Your work is habitually labeled as science fiction or speculative fiction. How does
labeling affect you as a writer?
To be frank, it destroyed my career. For the first few years I'd not seen myself as a
science fiction writer, but instead as something of a thriller writer whose books just
happened to include aliens. Well, my fault - what can a bookstore do with an alien except
sell it as science fiction? But I'm afraid that I disappointed many s.f. readers who came
to my books seeking a "worlds of wonder" adventure, a high concept cerebral
story, an escape from the day-to-day troubles in their lives. Hah! My books are not
concept-driven, but character- and story-driven. They deal with very real, very mundane
tragedies, more the fodder of mainstream readers. But because the books contained aliens,
a very small number of mainstream readers would read them. Neither were they accepted by
the s.f. audience. By the way, I caution new writers to try not to make the mistake I
made. I don't know the solution to this dilemma, since how else can bookstores make sense
of their inventory? And yet slotting a writer kills a lot of creativity. Many of the books
available out there tend to look and sound the same.
Can the reception of a mainstream novel like Flanders be negatively affected
by your status as a "genre" writer?
It was the sales which suffered. My reviews were (and have always been) stellar. And
when I made the switch from s.f. to mainstream with Flanders, the mainstream
reviewers went with me. But this year the book was reissued as a trade paperback under the
Berkley imprint as general fiction. Perhaps that will help. But believe me, the hardcover
sales were dismal, as were the sales of the previous book, Gods Fires. In
fact, the president of Penguin Putnam went to bat for the book, making the sales force
return to the bookstores to sell the book again. She did this, bless her heart, without
any input from me or from my agent. I only found out about it later. She did it because
she told her people the books were "too important" to allow them to be ignored.
That moved me to tears.
Why does it surprise you so much that the American Library Association named Flanders
as one of their "Notable Books of 1999," along with those by Scott Anderson,
Andrea Barrett, Jorge Luis Borges, Edwidge Danticat, Nick Hornby, Alice McDermott, Lorrie
Moore, Philip Roth and Ardashir Vakil?
Because it was the only book listed which was published by a commercial genre house.
It was the only one of those books which had been reviewed in Publishers Weekly
as a genre book. All the rest had "general fiction" on the spine and were
published to fanfare by houses such as Knopf or Scribners or Vintage. My inclusion on that
list was a huge deal for me. When I saw the company I was in, when I realized that the ALA
had plucked this book out of the genre pile, I cried. Jeez. I sound like a puddle, don't
I? But this past year and a half has been an emotional rollercoaster.
How does Flanders relate to the rest of your fiction? Can you find common
themes or a common treatment between this novel and the rest of your fiction?
To me, there are the early books and then two more serious books: Flanders and Gods
Fires. Both of those books were longer historicals, not the thriller style I'd been
working with. And both the books had spiritual themes (even though the impetus for the
initial conflict in Gods Fires is alien abduction in a Portuguese town during
the Inquisition). Critics and academics have catalogued my theme as "man (or woman)
confronting the unknown." Well, yes, that's an overall thing I have played with. But
each book deals with its own theme. So what do I write about? I suppose there's a general
flirtation with the unknown, but each book contains its own themes - more mainstream
themes, I suppose: forgiveness, the tragedy of false assumptions, the dangers of power,
There are plans to make films based on two of your books, Flanders and Brother
Termite. You have been recently working on the film script of Flanders. How
do you feel co-writing a script based on your own work?
A small producer and I just yesterday finished the screen treatment of Flanders.
He and I will meet next month with an Oscar-nominated director who has some interest in
the project. During this early collaboration process, i.e., the writing of the treatment,
my co-writer and I have come to a deeper understanding of the book. Of course we both
found subtle and surprising patterns in the text, patterns that applied to our lives as
well. Such is the case, I suspect, with any work of fiction, that we readers see ourselves
as in a mirror.
Anyway, this partnership gave me the chance to look on the novel as an
outsider; and yet it was up to me to articulate the "heart" of the novel in
order for my co-writer to approach the screen treatment correctly. Interestingly enough,
my co-writer is more linear than I (thank god, or we never would have a treatment). He
sees a thread through the story of Travis' search and longing for justice. That, too, is a
pattern. And of course I would say this is the yin-yang balance/tension of spiritual
goal-earthly goal. Me, I always saw the Hound of Heaven nipping at Travis' heels, trying
to get him to wake up and pay attention. As you can tell, he and I make a perfect team -
coming at the story from two different angles. The clear vision of my co-writer has helped
as well. He sees through the "static," if you will. It's difficult for a
novelist to gain such objectivity with his or her own work. At any rate, if the film is to
be made, it will complete the vision of the novel Flanders in a very subtle way.
What are our main anxieties regarding film adaptations? Cast, control over the final
product, distortion of your message, influence of other (war) films?
Ultimately, none of us has control over what others think of us or our work. All we
can do is try to perfect our own vision (or be ourselves) and let others draw from that
what they will. Human beings are creative. A reader brings his or her own act of creation
to the story. Long ago I gave over control of the meaning of my novels to the individual
reader. In the case of an option, the producer/director/studio becomes the final reader.
They must create their own vision, which will be the film. Knowing this, I have no
anxieties. I got over those when I first signed the contract with Lightstorm (James
Cameron's production company) for Brother Termite years ago. As any film project is
a group effort, I will only take that amount of responsibility for those things which are
given me to do. Those things I will do to the best of my ability. I'll leave the anxieties
up to the director, producer, and studio head. Hahahaha.
What happened to James Camerons project to film Brother Termite?
It's ongoing. Last I heard they were looking at spec runs of special effects which they
ordered (the aliens will be done in a new form of DGI). Stephen Norrington has been signed
as director. If they make this film, Mr. Cameron will see to it that they make it
according to his vision. When and if they do, it will be a ground-breaking film, not
simply a blockbuster.
John Sayles has already finished the script [of Brother Termite].
Thank God. I couldn't imagine adapting that book.
It will be interesting to see how film audiences react to a film in which the
protagonist with whom they are supposed to sympathize is neither human nor played by a
Long before I knew this to be true, I knew that the Cousins would be DGI, and
that they would be handled in a completely new way. Here is my prediction: this film will
be a ground-breaker, in that the DGI characters will be absolutely credible. It will be
unlike anything you've ever seen. Even though DGI is starting to come into its own, this
film will be light-years ahead, the next cognitive leap. Oh, and the "actor" who
is the basis for the performance of Reen? He will be so credible, his performance so
understated, so right on the mark, that he will be up for an Oscar. But that's just my
prediction. We'll see. I'm not even sure the film will be made, but I feel in my heart
that it will be.
In general, what is your opinion of filmed science fiction?
I don't watch much of it. My screenwriting partner was horrified to learn that I hated
Star Wars. I loved Contact, however. I enjoyed Close Encounters of the
Third Kind and (I bet you can guess this one) the original The Day the Earth Stood
Still. But as for the rest of s.f., I tend not to watch it. My idea of a good film is The
Sixth Sense and American Beauty.
What is the state of science fiction or speculative fiction today?
I can't speak for or about s.f.. Never could, really. And now, of course, I've been
away from the genre for years. And as for speculative fiction in general? I don't know.
New York publishing in general seems to be searching for direction. If you speak to the
editors and agents and writers, they feel lost and afraid. We're in the throws of a
revolution every bit as life-changing as the Industrial Revolution. No telling what will
come out of this.
Brother Termite gives the narrative of alien invasion an interesting twist by linking
the genocide of the human race to the survival of hybridized children, born of secret
experiments with human and alien DNA. These directly involve the protagonist, alien First
Brother Reen and Marion Cole, the human mother of his child, the recombinant Angela.
Reading Brother Termite, the reader cannot help notice many
affinities with Chris Carters The X-Files, launched the same year the novel
was published. Actually, aspects of the novel, such as the possible release by the aliens
of a doomsday virus to eliminate mankind and the frantic search for something to
counteract it, have been developed throughout the series. Any comments?
Hah! Actually Bro Termite, as my publisher enjoys calling it (which is in its
own way an ironic racial riff) was written back in 1990. My main research was UFOlogy. I
cribbed from that, gleaning DNA experiments, the tales of abductees and hybrid children,
even extrapolating the personality (and the humor) of Reen and the other Cousins from a
few of the most enjoyable of the "encounters." Anyway, I enjoyed all the UFO
contact storiesrelished them, in fact. As I used to tell the folks in s.f. (who
disdained them), "Hey, it doesn't matter if it really happened. It's a GREAT
STORY!" But my "reality" is pretty permeable, pretty nebulous. So UFOs, no
UFOs? They both are, and they are not real. It depends on the observer and truth is
meaningless, anyway. That said, (and understanding my foggy notion of reality) the
universe works in patterns. It made perfect sense to me (speaking synchronistically) that Bro
Termite would be published around the same time as The X-Files appeared. That
seemed perfectly logical. But believe me, the two sprang up independently of each other.
I actually meant I very much suspect Carter has read Brother Termite if not some
other of your books.
They had one episode, the hilarious one bookended by the guy based on Bud Hopkins who
was writing a non-fiction book - the one told from the POV of Scully, that episode in
which the cops arrived at the scene of the alien crash, saw the dead alien, and said,
"Bleep!" (the screenwriters substituted all the cuss words for "bleep"
and "bleeping"). The episode that parodied the Alien Autopsy tape.
José Chungs "From Outer Space."
Yes. And in that episode I was struck by odd similarities to Cold Allies, but I
was probably imagining things. Like I said, ideas don't belong to anyone. They're just out
there, to be used.
The aliens of Brother Termite, calling themselves the Community, are hive
creatures with a social organization very similar to that of insects such as ants and
bees. Orson Scott Cards Enders Game (1985) popularized this type of
alien race, followed by James Camerons films Aliens (1986) and The Abyss
(1989). Card actually novelized The Abyss, while Cameron has bought the film rights
of Brother Termite. Are you aware of the Card-Cameron connection?
Yup. But again, I took my info from UFOlogy. Now, UFOs and the little gray guys might
be considered modern archetypes. I think maybe so. Just as the alien-as-insect must be as
well. Maybe we humans have sort of an inferiority complex (hah!). Think of it! Insects are
more numerous than we; their forms more varied; they are more able to cope with
environmental stress; much more organized. So the ultimate nightmare for a human would not
be intelligent monkeys. Monkeys, like humans, can't agree on much. They squabble and waste
energy. No, the real nightmare is a culture of intelligent six-foot tall fire ants. In
that struggle, we humans would be destined to lose.
What is frustrating is that, with the exception of Cameron's The Abyss, the
aliens are always horrific monsters in human fantasies.
Well, and that's what started me into my exploration of the unknown, particularly
human reaction to the unknown. I think perhaps we've made our peace with the idea of
extraterrestrials somewhere out there. Maybe not visiting us. Maybe not that. But
extraterrestrials, yes. Do I personally think they are here? I donno. I don't even know if
the question is relevant. I think more is going on behind the scenes of what we believe to
be ordinary reality than we think. I believe that the world works very differently than
we've been taught. Despite the Copenhagen school of quantum mechanics, I have come to
believe that we live in a quantum mechanical/string theory world where there is no true
matter, but only vibrational waves, and where the pattern is not really Newtonian cause
and effect but fractals and chaos theory and holograms, a world that Descartes would hate,
one where there is no "Me" over here and "object" over there, but a
world in which we are (in some profound way) one and the same. So I've come full circle.
Become an old Greek. Plato would agree with me: The world is a dream state and we are the
quantum mechanical observers.
As we've said, the Brothers of the Community are organized on lines similar to those
of insects, with First Brothers (aliens with individual minds), Loving Helpers (93% of the
aliens, with no defined autonomous personality) and a single female breeder. The female
has no apparent intelligence and devours her partners after mating. Aliens has been
accused of misogyny by, among others, British critic Marina Warner, for attributing
extreme ferocity to the female of the species, which is quite similar to your own alien
queen. Why did you choose to make your aliens all male except for the mantis-like female?
Well, the Cousin queen is more sluglike than mantis. I thought it interesting that
early UFO "encounters" spoke more of male aliens than females. I simply took
that to its logical conclusion, using the template of insects, where the female may be
drastically different in form than the male. Also, I found it poignant that Reen, who
understands brotherhood and community more than any human, would be clueless as to the
inevitable tragedy that he himself constructs in his relationship with Marian Cole. In
admiring her spunk, her human bravery, he orders that she (unlike the other human females)
remember the pain of what has been done to her. He thinks by her seeing that he takes her
pain away during her ordeal, she will come to love and trust him as a Brother would love
another Cousin Brother. He really desires that closeness with her. Instead, like the
typical human female, she first loves him as playmate, then as love interest, even though
her romantic love must be, by physical and emotional necessity, unrequited. When Reen is
unable to love her more than he loves his community, she resents him. So we have that
heartbreaking love/hate relationship of Marian to Reen contrasted with Reen's rather
sweet, if tragic, cluelessness. Only near the end does he understand the method by which
he created a monster. Not his fault; certainly not hers. In essence, Marian Cole was an
abused child, only her case was of institutional abuse. Reen showed her kindness, yet he
was the ultimate cause of her pain. She identified with and loved her abuser at the same
time she felt betrayed and wanted to destroy him. He became everything to her because, all
unwittingly, he took everything else she had away. A real tragedy, that. And all caused by
misunderstanding on both parts, human and alien.
This type of invasion scenario clearly bespeaks Darwinian fears: what would happen
if a stronger race would conquer Earth? However, as happens in other fictions such as the
film Independence Day, the impending extinction seems to threaten the United States
above all. You mention at one point in the novel the radio play by Orson Welless
Mercury Theatre based on H.G. Wellss War of the Worlds (1898), a text which
bespoke the fears of the British Empire at the height of its power. Isnt the
Darwinian scenario, after all, a metaphor for the fears of reigning imperialistic nations
like Britain then and the United States today?
Hah! By the way, I thought Independence Day was very, very silly and pretty
much unwatchable, but perhaps I'm a bit too picky. Here's the thing: if you picture
yourself as the leader of the Earth, you would then have to fear that your power is in
danger of being taken away. That's the conundrum of attachment and desire (speaking
Zennishly). But if you're asking me what I intended, I would simply say that the
conclusion of Bro Termite was inevitable: if the Cousins (the ultimate pragmatists)
landed, they'd work to manipulate the stronger of the nations, the most influential. Right
at this moment, that's the U.S.. I was shocked and disturbed and very touched recently to
have a gentleman from another country point out that the U.S. is vital because we're
"the last and only Superpower." All well and good for us in the U.S. to think of
ourselves that way, but for someone from a country with a higher per capita income and
better schools to say that of us? Are we worthy simply because we have a (now dwindling)
Superpower armed forces? Or is it merely that we are a Superpower because other countries'
perceptions of us fit that description? I believe the latter is the case, that we are the
last Superpower because others see us as such. A heavy mantle indeed. We should labor to
be worthy of it.
The basis of the alien Community is the individuals commitment to the welfare
of the others above his own; i.e., communism. Oomal, the Brother Economist, suggests at
one point bringing communism back, ironically under the rule of the Cousins, whom he calls
"the ultimate multinational corporation." Did you have communism in mind or,
taking into account the overtones of the alien terminology (they call each other Brother),
It was at the very humorous suggestion of a right wing Republican in my writing group
that I included Oomal's comment (I loved it, by the way, but the kudos belong to Steve
Haltom). Actually, what could a termite/ant-based society be, but communistic? At the
level of the Cousins, who are capable of rudimentary telepathy, capitalism would be very
The basis of alien life is work and sleep.
Oh man. Isn't all life? Hah!
The aliens, as the First Brother Reen shows, are workaholics that only take breaks
to sleep in communal spaces. Is this a parody of the Protestant work ethic under
I simply held up a mirror to the ant. In fact, I very much enjoyed (overhearing?
viewing? whatever the heck happens in my subconscious to show me the film clips that I
write down) the by-play between Reen and his secretary. She "grounded" him in
several scenes, one where she comments that he's working too late, that he needs to take
some time off. Remember, Reen's gone so "native" that he actually contemplates
taking a vacation in Chapter One. All the Cousins have "gone native" as a matter
of fact. Oomal is only the most evident, but Tali and Reen are absolutely ruined as far as
ever being good aliens again. Hey. Cross cultural interference happens. We should all live
overseas a few years. I was never the same after coming back from Portugal and Brazil.
Thank goodness for that!
The same goes for the "resurrection" of President Kennedy through the
medium Jeremy Holt. Is this intended as a parody of the conspiracy theories favored by
people like Oliver Stone? Is President Womack, on the other hand, a hidden reference to
Aaargh!!! Not Ronald Reagan! In fact, even though Womack has many shortcomings, I
couldn't bring myself to make him a Republican (I'm laughing uproariously as I'm typing
this). I couldn't accept having a Republican in office for 50 years. Well, it was my story
and I could do what I wanted, so sue me already, hah! And as for Kennedy....an editor and
very good friend of mine, Pat LoBrutto, read the book and said that he was surprised that
I disliked Kennedy so much. "Dislike Kennedy?" I asked in surprise. "Hell,
I brought him back and made him president again!" Seriously....no, not seriously. How
can I speak to a satire and be serious? Yes, the entire book was one conspiracy theory on
top of another. UFOlogy. The CIA. The FBI. How wonderful, I thought, to bring Kennedy back
from the grave via a spiritual medium. I'm a New Democrat (have been a Democrat all my
life), but when one writes a satire, one has to make fun of EVERYTHING. I'm a believer in
spirituality and mediums and reincarnation, yet I poked fun at that, too. I'm a feminist,
and I poked fun at that. If one is to do a satire properly, one should not stash any
sacred cows in the barn.
It was the drooling that made me think of Ronald Reagan. It never crossed my mind
whether Womack was a Republican or not.
Good. And to be honest, I thought of Reagan in that drooling scene - but it was a
Democrat doing a parody, if you will.
I am not too sure I understand the position of Europe in this crisis. Apparently,
the world is dominated by the team of 3,000 aliens that have taken the United States over.
The CIA are seen to align with Russians, Germans and Scandinavians to resist this invasion
and there is mention of a war against China and Korea. But what exactly is the political
map of the world at this point?
Well, Reen basically told Womack that he wanted to work with him exclusively. It would
be easier for the aliens for Reen to have one human to deal with. Womack saw the political
pitfalls (the Cousins were clueless about politics) and suggested that the aliens help
consolidate all the countries on earth as states of the U.S., under his leadership. That
way he could run them as territories and/or states, giving them the same rights as, say,
Nebraska (hence the "governor" of Germany). The consolidation was simply
expedient, in other words. The aliens retained the true power (even though that power in
itself was illusionary, too). There are still squabbles on earth, of course, but those are
minor. The war in China was simply a rumor started by the CIA to distract the FBI from
what was actually going on (i.e., a CIA takeover).
You choose to narrate not the invasion itself but a critical turning point fifty
years later. The story is told by a third person narrator using the point of view of the
alien Reen, the White House chief of staff. You invent an alien mentality that the human
reader must both reject and understand. The reader even feels pity for Reens
predicament and a certain horror at what humans do to get rid of the alien invasion. How
difficult was it to make the "alienness" of the invaders plausible? What were
your main models?
I find it embarrassingly easy to identify with non-humans. Most folks would say that
they can empathize with their pets. I take that a ridiculous step further. I've saved a
gnat from being crushed. I saved a rather irritating moth from drowning. I ask fire ants
for their permission to work in my garden (it's their home, after all). I ask wasps and
bees to please not bother me when I'm doing stuff outside. It works though - I'm never
stung and ants and wasps are kind enough to leave me alone. So how hard was it to identify
with a bug-like, community-minded alien? Pretty darned easy. As I recall, I was taken with
the poignancy of intelligent beings whose very intelligence and sense of ego was fragile.
A race that, because of its fragility, has murdered every other intelligent culture in the
universe. They murdered them out of fear. And yet the last culture they encounter, the one
they save, ends up being not only their murderer but their salvation. Sounded good to me
at the time, anyway.
The Community subdue humans by the use of their mental powers of persuasion. They
abhor physical violence although by the time the novel begins they have wiped out all the
species in the galaxy, except for the doomed Earth inhabitants. In Flanders you
reject war but Brother Termite seems to justify the need for keeping all the
current military resources (especially the US arsenal) in good shape, just in case. How
can the philosophy of war in each of these novels be linked, if at all?
I was hoping that by the end of Bro Termite, when the humans began to slaughter
the (essentially defenceless) Cousins, the reader would be horrified, sickened. I wanted
the reader to feel anguish. If I did my job correctly, you would end that book feeling
disturbed that you saw human violence in a different way, that you "thought outside
the lines" of our species. That you perhaps rooted AGAINST humanity for once. I set
the reader up.Very carefully, I put him into cognitive dissonance. (Hooray! The Cousins
are winning! - oh, wait a minute. What's wrong with that picture?) And that, I think, is
the true strength of the book. And I hope, of course, that it's a fun novel to read.
Why did you choose to write about World War I?
The easy answer to your question "Why?" would be that I wanted to write
about death in all its aspects, from the terror and pain of it to the transcendent beauty
of the end. Normally I don't begin a novel with a theme, but allow the theme to grow
organically, just as I allow my characters and story to grow on their own and follow where
they lead. Anyway, this time, rather than the idea, I played with theme. I looked around
history for just the right death--the worst grinding horror of it, the great maw of the
beast. The perfect choice, of course, was WWI. Not when the Americans entered the war -
then the war became mobile. The soldiers climbed up out of the trenches. The early tanks
made their debut. Earlier, then. So the secondary characters had to be British, as I
didn't know enough about the Germans. It wouldn't be appropriate to set the novel in 1914
when, despite the slaughter of the British Army, many soldiers still believed the war
would be won soon. No. It had to be the tag end of 1915, expanding until that dismal, wet
autumn of 1916 when in Flanders the mud was so deep that the wounded drowned in it, that
horses couldn't move. Hope was lost and all that was left was the daily grind of battle.
War had become commonplace, a way of life, no longer a goal to be won. War had become the
terrible, mindless machine that rolls over everything in its path - morality and courage
and even outrage become moot in its shadow.
But in that darkness, Travis Lee's enlightenment. And in the end, of
course, the only light of the book resides in him, even though his external world is
uncompromisingly dark. What I wanted to do was show one man who faces the worst that life
and death has to offer, yet still has inner peace. Travis Lee's story is that of a man on
his road toward enlightenment.
Why, however, choose this particular war above, for instance World War II? How is
the appreciation of death in that period different from any other?
During the American Civil War, the two battles of Spottsylvania stand out as true
horrors. The soldiers who died in the first battle were buried in shallow
"field" graves. During the second battle it rained; the rotted corpses came to
the surface. The battle, I believe, lasted two days. Terrible situation that, but all of
Flanders in 1915-1916 was a wet charnel house. Only 4 to 6 litter bearers per every 240
men? It was insanity. We learned from the mistakes of WWI. WWII was bad, but it was
nowhere near as grim. "Shell shock," for example, was not simply post-traumatic
stress syndrome. It was a terrible thing which robbed the victims of speech, of movement.
They drooled. They laughed inappropriately. Pat Barker details this in her trilogy. But
this particular trauma comes from huddling, helpless, in a rat hole of dung and rot, as
bombs explode above you. Ceaseless noise - so thick that you think you can touch it - a
literal ceiling of sound. You feel the vibration through your bones, in your belly.
Soldiers die from concussion - bleeding from the nose, the ears. And then, of course, all
the varieties of poison gas. No, every creative form of military torture was to be found
in WWI. All the excesses of military stupidity as well.
The German machine gunners killed so many during that first year that
they were sickened. They hated the English for dying. Still, they kept firing and the
English and Canadians and Scots kept charging, kept falling. You couldn't retrieve all the
wounded. Imagine the sound afterward, in the silence after the last burst of fire. I'm
sure that many of the Germans broke down simply for the horror of the mass killing they
were forced into. WWII was bad for the civilian population. The A-bomb and the Holocaust
were unimaginable - but for the soldier, believe me, there has not been worse than WWI.
Would you say that World War I is a neglected war, especially in the U.S.?
Oh, yeah. You bet. It has no glamor, being a war begun by broken treaties.
As an American writer, what were the main difficulties in approaching your subject?
Were you "handicapped by your Yankness" as Pickering (incorrectly) says of Texan
Hah! You BET!! When the book was published stateside I was afraid I'd offend a great
many English readers. I had no idea if I'd gotten the accents correct or not, but had to
rely on memories of my British friends and on British cinema and British TV and reruns of
Monte Python. Besides the Scot and the Irish priest I had five different English accents
(some regional, some class-differentiated). It was a trial, having to keep them straight
in my mind by "hearing" the characters speak their lines of dialogue. One can
never be sure of these things, you know. I didn't dare try for an English protagonist, but
instead went for the English secondary characters. To my immense relief, no one seemed to
see that the empress had no clothes. In fact, Black Swan recently published the novel in
England. So far, so good. Whew.
Flanders has clearly required plenty of research. How did you choose to
distribute the list of incidents and anecdotes all over the novel?
I didn't choose to include anything. I just did my research - some of which I did
while I was writing the novel - and just let the story tell itself. Well, I knew a couple
of things when I started: I knew that Miller would be executed by the end of the novel - a
"cry unto God" sort of injustice - but I didn't know why the British would kill
him. I didn't know until I was at least 3/4 through with the novel; and when I saw it, the
answer was obvious. My stories unfold just as real life. Once they unfold, there's no
going back to change them. Which is why it was so difficult to combine scenes for the
film. But once I saw that I was dealing with fractals of the novel, and that those
fractals could compress to form the same pattern, the light dawned. We've produced a
shortened version of the novel without loosing anything. I was impressed by the wonderful
way this worked, but a great deal of the kudos belong to my writing partner, for seeing
"into" the book.
Are you worried by readers or reviewers criticizing the historical
inaccuracies in Flanders?
No. I feel bad when I get something wrong (Jeez!!! I really messed up some Latin in Gods
Fires); but I'm just a storyteller, after all. I try to tell an emotional truth, even
though I may get some facts wrong. And as for bad reviews - as I said, everyone comes to a
work of fiction with the right to create their own interior world. Some will enjoy a work;
Diverse reviewers have compared Flanders to Erich Maria Remarques All
Quiet on the Western Front. On the other hand, your novel can be also compared to Pat
Barkers recent Regeneration trilogy. What actual influences shaped your
At the risk of shocking you, I must say that two authors brought me into writing. The
first was Stephen King. His books were page-turners, rip-roaring, big drama barn-burners.
I wanted to make a jillion dollars, just like him. But once I started writing I saw that
my tendency was not toward blockbuster commercial fiction (alas for my bank account!) but
toward more literary stories, yet ones with an otherworldly element. My next major
influence, then, was Ursula LeGuin. She proved that you could write speculative fiction
and still be literary. When I moved to mainstream I decided on WWI simply because it was
useful to me in history, not because of the novels written about it. The war novels that
have been most important to me are: The Red Badge of Courage and The French
One of the most striking aspects of Flanders is that the first person
narrative of private Travis Lee Stanhope seems to erase all traces of femininity in your
writing. Critic Jane Marcus explains that WWI produced a shift in the position of writers:
men like Remarque started writing "feminine" works, whereas women like American
novelist Mary Borden started writing "masculine" work. Willa Cather claimed
women should be able to write about "universal" subjects. On the other hand,
critic Claire Tylee wonders why contemporary women writers follow the path of WWI
autobiographical literature written by men rather than that written by women, despite all
the academic effort spent in reevaluating the latter. Examples like yours and Pat
Barkers seem to suggest women are completely free today to choose any topic and
write as "writers" primarily rather than as "gendered writers."
I think not in terms of gender but of character itself. Perhaps I see less in terms of
gender than I do in yin and yang - a universal, spiritual view, rather than normal
reality. In beginning a story I let the protagonist and the main secondary characters
introduce themselves, to show themselves, to tell me their secrets. In this case, I was
telling the story of a soldier in the trenches - not the story of an officer. Unless he
had a wife at home (Travis Lee wouldn't, as he always tended to run away from his
responsibilities), a woman would play a very small role in his decision making. Hence the
powerful yin of the calico girl.
Except for the "calico girl" Travis dreams of, women play practically no
role in your novel. They are placed at the margins: the photo of Millers fiancée
Sarah, Traviss distant Ma, Riddells beloved mother, the field hospital nurses,
the French whores, LeBlancs tragic victims. It can be argued that the "calico
girl" of Traviss dreams gives the feminine a soothing, powerful presence, yet
that presence is practically silent - more mythical than real.
Travis Lee loved women, but he loved them most as the ideal, the fictional - witness
the fantasy love affair (rather sweet, actually) that he had with the photo. The loves in Flanders
are mostly agape and philios (did I spell that right?) rather than eros. We
have enough of a hint of the sweet side of eros through Travis' arm's length worship of
the photo and the fiction he wove around it. Travis enjoyed sex - relished and wallowed in
it when it was available to him. But it was "safe" sex: the true, old-fashioned
"safe" sex; i.e., he never had intercourse with a woman who could tie him down.
So Travis' main love was that of friendship and admiration for Miller. But that's natural.
This is the story of men in war. Look at Tim O'Brien's The Things they Carried, for
example, in which women play more of a role than in Flanders, perhaps, but not much
more of one. The love relationship, in O'Brien's case, was that of a lieutenant with his
troops (one pictures a mother hen with her chicks). In his caring, in his duty, the
lieutenant is feminine (as I say, the "mother"). So to my mind, war stories
should not be seen as gender-based at all, but as the tension between yin and yang. I
would say that the calico girl is the ultimate strength of the yin, which is the
"root" of energy. If one looks at the notion of yin/yang, one sees that the yang
energy is that of the child - a raucous, male, loud, active energy. But the yin is that of
the calico girl - receptive, open, powerful, the "core of goodness," the
ultimate in passive strength. The life-giving, yielding, yet at times unforgiving strength
of water. The yin is mysterious only because the yang energy is not wise enough to
understand it. Wow, THAT sounded Zen!
Sorry. But the calico girl was the Guardian; Travis' spirit guide or guardian
angel. In the film, we see her true nature, her true power, much more clearly than in the
book. She is everything: the loving mother, the supernatural guardian, the font of
spiritual wisdom, the gentle protector. An awesome presence, like the old Earth goddess.
Was the choice of the epistolary form immediate? Why did you finally choose this
option over other possibilities?
I chose it over my usual manner of storytelling (intimate third person POV) in order
to shield the reader from the worst of the horror, to act as a "buffer." Had I
told this first person or third-person intimate, the average reader would have been
overcome by the death and the gore. They would not have finished reading. The
"surface features" of the story would have turned them off.
How did you cope with the difficulties of narrating the war through the letters
written by a young man of no specific literary training? Was Traviss style
articulate enough for your purposes?
I wrestled with this a great deal. I wanted his voice to be approachable, hence the
Texanisms. But Southern Americans "talk southern" to each other, even though
they may present themselves as more well spoken when need be. They also enjoy
"talking southern" for effect. So I could have him be a fan of the English
Romantic poets at the same time I could have him banter in Texan. But as I said, I had to
walk a fine line, and it was up to the reader to buy into Travis' voice. The average
American of the early 1900's was much more literate than the average American today. The
letters from the Civil War and those of WWI were often beautifully wrought missives.
Travis addresses his letters to his 14-year-old brother Bobby, a rather selfish
teenager who seems to expect Travis to solve all his problems. Clearly, if the addressee
were Traviss mother that would completely alter the language used by Travis,
wouldnt it? How important was Bobby in the scheme of Flanders?
Well, some things a boy wouldn't tell his mom. He'd tell his younger brother, though.
Hence Bobby. To my mind he was a sounding board. I've been pleased that a lot of male
readers have seen themselves as Bobby, and so the story touched them in a unique way, a
way I'd not anticipated.
In your website The Tao of Writing http://patricia-anthony.com,
you claim that you are an organic writer, like "those who write without an outline.
We are a small group, so rare that there are experts who insist we do not exist." How
does this relate to your writing of Flanders?
Only that I write all my works organically. I write from the right side of my brain. I
think I live in the right side, too; not viewing reality in the same way most people do. I
view it (and all of our lives) as a brilliant piece of fiction. A very believable dream.
After all, we know that if matter exists (superstring theory says it doesn't, and I would
tend to agree), then matter would be very, very, very small. Relativity proves that time
is merely a convenient construction. Quantum mechanics tells us that the mind of the
observer alters reality (is the photon a wave? a particle? You, in viewing it, decide its
nature). Chaos theory and fractals echo Jung and the I Ching. Given that, I must
say that most writers work from outlines. That's the only sane way to write. But (given my
free-wheeling view of reality) I feel comfortable working from the chaos of my
subconscious. I let it create the story and I leave my ego aside.
How difficult was it for you as a woman writing in the 1990s to impersonate a
23-year-old man fighting in the European trenches? What factors were more determinant in
the relationship with your character: gender, age, the historical distance? Would you say
you share with him the "American brazenness" the British soldiers notice in him?
Oh, yeah. I see myself as something of a Travis Lee - particularly in my Texanisms.
But whether male or female, we writers are our characters, even the minor ones. I tell my
students (talk about a bizarre instruction) to love their characters, all of them, in the
same way God loves us: by understanding them completely. Once you understand motivation,
you empathize. You forgive despite the character's flaws. This gives you the bird's eye
view needed to create from the subconscious. You will never create a cardboard character
again. But I must admit that 90% of my characters have been male. I don't know why, other
than to achieve the Big Dramatic Scene (remember Stephen King?) you probably need to go
for the yang energy, the male role, to have a good choice of these bigger, more
action-oriented dramas. I must admit, too, that I studied male behavior. And when I tended
to stray into bad male characterization, the men in my writing group would clue me in on
male secrets (just as we women clued them in on female secrets, to make them better
writers of female characters - it worked magnificently, by the way).
How difficult was it for you to deal with the horrific descriptions of bodily
destruction and with the constant references to dirt in the novel? Why, in any case, are
you much less forthcoming regarding sex?
Hah! I had worried that that masturbation scene might have been over the top. And I
know that I shocked a group by reading that scene with the condom. Glad to know the gore
was bigger than the sex. It was meant to be. That's what Travis' soul lesson was all
about. He needed to have his nose rubbed in it. And as for difficult? No, as I'm writing I
distance myself from the work. I must, in order to use all my skills properly. I must be
distanced in order to manipulate the reader's emotions. So it was the research,
particularly the photos, that got to me sometimes; not the writing.
You have written that "I must admit that writing the novel itself taught me the
secret of forgiveness. It came when I wrote that line toward the end [when Travis says
about his own father]: '....he'll raise his head. Our eyes will meet, and we'll see each
other for the first time.' Every time I write a novel I learn some greater truth, but then
all that we do in life is a lesson." Is this the lesson readers are supposed to learn
Everyone will learn their own lesson. It's a pretty dense novel with all sorts of threads.
It's not up to me to say what a reader should take away from it. They will come to the
novel and take away what they need.
Inevitably, masculinity must be mentioned regarding Flanders. Forgiveness
applies most specifically to the sins committed by men: Traviss abusive father is
forgiven for not being able to enjoy life, serial-killer LeBlanc is forgiven because his
faulty upbringing at an orphanage has made him the monster he is, the brutality of the
British Army against Millers men and Millers Jewishness is also forgiven.
Learning to pity and forgive is the lesson Miller teaches Travis and that he teaches
Bobby. Is an ability to forgive the essential ingredient for masculinity to progress from
war (personal or military) to peace? What is the role of the female victims in this
I resist thinking in terms of "victims." As a believer in reincarnation,
we've all been male, we've all been female. We've been murderer and murdered. Most
westerners misunderstand karma, thinking of it as retribution. Actually, karma is a series
of lessons, or learning experiences. In order to develop our souls fully, we must learn
the lessons of the victim. We must learn the lesson of the warrior as killer. We must
experience what it means to be a brute. Very often the lessons are learned while the
person is still incarnate. Travis Lee learned it when he had his enlightenment (waking up
in the dark of the field and literally seeing the light). Soon after that, he could no
longer kill. I've noticed this trend, the road to understanding, with some men on death
row. There is a surprisingly intelligent thing the state of Texas does: it offers to bring
the killers face to face with the victim's family. As one of the survivors, you can accept
or you can decline. What comes out of these series of meetings (just before the man or
woman is put to death) is forgiveness and understanding. A catharsis. A lot of time goes
by between the trial and the execution; enough time for many of these people to understand
how life works, they understand that they can be forgiven, that they too are people of
worth despite what they've done. I neither advocate nor do I condemn the death penalty. It
simply is. But I will say that at times I've seen spiritual growth come from it - powerful
growth - for both the murderer and those grieving family members left behind.
Romanticism seems to be the keyword in your understanding of the literary background
of the war. Soldiers like Travis and Miller exemplify the doomed romantic hero so
well-loved since Romanticism. Shelley is, of course, the most potent referent in the novel
and a keyword in the platonic love between Travis and Miller. Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats
and Emily Dickinson are also mentioned in the novel. Why, despite Dickinson, are the
American poets missing? And what made Romanticism the obvious choice?
Because of the spirituality of Shelley, which is why Miller's book of poetry flips
open to "Adonais." I did quote from Crane, too, of course, "War is
Kind." But there was an eastern spirituality in the English Romantics which was
present to some degree in the American Transcendentalists, but frankly I like the English
poetry better. I'm not really a fan of Thoreau or Emerson. Not of Poe, either.
What about the poetry of Sassoon and Owen that inspired Barkers Regeneration?
Did you bear that in mind?
Oh, certainly. But they dealt more with the physical than the spiritual. Hah! And
thinking of Owen, the poems are visceral - like blows to the gut. So as I said, there is a
clear distinction between the outer world (the gore and injustice and anger of Owen) and
the inner world (the beauty and peace and spirituality of Shelley).
Considering the pull of the literal horrors of the war and Traviss constant
dreaming about the graveyard where his comrades lie after death, isnt Poes
shadow after all the real ghost in the story? Is this WWI Gothic or is WWI a Gothic domain
When Gods Fires was published, a lot of critics called it an
"eloquent indictment of organized religion." That puzzled me. The Inquisition
itself was the indictment. I just painted the Inquisition in a fair and balanced way. I
tried to be truthful to WWI. If that is Gothic, well, you're right: the setting itself is
Every reader is allowed to view the visions and the dreams as
concoctions of Travis' imagination. I planned the novel that way. Belief is never easy. It
shouldn't be. So I painted Travis' road to enlightenment as clearly and as truthfully as I
could. So, as I said, you can come away from the novel thinking that his reality was
hallucinatory. But if you were to ask me what I saw, I would tell you that I saw
Millers company pays a high price for the discrimination that Miller suffers
as a Jew. Why did you choose to incorporate this topic? And how important here was the
shadow of British poet Siegfried Sassoon - homosexual and Jewish?
Hah! I'd forgotten Sasson was Jewish. I saw anti-Semitism in the story, of course, but
I saw the larger lesson of bigotry. I was struck, for example, that the British high
command learned from the Zulu war that a well-trained soldier with a high amount of
bravery could conquer any machine designed by man. But that wasn't the lesson at all. They
themselves. The Zulus were savages. Only "wogs." What the high command failed to
notice is that these savages, armed only with spears and hide shields, charged British
machine guns. Of course the Zulus lost the war. As did the British nearly lose their later
war in 1914 by sending their own troops into the German machine guns. In their hubris they
thought they were invincible. The anti-Semitism in Flanders is a very human
failing: jealousy. Miller's simply too good at his job. And he's different (in this case,
a Jew). He's not part of the Old Boy network. I found it very moving when Miller tried his
best to fit in. One had the idea that, after the war, these same officers would never
invite him to a party.
In Flanders you contrast different kinds of murder. Travis is a brilliant
sharpshooter who kills many enemy soldiers, yet he is appalled by the violence of
LeBlancs crimes against women. Is it possible to write a war novel from the point of
view of the effective soldier, a murderous "hero" like LeBlanc?
You could, but he would be a terrible protagonist - the true anti-hero. For me, I must
have a protagonist who has a saving grace in him. I felt sorry for LeBlanc, but I wouldn't
want to spend a war with him - nor the entire course of a novel. I would not want to see
life through his eyes. Now THAT would disturb me.
The final words between Travis and Miller are a discussion of justice. Miller takes
justice in his hand and kills LeBlanc after having tolerated the protection furnished to
this man by the British Army. Miller himself is murdered by the action of the British
Armys questionable sense of justice. Travis is convinced because of this that
justice is nowhere to be met, whereas Miller wants to convince him that justice is there
indeed. How can Miller defend this position despite the obvious failure of justice (and
indeed forgiveness and pity) in LeBlancs case?
Hah! My [screen]writing partner asked the same question. It surprised me. Miller's
execution of LeBlanc was the ultimate injustice. He could not have allowed LeBlanc to go
home to murder more women. No, LeBlanc's true home was in war. In a larger sense, Miller
did LeBlanc a favor. A very wise and moral man, Miller.
Travis soon makes the connection between Millers love of poetry and
homosexuality. When Miller kisses him and Travis rejects him, he writes that "That
kiss laid something to rest between us. I know for sure now that what I feel for him
isnt romance. Theres love there, though. I felt it from him, strong as
Ive felt from any woman." He adds that "I dont want him touching me,
but Id sooner tell him I loved him than Id tell any woman." Why did you
choose to write about love between men and what were the difficulties of dealing with this
topic from a female writers point of view?
Not difficult at all. Talk to any war veteran. If they're candid, they'll tell you
they have never been as close to any man or woman as they were with the men they fought
the war with. War itself creates a bond. I merely reflected what I saw.
Both Pat Barker and yourself make your readers shed tears for your protagonists and
their war comrades. Barker and you use a very similar kind of sentimentalism, which
combines grittiness with moments of heightened emotion which are described as simply as
possible. Yet the effect of the prose on the reader is quite powerful.
The way to kill a dramatic scene is by emotional language. The prose in an emotional
scene should be as spare as possible. If I've done my job beforehand, the reader will be
put in the position of empathizing with the characters fully. At this point the writer
needs to get his or her ego out of the way and let the story shine through.
"I've felt," you explain, "for a while that something in the novel Flanders
was incomplete. At the time I wrote the novel I was a Zen Buddhist, yes, but I hadn't
taken my practice seriously. In the past year I have, and so have gained a richer
understanding of Travis Lee's path." What does this deeper understanding tell you
about Travis and what is Zen fiction, a term you frequently use?
My [screen]writing partner swears by a book called The Writers Journey,
which looks at the screenplay in terms of Joseph Campbell's mythic Hero with 1,000
Faces. It's illuminating and true. The story of the mythic hero is told in many good
films, many good books. But Volger describes the end of his screenplay hero's journey as a
journey into understanding, from the egotism of the child to an awareness of the larger
picture, to empathy, to responsibility, and then acting for the good of others - the
salvation of his group, if you will. We can see this is the growth of a person, from the
egotism of the child, the awareness of the adolescent, to the world view and concern of
the very young adult, to the accepting of a role (and responsibility) to society. All well
and good, and I agree. But to my mind, Vogler is missing the next step - the most
important thing. When we as human beings are made aware of injustice, it is good for us to
fight against it - to try to bring justice about. We begin to see the world in terms of
not what we can get out of it, but in terms of what we can give. This was Miller's forte.
But what I have come to know is that there are at least two very important next steps: the
enlargement of that responsibility to include nature, and then the final step in learning
(the big surprise which mostly comes after death) that this whole journey, all the battles
you fought, all that you learned and created, was indeed all about you. Travis thought
that he was the guardian of souls, that he needed to direct them to the afterlife. But
that was not the case. All that he went through was for the benefit of his own soul
growth. This is the secret behind life, the hidden secret of reality, the thing that must
come full circle. Our life stories unfold for us, personally. But we must take the trek
from ego to higher self (or body to soul) to understand how intimate is our relationship
to others, to nature, to the Universe. And then, once we have learned how to truly love,
we come to see that the love, despite outward evidence to the contrary, has always been
reciprocal. Always. That's the truth the ending of the film can show. The book, for
obvious reasons, could not. Travis hinted at it in the last page of his final letter to
Bobby: the simple but profound and difficult lesson of the calico girl: "It's