© Louis Monier
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
conducted by Bret
BAJ: First and foremost,
congratulations on being a finalist for the National
Book Award! One of the staples of the finalist-interview
genre seems to be the question of where you were when
you found out. How did you find out about being a finalist?
Has it sunk in yet?
Brother, I’m Dying,
when my father finally reached me on the telephone.
He and my agent—my father and I have the same
agent, the wonderful Susan Ginsberg—had been trying
to find me for days. (Perhaps this is a bit of an exaggeration,
but my father is like that.) They were both very excited.
Good news, he said…
I live in Jeremie, a small
town in southern Haiti, where my wife works with the
United Nations Peacekeeping Mission here. As it happens,
Jeremie is very peaceful most of the time, bordering
even on dull: we have a gingerbread house with a view
on one side of a big green mango tree, and on the other
side, of the Caribbean. Sometimes I go days without
checking my email, or turning on my cell phone—and
this is just what happened last Monday. It was raining
all morning and I was looking at the water splash off
the big green mango tree and reading Edwidge Danticat’s
very sad memoir,
BAJ: Has the award
business sunk in yet?
No, not really: I’ve
been trying to explain to everyone in Jeremie that this
is a very big deal, but nobody but my wife really seems
to understand here. I’ve been practicing my pleased
but still modest demeanor so that nobody thinks I’m
stuck-up or it’s all gone to my head, but to tell
the truth, I don’t think anyone’s really
noticed a difference. Most of the Haitians thought I
was kind of strange before, and I think they still do.
BAJ: In a country such
as ours, where reading is in such a state of crisis,
what is the role of the fiction writer? Does being a
finalist for such a prestigious award affect how you
view yourself in that role?
I’m not really qualified
to answer this question. I’ve been living abroad
the better part of the last ten years, and I don’t
know much about the reading habits of most Americans,
or the role of the fiction writer in America. I do know
that “state of crisis” has a very different
meaning here in Haiti—and when it comes to reading,
well, seventy percent of the population is illiterate.
I don’t know what the
role of the fiction writer is in America, but I am sure
of this: it’s a great time to be a reader of fiction
(a reader of anything, really) in America. There isn’t
another country in the world that produces the sheer
volume and abundance of fiction as America—one
only has to set foot in Barnes & Noble and look
around the fiction section to realize what a staggering
number of stories America produces. (This is an experience
that has made many a novelist want to put their head
in their hands and moan.) And good fiction, too: so
many interesting, amusing, moving and beautiful novels,
novellas, and short stories are being written by American
writers that I couldn’t possibly hope to read
more than a fraction of our national creative output.
This is not to mention the other forms of fiction—the
wonderful writing for television and the screen. There
is nothing in the world like The Wire or The
Sopranos. (The Wire, by my lights, is
nothing less than a great novel.) There is so much great
writing out there that even if you never wrote a word,
American readers could gorge themselves on good writing
all day every day for a lifetime.
So that’s certainly the
greatest change between last Sunday, when I wasn’t
nominated for anything, and Monday. Last Sunday, I felt
a little like I had bad breath in a crowded bar filled
with beautiful people; then the National Book Award
people call, and it’s like this beautiful blonde
turns around, flips her hair, and says, “Tell
me all about yourself,” and wants my opinions
on things like the role of the fiction writer in America.
BAJ: How long did you
work on Fieldwork?
I kept drafts of the novel
on my computer. The earliest dates from April, 2003.
The final galleys were in my editor’s hands July,
2006. But I did a lot of the research before I got started.
BAJ: What drew you
to the story?
I was living in northern Thailand
under conditions very similar to the eponymous hero
of the novel—schoolteacher girlfriend, broke,
trying to make a living as a freelance journalist—when
I was introduced to a number of American missionaries
working with the Lisu, one of the northern Thai hill
tribes. I was wonderfully fascinated by both the missionaries
and the Lisu—I wanted to know why the missionaries
were there, and why the Lisu were listening to them.
That’s when I conceived the idea of writing the
history of a conversion of tribal people to Christianity.
I had stumbled across a story of, very literally, Biblical
dimensions. It’s not so often you come across
one of those.
BAJ: How does the
book compare to other prose you’ve written?
It’s longer and better.
BAJ: Were there moments
in your writing process where you worried the book wouldn’t
work? If so, how did you press on?
I never thought the book wouldn’t
work, because I had such a clear plot in mind. The road
map was very clear. But there were times when I thought
that I might not be able to write it, because I got
hung up on a certain scene, and I didn’t know
how to move forward. I always thought: if I just write
this chapter, the rest of the book will fly. But I also
thought: I’d rather die than finish this chapter.
Some of these scenes, in the end, were not important
(although it took me awhile to realize that sometimes)
and I just left them out; but others were essential,
like the ending, which I found exceedingly difficult
More experienced writers may
disagree, but I suspect that very difficult moments
are often a sign of a lack of interest on a writer’s
part, or simply not having enough to say. Almost always,
the most successful strategy was to detour around the
obstacle, rather than blast through it. It wasn’t
necessary to write a long description of Thomas Walker’s
time in a Chinese prison. The question asked myself
was: If you don’t know how to write this, or if
you don’t want to write this, why write it?
BAJ: If there is a
common thread among this year’s fiction finalists,
it might be that all of the books employ interesting
narrative structures and scopes. In Fieldwork,
you’ve used something akin to a pulp writer’s
sense of plot—the book is, in the best possible
ways, a hardboiled page turner—and you’ve
also, in something of a postmodern twist, given the
narrator your own name. Did you conceive of such narrative
acrobatics before beginning to write the book, or did
the symbiotic relationship between the subject and structure
emerge more intuitively?
As I mentioned above, before
there was novel, there was a journalistic project—I
had in mind a book about the conversion of the Lisu.
I even wrote a proposal and a sample chapter which my
agent sent out to a dozen or so publishers. None of
them were interested. I noticed that my friends and
family had this particular look in their eyes whenever
I mentioned the Lisu, like I was discussing changes
in the home amortization deduction of the tax code.
I was convinced that the Lisu and their conversion were
interesting, but everyone else thought they were so
boring. I put the Lisu and the missionaries aside.
A few years later—I remember
it very clearly—on a warm afternoon in Paris in
springtime, I was reading the short stories of Somerset
Maugham, which are so rich in plot and drama and sheer
story, and I dozed off. When I woke up, I realized that’s
what my Lisu story needed: a plot. And I had a great
plot in mind.
Fieldwork thus began
as a thought experiment: I tried to imagine what would
have happened if, in that year I spent in northern Thailand,
I had come across a great story—in the journalistic
sense of the word ‘story’ as much as the
literary. I wanted the reader to go the same places
I went that year and meet many of the same people, but
have the forward momentum that only murder can give
a novel. I was determined to write a novel that compelled
the reader to take an interest in the conversion of
the northern Thai hill tribes and the lives of missionaries
and the history of anthropology. I wanted to write a
fictional work of literary non-fiction, as it were.
In the end, the fiction overwhelmed the non-fiction,
but that’s how things started.
If the decision to write a
plotted novel was very intentional, the choice of the
narrator’s name was rather haphazard. Given that
I was creating a narrator so similar to myself, it was
only natural to lend him my own name, just to get things
started. This was not some very deep decision. It just
kind-of happened. Over time, the narrator’s story
diverged from my own quite significantly, just as the
Dyalo became very different from the Lisu. Nevertheless,
I kept the name, for a reason all novelists will understand:
it was the character’s name, and to call him anything
else would have felt strange.
BAJ: Finally, when
you were writing Fieldwork, did you have an
audience or ideal reader in mind? If so, who?
I always write with my family
in mind, although if I think about them too much while
I’m writing a get all self-conscious.
My first reader is my wife,
to whom I read aloud: she is Italian, and if I succeed
in maintaining her interest with what I write in English,
I know that things are going the right direction. Reading
to somebody who is not a native English speaker inevitably
improves what I write. It puts greater emphasis on dialogue,
and forces me to cut down on wordy or precious descriptions.
When Cristina gets bored, she falls asleep, which to
me is a very clear sign of something.
Then I send off what I have
written to my sister, herself a wonderful novelist,
and my father, who is the finest writer and most perceptive
reader that I know.
Finally, there is my
mother whose taste is unpredictable but who is terrifyingly
honest in her opinions.
Anthony Johnston is the author of internationally acclaimed
and the editor of Naming
both from Random House. In 2006, he received the “5
Under 35” fiction honor from the National
Book Foundation. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’
Workshop, and is currently the Director of Creative
Writing at Harvard University. For more information,
please visit: www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.