Having recently read and reviewed her debut novel, The Lotus Eaters, I am honored to present this interview with author Tatjana Soli.
1) Welcome, Tatjana! Please tell us about the inspiration behind your debut novel, The Lotus Eaters. Was there a "final straw" which compelled you to write this particular book?
TS: I was always fascinated by the war, probably because my mom worked for NATO and at Fort Ord during the war, so the military was something familiar to me from an early age. That said, two things triggered me to finally write about Vietnam. First, I came across the story of Dickey Chapelle, one of the first women photojournalists in Vietnam, actually she was also the first one to be killed there. I had never heard of women serving in the capacity of journalist, and I was fascinated. Through research, I came across another, Katherine Leroy. As fascinating and inspiring as both of these women were, though, they were the starting points. The character of Helen is a creation of a story I wanted to tell. The other element of the story came from living next to Westminster, one of the largest Vietnamese communities outside of Vietnam. I was very interested in the stories of immigration to the U.S. after the war. The story of the Vietnamese became equally compelling to me.
2) In your book the protagonist, Helen Adams, is a strong character, a woman driven by the need to make some sense of her brother's death, and also to realize her ambitions as a combat photographer. How does her drive compare with your own? How much of you is in Helen?
TS: I am a great admirer of the adventure narratives of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, and, well, because I am a woman, I wanted to write something where a woman was the main character. More than that, I wanted the woman to be complex, to have flaws, to grapple with big issues. In terms of finding a narrative stance, a woman in the particular setting of Vietnam during the war is a natural outsider, and that is a viewpoint that provides a perspective that allowed me to explore the issues I wanted to.
3) You realistically portray what it may have been like for the first woman photojournalist trying to record the Vietnam War. Are there prominent women combat photographers today, or is it still considered a profession for men?
TS: It is still a profession primarily of men, although I read that up to a fourth of the photojournalists in Iraq are female, so there has been a significant change. A few of the women that I have read about, Stephanie Sinclair, Andrea Bruce Woodall, Stacy Pearsall, and especially the late Margaret Moth, are especially prominent in the field. But when you read interviews of them, the issues that they deal with, the reasons that they do the work, are little changed from Vietnam.
4) You have included an extensive bibliography at the back of this book, and obviously did a lot of research for this book. How affecting was the research? How were you able to handle the horrors of war on an emotional level?
TS: It does affect you. I read Vietnam books, mostly non-fiction, for over a year, including books by Vietnamese writers about the war, but also about history and culture. The unrelenting violence, the suffering, the waste, were hard to stay with for that long of a period, and I did feel a real sadness. Even now it drives me crazy how the media ignores coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. If our troops are there, shouldn't that stay in the forefront of the news? The biggest thing I've learned personally is that most of us don't know the first thing about real hardship. People endured so much then, all sides, anyone in that country, and I've tried to be really grateful for the ordinary joys of life.
5) On a lighter note, when a Vietnamese restaurant opened near to us, I was pleased, and soon became ecstatic because my kids actually liked the food as well. Reading your book, I had cravings for pho, mentioned several times, as well as other Vietnamese food. Do you have a favorite Vietnamese dish?
TS: Exactly! The ordinary joys of life. I have a local restaurant that specializes in Vietnamese baked catfish. If you come in a group, the fish that arrives is as big as your table! Then you wrap pieces in rice paper or lettuce, add herbs and sauce. This is making me hungry.
6) In addition to your writing, you also teach writing workshops. What advice do you think is most valuable for aspiring writers, especially women?
TS: I always tell my students that they have to develop both a regular writing AND reading schedule. It's so important to read everything, to see what has been done, what can be done, to join the dialogue of contemporary writing. That's absolutely essential in developing one's voice. The best writers in my classes are always the ones who are well-read.
7) Are you working on another book or project, and if so, can you tell us something about it?
TS: I am deep into a novel set on a citrus farm in contemporary Southern California. I purposely wanted to give myself very different technical challenges than in The Lotus Eaters. That's what keeps me getting up in the morning for the years of work it takes to complete a book.
Thank you, Tatjana! I enjoyed learning about "the story" behind the story, and appreciate your thoughtful answers. I expect to see The Lotus Eaters on the NY Times bestseller list before too long. Please keep me posted about the book you're currently working on.
Special thanks to Lisa from TLC for helping to arrange this interview. For more reviews of this book, visit the other stops on TLC's The Lotus Eaters book tour. Please visit my review for an opportunity to win a copy of The Lotus Eaters. Comments welcomed.