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How I Wrote It: Bob Shacochis on "The Woman Who Lost Her Soul"



Reading The Woman Who Lost Her Soul (one of our Best Books of the Month for September) is a commitment, a marathon, a revelation, and an absolute thrill. But I must confess: I started this book, as I do others that exceed the 500-page mark, with skepticism and a plan to sample twenty pages and move on. The first hundred pages flew past, as did the next hundred, and the next. I wasn't just hooked, I was transfixed.

Soaring across time and place, from 1990s Haiti to 1946 Croatia to 1980s Istanbul, the story never slows. It is smart and magical; sexy and lurid; propulsive and unpredictable; as a commentary on the ancient hatreds that would build to 9/11, it is quite troubling. (Read my full review here.) This is a breathtaking work from a National Book Award winner who should once again be on the radar of the literary award judges.

Here's how the book, ten years in the making, came to be...

Who did you write this book for?

Shacochis, Bob B&W photo credit - Kelly Lee ButlerWhen my editor at Grove Atlantic first asked me who did I think my audience was for The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, I told her, People who pay attention. Pay attention to other people (no narcissists, please), pay attention to their country, pay attention to the world and America's impact on the world and, finally, people who pay attention to language and literature. The structure of TWWLHS is a bit complicated, as is the plot. You're not going to be able to follow the narrative if you have some attention deficit problem, or if you can't focus on anything bigger than a tweet. The best you'll be able to do, probably, is enjoy the book cover--it's a beautiful cover.

On a more personal level, the book is dedicated to my mother, who died in my arms in 2005, and to my friend and colleague Liam Rector, who built the Bennington Writing Seminars from the ground up. Crushed under the weight of a failing heart, Liam killed himself in 2007. I dearly wish they were both alive to read the book (and to be a bit amazed that I ever finished the beast).

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul is meant to be a fifty-year-long prologue dramatizing the culture and the sweeping forces--philosophical and political--in America that would eventually lock us as a nation into a position of permanent war.

What's does the opening line say about the book?

The key word in the first line is obsession. Obsession with sex, obsession with history, obsession with religion, obsession with power, obsession with vengeance, obsession with justice, raw or otherwise.

When I was reporting on the invasion and occupation of Haiti by the American military for Harper's Magazine, I met, very briefly, a beautiful young photojournalist in Port-au-Prince who told me she had lost her soul. I don't even remember the name of this woman, but she certainly became my obsession.

[First line: "During the final days of the occupation, there was an American woman in Haiti, a photojournalist -- blond, young, infuriating - and she became Tom Harrington's obsession."]

Space

51qEQk6QQ6L._SY346_SH20_I write half the year in my studio--a one-room wooden cabin--on my property 8,000 feet up in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of northern New Mexico. I can look out my window to a meadow and, beyond that, a ridgeline of Ponderosa pines in the Carson National forest. When I leave the main cabin--off-the-grid; solar energy only--to come to my studio to work, my three dogs come with me. One crawls under the bed, one climbs on top of the bed, and the third one sits at my feet. Everybody behaves perfectly until 4 in the afternoon, when it's time to go on a walk up the mountain, then come home and have dinner.

What's on my desk are mounds of books, sheafs of print-outs from articles I've read on the Internet that I want to read again, an overflowing ashtray, spiderwebs connecting my desk to the wall, my laptop and printer, my dictionary and thesaurus, and pictures of my mother and my many dogs (living and dead) and a photo of my wife in a bikini (woo woo).

Back in Florida, where I teach at Florida State University, we have a two-story house in an old downtown neighborhood. This house has the only basement, I think, in Florida, and it floods when it rains, which is often. I work in that basement, which is like working in a swamp, with tadpoles and fungus and legions of cockroaches. I write at an old (1867) roll-top desk that came out of the railroad station in Herndon, Virginia. It was a friend's grandmothers and he gave it to me many years ago. I could write upstairs in one of the spare bedrooms, I guess, but I suppose I like the subterranean squalor--the exact opposite of the atmosphere and ambiance of my studio in New Mexico.

Tools

Barely tech-literate. I have a Compact laptop, a tiny Canon printer, and that's about it. I scribble a lot of notes on whatever paper is lying around, and I fill the end pages of books I'm reading with notes and images and phrases that will eventually go straight into whatever book or magazine piece or lecture I'm writing. My entire writing process is very disorganized, very sloppy. I can't open docx files on my laptop. My wife gave me an Ipad last year and spent three hours trying to teach me how it worked and I took it to Argentina on an assignment a few months ago but could never figure out how to turn it on. What can I say? Twenty years ago I was writing on a typewriter. My wife was kind enough to transfer the 1000-page manuscript of Swimming In the Volcano onto her computer so the book could be delivered to the publisher on a floppy disc. After that enormous labor of love she vowed she would never do that again. You better learn how to use a computer, asshole, she wisely told me. Well, right. I've learned just enough to get by. And I do love my laptop, but I reached my capacity with it years ago. I feel like a pig staring at a wristwatch when helpful people try to teach me to do anything more with it than I can already do.

Soundtrack

I can never listen to music while I'm writing. It's too distracting. The soundtrack for my imagination is silence.

Fuel

Cigarettes and coffee, period. When cocktail hour rolls around, I'm on the vodka, but I could never drink alcohol and write at the same time. After one drink in the middle of the day, I'd just want to take a nap.

Words

I'm always reading when I'm writing. I'll write for twenty minutes, get up and read for ten minutes. The work of other writers inspires me, puts a cadence in my head, a rhythm which helps me ease into my own subconsciousness, a trance-like place where the world falls away and the world of the writing dominates. If what I'm reading has any other influence on my own writing beyond the spirit of creation, I wouldn't know about it.

Research

Not to be glib, but the answer is simple--I read books, whatever I can find, about the history of a place and its people and landscapes. For me, there's no purer pleasure in the writing process than research, the most lovely form of procrastination.

Inspiration

Adderall, or else I'd be napping all the time. And yes, walks.

Temptation

Every goddamn thing on earth.

Surprises

That it seems to be an inalterable fact that it takes me ten years to write a fucking novel.  

[Author photo by Kelly Le Butler]



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