were living. I would just call it a nursing home, when it wouldn't be a nursing home but an Adult Group Living Community—I'd feel really hurt and go in and have to ask the editor, "Why?"

 

Colloquialisms can be tough. And we're never taught to speak them when studying a foreign language in school. But your command of colloquial Spanish comes across in your writing—especially in When Mountains Walked—you'd use some Spanish, then translate it for the reader.

 

What's more famous now is immigrants here who are bicultural in all sorts of non-imperialistic ways. I resonate a lot with British writers, people who grew up in India and had to go back to England. Like Kipling, who was taken away from his beloved India at five. Kipling has some of the most sympathetic portrayals of Indian people that probably have ever been written, yet there are ways in which he's totally colonial in his attitude. I guess it's not always fair to expect someone to be beyond their time more than a certain amount. It's all a matter of education. I know that in my case it was great to go back to South America as an adult because I could come into the culture in a different way. My Spanish was a child's Spanish up to the age of 17; in that case you only use language in a certain way, live in a certain way. So, to be able to go back was really important.

 

Give me the low-down on Stanford. I know it's considered to have one of the premier programs for creative writing in the country.

 

Well, I think I was probably lucky to get in because my writing was completely undeveloped. I was very influenced by Max Apple, so I was writing all these things like he writes—which only one person needs to do. But somehow the director at the time, John L'Heureux, a really wonderful writer and teacher, picked me out of the heap and let me in. Not as someone with funding. My parents had to pay for me to go, which was great that they did. But that program taught me a lot—it taught me everything. I didn't realize that you could learn how to write a story.

 

Did you write any of your published stories while at Stanford?

 

Yeah, in the collection Not Where I Started From, maybe half the stories, or at least three or four. I've never been a super prolific writer. It takes me a long time to finish a story. A year maybe to finish one story…although I may be working on more than one at once. But they really take a long time to digest.

 

Were you workshopping them with fellow students, or what?

 

It was a very straightforward workshop. We would do one, maybe two, stories per session, and we met twice a week. And you had to turn in three stories every semester.

 

Terrific! That forced you to get going.

 

We had to produce. I don't think there was reading aloud—I don't remember. You had to give everyone a copy in advance, and then they would write on their copy of your work. All the line-by-line stuff, and then we would talk about it for an hour and a half to two hours a story. Afterwards, whoever was teaching the workshop would speak, but I particularly remember John. He was a Jesuit, so we always had three points we had to address. But he always made you feel like the story was trying to do such and such a thing, and then it was getting in its own way. It really felt very supportive when he said it; you felt like he could see where you were trying to go.

 

John L'Heureux said something interesting about you, dating back to the workshop: "In person…quiet, charming, utterly unassuming, and at least as interested in dogs and people as she was in becoming a writer. Getting to know her, though, you saw that beneath her delicacy and gentleness was a spine of steel."

 

"Mousy" was a word that was used about me. Someone told me he said, "That mousy little blonde." But basically I loved Stanford, and it was supposed to be over in a year, but I dragged it out to two years because I thought I was learning so much. I ended up with a Masters—which is a meaningless degree in terms of being a writer—though it could have possibly helped me teach, I suppose. Harriet Doerr was in my workshop at Stanford, which was pretty great. She recently died, but you know her Stones for Ibarra? That was a neat experience. She stayed in the workshop year after year as she was writing that book—kept bringing the story back.

 

Another key component of your background has been your interest in Eastern religion, particularly Buddhism. What attracted you to that religion, and what does it mean to be a practicing Buddhist?

 

There was a lot of religious fervor in the expatriate community in South America, lots of missionary Baptists and such. So, I actually had a desire to be saved in a Christian way, which is recorded in "Improving My Average." Most of my writing has some autobiographical basis, though I might write about a contradiction I had lived in some way, or which I'd encountered, that was bothering me. As for the religion, I'm not sure if it is temperament or generational or just because things were kind of fractured and constantly changing their meaning that made me prefer something more profound.

But there was also a personal aspect to this. My mother's best friend when we lived in Peru had been brought up in China. Her family was so much fun compared to my family. Her son would allow us to ride in the trunk of the car if we felt like it, which for me was really erotic or something. He could stand on his head; he could be in lotus pose; he had a dead sea-snake; his father had a salt-water aquarium. They were cool. Their little brother later on started to be able to leave his body in astral projection. There was a point when Jonathan was able to astral project, except that his whole body would go out but he would be stuck at his head. I don't know—it just fired me. I wanted to leave my body too.

My mother remained very spiritual, but she was more of a dabbler. She never became as serious about it as I did. It's sort of like believing in some order beyond the visible that can be accessed. But wanting to know what's going to happen in the future, or communicating with the dead—that can almost be a way of avoiding the ultimate questions of life.

Then I had a professor at Rice who was really charismatic. He was an art historian who ended up in New York having an interesting career as an avant garde critic for a while. He used to put up these slides in class and ask us to think about them. He'd gone to a retreat and when he came back—I remember it was the beginning of the second semester—he put up a picture of Krishna and the Buddha. He explained he'd been at a retreat and hadn't been talking for two weeks, so he wasn't going to give a lecture but leave us to look at these slides and think about
what it meant to try to be enlightened. He said, "These men are trying to live right." Then he left us all in darkness with those slides. My friends and I felt, "Ohhh—ahhh."

We wanted to go to a retreat, so my best friend and I went to one. And it was amazing, a whole mode of experiencing life that was…thoroughly satisfying. It was interesting and different. It did seem to be leading somewhere, so I kept it up. I had so many odd sensations—time stopped, and it felt like something real.

 

Most readers will know what it means to be a Christian, such as going to church, praying, trying to follow God's laws and not do certain forbidden things. What does it mean to be a Buddhist?

 

In Buddhism you try not kill things—even things like the mice in your house. You're supposed to think about what it means. A huge part of it is compassion, though that's a part of every religion, really. The central teaching of every religion is to make you into a better human being. The thing I love about Buddhism is its emphasis on the present moment. For example, when people complain about their life, they're not thinking about their palpable life force. But if you ask people, "What is missing from your life right this second?" it's often very hard to say that there's anything missing. Do you know what I mean? So, the training to be able to enter that dimension which is so rare to visit is so…luxurious. That's basically what makes me a practicing Buddhist as much as any other set of, say, conceptual beliefs or things like that. For me it's a way of training where the real source of life is much closer.

 

Something that interested me: I detected that only one of your short stories was written in the present tense. I know that's not what we're talking about here, but still, only "La Victoire" is written using a present narration.

 

I do that for a reason. I started writing my novel in the present, but it's such a little pane of glass…. As a friend said, "You're streaming through your narrative like a bug on the fender." This is sort of a technical thing, but if you're narrating in past tense, there's a lot more space to narrate as if it were the present. Similar to having that third-person limited narration, you can move around in it in ways that give you more options. Sometimes you're writing it in the past as if it were the present. The consciousness is of the present of that time, but then you have this little space in which you might have had time to think of it, so you get layers. I also think it gets tiring to read something completely in the present. A lot of my travel writing I do in the present, though. The story I'm writing now about Burma is like that: "I'm sitting in the temple…" and so on.

 

Do you think your Buddhism enters your writing in other ways?

 

I feel that it's a very fertile dichotomy. It's not like I'm writing as a Buddhist. And somehow—and you've probably found this—the way that you write expresses certain things that are very personal about oneself, but there's huge parts of my life that never make it into my writing. Somehow they can't, or my talent or way of writing just doesn't include those things.

And sometimes I think, "Why do I do so many things?" Sometimes I'm traveling; sometimes I'm teaching; sometimes I'm writing. None of them represents a one, unified thing. I know this woman who is an artist; she never goes anywhere, except to her studio. That's the only place she ever goes. And I think, "I'm not like that."

 

Even in one of your essays on Buddhism, you talk about there having to be room for different approaches for one person—a spectrum of temperament and personality. But maybe that fragmentation that you felt when you were younger is now a necessity?

 

Well, I feel very at home when I travel. I like it, and I feel like my self is sort of recovered. Being a foreigner in places is actually a feeling I know, especially being a foreigner in South America because I know it so well. It's kind of…where I was.

 

Like going home in a dream that you have over and over. You know it in the dream, but you never see it in reality.

 

Yeah, but also, I don't appear as a foreigner here. That's probably what happens with everybody's past: it disappears and you can't be known except by talking about it or writing about it. But when someone looks at any person, you don't know what their past or their life is. I feel that more acutely because I don't look like I came from South America. People are often very surprised. Like at the checkout, if I see someone from Latin America, I'm just dying to speak Spanish to them. But then they'll probably think that this means that I think their English isn't good enough. So I usually don't do it. It's as if I'm telling them something other than my desire to speak Spanish with them.

 

It's interesting when you say that it's only in your stories that you can recoup this past that flows like a delta with all its little meandering tributaries, a past lost to anyone in the present. Writing is not so much a compensation as a creating of a world that you want to be there.

 

Sometimes if I write about someone who's modeled on someone else, I almost forget the real person. You forget what their real name was and begin thinking of them as the character that you created, which isn't them any more.

 

Well, take lies. You may not do this, but say you fashion this elaborate lie. Then you tell someone and you believe it more than reality. You don't even remember what the reality is. Which brings me to one of your stories, "La Victoire." Readers often wonder what the creative process is like. How does an author make up all these stories, and a novel, which takes such a long time to read?

 

It takes much longer to write a novel than read it. (Laughter)

 

In "La Victoire," you feature a character some would call a compulsive liar. Given that Victoria loves to lie, and is brilliant at it, might that not be some sort of model for the creative process in general?

 

Yeah, that probably is one of the more abstract stories I wrote, and it has that schema about the lying. She's also meant to discover that she can lie as she's learning a new language, because she's taking French. She learns that she can have another life, and have another self, and with that, realizes that her previous self wasn't her ultimate self. Then the new French-speaking person who she imagines she can be starts speaking in tongues, in a way. She makes stuff up because she realizes she can. So, she breaks the mold of who she thought she was.

 

Saving up the money from the boring typing job and going to this daunting, bikini-wearing French bad-lady is her creative choice. It's a very funny story. I was reading your novel and I recalled the scene where Maggie and the other characters are dancing with the masks, and then I read in a travel article of yours how you'd actually lived that scene in Bolivia.

 

That's the way in which fiction is more true than true, because you can boil it down and make it essentially something. When I was writing my novel, I had this portmanteau feeling: every day when I'd go for a walk and I saw something, say little birds flying up, I'd think, "This is so good; I love this thing!" And it would go into the novel.

 

Could you have written your novel without going, at some point, to South America?

 

That novel, yes. I did want to go to these places, but I don't know if in my next novel I will have to. It was just that that particular one was based on the disappearance of my grandmother. There was a searching for reasons why things might be the way they are, say, in one's family, or in one's self, based on things that you can't really know. That's what was the impetus. It was my mother's mother I'd never met. She lost touch with my mother when she was about five, and nobody knows what became of my grandmother after my grandparents divorced. There were rumors, and different things were said about her. It's funny that after having written that book based on that feeling, I don't have that feeling in quite the same way anymore. It's as if I were being driven by the ghostly force of this person I never knew. But that's what the book is about: a person going back and trying to find some trace of something that happened that was a mystery, that had been lied about. Lots of families have things they've lied about, and everybody knows that someone's lying about what happened, but they don't know what the truth really was.

I started thinking about an earthquake that happened in Mongolia. It was huge. It was weeks before anyone got there. The mountains were still falling down. That meant there was something intense that happened that no one saw. That got mixed in with the grandmother thing. Then I went to India, and it was all part of the novel and part of my life at the time and part of the things I needed to do. And there was a journalistic assignment too, so I had this three-level thing. Part of it was me wanting to go, part of it was getting the gig to go and writing the journalistic side, and then there were parts I would save for the novel.

I wrote half the book here, and I finished it while living in Bolivia. I think that's also partly why it comes across as really vivid. I think the vividness is the best thing about that book. There is a lot of light in that part of Bolivia— because we were up at such an altitude. I felt that you could feel that in the book.

 

Your novel was a real treatise on dryness. Coming from Utah, I thought you did a superb job. One aspect of the characters that grabbed me was Maggie's grandmother, Althea, and how very angry she was that her husband, Johnny, wasn't there to witness the sickness and death of their baby. So she sent him away to experience pain and suffering. I liked her mixed emotions: really murky, strong, angry, confused. Too often in novels the grand emotions seem so predictable, the way they're presented to the reader.

 

Yeah, angry women. But I think Maggie's more lost, and she's trying to find something to base her sense of self on. When she is looking for her grandmother, she is sort of looking for that.

 

And she has married Carson, an older man who's a specialist, so she comes as a mere assistant. That situation together with her being married seem destined to cause her some disquiet.

 

Well, she's using him so she can get to the place she wants to go. It was problematic to make her into such a conflicted heroine. I think people might have wanted to like her more, but she's unresolved, very flawed, neurotic. And, I didn't like how one reviewer saw Carson as so negative. Anyway, I made some choices in that book and overwhelmed the characters, threw them out in this place, put them in the bottom of this canyon. I think if I had it to write over again, I might go through it and put in some more nuance, because I said in the second chapter, "Okay, I'm stripping these people bare. Here they are alone and they don't have that many resources. Maggie doesn't have anyone to talk to." There's a part where I say that if she were in Cambridge, she would have called her friends and they would have all talked about it.

 

I thought Maggie was a good character. You don't have to try to like her too much because she is so human.

 

At the same time I thought, "Carson seems like a jerk," but there's also a way that a lot of men are still like that. Not that they're jerks. I mean, I was hurt by that review because I didn't want him to seem that bad. I wanted him to seem understandable as a person, a missionary type who feels that he has to get something done. And he's so frustrated—nothing is happening. He's down here and really wants to do something. So I wanted people to feel more compassion and understanding for him rather than just think he's a jerk.

 

That's what the review said, but I think Carson came across as an older guy with decades of accomplishments, and he was in situations in the hospital where when Maggie fumbled a bit, he snapped at her.

 

And she wasn't very able to see beyond her own reaction to it, either. She was hypersensitive to that stuff, more dependent on him than she would've been at home. He's the only person she can talk to, so if he snaps at her, she doesn't have anywhere else to go.

I just wanted to put them into a difficulty that would bring out the worst in both of them.

 

That worked well, and also the cook, Fortunata, asking, "Why do you care so much about what he says?" But that made Maggie's isolation even worse with all the women thinking she cared too much.

 

And that's sort of the American marriage versus the South American marriage, where people don't have such an enmeshment. The expectations are just so different. The guy's the guy, and he's just being a guy, and you're being the woman, and that's it. And maybe in order to be successful with someone, you have to be able to disengage and say, "All right!" And then take it as something that's not personally directed.

 

But they had just been newly married, too. I loved in the beginning when she asks permission to lick a speck of mud off his eyebrow. Now, in terms of Althea's story, how difficult was it to keep those two in tandem without Althea taking over or sounding too much like the main character, Maggie?

 

I thought of that because my mother and my grandmother were traveling around with their husbands, being dragged around the world. Maybe not exactly "dragged"—my mother had grown up in South America and in Mexico City, because her father was a geologist. That's generational in my family. My grandmother went to Peru. And I read a lot of Victorian women's narratives, women who'd been to Indonesia. And in a way, a lot of women at that time would do their diary—they would write—or their correspondence would be collected. So I thought about those women.

Originally, the story was more Althea's because I wondered, in a way, "How did they do it? How did my grandmothers think about themselves while they were growing up in such small places—one in a small town in Texas, my other grandmother, who later disappeared, in Indiana?" And then they ended up going to these exotic places with the oil business—with these men who'd figured out this new type of career, like going into software today. What did they…think about their lives, and themselves? When I started to write it, I started realizing that I didn't know. The interesting thing turned out to be my curiosity about who they were. That became more important than thinking about all those issues like what kind of toothpaste they would have used. Suddenly I realized that I didn't want to spend my time thinking about all that period stuff. But then, I didn't want to throw out all the work I did.

 

My big question is, why is Althea's story so much in there? It seemed to be Maggie's story.

 

Well, I don't know if this happens for you, but when you think about your family, you often think about the people who came before you. You think, "Well, I'm like them in this way." You construct a parallel yourself: "I know why I'm like this because so and so was like this." And you say it in a mixture of ways, often bad ways. But in a way, Althea's story was supposed to be half-way Maggie's fantasy about it. It was never totally meant to be independent—it was her construction. That's why in some places it gets murky. You were supposed to know it was Althea and it was separate from Maggie, but at a point, getting past the middle, Maggie is dreaming up what probably happened. It's in between the two.

 

And that's as their stories begin to move closer to intersection.

 

Well, there's an issue whenever you have more than one point of view. It's the kind of thing where you have to strengthen everything else in order to be able to sustain not having one line. One of my terrors when I was writing the book was that I would lose people. It's like you never, never, never give the person an excuse to put the book down. So I felt like I had to seduce the reader all along, because I didn't want to happen what happens to me a lot of times: you read two-thirds of it and then you go, "Bleh!" Or, sometimes when you change points of view, you think, "I don't like this person!" Or, "I'm going to skip until I get back into the chapter with the person I like."

 

Um, I didn't do that. But I was faintly annoyed because I was really getting into Maggie, and then there was Althea. Though after awhile, I was getting into her too! But I was always happy to return to Maggie. Maybe that was due to my sense that Maggie was the major theme and Althea more of a leitmotif. But also, Carson comes across more strongly,
I think, than Johnny Baines, Althea's husband.

 

Johnny's more absent. But, I did think of this as Maggie's book, her story and her evolution. And why Althea's in there is because Maggie wanted to find out about her. But I did want Althea's pain to be something driving the narrative, too, like that loss and that mystery, the affairs and infidelities. And those things all to be mixed in.

 

I saw the Maggie and Althea parallel plots as pivoting like a see-saw on Julia, Maggie's mother and Althea's daughter. Julia was like an absent presence.

 

That's cool. I almost forget about her. But it's as if, "Why would Julia's daughter not know about her grandmother?" Well, because Julia's choice was to try to stabilize herself on the level of appearances, and not have to deal with all these forces. Which is natural if you're the daughter of someone who's really wild. As the child of that "normal" person who's compensating for everything, then you would think, "Why is this so rigid here? Why does this have to be this way and no other way?" There must be some generation skipping. People compensating for different things.

 

Julia was the one character I didn't like. The viewpoint she was putting forth seemed very…ungenerous.

 

Well, she was the product of this liaison. She could be very angry about that. And her falling in love with Johnny, and insisting that Johnny has to be her father, that's one of the mysteries of paternity in general. Like, "How do girls connect with their fathers? How do they decide those things?" There was a point at which I allowed those characters to be set. Take Johnny, who was the most two-dimensional character in the whole book. Sometimes I go back and think about Maggie's father. I just sort of removed him. He was just not a presence much, and I wonder what would've happened if I would have gone back and put him whole. There's a way in which if I had to write it over again, I would mess with things a little more, though there was a lot of messing already. Maybe that's what you write as your next book. If there are things that are left unexplored in the book that you wrote, then you have to write something else.

 

Julia, as difficult mother, paralleled a number of similar mothers in your short story collection. I wondered whether some of the lost and confused parents were just there as part of the stories, or were you getting at something larger in American culture?

 

I don't know. In "Mr. Peanut" I got excited about writing this sort of nightmarish story, and it was fun to make it more and more nightmarish. I remember hearing details, like when the sink falls off onto her toe. That happened to someone's mother who I knew. I thought, "Oh! this is so horrible, I'm going to put it right in my story." That's like those works of literature with drinking men, but I had the narrator be this drinking girl with all these horrible things happening through a haze.

My mother died of cancer, and it took three years when she was really kind of sick. And there really were a lot of awful feelings associated with that time. This story that I made around those feelings has completely different events. It's not like that was the story or the life, but I feel like it was driven by those feelings. And then I found other people's stories or plausible situations which would fit the horror of the situation that I had lived through with my mom—just the way things felt, like they were falling apart emotionally in the process of facing death.

So, I wouldn't say that story was a "critique." The distant parents in "Improving My Average," I think, were generic Kennedy era ex-pats—going to parties, cocktails, drinking, so certain of themselves—and maybe in some way my parents appeared like that to me. Not in the sense that that's who they were, but they were carriers of their own culture—a theme in my writing. They carried their culture because they'd already been formed. As children they grew up in one place, and then they moved afterward, adults in a foreign place. Then I was growing up under them, and my parents were talking a lot about the United States, but I wasn't there. I had no experience in the United States. So there were times when my mother would say, "The United States—they elect the president—they don't just have revolutions. That's your country—they pick up the garbage! You should be happy!" And I'd go, "Thanks, Mom, but what's it to me?" And, wherever we were living—Colombia or Argentina—it didn't seem that bad to me. I didn't think the States had to be necessarily better just because she was telling me it was.

Then we would go back for vacation, and my grandmother's house was so weird, and I'd think, "Why is this better?" and "Why do I have to be from there when I'm actually from here—because this is where I am?"

 

I taught for some years in Japan when my daughter was very little. She was fluent and could hang out with people, have tea and cakes with the groundskeepers, and so on. A friend who taught there at the time said he remembered her asking, "How come my mommy doesn't know Japanese?"

 

That big lummox that she is! (Laughter)

 

Yeah. Like, she seems to know everything else…why can't she speak to anyone here?

 

There's a way that being able to speak with servants can be very magical for the servants, to play with these little kids, take them and do little special things with them. There's a real love that happens. But then there is this attitude that the servants are adults, and it's their destiny to work in your house and only get one day off. It's understood that there's a group of people who do this, but especially in the case of Urbino in the story "Urbino," that character used to be something else, but he descended into this servant class by misfortune, rather than being the independent restaurant owner that he was before.

I think those class types of hatreds are there. Surely when you lived in Africa there were those same kind of class issues.

 

Yes, even when, say, Nigerians worked for other Nigerians of the middle class. They would plant money in the pockets of laundry to test a servant's honesty, and so on.

 

Some of that stuff in my novel about letting servants steal a little bit came from an Indian family that I knew. "You know, you just let `em steal a little, and then they won't steal a lot." But I stayed with this family and they said, "Lock you suitcase because the cook will steal from you." I don't remember that much stealing while I was growing up. There was one case where the cook, rather than throwing them away, would chop up the vegetables and then throw all the scraps behind the stove; the scraps mounted up and attracted rats.

 

A great detail that you include in When Mountains Walked. If you had to sit down and think up such a thing….

 

Well, everybody has that. All writers have that, and every person has those things that happen in life that are unique and that they could tell other people about.

 

But writers write them down. Like the narrator in your story "Ringworm" who gets in trouble in the monastery for feeding cats and constantly writing in a notebook.

 

That is true. But also writers can steal them from other people. If someone tells you something, you think, "Well, hmmm, yes, hmmm…." That's why it's hard when you're with other writers. You have to say, "Oh no, that's mine!" or "You can have that… I'm not going to write about that one."

 

You started writing short stories. Were they an apprenticeship for writing the novel? Or while you were doing stories, did someone say, "It's time for a novel!"

 

Well, I felt that. I thought, "Okay, I should try to write one." People always said my short stories were so long and so full that each one was like a novel. And then I thought, "Well, maybe I should see if that means that a novel is an easier form for me." I don't really know, though. There are great writers who only write short stories, like Alice Munro. And then there are mostly novelists who don't write that many short stories. But there are those who write both. I'll have to see….

 

Are you addicted to writing novels?

 

No. I suppose I had fantasies of my novel being made into a movie. Then I'd be rich and happy forever after.

 

I think it would be great. Though in our present moral climate, I suppose you'd have to cut out all the affairs and love babies. You'd have to have everyone getting married….

 

Well, maybe, they always could after the end of the book. And then people were telling me it was going to be so hard to film this thing in South America.

 

They could film the thing in Utah or something. (Laughter)

 

Right. And there's always Antonio Banderas. But for some reason it didn't happen. Though, there's a novel now—Ann Patchett's book Bel Cano—also set in Peru with terrorists, the siege of the Japanese embassy by the same slightly-romantic terrorist group on which I was basing my story. That's a different story, but I think they'll probably make a movie out of that if they're not starting to do it already.

My novel—I feel like I put so much into that book. I felt like I was just wringing out my soul. Every day I would feel like I had to squeeze out every single thing that was in me. Then do it again the next day! And it went on and on for years. It really affected my life—my social life became smaller because I was so obsessed with it for so long. I think it took me about seven years to write the damn thing. It's funny about novels because they are such a mess and so long. I keep having these second thoughts, like it could have been shorter, or as I was saying earlier, the characters could have been more nuanced. There are so many options. That's what's maddening about writing a novel. There is so much in it, and it's all swirling around. With a short story, there's this little thing that suggests more. But the trajectory is clear: you shoot it up and then you know the end. Or you start carving it in a way that it twists on itself and then it's finished.

 

With your short stories, I'd always be so surprised at what would—or wouldn't—happen at the end.

 

Well, I'm writing more short stories right now. I started writing another novel, and it just started to happen slowly again. I took it to my group, and I revised the first chapter, like thirty times, for about a year—just this first chapter.

 

About your writers' group. I know how crucial it can be. I'm currently reviewing a biography of Carl Richter—he wrote stories and novels—and he'd always have his wife, and then also his daughter, sit down and listen to what he had just written. Then he would carefully watch their faces and revise according to whether they frowned or smiled. This group of yours—is it the same one you've always had?

 

I stopped writing for awhile after I left Stanford. Then my mother died and I went to a Buddhist retreat to figure out what it meant that she could die…and I thought I was going to not do writing because it was different from meditation, a whole other conceptual thing. But then I just felt that I had to do it. I edited a book of Buddhist sermons and that got me started again. So I took a course at Harvard Extension, and the woman who taught the course invited me into her writing group at the end. Which was…great, because I wouldn't have been able to do it alone. Maybe some people can, but the few times I have taught—in Adult Education or whatever—I always say that most people who really work at something have a context in which their work unfolds.

What's really hard about being a writer is that it's just you, you have to care about it enough not to do other things. Like, to not distract yourself, not go shopping. Sometimes you violate the desires of your family to go off alone and produce something. Then you leave your house and go to Panini [local bakery and café] and no one says, "How long did you write today?" Sometimes you go to the gym where a person might be nice to you, and you feel like saying, "You know, you're the first person I've talked to all day. Thank you for being so nice!"

It's a very isolated thing, so if you don't build something into your life that is about your writing, then it's much, much harder. Just in that sense I think having a group is important. And I would never have written the things I've written if I didn't have them. Every month I have to write something, and they're expecting me to do it. Then they're sitting there in this house, and we read each other's things. I'll write something and say, "I know this isn't quite right, but I don't know what I should do." And sometimes—I don't want to admit it—I'm trying to get away with something, like, "Maybe people will be fooled by this." And usually they're not. Then I say, "So I do have to account for this aspect!"

Sometimes they even suggest things that are totally off-the-wall, and I think, "Noooo, I want it to be the way I had it." But even just having some other point of view makes it three-dimensional for the first time. And each time it changes: first it's on your computer screen, then you print it out and it already is something else because it's more objective. Then you give it to your first few readers and that's something else. So based on that I revise it. And sometimes I take it back to them again, sometimes once or twice. But there came a point with my last novel that I took it to them too much, and they chewed on it too much. I think they're really good for short stories, but I think maybe I should've stopped and said, "I'll fix this later." Then I should have taken them chapter two, instead of chapter one, chapter one, chapter one.

 

I was wondering about the use of local politics in your stories, such as "Urbino" or "Ringworm," and your novel.

 

At least in the novel I was trying to have that male-female hook, like a man's action book, with the outer reality in there as much as the inner stuff. So that it would be an adventure with a female-hero type. There were little challenges I set for myself in that context, like writing about a larger, more worldly situation, like with the mine. In the stories the politics are more implicit, I guess.

 

Well, in "Ringworm" the narrator's been through this training within the dictates of reaching enlightenment through distancing oneself from life, while outside the monastery people are being shot and clubbed.

 

Well, that did happen to me, so it's not even that I put it in to be a political thing. I was there, and it was quite shocking.

 

But it works in the story—it's not just there, or local color. It's at this point where the whole distancing thing gets hard. In the Judeo-Christian tradition people don't have to distance themselves from the world. And at the end of the story it's implied that the narrator leaves the monastery. I felt maybe you were expressing the difficulty a Westerner has in following an Eastern religion.

 

I think that partly there's something going to change anything?" I guess Westerners think that they're really close with someone if we're talking about things that we normally don't talk about. It's a way of becoming close, a feeling like there's real intimacy. I don't think that goes as far in Asia. Although, I guess if someone were really close, they would take a person aside and say, "This is how it is!" But it's an interesting perspective. In Latin America there is more politeness, but the straightforward thing is very strong, too.

 

The story that fascinated me the most was the one story that takes place on US soil: "Judgment." The ending wowed me! Mayland and Linda are so…strange, and this is in a collection where almost everyone seems a bit alien. Where did that story come from?

 

Those were some people that I'd met in my travels in the West. It was a gothic sort of experience.

 

Were you reading Flannery O'Connor when you wrote it?

 

Yeah, kind of. And some people think that's the worst story. Some have said the characters were just grotesque. But people have varying opinions about these things.

The people that I met were very vivid characters. One of them claimed to have been one of the founders of the Hell's Angels before they had bikes—when they were just bad guys. It was this really strong experience just to meet them. But, they aren't the same characters. The first line of that story just came into my head, and I thought, "How am I ever going to be able to write a story missing in our culture. Or part of those traditions have been lost in the Judeo-Christian traditions…the actual meditation practices. Maybe it's just me, but it seems we want some way of resolving all the disparities in life, all of the fractured sensations, all the contradictions. We want a set of rules that accounts for every single thing. But we never can, so any ideology or impulse like that is flawed from the beginning. It's because you can't resolve things that you want to resolve them. It's because we have these raw, contradictory feelings and emotions that we want to settle everything and make it just lie flat. In a way that's what the story's about as much as anything else. If you get to know Asian people well, you'll find that they have the same kinds of questions as we do. It's just that they come at them from a different angle.

 

I thought it interesting that the two groups of people that you're most familiar with are Asians and South Americans, but particularly in the novel, the indigenous Indian population. And you write somewhere that Westerners want the truth—and civility be damned, since that covers up the truth. The indigenous characters realize that there's a limit to what you can do with truth, that being cautious about other people's feelings is the most important thing. I wondered if there was a connection in your own mind between these two cultural views.

 

Not that much. That's definitely a highly Asian thing, but I think there are these times when you can be really straightforward if you have to be—even if someone's feelings get hurt. And there are times when you think, "What's the point of being straightforward if it's not based on this first line?" This thing just appeared in my consciousness, and that's how it works—it's not those people, but because of the experience of meeting those people. And, I thought something horrible was going to come out of that first line. But those characters are like you and me—they just have different concepts.

 

I liked how you named it "Judgment," but the characters appeared to have a total lack of judgment. And yet, they were always making judgments about all sorts of things.

 

But they wanted to be happy; they wanted to be loved. They actually had a relationship with each other. I had to fight with an editor from Antaeus for that last line. He wanted me to cut it out. I had to give him a big justification for why the character would've said that. I said, The character doesn't have control of the girl. He's hoping that the next time—well, they kind of worked it out their own way.

 

His line is so incongruous and pathetic and touching. But you had to fight for it?

 

I did. And then I had to fight for the ending of the novel with my editor at Houghton-Mifflin. She thought Maggie should've stayed in Cambridge and had the baby—and not gone back to South America. That would've made her seem more like a balanced person, I guess, more like she had finally seen reason.

 

Any authors that have inspired you to be a writer?

 

Isaac Babel. Flannery O'Connor is great. I love those stark, strong writers. Chekhov is great. What's the saying? "A good movie can show you how to die, but only a good book can show you how to live." Or something like that?

 

Do you read every day that you write?

 

Michael Ondaatje is good to read when I'm writing. He's very vivid, very true to life. He doesn't really theorize that much, but he has a very poetic stream-of-consciousness that's close to the surface of the thing. I love his writing, though I don't like everything he writes. Sometimes I think it's too unstructured. But if I really don't want to go off into my head or into abstractions, then I read a little of Michael Ondaatje. I reconnect with life as it is.

 

I thought that if I were writing a story in which I wanted to balance description of the outer world with what's going on inside an inner world, I'd read you!

 

Hah! Well, stream-of-consciousness is not my forte. I feel like I have to have those outer things going on. And if people get too much like that, I don't like to read it either. It makes me impatient: I want to see…things.

 

Besides, that inner stuff isn't funny, and you're a very funny writer. Even when you're using Spanish words.

 

Yeah, it's stuff that delights me that I put in—the ways that things sound. Or words that I like. I worried about that in the novel—having all this geology and different things I'd have to explain. That was another technical travail. The character, Johnny, was based on a Japanese guy who died, but he did what Johnny did. He had this whole thing in his head, and it seemed that he arrived at some intuitive grasp though he never came up with an equation. He made four sealed predictions, then died, but they all came true. It was a person who had been thinking about it so much that he developed some special sense. His predictions only worked for some years beyond his death, and his writings were never formulated into anything. But the details about Johnny came from reading earthquake books.

 

I heard that you have a forthcoming novel and wondered if I could get the scoop on it .

 

No, but I have forthcoming short stories that I'm writing. They will come out as a book, I think, and I'm hoping that maybe by March I can send it to the publisher. I have a story coming in the Threepenny Review in the spring. One was in the Mississippi Review Online this summer. I'm foraying into online publishing because I wanted to publish something. It had been awhile. I took some time off, and then I dumped that novel I'd been working on. I felt there was this hiatus, so I let them have the short story even though it was kind of ephemeral.

 

Any title yet for the new story collection?

 

Middle Aged Men. Just a working title….

 

We're at the end, I guess. Oh, one last
question if you don't mind. Do you work at your writing every day?

 

I try to…unless life tries to sweep me away.

 

Top of Page

 

 

weber studies | winter 2003
CONVERSATION

Victoria Ramirez

Sophisticated Traveler — A Conversation with Novelist Kate Wheeler

 

 

Being raised in South America well into your teens has provided you the materials—and even viewpoints—you' ve woven into stories in Not Where I Started From. I'm particularly curious about what your life must have been like, especially moving from country to country as your father changed jobs over the years.

 

Yeah, one of my stories called "Improving My Average" is exactly autobiographical. I did use to keep count of how many places we lived in, how long, and what was the average time we spent in one place. It was our life, and it didn't seem abnormal to me. I liked it, and I've seen it has had an effect on my psychology that probably can't be shared by anyone who hasn't had that type of experience. But it's both good and bad. It's filled with advantages but has some disadvantages
that go with it, too.

 

In some of your stories such as "Urbino" and "Improving My Average," there is a bi-cultural narrator. Each is fluent in Spanish and hangs out with the servants. But in your case, your parents would not have had such fluency.

 

So that's strange because it makes you feel less close to your parents because they can't know the things you know about the place where you are. As a kid you have all those receptive capacities kids have learning the language as a first language. It was kind of weird—I was on the outside in South America because I was from North America, and my parents were also North American. I wasn't on an equal basis with local kids.

 

Wouldn't your socio-economic class—living in a bigger house and all—separate you from most of the South American kids anyway?

 

Sometimes, but there are very wealthy people in South America…but it's true that there are a lot more poor people in South America than here, a sense of widespread poverty that just doesn't exist in the United States. Something I felt deeply as a kid was guilt about having more. I think writers in Latin America feel an obligation to the poverty situation. I know Octavio Paz has talked about it—that you always have to write with that in mind. But I also think that feeling like I was from some other place, and growing up in a Che Guevara era when we weren't welcome, where there were anti-
American things on the walls, gave me a really strange feeling about myself. I asked, "Where did I go wrong?" I didn't feel comfortable in the United States either….

 

How much time did you actually spend in the States?

 

Every other year my dad had a home leave, so we would stay with my grandparents—which was pretty weird because when we were little we wouldn't have any kids there to play with. So we mostly did shopping at some mall—my father's parents lived in Florida. Since we didn't see them that much, well, it was fun, but everything was a displacement.

 

By the time you went to university you had a great big dose of living in the States?

 

When I was in junior high, my dad got transferred to Connecticut, and we lived in the United States for two and a half years. I got to the middle of 10th grade, then went happily back to Argentina. That's the time when you want to feel most secure, and I was so out of it. So I finished high school in Argentina, and then I didn't want to come back to the United States because I'd skipped a grade and thought it was legitimate to stay one more year in Argentina. But I also didn't think I should stay in South America and make my life there because I felt unwanted by them. I stayed a year and then went to Rice University in Houston, thinking I would escape to Mexico. It was comforting to think that I could get to a Spanish-speaking place in an hour. But
then that was weird because everyone there was from Texas. It took me a long time to get used to that.

 

Did you study writing at Rice?

 

That's where I got started thinking I would do writing as a career. I floundered around a bit. I was going to be a geologist like my grandparents—both grandfathers and my father were geologists. Then I got to feeling that I should do something more in the humanities—but it took a while. I didn't declare my major for some time. Then I had a great creative writing teacher, Max Apple. He was really gung-ho and such an inspiring character—he was almost like a saint, a wonderful human being.

 

So Max Apple was the deciding factor in your becoming a writer?

 

Yeah, he made me think I could do it, but then I thought I wanted to make a living. Actually, I wanted to be a mountaineering instructor, which comes out in my work in When Mountains Walked. And that's been a strain in my family, because I think the geology thing in my male relatives' lives had to do with being outside a lot. We're not North Easterners, but more from the South and the West.

 

So you're a displaced Westerner. Fitting genealogy for Weber Studies….

 

I'm distantly related to John Wesley Hardin, the serial killer. My great-grandmother's sister was married to him, so that's pretty Western, isn't it?

 

I read somewhere that you'd made—how shall I put this—an abortive attempt to settle in New Mexico?

 

I guess you could call it that. That was in about `91 or `92, after I'd lived here in Massachusetts since about `83. I was attracted by the landscape and the bicultural or tricultural aspect which was similar to South America—but at the time I wanted to move there. I'd been on the road for a year. The idea of trying to figure out a new place felt quite fatiguing. I ended up moving back to Massachusetts. Also, there were some of the same conflicts in Santa Fe as there had been in South America growing up—the racial and economic divisions between Anglo-immigrant and Hispanic and Native American communities. I felt that I'd returned to some of the painful as well as positive aspects of my childhood—that was a mild shock!

But I have to tell you that I used to work for a paper and lived in Miami for a year. After my undergraduate studies I went to work for the Miami Herald. I did a lot of writing, and it gave me a great deal of confidence in the worldly side. And it served as the basis for my secondary career as a journalist: the thing I do instead of teaching is travel writing. It's a pretty good gig, but it's also unsteady, though you do end up with some money at the end….

That's why my mother forced me to get a job at the Miami Herald, rather than become a mountaineering instructor. Who knows where I would have ended up? All the people who wanted to be mountaineering instructors when I wanted to be one are now investment bankers. (Laughter)

 

Journalism would have been helpful preparation with all that writing for deadlines, and always for an audience?

 

Yeah, then I realized journalism wasn't me—the amount of time I would have had to spend in the Miami Herald's little farm system. I didn't have a degree in journalism, just English and creative writing. I suppose if I'd had more of whatever it takes to be a journalist, I would have studied for it. "The Proposed Runway Extension," "Shoddy Construction in West Dade County"—there was a lot of that. But one of my problems was that due to my bi-cultural upbringing, there really were a lot of situations I was reporting on that I didn't understand. I had a tendency to just think things were a certain way, and it would end up being a mistake. Things like, where old people were living. I would just call it a nursing home, when it wouldn't be a nursing home but an Adult Group Living Community—I'd feel really hurt and go in and have to ask the editor, "Why?"

 

Colloquialisms can be tough. And we're never taught to speak them when studying a foreign language in school. But your command of colloquial Spanish comes across in your writing—especially in When Mountains Walked—you'd use some Spanish, then translate it for the reader.

 

What's more famous now is immigrants here who are bicultural in all sorts of non-imperialistic ways. I resonate a lot with British writers, people who grew up in India and had to
go back to England. Like Kipling, who was taken away from his beloved India at five. Kipling has some of the most sympathetic portrayals of Indian people that probably have ever been written, yet there are ways in which he's totally colonial in his attitude. I guess it's not always fair to expect someone to be beyond their time more than a certain amount. It's all a matter of education. I know that in my case it was great to go back to South America as an adult because I could come into the culture in a different way. My Spanish was a child's Spanish up to the age of 17; in that case you only use language in a certain way, live in a certain way. So, to be able to go back was really important.

 

Give me the low-down on Stanford. I know it's considered to have one of the premier programs for creative writing in the country.

 

Well, I think I was probably lucky to get in because my writing was completely undeveloped. I was very influenced by Max Apple, so I was writing all these things like he writes—which only one person needs to do. But somehow the director at the time, John L'Heureux, a really wonderful writer and teacher, picked me out of the heap and let me in. Not as someone with funding. My parents had to pay for me to go, which was great that they did. But that program taught me a lot—it taught me everything. I didn't realize that you could learn how to write a story.

 

Did you write any of your published stories while at Stanford?

 

Yeah, in the collection Not Where I
Started From
, maybe half the stories, or at least three or four. I've never been a super prolific writer. It takes me a long time to finish a story. A year maybe to finish one story…although I may be working on more than one at once. But they really take a long time to digest.

 

Were you workshopping them with fellow students, or what?

 

It was a very straightforward workshop. We would do one, maybe two, stories per session, and we met twice a week. And you had to turn in three stories every semester.

 

Terrific! That forced you to get going.

 

We had to produce. I don't think there was reading aloud—I don't remember. You had to give everyone a copy in advance, and then they would write on their copy of your work. All the line-by-line stuff, and then we would talk about it for an hour and a half to two hours a story. Afterwards, whoever was teaching the workshop would speak, but I particularly remember John. He was a Jesuit, so we always had three points we had to address. But he always made you feel like the story was trying to do such and such a thing, and then it was getting in its own way. It really felt very supportive when he said it; you felt like he could see where you were trying to go.

 

John L'Heureux said something interesting about you, dating back to the workshop: "In person…quiet, charming, utterly unassuming, and at least as interested in dogs and people as she was in becoming a writer. Getting to know her, though, you saw that beneath her delicacy
and gentleness was a spine of steel."

 

"Mousy" was a word that was used about me. Someone told me he said, "That mousy little blonde." But basically I loved Stanford, and it was supposed to be over in a year, but I dragged it out to two years because I thought I was learning so much. I ended up with a Masters—which is a meaningless degree in terms of being a writer—though it could have possibly helped me teach, I suppose. Harriet Doerr was in my workshop at Stanford, which was pretty great. She recently died, but you know her Stones for Ibarra? That was a neat experience. She stayed in the workshop year after year as she was writing that book—kept bringing the story back.

 

Another key component of your background has been your interest in Eastern religion, particularly Buddhism. What attracted you to that religion, and what does it mean to be a practicing Buddhist?

 

There was a lot of religious fervor in the expatriate community in South America, lots of missionary Baptists and such. So, I actually had a desire to be saved in a Christian way, which is recorded in "Improving My Average." Most of my writing has some autobiographical basis, though I might write about a contradiction I had lived in some way, or which I'd encountered, that was bothering me. As for the religion, I'm not sure if it is temperament or generational or just because things were kind of fractured and constantly changing their meaning that made me prefer something more profound.

But there was also a personal aspect
to this. My mother's best friend when we lived in Peru had been brought up in China. Her family was so much fun compared to my family. Her son would allow us to ride in the trunk of the car if we felt like it, which for me was really erotic or something. He could stand on his head; he could be in lotus pose; he had a dead sea-snake; his father had a salt-water aquarium. They were cool. Their little brother later on started to be able to leave his body in astral projection. There was a point when Jonathan was able to astral project, except that his whole body would go out but he would be stuck at his head. I don't know—it just fired me. I wanted to leave my body too.

My mother remained very spiritual, but she was more of a dabbler. She never became as serious about it as I did. It's sort of like believing in some order beyond the visible that can be accessed. But wanting to know what's going to happen in the future, or communicating with the dead—that can almost be a way of avoiding the ultimate questions of life.

Then I had a professor at Rice who was really charismatic. He was an art historian who ended up in New York having an interesting career as an avant garde critic for a while. He used to put up these slides in class and ask us to think about them. He'd gone to a retreat and when he came back—I remember it was the beginning of the second semester—he put up a picture of Krishna and the Buddha. He explained he'd been at a retreat and hadn't been talking for two weeks, so he wasn't going to give a lecture but leave us to look at these slides and think about
what it meant to try to be enlightened. He said, "These men are trying to live right." Then he left us all in darkness with those slides. My friends and I felt, "Ohhh—ahhh."

We wanted to go to a retreat, so my best friend and I went to one. And it was amazing, a whole mode of experiencing life that was…thoroughly satisfying. It was interesting and different. It did seem to be leading somewhere, so I kept it up. I had so many odd sensations—time stopped, and it felt like something real.

 

Most readers will know what it means to be a Christian, such as going to church, praying, trying to follow God's laws and not do certain forbidden things. What does it mean to be a Buddhist?

 

In Buddhism you try not kill things—even things like the mice in your house. You're supposed to think about what it means. A huge part of it is compassion, though that's a part of every religion, really. The central teaching of every religion is to make you into a better human being. The thing I love about Buddhism is its emphasis on the present moment. For example, when people complain about their life, they're not thinking about their palpable life force. But if you ask people, "What is missing from your life right this second?" it's often very hard to say that there's anything missing. Do you know what I mean? So, the training to be able to enter that dimension which is so rare to visit is so…luxurious. That's basically what makes me a practicing Buddhist as much as any other set of, say, conceptual beliefs or things like
that. For me it's a way of training where the real source of life is much closer.

 

Something that interested me: I detected that only one of your short stories was written in the present tense. I know that's not what we're talking about here, but still, only "La Victoire" is written using a present narration.

 

I do that for a reason. I started writing my novel in the present, but it's such a little pane of glass…. As a friend said, "You're streaming through your narrative like a bug on the fender." This is sort of a technical thing, but if you're narrating in past tense, there's a lot more space to narrate as if it were the present. Similar to having that third-person limited narration, you can move around in it in ways that give you more options. Sometimes you're writing it in the past as if it were the present. The consciousness is of the present of that time, but then you have this little space in which you might have had time to think of it, so you get layers. I also think it gets tiring to read something completely in the present. A lot of my travel writing I do in the present, though. The story I'm writing now about Burma is like that: "I'm sitting in the temple…" and so on.

 

Do you think your Buddhism enters your writing in other ways?

 

I feel that it's a very fertile dichotomy. It's not like I'm writing as a Buddhist. And somehow—and you've probably found this—the way that you write expresses certain things that are very personal about oneself, but there's huge parts of my life that never make it
into my writing. Somehow they can't, or my talent or way of writing just doesn't include those things.

And sometimes I think, "Why do I do so many things?" Sometimes I'm traveling; sometimes I'm teaching; sometimes I'm writing. None of them represents a one, unified thing. I know this woman who is an artist; she never goes anywhere, except to her studio. That's the only place she ever goes. And I think, "I'm not like that."

 

Even in one of your essays on Buddhism, you talk about there having to be room for different approaches for one person—a spectrum of temperament and personality. But maybe that fragmentation that you felt when you were younger is now a necessity?

 

Well, I feel very at home when I travel. I like it, and I feel like my self is sort of recovered. Being a foreigner in places is actually a feeling I know, especially being a foreigner in South America because I know it so well. It's kind of…where I was.

 

Like going home in a dream that you have over and over. You know it in the dream, but you never see it in reality.

 

Yeah, but also, I don't appear as a foreigner here. That's probably what happens with everybody's past: it disappears and you can't be known except by talking about it or writing about it. But when someone looks at any person, you don't know what their past or their life is. I feel that more acutely because I don't look like I came from South America. People are often very surprised. Like at the checkout, if I
see someone from Latin America, I'm just dying to speak Spanish to them. But then they'll probably think that this means that I think their English isn't good enough. So I usually don't do it. It's as if I'm telling them something other than my desire to speak Spanish with them.

 

It's interesting when you say that it's only in your stories that you can recoup this past that flows like a delta with all its little meandering tributaries, a past lost to anyone in the present. Writing is not so much a compensation as a creating of a world that you want to be there.

 

Sometimes if I write about someone who's modeled on someone else, I almost forget the real person. You forget what their real name was and begin thinking of them as the character that you created, which isn't them any more.

 

Well, take lies. You may not do this, but say you fashion this elaborate lie. Then you tell someone and you believe it more than reality. You don't even remember what the reality is. Which brings me to one of your stories, "La Victoire." Readers often wonder what the creative process is like. How does an author make up all these stories, and a novel, which takes such a long time to read?

 

It takes much longer to write a novel than read it. (Laughter)

 

In "La Victoire," you feature a character some would call a compulsive liar. Given that Victoria loves to lie, and is brilliant at it, might that not be some sort of model for the creative process in general?

 

Yeah, that probably is one of the more abstract stories I wrote, and it has that schema about the lying. She's also meant to discover that she can lie as she's learning a new language, because she's taking French. She learns that she can have another life, and have another self, and with that, realizes that her previous self wasn't her ultimate self. Then the new French-speaking person who she imagines she can be starts speaking in tongues, in a way. She makes stuff up because she realizes she can. So, she breaks the mold of who she thought she was.

 

Saving up the money from the boring typing job and going to this daunting, bikini-wearing French bad-lady is her creative choice. It's a very funny story. I was reading your novel and I recalled the scene where Maggie and the other characters are dancing with the masks, and then I read in a travel article of yours how you'd actually lived that scene in Bolivia.

 

That's the way in which fiction is more true than true, because you can boil it down and make it essentially something. When I was writing my novel, I had this portmanteau feeling: every day when I'd go for a walk and I saw something, say little birds flying up, I'd think, "This is so good; I love this thing!" And it would go into the novel.

 

Could you have written your novel without going, at some point, to South America?

 

That novel, yes. I did want to go to these places, but I don't know if in my next novel I will have to. It was just
that that particular one was based on the disappearance of my grandmother. There was a searching for reasons why things might be the way they are, say, in one's family, or in one's self, based on things that you can't really know. That's what was the impetus. It was my mother's mother I'd never met. She lost touch with my mother when she was about five, and nobody knows what became of my grandmother after my grandparents divorced. There were rumors, and different things were said about her. It's funny that after having written that book based on that feeling, I don't have that feeling in quite the same way anymore. It's as if I were being driven by the ghostly force of this person I never knew. But that's what the book is about: a person going back and trying to find some trace of something that happened that was a mystery, that had been lied about. Lots of families have things they've lied about, and everybody knows that someone's lying about what happened, but they don't know what the truth really was.

I started thinking about an earthquake that happened in Mongolia. It was huge. It was weeks before anyone got there. The mountains were still falling down. That meant there was something intense that happened that no one saw. That got mixed in with the grandmother thing. Then I went to India, and it was all part of the novel and part of my life at the time and part of the things I needed to do. And there was a journalistic assignment too, so I had this three-level thing. Part of it was me wanting to go, part of it was getting the gig to go and writing the journalistic side, and then there were parts I would
save for the novel.

I wrote half the book here, and I finished it while living in Bolivia. I think that's also partly why it comes across as really vivid. I think the vividness is the best thing about that book. There is a lot of light in that part of Bolivia— because we were up at such an altitude. I felt that you could feel that in the book.

 

Your novel was a real treatise on dryness. Coming from Utah, I thought you did a superb job. One aspect of the characters that grabbed me was Maggie's grandmother, Althea, and how very angry she was that her husband, Johnny, wasn't there to witness the sickness and death of their baby. So she sent him away to experience pain and suffering. I liked her mixed emotions: really murky, strong, angry, confused. Too often in novels the grand emotions seem so predictable, the way they're presented to the reader.

 

Yeah, angry women. But I think Maggie's more lost, and she's trying to find something to base her sense of self on. When she is looking for her grandmother, she is sort of looking for that.

 

And she has married Carson, an older man who's a specialist, so she comes as a mere assistant. That situation together with her being married seem destined to cause her some disquiet.

 

Well, she's using him so she can get to the place she wants to go. It was problematic to make her into such a conflicted heroine. I think people might have wanted to like her more, but she's unresolved, very flawed, neurotic. And, I didn't like how one reviewer saw Carson as so negative. Anyway, I made some choices in that book and overwhelmed
the characters, threw them out in this place, put them in the bottom of this canyon. I think if I had it to write over again, I might go through it and put in some more nuance, because I said in the second chapter, "Okay, I'm stripping these people bare. Here they are alone and they don't have that many resources. Maggie doesn't have anyone to talk to." There's a part where I say that if she were in Cambridge, she would have called her friends and they would have all talked about it.

 

I thought Maggie was a good character. You don't have to try to like her too much because she is so human.

 

At the same time I thought, "Carson seems like a jerk," but there's also a way that a lot of men are still like that. Not that they're jerks. I mean, I was hurt by that review because I didn't want him to seem that bad. I wanted him to seem understandable as a person, a missionary type who feels that he has to get something done. And he's so frustrated—nothing is happening. He's down here and really wants to do something. So I wanted people to feel more compassion and understanding for him rather than just think he's a jerk.

 

That's what the review said, but I think Carson came across as an older guy with decades of accomplishments, and he was in situations in the hospital where when Maggie fumbled a bit, he snapped at her.

 

And she wasn't very able to see beyond her own reaction to it, either. She was hypersensitive to that stuff, more dependent on him than she
would've been at home. He's the only person she can talk to, so if he snaps at her, she doesn't have anywhere else to go.

I just wanted to put them into a difficulty that would bring out the worst in both of them.

 

That worked well, and also the cook, Fortunata, asking, "Why do you care so much about what he says?" But that made Maggie's isolation even worse with all the women thinking she cared too much.

 

And that's sort of the American marriage versus the South American marriage, where people don't have such an enmeshment. The expectations are just so different. The guy's the guy, and he's just being a guy, and you're being the woman, and that's it. And maybe in order to be successful with someone, you have to be able to disengage and say, "All right!" And then take it as something that's not personally directed.

 

But they had just been newly married, too. I loved in the beginning when she asks permission to lick a speck of mud off his eyebrow. Now, in terms of Althea's story, how difficult was it to keep those two in tandem without Althea taking over or sounding too much like the main character, Maggie?

 

I thought of that because my mother and my grandmother were traveling around with their husbands, being dragged around the world. Maybe not exactly "dragged"—my mother had grown up in South America and in Mexico City, because her father was a geologist. That's generational in my family. My grandmother went to Peru.
And I read a lot of Victorian women's narratives, women who'd been to Indonesia. And in a way, a lot of women at that time would do their diary—they would write—or their correspondence would be collected. So I thought about those women.

Originally, the story was more Althea's because I wondered, in a way, "How did they do it? How did my grandmothers think about themselves while they were growing up in such small places—one in a small town in Texas, my other grandmother, who later disappeared, in Indiana?" And then they ended up going to these exotic places with the oil business—with these men who'd figured out this new type of career, like going into software today. What did they…think about their lives, and themselves? When I started to write it, I started realizing that I didn't know. The interesting thing turned out to be my curiosity about who they were. That became more important than thinking about all those issues like what kind of toothpaste they would have used. Suddenly I realized that I didn't want to spend my time thinking about all that period stuff. But then, I didn't want to throw out all the work I did.

 

My big question is, why is Althea's story so much in there? It seemed to be Maggie's story.

 

Well, I don't know if this happens for you, but when you think about your family, you often think about the people who came before you. You think, "Well, I'm like them in this way." You construct a parallel yourself: "I know why I'm like this because so and so was like
this." And you say it in a mixture of ways, often bad ways. But in a way, Althea's story was supposed to be half-way Maggie's fantasy about it. It was never totally meant to be independent—it was her construction. That's why in some places it gets murky. You were supposed to know it was Althea and it was separate from Maggie, but at a point, getting past the middle, Maggie is dreaming up what probably happened. It's in between the two.

 

And that's as their stories begin to move closer to intersection.

 

Well, there's an issue whenever you have more than one point of view. It's the kind of thing where you have to strengthen everything else in order to be able to sustain not having one line. One of my terrors when I was writing the book was that I would lose people. It's like you never, never, never give the person an excuse to put the book down. So I felt like I had to seduce the reader all along, because I didn't want to happen what happens to me a lot of times: you read two-thirds of it and then you go, "Bleh!" Or, sometimes when you change points of view, you think, "I don't like this person!" Or, "I'm going to skip until I get back into the chapter with the person I like."

 

Um, I didn't do that. But I was faintly annoyed because I was really getting into Maggie, and then there was Althea. Though after awhile, I was getting into her too! But I was always happy to return to Maggie. Maybe that was due to my sense that Maggie was the major theme and Althea more of a leitmotif. But also, Carson comes across more strongly,
I think, than Johnny Baines, Althea's husband.

 

Johnny's more absent. But, I did think of this as Maggie's book, her story and her evolution. And why Althea's in there is because Maggie wanted to find out about her. But I did want Althea's pain to be something driving the narrative, too, like that loss and that mystery, the affairs and infidelities. And those things all to be mixed in.

 

I saw the Maggie and Althea parallel plots as pivoting like a see-saw on Julia, Maggie's mother and Althea's daughter. Julia was like an absent presence.

 

That's cool. I almost forget about her. But it's as if, "Why would Julia's daughter not know about her grandmother?" Well, because Julia's choice was to try to stabilize herself on the level of appearances, and not have to deal with all these forces. Which is natural if you're the daughter of someone who's really wild. As the child of that "normal" person who's compensating for everything, then you would think, "Why is this so rigid here? Why does this have to be this way and no other way?" There must be some generation skipping. People compensating for different things.

 

Julia was the one character I didn't like. The viewpoint she was putting forth seemed very…ungenerous.

 

Well, she was the product of this liaison. She could be very angry about that. And her falling in love with Johnny, and insisting that Johnny has to be her father, that's one of the mysteries
of paternity in general. Like, "How do girls connect with their fathers? How do they decide those things?" There was a point at which I allowed those characters to be set. Take Johnny, who was the most two-dimensional character in the whole book. Sometimes I go back and think about Maggie's father. I just sort of removed him. He was just not a presence much, and I wonder what would've happened if I would have gone back and put him whole. There's a way in which if I had to write it over again, I would mess with things a little more, though there was a lot of messing already. Maybe that's what you write as your next book. If there are things that are left unexplored in the book that you wrote, then you have to write something else.

 

Julia, as difficult mother, paralleled a number of similar mothers in your short story collection. I wondered whether some of the lost and confused parents were just there as part of the stories, or were you getting at something larger in American culture?

 

I don't know. In "Mr. Peanut" I got excited about writing this sort of nightmarish story, and it was fun to make it more and more nightmarish. I remember hearing details, like when the sink falls off onto her toe. That happened to someone's mother who I knew. I thought, "Oh! this is so horrible, I'm going to put it right in my story." That's like those works of literature with drinking men, but I had the narrator be this drinking girl with all these horrible things happening through a haze.

My mother died of cancer, and it took three years when she was really
kind of sick. And there really were a lot of awful feelings associated with that time. This story that I made around those feelings has completely different events. It's not like that was the story or the life, but I feel like it was driven by those feelings. And then I found other people's stories or plausible situations which would fit the horror of the situation that I had lived through with my mom—just the way things felt, like they were falling apart emotionally in the process of facing death.

So, I wouldn't say that story was a "critique." The distant parents in "Improving My Average," I think, were generic Kennedy era ex-pats—going to parties, cocktails, drinking, so certain of themselves—and maybe in some way my parents appeared like that to me. Not in the sense that that's who they were, but they were carriers of their own culture—a theme in my writing. They carried their culture because they'd already been formed. As children they grew up in one place, and then they moved afterward, adults in a foreign place. Then I was growing up under them, and my parents were talking a lot about the United States, but I wasn't there. I had no experience in the United States. So there were times when my mother would say, "The United States—they elect the president—they don't just have revolutions. That's your country—they pick up the garbage! You should be happy!" And I'd go, "Thanks, Mom, but what's it to me?" And, wherever we were living—Colombia or Argentina—it didn't seem that bad to me. I didn't think the States had to be necessarily better just because she was telling me it was.

Then we would go back for vacation, and my grandmother's house was so weird, and I'd think, "Why is this better?" and "Why do I have to be from there when I'm actually from here—because this is where I am?"

 

I taught for some years in Japan when my daughter was very little. She was fluent and could hang out with people, have tea and cakes with the groundskeepers, and so on. A friend who taught there at the time said he remembered her asking, "How come my mommy doesn't know Japanese?"

 

That big lummox that she is! (Laughter)

 

Yeah. Like, she seems to know everything else…why can't she speak to anyone here?

 

There's a way that being able to speak with servants can be very magical for the servants, to play with these little kids, take them and do little special things with them. There's a real love that happens. But then there is this attitude that the servants are adults, and it's their destiny to work in your house and only get one day off. It's understood that there's a group of people who do this, but especially in the case of Urbino in the story "Urbino," that character used to be something else, but he descended into this servant class by misfortune, rather than being the independent restaurant owner that he was before.

I think those class types of hatreds are there. Surely when you lived in Africa there were those same kind of class issues.

 

Yes, even when, say, Nigerians worked for other Nigerians of the middle class. They would plant money in the pockets of laundry to test a servant's honesty, and so on.

 

Some of that stuff in my novel about letting servants steal a little bit came from an Indian family that I knew. "You know, you just let `em steal a little, and then they won't steal a lot." But I stayed with this family and they said, "Lock you suitcase because the cook will steal from you." I don't remember that much stealing while I was growing up. There was one case where the cook, rather than throwing them away, would chop up the vegetables and then throw all the scraps behind the stove; the scraps mounted up and attracted rats.

 

A great detail that you include in When Mountains Walked. If you had to sit down and think up such a thing….

 

Well, everybody has that. All writers have that, and every person has those things that happen in life that are unique and that they could tell other people about.

 

But writers write them down. Like the narrator in your story "Ringworm" who gets in trouble in the monastery for feeding cats and constantly writing in a notebook.

 

That is true. But also writers can steal them from other people. If someone tells you something, you think, "Well, hmmm, yes, hmmm…." That's why it's hard when you're with other writers. You have to say, "Oh no, that's mine!" or "You can have that… I'm not going to write about that one."

 

You started writing short stories. Were they an apprenticeship for writing the novel? Or while you were doing stories, did someone say, "It's time for a novel!"

 

Well, I felt that. I thought, "Okay, I should try to write one." People always said my short stories were so long and so full that each one was like a novel. And then I thought, "Well, maybe I should see if that means that a novel is an easier form for me." I don't really know, though. There are great writers who only write short stories, like Alice Munro. And then there are mostly novelists who don't write that many short stories. But there are those who write both. I'll have to see….

 

Are you addicted to writing novels?

 

No. I suppose I had fantasies of my novel being made into a movie. Then I'd be rich and happy forever after.

 

I think it would be great. Though in our present moral climate, I suppose you'd have to cut out all the affairs and love babies. You'd have to have everyone getting married….

 

Well, maybe, they always could after the end of the book. And then people were telling me it was going to be so hard to film this thing in South America.

 

They could film the thing in Utah or something. (Laughter)

 

Right. And there's always Antonio Banderas. But for some reason it didn't happen. Though, there's a novel now—Ann Patchett's book Bel Cano—also set
in Peru with terrorists, the siege of the Japanese embassy by the same slightly-romantic terrorist group on which I was basing my story. That's a different story, but I think they'll probably make a movie out of that if they're not starting to do it already.

My novel—I feel like I put so much into that book. I felt like I was just wringing out my soul. Every day I would feel like I had to squeeze out every single thing that was in me. Then do it again the next day! And it went on and on for years. It really affected my life—my social life became smaller because I was so obsessed with it for so long. I think it took me about seven years to write the damn thing. It's funny about novels because they are such a mess and so long. I keep having these second thoughts, like it could have been shorter, or as I was saying earlier, the characters could have been more nuanced. There are so many options. That's what's maddening about writing a novel. There is so much in it, and it's all swirling around. With a short story, there's this little thing that suggests more. But the trajectory is clear: you shoot it up and then you know the end. Or you start carving it in a way that it twists on itself and then it's finished.

 

With your short stories, I'd always be so surprised at what would—or wouldn't—happen at the end.

 

Well, I'm writing more short stories right now. I started writing another novel, and it just started to happen slowly again. I took it to my group, and I revised the first chapter, like thirty times, for about a year—just this first
chapter.

 

About your writers' group. I know how crucial it can be. I'm currently reviewing a biography of Carl Richter—he wrote stories and novels—and he'd always have his wife, and then also his daughter, sit down and listen to what he had just written. Then he would carefully watch their faces and revise according to whether they frowned or smiled. This group of yours—is it the same one you've always had?

 

I stopped writing for awhile after I left Stanford. Then my mother died and I went to a Buddhist retreat to figure out what it meant that she could die…and I thought I was going to not do writing because it was different from meditation, a whole other conceptual thing. But then I just felt that I had to do it. I edited a book of Buddhist sermons and that got me started again. So I took a course at Harvard Extension, and the woman who taught the course invited me into her writing group at the end. Which was…great, because I wouldn't have been able to do it alone. Maybe some people can, but the few times I have taught—in Adult Education or whatever—I always say that most people who really work at something have a context in which their work unfolds.

What's really hard about being a writer is that it's just you, you have to care about it enough not to do other things. Like, to not distract yourself, not go shopping. Sometimes you violate the desires of your family to go off alone and produce something. Then you leave your house and go to Panini [local bakery and café] and no one says, "How
long did you write today?" Sometimes you go to the gym where a person might be nice to you, and you feel like saying, "You know, you're the first person I've talked to all day. Thank you for being so nice!"

It's a very isolated thing, so if you don't build something into your life that is about your writing, then it's much, much harder. Just in that sense I think having a group is important. And I would never have written the things I've written if I didn't have them. Every month I have to write something, and they're expecting me to do it. Then they're sitting there in this house, and we read each other's things. I'll write something and say, "I know this isn't quite right, but I don't know what I should do." And sometimes—I don't want to admit it—I'm trying to get away with something, like, "Maybe people will be fooled by this." And usually they're not. Then I say, "So I do have to account for this aspect!"

Sometimes they even suggest things that are totally off-the-wall, and I think, "Noooo, I want it to be the way I had it." But even just having some other point of view makes it three-dimensional for the first time. And each time it changes: first it's on your computer screen, then you print it out and it already is something else because it's more objective. Then you give it to your first few readers and that's something else. So based on that I revise it. And sometimes I take it back to them again, sometimes once or twice. But there came a point with my last novel that I took it to them too much, and they chewed on it too much. I think they're really good for short stories, but
I think maybe I should've stopped and said, "I'll fix this later." Then I should have taken them chapter two, instead of chapter one, chapter one, chapter one.

 

I was wondering about the use of local politics in your stories, such as "Urbino" or "Ringworm," and your novel.

 

At least in the novel I was trying to have that male-female hook, like a man's action book, with the outer reality in there as much as the inner stuff. So that it would be an adventure with a female-hero type. There were little challenges I set for myself in that context, like writing about a larger, more worldly situation, like with the mine. In the stories the politics are more implicit, I guess.

 

Well, in "Ringworm" the narrator's been through this training within the dictates of reaching enlightenment through distancing oneself from life, while outside the monastery people are being shot and clubbed.

 

Well, that did happen to me, so it's not even that I put it in to be a political thing. I was there, and it was quite shocking.

 

But it works in the story—it's not just there, or local color. It's at this point where the whole distancing thing gets hard. In the Judeo-Christian tradition people don't have to distance themselves from the world. And at the end of the story it's implied that the narrator leaves the monastery. I felt maybe you were expressing the difficulty a Westerner has in following an Eastern religion.

 

I think that partly there's something
going to change anything?" I guess Westerners think that they're really close with someone if we're talking about things that we normally don't talk about. It's a way of becoming close, a feeling like there's real intimacy. I don't think that goes as far in Asia. Although, I guess if someone were really close, they would take a person aside and say, "This is how it is!" But it's an interesting perspective. In Latin America there is more politeness, but the straightforward thing is very strong, too.

 

The story that fascinated me the most was the one story that takes place on US soil: "Judgment." The ending wowed me! Mayland and Linda are so…strange, and this is in a collection where almost everyone seems a bit alien. Where did that story come from?

 

Those were some people that I'd met in my travels in the West. It was a gothic sort of experience.

 

Were you reading Flannery O'Connor when you wrote it?

 

Yeah, kind of. And some people think that's the worst story. Some have said the characters were just grotesque. But people have varying opinions about these things.

The people that I met were very vivid characters. One of them claimed to have been one of the founders of the Hell's Angels before they had bikes—when they were just bad guys. It was this really strong experience just to meet them. But, they aren't the same characters. The first line of that story just came into my head, and I thought, "How am I ever going to be able to write a story
missing in our culture. Or part of those traditions have been lost in the Judeo-Christian traditions…the actual meditation practices. Maybe it's just me, but it seems we want some way of resolving all the disparities in life, all of the fractured sensations, all the contradictions. We want a set of rules that accounts for every single thing. But we never can, so any ideology or impulse like that is flawed from the beginning. It's because you can't resolve things that you want to resolve them. It's because we have these raw, contradictory feelings and emotions that we want to settle everything and make it just lie flat. In a way that's what the story's about as much as anything else. If you get to know Asian people well, you'll find that they have the same kinds of questions as we do. It's just that they come at them from a different angle.

 

I thought it interesting that the two groups of people that you're most familiar with are Asians and South Americans, but particularly in the novel, the indigenous Indian population. And you write somewhere that Westerners want the truth—and civility be damned, since that covers up the truth. The indigenous characters realize that there's a limit to what you can do with truth, that being cautious about other people's feelings is the most important thing. I wondered if there was a connection in your own mind between these two cultural views.

 

Not that much. That's definitely a highly Asian thing, but I think there are these times when you can be really straightforward if you have to be—even if someone's feelings get hurt. And there are times when you think, "What's the point of being straightforward if it's not
based on this first line?" This thing just appeared in my consciousness, and that's how it works—it's not those people, but because of the experience of meeting those people. And, I thought something horrible was going to come out of that first line. But those characters are like you and me—they just have different concepts.

 

I liked how you named it "Judgment," but the characters appeared to have a total lack of judgment. And yet, they were always making judgments about all sorts of things.

 

But they wanted to be happy; they wanted to be loved. They actually had a relationship with each other. I had to fight with an editor from Antaeus for that last line. He wanted me to cut it out. I had to give him a big justification for why the character would've said that. I said, The character doesn't have control of the girl. He's hoping that the next time—well, they kind of worked it out their own way.

 

His line is so incongruous and pathetic and touching. But you had to fight for it?

 

I did. And then I had to fight for the ending of the novel with my editor at Houghton-Mifflin. She thought Maggie should've stayed in Cambridge and had the baby—and not gone back to South America. That would've made her seem more like a balanced person, I guess, more like she had finally seen reason.

 

Any authors that have inspired you to be a writer?

 

Isaac Babel. Flannery O'Connor is great. I love those stark, strong writers. Chekhov is great. What's the saying? "A good movie can show you how to die, but only a good book can show you how to live." Or something like that?

 

Do you read every day that you write?

 

Michael Ondaatje is good to read when I'm writing. He's very vivid, very true to life. He doesn't really theorize that much, but he has a very poetic stream-of-consciousness that's close to the surface of the thing. I love his writing, though I don't like everything he writes. Sometimes I think it's too unstructured. But if I really don't want to go off into my head or into abstractions, then I read a little of Michael Ondaatje. I reconnect with life as it is.

 

I thought that if I were writing a story in which I wanted to balance description of the outer world with what's going on inside an inner world, I'd read you!

 

Hah! Well, stream-of-consciousness is not my forte. I feel like I have to have those outer things going on. And if people get too much like that, I don't like to read it either. It makes me impatient: I want to see…things.

 

Besides, that inner stuff isn't funny, and you're a very funny writer. Even when you're using Spanish words.

 

Yeah, it's stuff that delights me that I put in—the ways that things sound. Or words that I like. I worried about that in the novel—having all this geology and different things I'd have to
explain. That was another technical travail. The character, Johnny, was based on a Japanese guy who died, but he did what Johnny did. He had this whole thing in his head, and it seemed that he arrived at some intuitive grasp though he never came up with an equation. He made four sealed predictions, then died, but they all came true. It was a person who had been thinking about it so much that he developed some special sense. His predictions only worked for some years beyond his death, and his writings were never formulated into anything. But the details about Johnny came from reading earthquake books.

 

I heard that you have a forthcoming novel and wondered if I could get the scoop on it .

 

No, but I have forthcoming short stories that I'm writing. They will come out as a book, I think, and I'm hoping that maybe by March I can send it to the publisher. I have a story coming in the Threepenny Review in the spring. One was in the Mississippi Review Online this summer. I'm foraying into online publishing because I wanted to publish something. It had been awhile. I took some time off, and then I dumped that novel I'd been working on. I felt there was this hiatus, so I let them have the short story even though it was kind of ephemeral.

 

Any title yet for the new story collection?

 

Middle Aged Men. Just a working title….

 

We're at the end, I guess. Oh, one last
question if you don't mind. Do you work at your writing every day?

 

I try to…unless life tries to sweep me away.

Victoria Ramirez (Ph.D., SUNY-Binghampton) has studied in Scotland and taught English as a Second Language in England, Algeria, Nigeria, and Japan before assuming her present position as assistant professor of English at Weber State University. Her published scholarship includes essays on Thomas Pynchon and African women novelists and short story writers. An ongoing novel project focuses on Long Island during the Revolutionary War.

 

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