What does literature do for me? I think I solve problems in my writing. They may be my problems, but perhaps others share them, and in the process of working these through, I hope to entertain.
Perhaps no man is an island, but every man and woman is a nation unto herself. I actually had to look up the definition of “nation”; this is how awkward my relation is to this concept. And it is defined as, “a large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory.” Perhaps if you replace “descent” with “dissent” the definition becomes more meaningful.
In this cultural moment, many of us are feeling inadequate to solve societal problems – fascism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, the list goes on – and are unsure of how individuals can affect real change. We don’t know what effect we will have on the current political climate as we strive to effect change. All large historical decision draw from a sea of smaller decisions. One never knows what will make the difference in the long run.
In some ways, Valiant Gentlemen grows out of Tales of the New World, my collection of short stories about explorers who lived “great” lives, but whose experience of it was in the same register as all our lives are – we feel the same extent of human emotion regardless of how exceptional our actions are: nothing is more exceptional than one’s own life.
Joseph Conrad and Heart of Darkness loom huge in my development as a writer. I think I’m always trying to write Heart of Darkness – trying to explode an abstraction in concrete terms, although I am aware that Conrad’s story has a bit of baggage that I’d rather avoid in my work.
Valerie Martin was my mentor in college and she liked fiction that said something. That made it essential to have something to say. This seems obvious, but it’s not. And she’s taken on a wide range of subject matter: each book poses new challenges, and that’s something I think about when I’m embarking on a project.
I guess the wildcard here is Terrence Malick. He supervised me while I was writing the script for Beautiful Country, and he is a genius, although not always easy to follow. What I learned from him is that the narrative can be tracked through all kinds of scenes, that the strong narrative thread is not always the one that is most obvious. Creating narrative with Malick was a bit like chasing a butterfly through a jungle. This approach to narrative is fun and complicated, something that makes the process of writing constantly interesting to this writer.
Every book presents its own specific challenges, or should, and you’re right that this one has a preoccupation with uncertainty. In this, Valiant Gentlemen is a rupture from previous work as its obsession is with the psychology of characters who are in states of unknowing living in unpredictable times where the stakes are unusually high.
Roger Casement is an intriguing figure – humanitarian, Irish revolutionary, gay – and much had and would be written about him, there was something about his character as a conflicted man, an Irish Protestant who spent much of his time representing England in different African nations, a gay man who, true to the times, kept his sexual orientation to himself, that kept playing in my head. I read on and around him, but a historical figure is not a story – it’s not even a character – so my story, the one that I would develop into Valiant Gentlemen, had yet to reveal itself.
Monstress is an exhilarating rollercoaster of a book. Deeply funny, heartbreaking, hopeful, philosophical, bawdy, and wise, Lysley Tenorio’s stories, written from the underbelly of the American Dream, present one brilliant portrait after another.