Friday, February 13, 2015

The perfect snowbound read: Tatjana Soli talks about The Last Good Paradise, the wrong kind of happiness, and so much more

Is getting away from it all on an island paradise really the Nirvana you think it might be? Tatjana Soli's new novel is about broken dreams and broken people, and what it might take to jump start an island and a life worth living--and it's just deliriously good.

Tatjana's bestselling debut novel, The Lotus Eaters,  was the winner of the James Tait Black Prize, \a New York Times Notable Book for 2010, and finalist for the LA Times Book Award among other honors. Her second book, The Forgetting Tree, is a New York Times Notable Book for 2012. Her stories have appeared in Zyzzyva, Boulevard, and The Sun. Her work has been twice listed in the 100 Distinguished Stories in Best American Short Stories. 

 I'm so honored to have her here. Thank you, Tatjana!

 I was dazzled by all the twists and turns in the novel. Just when I thought I knew what was going to happen, you’d shift the sand, and characters would regroup. Did you plan out this novel? What was the writing like? Did anything about the process surprise you this time around?

I always dream of starting out with an outline, a clear sense of a book — beginning, middle, end — but somehow my brain doesn’t cooperate. I literally have to fight my way through a rough draft one sentence at a time. Maybe some book in my future will present itself differently, but so far it’s been a blind process. My favorite description of this is E. L. Doctorow’s famous line: “It’s like driving a car at night: You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

What I did have with this book is a strong feeling for the characters. The story pours through each of them, grabbing on to their obsessions, preoccupations, conflicts. I think it is more character-driven than my other books. Ann and Richard start the story out, and they are at a point where they are notched up to the breaking point by the events in their lives. The writing was like going through a crisis with a good friend; sides of that person’s character are revealed that you might have never known. These characters, as intermittently crazy as they are (or maybe because they are crazy), became my homeboys.

What surprised me in the writing was that I really enjoyed playing with a lighter tone than I had used before. You talk about the tragedy in the book, and there are definitely serious things that happen, but the overall tone is a happy, optimistic one. Straight comedy doesn’t feel true to life to me as a writer (although I love reading comedy and farce in other writers books) but here I think I straddled a tragic-comic line that felt true to me. I tried to make sure the happy stuff was earned.

So much of the novel is so, so incredibly moving--and unexpected. Somehow, the tragedy in the novel, made the joy even more profound. Can you talk about this please?

Thank you for that. That was really something I aimed for the reader to feel, that kind of complex emotional experience. In a way, this book was much more about my experience of life, while my previous ones were more in dialogue with other books that were important to me. As I get older, I notice that the people who are most important to me have this way of bringing light into any situation. Those people are priceless. We all go through difficult life events, whether it’s illness in the family or various professional setbacks, and having a sense of humor, cracking the possibly inappropriate joke to break the tension, makes all the difference in the world in surviving the day. I didn’t have the wisdom to appreciate this in my twenties.

At one point in the novel, Ann says, “if you pursued the wrong kind of happiness, it eventually would grow stale on you.” But how does one know what the right kind of happiness is?

Oh god, if I knew that I’d be on a South Pacific island right now! Seriously, though, each of my characters comes up with a very different “right” answer to that question. I guess happiness is as individual as our fingerprints. I’m always trying to come up with metaphors for my students of what the writing experience is like, but maybe looking for the right kind of happiness is like writing a novel, a sentence at a time, like those headlights in the dark, hoping for the best.

There’s an ache in your novel that I just loved. Dex isn’t feeling the joy fame used to bring him and instead feels himself aging. Richard feels as if he is losing his cooking talent--and his wife, Ann, who feels her past life as a lawyer fading like a tan. Do you think humans are designed to find happiness, or just to seek it?

Well, I’m from gloomy Eastern European stock, and we always tend to see the glass half empty. One of the things I played with in the novel is this idea that as Americans — no matter where we come from or how recently we arrived — we have this national trait of optimism. We truly believe that we deserve to be happy. We absolutely believe in second chances. People from other countries marvel at this hubris, and I think they envy it, too.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I develop writer crushes all the time. Right now I’m working on a historical novel, and I’m obsessed by E. L. Doctorow. He’s just so smart about writing and about history. I get the chance to go to college writing classes occasionally, and I’m always struck how students at that age see everything that is happening as an anomaly; it comes out of nowhere. Then you talk to people in their seventies and eighties, and they see those same things as connected to prior events. I just read a personal letter by a friend of my family, who is ninety-years-old, and he wrote about being at the beach landing at Normandy during WWII. I’ve known this man for many years and yet suddenly he just moved from everyday reality to myth. So I’m thinking about the difference, the tension, between history as reality and as myth.

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