American writer and journalist, Bob Shacochis, RPCV

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An interview with writer and journalist, Bob Shacochis, Barbados RPCV

An interview with writer and journalist, Bob Shacochis, Barbados RPCV

American writer and journalist, Bob Shacochis, RPCV


by Trey Strecker Ball State University

©1999 Trey Strecker, all rights reserved. Photo: James Plath

The following interview took place on June 12, 1996, in New Harmony, Indiana, during the annual Rope Walk Writers' Conference.

Q: Critics have focused their attention on your Caribbean travels. What motivated you to go there in the first place?

A: Oh, my goodness. It's a very long, complicated answer. Do you want to come back to it?

Q: What is it that you find in the Caribbean that sustains your literary imagination?

A: It's a question that I should not just have an answer for, but a ready answer for. And it's something that I've articulated to myself many times. Intuitively, I know what it is about the Caribbean, but I'm worried that the things that I'm going to say are simply obvious. The Caribbean is the antithesis in many ways of the white, middle-class, suburban life that I was born into, and to travel there for the first time when I was a seventeen-year-old kid, I had been attracted by photographs in Surfer magazine of waves down there, and I had grown up in the age of the Beach Boys, I had come of age with all that music, and on the East Coast, and it was something that was a passion for me. Against my father's wishes I got my surfboard and got on a plane and left the country. I'd much rather be Henry James, telling how I was born into my father's library, because, you know, the answer is stupid. I wanted to go surf and the pictures of palm trees seduced me. And it's ultimately a shabby little answer. I wanted to have some fun.

Q: What drew you back?

A: I wanted to leave the country. It was 1973. I had just graduated from college. Watergate was about to unravel. The Vietnam War was still going on. Nixon had just been re-elected president. I was going to school in the Midwest, where every pickup truck had a bumpersticker that said, "Love It or Leave It." I found this to be good advice, and I left, and headed for South America because I wanted to surf, I wanted to smell the fires of revolution igniting and--this sounds very dramatic--I wanted to go see the world. It just seemed to me what a young lad did to further his education. So I went to Miami and tried to get a job on a sailboat, and actually did get a job on a sailboat as an organic chef for a doctor who was the anesthesiologist on the very first open-heart surgery team in England. He was crazy. He had just been arrested for smuggling drugs from Jamaica, and his pregnant wife left him and aborted the fetus. And he was looking for somebody to go off with him into the wild blue yonder. But he turned out to be a madman, and I got off the boat and got a plane ticket and headed for South America. I was flying to the closest part of South America, the cheapest, closest part, which was an island owned by Columbia called San Andreas. On the flight I sat next to a scuba diver/treasure salvager who invited me to come to where he was on an adjacent island in the archipelago and he'd teach me how to scuba dive. That was a fine offer, and I went and stayed for a year and never really made it to the mainland. I sailed back on a 32-foot sloop a year later, sick, broke, and immediately started scheming on how to get back . . . and the way that I discovered to take me back was by joining the Peace Corps as an agricultural journalist.

Q: Did you read or write much while you were living in the Caribbean?

A: I read like crazy, and I tried to write. I was twenty-one years old and I tried to do a National Geographic article on the area, and even brought down photographers. I think we did a pretty good job. We got about halfway through the project, ran out of money. I went to Washington, D.C. to the National Geographic headquarters, and they said, "My, aren't you an ambitious young man. You seem to be doing quite a good job. Carry on." I said, "Well that's fine, but we're broke." And they said, "Well certainly you don't expect us to fund you, do you? You're doing okay, and we'd love to see the finished project. We're not going to tell you to leave our door and never appear at it again. But we're not going to give you any money, don't be foolish." In the Peace Corps I was writing technical articles about artificial insemination of livestock and banana diseases and writing a column for the local newspaper. But I wasn't really doing any creative writing until I came out of the Peace Corps. I was doing it before, in college, and then after my Peace Corps experience.

Q: When and why did you decided on a career as a writer?

A: I don't know. I've got a joke answer, because you get asked that at these writers' conferences quite a bit, and oftentimes my colleagues on the panel, like Jill McCorkle, will say, "Well, when I was a young girl growing up in Lumberton, North Carolina, me and my sister, we used to write short stories when we were eight and nine years old. And we would go around the neighborhood and sell them." And I'd say, "Ah, what an awful child you must have been. Why weren't you selling lemonade?" But, you know, once I teased Jill about this, I realized that when I was in first and second grade I was writing and performing one act plays in my elementary school. I had completely repressed that for thirty years or more. Something happened and I became very introverted and just read a lot of books as a kid. I was one of those kids who read with the flashlight under the covers when I was supposed to be asleep. But, I went to a high school that actually was one of the first high schools in the United States to offer a course in creative writing, and so as a senior I took a course in it. And I was working on the high school newspaper, starting off as a sports editor, and then the feature editor, then co-editor-in-chief my last year. It was just like Joseph Heller--Joseph Heller is the very first writer I met. I met him as a freshman at the University of Missouri and I asked him this question: "How did you become a writer?" and he said, "Well, I always got A's in English class when I was in school." And that's true for me as well, I was just encouraged. When I wrote, I was encouraged.

Q: You have expressed your admiration for the New Journalists. What about their writing interests you?

A: Well, except for the black humorists in the late fifties and early sixties, there seemed to coincide with the counterculture in America this frenzy of experimentation and innovation and just all-out weirdness in American fiction that held very little appeal to me. And I thought that the people who were doing New Journalism were doing much more interesting things with language and character and narration than most of the fiction writers were doing at that time, except for people like [Thomas] Pynchon. And I was attracted to them because I thought that I was going to be a journalist all of my life. I had no idea how one became a fiction writer or a poet or anything like that, I had no idea what the shape of those lives were. And my parents still don't have any idea what the shape of those lives are. They can't imagine my life, whatsoever.

Q: After you studied journalism at the University of Missouri, what made you turn to fiction writing, or had you been writing fiction all along?

A: I was taking creative writing classes as an undergraduate with a man named William Peden, and, in fact, my freshman and sophomore year there was actually a student literary magazine. I think maybe my sophomore year I got something published in it, and then, because of funding or something, in my junior year the magazine died. My senior year I volunteered to start it up again, and it used to be a paid graduate position to be editor of it, and I said, "This is terrible to not have a student literary magazine, how about if I do the work for free?" So it started up again and has been in operation ever since. But I was taking both [fiction and journalism] because in journalism school they loathed the New Journalists. They loathed that style. They loathed that subjective stuff, they loathed the textured writing, the adjectives. It just drove them crazy. Again and again they reminded me that I was a pretentious, self-deluded kid who had no future as a journalist, and it made a lot of sense to go over to the English department to be comforted by people who did appreciate adjective and texture and these other elements that were anathema to the style of journalism that was being taught in journalism school.

Q: Does writing journalism contribute to your fiction?

A: There certainly is a sense of balance and a sense of release going from one discipline to the other. When I feel overburdened by telling the truth, I can go tell lies as a fiction writer. And when I feel that for some reason my imagination has run dry or I need the freedom of the discipline--there's a paradox there--the structure of the discipline of journalism is a great relief for somebody who feels they are drowning in the freedom of creative waters where there's no guideposts and you're grasping at things that slip so easily away from you. In that case, immersing yourself into the facts of something, of an event or a personality, is great therapy. It's good medicine. Writing fiction involves you with an aesthetic landscape that is not at all a priority in writing journalism. Writing journalism allows me to engage with the world in a way that I can never do writing fiction, because I'm captive of my basement and a prisoner of my solitude in writing fiction. The Caribbean to me is an entirely imaginary landscape, and I couldn't really write about it in any effective way until I had been away from it for years and years. It allowed the reality of it to blur into my own imaginary shaping of it. That's why it's hard for me to answer what the Caribbean is to me, because I know you're talking about a real place and yet for me my Caribbean is not a real place so much. Or at least I can't afford to think of it that way, because when I do my journalistic side kicks in and that side of my writing personality tells me I don't know enough to actually be writing about it.

Q: How does your creative process work? Do you have a regular work schedule or writing rituals? A. I'm a binge writer. When my schedule regulates, which it doesn't often have the opportunity to do since I'm always coming and going, when it does regulate, it looks something like this: Wake up around nine or nine-thirty in the morning, walk the dogs, come back and have breakfast, read the newspaper, spend the rest of the day finding ways to procrastinate, telling myself that I'm ineffectual, that I'm a layabout and I'll never come to anything in my life. At four o'clock in the afternoon, walk the dogs again, begin to prepare dinner, watch the evening news, take a nap, negotiate with my wife, who goes to bed around ten in the evening, and then from about ten-thirty on until about three or four in the morning work. It's absolutely a wasteful schedule, it's a pathetic schedule, and yet I can't seem to get it under control and transform it into something that seems more mature to me and much more productive which would be to wake up in the morning and work for four hours, and then have the rest of my day and evening free and uncontaminated by this need to prove that I'm a worthy human being.

Q: Readers are always struck by a profound sense of place in your fiction. The Caribbean, Florida, the East Coast. How important is place to your writing?

A: Of course place is important. But it's inescapable unless you are creating fiction that wants to compose a world that's nothing but talking heads. But thematically you have to always wonder is geography destiny or isn't it. And certainly, if you're born into the slums of Port-au-Prince you're going to begin thinking geography is destiny, because you know America is up there and you know, or you think you know, that if you were born into an American slum your life would be a lot better. And, politically, you can't explore in your fiction or in your journalism the geopolitical shape of the world unless you're talking about place. It's integral to this discourse, but in fiction it's integral also to the aesthetics. To create an imaginary world, you want people to have a sense of the landscape, and how the landscape smells, and what in the landscape might bite you, what in the landscape might refresh your soul, and all those things. To ignore it would be tantamount to ignoring a person's arms or legs. Leaving out something that's so connected and so integral, that you just simply made a mistake.

Q: St. Catherine seems like such an "imaginary" landscape. Is it modelled on a specific island or is it an amalgamation or a composite?

A: Yeah, actually, it is. Well, it's an amalgamation to some extent. It's really St. Vincent. The landscape itself is most definitely St. Vincent, and the political events that take place are most definitely Grenada. Or actually a hypothetical situation that if there were, in fact, elections, and there was a coalition between two opposition parties opposing Sir Eric Gairy, who was a madman dictator running Grenada forever. But there were never those elections, and as a result, there was a revolution led by Maurice Bishop. But supposing there were elections and those elections were won because the opposition factions coalesced and defeated him in a free and fair election, what would have happened? Well, of course, those opposition parties would have split apart and then there would have been the environment that would have led to a civil war or somebody preempting a civil war by more or less declaring themself this Marxist strongman, as the rather decent Mr. Banks in my novel is on his way to becoming.

Q: It took ten years for you to complete Swimming in the Volcano. Did your conception of the book change significantly as you were writing it? As the political situation changed, did you feel that you needed to keep up with it?

A: No. The political situation was entirely insular to the book, and whatever was happening in the world had no impact on it whatsoever. The book itself. Figuring out what sort of political laboratory I wanted to create in the book, that took me forever. And I really didn't understand it, and I'm not sure that Iíve really done it effectively. But I didn't understand it for nine years of those ten years that I was writing. It took me nine years to write the first half of the book and one year to write the last half of the book. Nine years to finally feel some sense of comfort that I knew what the book was about and knew how to manage it.

Q: What clicked into place?

A: I can't quite remember. I think it all rotates around the prime minister, Edison Banks-- to understand what pressures were forming that he would have to respond to. And I wanted to track, and it's a very oblique track, but I wanted to track his evolution from a good and decent man, well intentioned, as I think most revolutionary leaders are, into this person who has no choice but to become a despot if he is to manage the forces unleashed in his society.

Q: Do you see Swimming in the Volcano as primarily Mitchell Wilson's story or St. Catherine's story, or maybe Edison Banks'?

A: It would have to be Mitchell Wilson's story. And it will continue to be Mitchell Wilson's story in the next installment of the trilogy, and then it will no longer be Mitchell Wilson's story, but it will be a story about drugs--how drugs have influenced American culture.

Q: Swimming in the Volcano is part of a trilogy?

A. Yeah. The second one--I'm about two hundred pages into it--is called The Magnificence of Everything That Burns. It's set eleven years later in the spring, summer, and fall of 1989. In the fall of 1989 there was an enormous event that took place in the world and that was the demise of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The book was not originally meant to be a trilogy. Swimming in the Volcano was meant to be a sort of metaphor for thirty years of American foreign policy from the midsixties to the midnineties. And I tried to write it that way. Now I know the answer to what changed in how I saw the problem that I was never able to solve with that book. I just was trying to get everything in there in that thirty-year time span and it wasn't working, it was much too ambitious, much too heavy of a weight to lift, and in that eighth or ninth year I despaired and said the only way I'm going to be able to do this is to chop it into three books. And so I went to New York and asked my editor, not knowing at all what she would say, if I could, in fact, remove the middle section from the book and make that another book unto itself, then make a third book out of another section that I envisioned to be in Swimming in the Volcano but I had not yet written. I was afraid that she would say, "Yeah, okay, but we contracted you for one book, and just because you're pulling the other book babies out of it doesn't mean that you get new contracts," or "All will fall under the umbrella of the same contract." But she's not an unreasonable person, and she said, "That's fine, and we'll write you up a new contract for three separate books."

Q: What's the title of the third book?

A: Liberty. And it takes place in Cuba in the last days--whether they're imagined or not--of Castro's regime.

Q: Do you have a title for the whole project?

A: I guess just The Soufriére Trilogy.

Q: After publishing two well-received collections of short stories, what possessed you to produce a novel of such prodigious scale as Swimming in the Volcano, which, it turns out, is part of this trilogy?

A: Well, I hate to be so honest, because honesty in this particularly instance traps me in banality. The book is so big and it expanded into a trilogy, I think, because I am too ambitious and my level of competency can't match my level of ambition. And so it's an accident. I would imagine that if I had more control of the elements that I'm working with, then Swimming in the Volcano wouldn't be so big, and there wouldn't be a trilogy. The other part of the answer is just as mundane. I got trapped into writing a novel with a two-book contract. My first collection of stories was sold with the stipulation that I deliver a novel, and I wasn't ready to write a novel--I kicked and screamed about it--and I know that's why it took me so long. I just simply wasn't ready, and I should have been writing short stories at that time in my life instead of a novel. But I got trapped into it and I bit off more than I could chew. That seems to me why it's so big. It's really pulling the curtain away from the Wizard of Oz and seeing there's really no magic there. There's really no great intellectual conceptualization to some of these things; the answers sometimes are entirely pedestrian.

Q: Still, the scale of the novel must be deliberate. The amount of detail you include in your fiction, even in your short stories, is amazing. In another interview, you said that your stories often develop "latitudinally and longitudinally." I think the spatial metaphor is appropriate to the encyclopedic scope of Swimming in the Volcano, except there I feel you are delving inward, into the map, to continue with the geologic metaphor from the novel. Swimming is a combination of several, sometimes conflicting stories, with the refrain, "Start here." Are you consciously packing in so much information?

A: The device of "starting here" is meant to convey the complexity of assigning blame. It's true that I want to wrap my arms around thirty years of American foreign policy and deliver an aesthetic treatment of that. And that is an insane ambition, yet the insanity of it doesn't bother me. I also have a way of complicating. I take something that can be elemental in a rather clear, linear dynamic and I start pulling the threads out so that at the end it's a rat's nest. Some people have a tendency to simplify things--certainly politicians do, and for the right reasons, sometimes--and I have a tendency to do exactly the opposite, and sort of be overwhelmed by the complex nature of political decisions and human dynamics and how we solve poverty and how we make the world a better place to live. And you're a bad person, but should I forgive you? All these things are so complex to me. And this device of starting the book over again, or asking the reader to stop what they were doing, forget about that, and start here again. The intent was to try to convey how difficult it is to assign blame for the things that are wrong in the world. Where do you begin? And I know thereís a passage in the book that asks how far back do you want to take it, and when you get there then where do you go next? Do you want to take it to God? And if you are going to assign the blame to God, are you in trouble for doing that? Do you now have a spiritual crisis? If you have this spiritual crisis, what is going to be the inevitable outcome of it? Are you going to abandon God or are you going to make the Kierkegaardean leap of faith deeper into it? All these things just start a tangle in my little mind, and it takes a long time for me to work them out in a narrative form. And as I do that I really am conscious of the aesthetic world that Iím operating in and try to contribute, if not contribute to it at least do what Iím supposed to do there.

Q: Was that your intention in the Collymore scene, because it does seem to come . . .

A: From out of the blue? Well, it is another point where the novel starts over again in its search to resolve the issue of how do you assign blame. And it's meant as a metaphor for the middle passage, what happened to the Africans in that middle passage. You can't have sympathy for Collymore, because in the end he is an evil man. But, in the end, I want you to forgive him, and the only way I could possibly persuade you to forgive him is to show you his beginnings, where he came from. He was a marvelous little child, who was absolutely traumatized, abused, treated like a subhuman, and had things happen to him that should happen to no little child. And if you can track him from that point on to his act of evil as an adult, I think you can forgive him.

Q: Forgiveness is essential to the novel.

A: Well, I still play with this idea in my own head that's not entirely resolved, but certainly the book wants to put forth the proposition that forgiveness is the highest state of human spirituality. It's not cleanliness that's next to godliness, it's forgiveness. And ultimately the most profound act of forgiveness is to forgive God. All the chips fall into the theological bucket.

Q: Do you deliberately place yourself inside the "political laboratory" of your fiction to help your reader understand the complexities of the political world?

A: I'm not sure I do that to help a reader, but I do it as a laboratory for myself. To some extent, Mitchell Wilson is an alter ego. My experiences are not his experiences, there's no doubt about it. Things happen to him that never happen to me, but I think he's not a bad representative of my interior. Where he comes from in the world is a little bit different from me, and where he's going I hope is a little bit different from me. But his interior landscape, his political interior, his spiritual interior, probably is pretty close to mine.

Q: Could you say something about the insertions of the newspaper columns into the text of Swimming in the Volcano?

A: Frankly, it was out of desperation that I did that, because I did not know how to effectively integrate the politics into the stream of the narrative. I kept trying and trying and trying and it didn't work. And I can tell you, editorially, they wanted those things out of there. I liked the challenge of writing a little column like that. That was a lot of fun. That's an indulgence that I admit. The greater truth is I didn't weave in the political explanations. The politics on the island are so complex, I didn't know how to simplify them in a better way. I couldn't find the right way to integrate them into the narrative flow, other than to come up with a device. I remember a book that Anthony Burgess wrote. He starts each chapter with a newspaper column, it's a novel set in the nineteenth century. He recreates these nineteenth century news styles, and I just loved it. So I didn't feel that I was being innovative, but I felt I had permission to go ahead a play a little. It's not an innovation. The thing you have to ask yourself is, is it too much of a disruption? Ultimately, I had to decide well if it's a disruption, then I don't care because I don't know how to solve the particular problem this is meant to solve other than this way.

Q: Would you talk about the geological metaphor?

A: When I began the novel I thought, somewhat sophomorically, that I would structure the novel in an analogue to the way this geologic event happens that's called a volcanic eruption. What happens is you have a landscape that's placid there, it jars and sort of snaps people alert for a second, but then it goes away. You remember that underfoot there was some jarring motion, but nothing so significant. And then life goes on at its normal pace, normal routines, for a bit more and then there's a second and a third jar, and the vibrations are both a little bit stronger. Then in the distance between the first jar and the second jar there is quite a significant shaking. This is how I thought the book should be structured, and then finally it leads to an explosion. And I thought, isn't this interesting? For a year, I thought, isn't this interesting? And then, for the next eight years, I thought, isn't that trite? But then in the last year of writing the book, with a sense of its fullness and its movements, you know, a more comprehensive sense of what was happening in the book, I saw that even though I rejected this notion, that in fact it was there, and maybe itís there in most books--I don't know. I understood that it wasn't that interesting of a concept, and yet there it was.

Q: What is the relationship between the economy and the ecology in the Caribbean and how does it carry over into your fiction?

A: You can't separate arms and legs and a nose from a body and still have that person. These are parts of the whole package, the entity of experience. The economy and ecology are oftentimes the same thing throughout the Caribbean. And in Haiti the economy has been a locust economy that has entirely chewed up the landscape. Haiti looks like Nevada. That's how the economy devoured its own life support. Eighty-five percent of Haiti's energy needs are met by charcoal, and most of that land is just bedrock--all the soil has washed into the sea, all the reefs are dead.

Q: Wilson's friend and fellow American, Sally, is a do-gooder who appears as a nurturing Earth Mother associated with Jim Lovelock's Gaia theory. Does her death toward the end of the novel foreshadow the death of Mother Earth from global pillage? The novel seems skeptical about Sally's foreign aid mission.

A: Well, certainly, you follow your intuition through these things and you know in an environment like this somebody's got to die. And then you have to chose who should die and why they should die. Sally's death devastated me, I have to tell you. I finished writing that scene at four o'clock in the morning. I was working then in a shed behind the house that we lived in then, and I came into the house and into the bedroom, and there was a bathroom attached to the bedroom, and I was crying so loudly I woke up my wife. I was absolutely devastated. Certainly she represented friends I had lost in similar situations, and so there was that emotional resonance. But Sally herself . . . I don't know. When you cry for Sally, you cry for all the decent people who have tried to make the world a better place and have been defeated. And certainly I think that that's a truism. She represents something axiomatic in human life: That you are going to be defeated, that people are not going to make the world a better place. It's not going to happen. She carries that burden, and her loss to me is cataclysmic. It is apocalyptic. Once you lose the Sallys, once you know you can't preserve them, once you know you can't protect them, you have understood that there's no possibility of making the world a better place. There's only a possibility of trying to keep the world afloat. That's what the good people in the world do. They keep it from spinning down the drain. It's like Aristide's aspirations for his people. He wanted to take them out of misery into poverty with dignity, and he felt if he could achieve that he would have done all that was possible to save his country. I really admire that, because it's so realistic. And for the do-gooders of the world, if they understand what the ceiling is, what they can achieve, it's important to me, because resources get assigned more effectively, because the backlash isn't so severe, and because there is nobody who walks the world with a more embittered heart bent on vengeance than a do-gooder who feels they've been betrayed or not wanted.

Q: In "The Politics of Imagination," you wrote, "I write about America, and about Americans--expatriates--living in the Caribbean, mostly. My literature is the literature of empire; it attempts to evoke and understand the impact of American society and culture on the rest of the world, and on itself." Do you see Swimming in the Volcano as an American novel?

A: Oh, absolutely. Only as an American novel. If you put it on the Caribbean shelf, I think that's wrong. Caribbean writers belon

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