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issue 19: july - august 2000 

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short story: Owl Says

Worlds at War:
An Interview with
Patricia Anthony

by Sara Martin

Patricia Anthony is the author of seven novels: Brother Termite, Cold Allies (for which she won the Locus Award in 1994), Conscience of the Beagle, Happy Policeman, Cradle of Splendor, God's Fires, and Flanders, as well as the short story collection Eating Memories. Anthony’s books have been appearing in quick succession since 1993 although she has been contributing short fiction to diverse science fiction magazines since 1987. Her writing has earned Anthony a strong following in the s.f. community.
      Formerly a classified advertising phone rep for the Dallas Morning News, a job she held for fifteen years, she now divides her time between writing and teaching Creative Writing at Southern Methodist University in Texas. Here Anthony answers questions about two of her novels, the first and the most recent: Brother Termite and Flanders. This is an interesting moment in Anthony’s career as the publication of her last work, Flanders, a mainstream novel dealing with WWI, has marked a departure from the s.f. - or, as she prefers, "speculative fiction" - genre. It is difficult to say whether her future work will combine speculative fiction and mainstream but, given Anthony’s comprehensive view of fiction, this seems likely. The forthcoming adaptation of Brother Termite and Flanders for the screen should, if all goes through, bring her a whole new audience . . . .and leave many readers puzzled as to how the same writer can create such vastly different fictions.

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, God’s 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 Publisher’s 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 God’s 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 God’s 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, etc.

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 Cameron’s 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 real actor.
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 Carter’s 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 stories—relished 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 Chung’s "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 Card’s Ender’s Game (1985) popularized this type of alien race, followed by James Cameron’s 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 Welles’s Mercury Theatre based on H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds (1898), a text which bespoke the fears of the British Empire at the height of its power. Isn’t 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 individual’s 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), religion?
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 difficult indeed.

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 multinational capitalism?
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 Ronald Reagan?
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 Reen’s 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 Travis?
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 God’s 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; some won't.

Diverse reviewers have compared Flanders to Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. On the other hand, your novel can be also compared to Pat Barker’s recent Regeneration trilogy. What actual influences shaped your writing?
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 Lieutenant’s Woman.

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 Barker’s 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 Miller’s fiancée Sarah, Travis’s distant Ma, Riddell’s beloved mother, the field hospital nurses, the French whores, LeBlanc’s tragic victims. It can be argued that the "calico girl" of Travis’s 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 Travis’s 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 Travis’s mother that would completely alter the language used by Travis, wouldn’t 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 from Flanders?
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: Travis’s 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 Miller’s men and Miller’s 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 process?
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 Barker’s 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 Travis’s constant dreaming about the graveyard where his comrades lie after death, isn’t Poe’s shadow after all the real ghost in the story? Is this WWI Gothic or is WWI a Gothic domain in itself?
When God’s 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 Gothic.
    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 Enlightenment.

Miller’s 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 deluded
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 LeBlanc’s 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 Army’s 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 LeBlanc’s 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 Miller’s 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 isn’t romance. There’s love there, though. I felt it from him, strong as I’ve felt from any woman." He adds that "I don’t want him touching me, but I’d sooner tell him I loved him than I’d 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 writer’s 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 Writer’s 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 love."

Sara Martin teaches English literature at the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on the concept of monstrosity in 1980s and 1990s English film and novel. Her main areas of research are gothic fictions and culture, the relationships between film and literature, masculinity and popular texts. smartin@seneca.uab.es

short story: Owl Says

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navigation:                         barcelona review #19                    july - august 2000
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David Ewen: God's Breath
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