A conversation with Paulette Jiles on writing NEWS OF THE WORLD

  

 

What draws you to write about the Civil War era?

I was first drawn to it when I was researching the Civil War era in the Missouri Ozarks when doing family genealogy. That research went into Enemy Women. If you are a writer, research is really kind of an investment, a storehouse of stuff, facts, images and documents ready to hand. I was thinking of a sequel to Enemy Women in which I envisioned Adair and the Major moving to north Texas.  So I looked into conditions in North Texas at the end of the War and discovered stories about the black frontiersman Britt Johnson, which led to more research for Color of Lightning. This included discovering Captain Kidd by hearing about him from a neighbor here where I live. This neighbor’s ancestor was a real newsreader named Captain Kidd, or Kydd. It also led to looking into the intriguing subject of captives held by the Kiowa and Comanche tribes. And these things gave rise to News of the World. When you begin research, you step onto the Yellow Brick Road and there is no end to it. No end to the stories.

How many months or years of research went into gathering the fascinating historical details we see in the book?

It is hard to say how much time went into research for News of the World, because it all came from that storehouse I have of sources for both the Civil War, Texas and the clothing, etc. of that time. It was cumulative, from two previous novels. I used Wikipedia a great deal and especially the further references at the end of every Wikipedia article, and their sources. Also, I must say the fact-checkers at Harper Collins were wonderful, very keen and interested, they found mistakes I had let slip by and also pointed me to other sources. To get things right you have to love research. It’s an addiction.

Fans of The Color of Lightning will be happy to see Britt Johnson reappear in News of the World. How did you come upon the idea of bringing him into this narrative?

I was amazed that he had not been given a fuller treatment in literature, he is an archetypal hero figure, like Roland or Beowulf or El Cid. His story, while true, has all the attributes of the classic tragic hero. I just went back to the scene in Color of Lightning when Captain Kidd is reading from a newspaper about the Fifteenth Amendment while Britt and his crew, Dennis and Paint, stand in the back of the hall listening. It is raining. Something momentous is taking place. I shifted this scene into its own book, page one, and suddenly the subject becomes a captive girl. You can always use a good scene twice!

How would you explain your love of the Texas landscape, which figures so prominently in your overall body of work?

Some people are just born with a love of landscape or the outdoors, or gardening, or raising large animals, or searching through the non-urban world for treasure. It’s in your DNA or something. I am one of those people. We should have a secret sign. Part of the fun of researching Color of Lightning was driving up to North Texas with a friend, June Chism, to the Red River country. She and her husband Wayne have relatives there, as well as friends (ranchers) who took me down to the Red River, where I found the place Britt would likely have crossed, and we found the Stone Houses, and visited Spanish Fort, etc. It is a beautiful and also dangerous country. It is dramatic. There are fires, droughts and floods, rolling red land, astonishing skies. June’s husband Wayne Chism is the one whose ancestor was the real newsreader, who traveled from town to town in North Texas to read the news of the day to those assembled. Captain Kidd or Kydd. The moment Wayne told me about his great-great grandfather I knew this was a truly great character. I put him into the rainy chill landscape of North Texas in Color of Lightning, but I knew there was more there.

What emotional aspect of the story do you think readers will appreciate most?

I think readers will most appreciate the Captain’s courage in doing the right thing. His protection of the innocent, his staunch defense, even to the risk of his life, of a child in need.

Paulette Jiles is a novelist, poet, and memoirist. She is the author of Cousins, a memoir, and the novels Enemy Women, Stormy Weather, The Color of LightningLighthouse Island, and News of the World. She lives on a ranch near San Antonio, Texas.

Find out more about Paulette at her website.

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THE TUSK THAT DID THE DAMAGE offers a potent, multi-perspective view of elephant poaching in India

The Tusk That Did the Damage  tlc tour host

The Tusk That Did the Damage

By Tania James

Knopf: March 10, 2015

$24.95, 248 pages

Occasionally a book comes seemingly from out of nowhere to grab you by your heart and mind and leave a permanent impression behind when you’re finished.

The Tusk That Did the Damage is just such a book. I was not familiar with Tania James or her previous books (a novel, Atlas of Unknowns, and a story collection, Aerogrammes) when I was contacted a few months ago by TLC Book Tours to gauge my interest in reading her latest novel. The premise sounded intriguing and, if carried out to its potential, capable of being a powerful read. I agreed to read it in exchange for my honest opinion (other than sending me an advance copy of the book and setting a date for me to post my review, TLC has not contacted me).

Tusk far exceeded my expectations. It is a masterful work that explores the various aspects of the illegal ivory trade in southern India. By combining timeless conflicts among humans and between humans and both the animal kingdom and the natural world, James has crafted a book that will hold most readers spellbound.

James uses a three-pronged narrative to provide readers with a panoramic view of life in the highlands of southern India, where elephant poaching is widespread. The first narrator we encounter is “The Elephant,” known as the Gravedigger. He was orphaned as a calf and raised to be exhibited, but his years of mistreatment have led him to escape his captors for a life of freedom and revenge. When the opportunity is presented, he kills humans and “buries” them and attempts to cover them with brush, virtually “erasing” them in the process.

Then we are introduced to the first-person narrative of a studious and ambitious young man named Manu, who has known only a life of extreme poverty and abuse as the son of a rice farmer.

The third point of view is provided by an American documentary filmmaker, Emma, who has recently graduated college and, along with her best friend, Teddy, is attempting to make a film about an Indian veterinarian who is attempting to rescue elephants calves and reunite them with their mothers (who are said to reject calves if they have had contact with humans).

The three narratives circle each other warily, eventually moving toward each other. Manu’s older brother Jayan is a small-time criminal who is part of a large poaching ring. Manu dreams of education as his escape from a life of few options and struggles to stay out of Jayan’s life. While nothing truly excuses the ivory poachers, we learn what drives them to destroy these incredible creatures in order to obtain their valuable tusks.

Emma and Teddy work together almost telepathically, but their project is complicated by Teddy’s developing interest in Emma and, more crucially, Emma’s attraction to subject of their documentary, Ravi Varma, the head veterinary doctor at the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center on the edge of the Kavanar Wildlife Park.

Manu’s life changes when the Gravedigger kills and attempts to bury his cousin and best friend, Raghu. Manu was supposed to have been with Raghu that night and knows he would have been killed as well, leaving him haunted by survivor’s guilt as well as sadness and anger.

James weaves the plot strands together, turning the screw steadily toward the story’s inevitable tragedy. For The Tusk That Did the Damage is a tragedy despite the best intentions of some characters. The core of the novel is the universal conflict between idealism and pragmatism. We see it in the interactions of the film makers with Ravi Varmar and Samina Hakim (the Divisional Range Officer of the Forest Department), between Manu and Jayan, as well as Jayan’s wife, and between the elephant caretakers who are responsible for the Gravedigger at various stages of his life. James depicts the cruelty and kindness shown to elephants and humans — and the consequences of such treatment.

Everything is other than as it seems. Dr. Varmar is not without self-interest. Samina Hakim manages the forests in which elephants are supposed to be protected from poachers and other threats to their well-being. But the Forest Department allowed the Shankar Timber Company to clear large tracts of land, which disrupted the elephants’ habitat and led some of them to stray into neighboring villages, with dire results for humans and elephants. Emma and Teddy want to create a documentary with an important message, but they also view it as a means to achieve career goals. The low-level poachers like Jayan are not without justification for their actions, which are motivated by desperate circumstances. No one is completely innocent, yet no one is utterly corrupt either.

All of these conflicting impulses become entangled as the plot progresses.

Perhaps James’s greatest accomplishment here is the voice she has created for the Gravedigger. He is not human, and he does not think or express himself like a human. James has crafted a limited third-person point of view to depict the elephant’s thought processes, and it seems the perfect solution to this narrative challenge. He is both a character in the novel and an overarching presence of “The Elephant.”

When he is first used as part of a religious ceremony, he observes the crowd looking at him. “The people wrapped around him, parted wherever he walked, each face resembling the next, like river stones washed smooth of distinction.”

When he is sold to a man who owns several elephants that he rents out for various purposes, we experience his disorientation.

“So one day the Gravedigger was picking the Candy Man’s pockets; the next day he was trapped in an open truck bed and bumping down the road to a new home. Sudden changes disagreed with the Gravedigger. He still trembled when remembering the day he was trucked out of the forest and into the Sanctuary, when life narrowed to a pitch-black cavern, and every which way was a wall. Then, as now, he perceived little of his situation. One comfort sustained him — that Old Man [his kind caretaker] had come along.”

While the characters, setting, and plot are all powerfully presented, James’s prose also stands out. It is usually direct and muscular, well suited to the story. But occasionally, her writing stretches out and becomes lyrical. Early in the book, Emma and Teddy take a taxi to meet Dr. Varma.

“We careened through plantations of coffee and tea, rows of bushes ribboning over the shallow slopes, bedazzled with bright red berries. A silver oak shimmied against the wind, its trunk a smear of marigold fungus. Easier to miss were the ditches carved around the plots, meant to keep wild elephants from snacking on the berries. From time to time, a mother and calf would loot the bushes, and the calf would slip and tumble into a ditch, out of its mother’s reach.” This is writing that demands to be read aloud.

When you finish The Tusk That Did the Damage you will have a more nuanced knowledge of the elephant poaching problem. What can we reasonably expect to accomplish, and how? What compromises must be made? For the elephant is not just part of the wildlife in India; it is central to the Hindu faith and the stories Indians tell about themselves, their land, and their way of life. These myths cast a shadow across much of the book, giving it the feel of a timeless fable as well as a contemporary socio-political novel.

The Tusk That Did the Damage is a short, sharp shock of a book that will leave readers with much to think about.

THE HEROES’ WELCOME examines post-war life in 1919 England

The Heroes' Welcome  tlc tour host

The Heroes’ Welcome

By Louisa Young

Harper Perennial: March 10, 2015

$14.99, 272 pages

One of my particular interests in recent books, oft explored in this blog, is fiction by women about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially the nature of PTSD and soldiers’ attempts to reenter civilian society. While this subject has been revived by the latest war(s), it is as old as war itself. One can find classic novels about the post-war experience following the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, and, of course, Vietnam.

Perhaps the best writing about soldiers’ post-war lives are the novels set during and just after WWI by British writers Pat Barker (the Regeneration trilogy), Sebastian Faulks (Birdsong), and Elizabeth Jane Howard (The Cazalet Chronicles). The Great War, with its trench warfare and first use of poison gas and aeroplanes, produced a level of carnage not seen before.  Many of those who survived returned home with head injuries, missing limbs, lung damage, and/or shell shock, only to find that they were faced with fighting another war on the home front, one for acceptance and normality.

Louisa Young’s The Heroes’ Welcome is the second book in a planned trilogy that began during the war with My Dear I Wanted to Tell You. And while it is probably best to have read the first book, one can still read the second book without feeling she is missing too much. On the other hand, the consensus among those who have read both novels is that My Dear is the better of the two books; so if the subject and premise interest you, it is probably worth starting at the beginning.

Heroes picks up in 1919, six months after Armistice Day, as 23-year-old Captain Riley Purefoy returns to London with a mouth and jaw that have been reconstructed through surgeries that were groundbreaking at the time. His appearance is unsettling to others, he has immense difficulty eating, and he cannot speak clearly. He would appear to be on the path to a life of isolation. But his fiancee, Nadine Waveney, awaits him, and they quickly marry and attempt to build what they know is a life that bears little resemblance to the one they’d planned. The stereotypical British reticence to talk things out only complicates the fraught circumstances, as does the disapproval of Nadine’s parents.

The other central characters are Riley’s commanding office, Peter Locke, and his wife, Julia. While Peter is physically whole, he is emotionally shattered by certain events in the war, and takes solace in alcohol, with predictable results on the condition of his mind and his marriage.

Young’s book explores the heroism displayed at home by returning soldiers like Purefoy and Locke. For despite their very human flaws and failings, they want desperately to regain their footing and make their way with their wives, work, and the world.

The narrative involving Riley and Nadine is more involving and satisfying, as they are more sympathetic characters and they behave as rationally as one could expect. The story of Peter and Julia (and their young son, Tom) is more melodramatic, even Gothic at times (Julia’s affair). This strand is just not executed as well, or perhaps it is just not as plausible, which seems crucial in a setting that demands realism.

The two aspects of The Heroes’ Welcome that stand out are Young’s handling of inner monologues and her fluid prose, which provides an elegance that suits the Downtown Abbey-like setting. Occasional overwriting doesn’t get in the way of these characters and their heartbreaking conflicts.

While The Heroes’ Welcome is not quite in the same class with the work of Barker, Faulks, or Howard, this is a respectable addition to the literature of WWI, a historical drama that combines literary fiction and elements of melodrama to create an involving and at times powerful novel.

An advance copy of The Heroes’ Welcome was provided to me by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest opinion. You can read reviews by other participating bloggers from March 10-March 30 here