An interview with Walrus contributor Steven Heighton, author of Every Lost Country and Patient Frame
This spring, Steven Heighton has released two books, Patient Frame, a collection of poems, one of which appeared in The Walrus last year, and a novel, Every Lost Country, which was excerpted in the magazine’s April 2010 issue. I’ve written in this space before about the process of excerpting the exceptional new text, but after revisiting the finished book I found myself with more questions for Steven. He was kind enough to email back and forth with me over the last month.
This novel begins with a fictionalization of a real incident. How did you come across the story that you used to begin Every Lost Country, and how did it shape your writing as you moved ahead?
In September 2006 a group of Tibetan refugees, fleeing up a glacier toward the China-Nepal border in hopes of joining the Tibetan expat community in India, was pursued and attacked by Chinese border guards. At least two Tibetans — both of them young Buddhist nuns — were shot dead. A group of Western mountaineers at a base camp along the border, preparing to climb the Himalayan peak Cho Oyu, witnessed the event, and a Romanian climber caught images of it on his cellphone camera.
I heard about the shooting when the story broke a few days later. I also heard that there had been some debate among the climbers at base camp about whether to go on with the climb or instead stop and get the video and testimony out to international media, as soon as possible. Several of the climbers decided that exposing the crime was their priority. So the story got out and spread, despite the Chinese government’s efforts to hush it up and then, later, ludicrously, to maintain that the guards had shot down the nuns in “self-defence.”
For the last decade or so, I’ve been obsessed with the ethics of intervention — when is it necessary to get involved, to cross the border that separates my problems from yours? As soon as I heard about the Nangpa La shootings, I knew my next novel would start with a fictionalized version of the atrocity. I saw that it could be a powerful way of exploring the ethics of intervention while at the same time testing my characters to the limit.
Characters, what characters? At first I had no characters, only an opening scene. But before long a cast suggested itself and then, quickly — more quickly than is usual for me — came to life. Clearly the characters had to be more than Mechano-set stand-ins for neatly opposed principles — a humanitarian doctor who embodies intervention vs. a megalomaniacal climber too selfish and glory-seeking to get involved; an idealistic teenaged girl vs. a jaded woman filmmaker in her thirties. They’d have to display human complications and contradictions, and soon they began to.
You ask how the fictionalized Nangpa La incident shaped the writing as I moved ahead. Basically it provided the base camp, so to speak, from which the novel sprawled outward. And that’s what I need when I write — a solid, compelling opener, along with a breathing cast of characters. Once I’ve got those, it’s a matter of letting the initial complications compound themselves and of setting the characters loose on the landscape to pursue their conflicting wants. If I do that, the narrative evolves organically and my task is to follow along, trying to frame it in words. Rarely do I know where my stories are headed, and never how they’re going to end; I want to write toward my ending with the same engaged uncertainty and tension I hope my readers feel, reading toward it.
One of the first things I was struck by in the book is the alternating point of view — the reader is sort of shuffled from character to character, often observing the same thing through a different perspective. How did this mode of storytelling work for you?
My first novel, The Shadow Boxer, was a sort of coming-of-age story, and although I used more than one point of view in the book (I can’t imagine writing a long novel from a single point of view — too claustrophobic), I mostly did keep the camera behind the eyes of my naively romantic protagonist, which seemed appropriate, since he is, like most coming-of-age characters, a bit self-absorbed. My second and third novels — Afterlands, and now Every Lost Country — are very different. Neither book has a protagonist; both have a small community of main characters. On one level, the two novels are about communities, whether longstanding or temporary, and what happens when they start to break down under severe physical and moral pressures. Clearly an author can give a better sense of that fragmentation, and the terror and loneliness involved, through a fragmentary/fragmenting point of view. So I knew the reader of this latest novel would be seeing things through the eyes of each of four very different main characters.
I’m interested in the idea of a community of characters, and how it relates to your point about letting these characters act out their wants. You note that once you’ve got your cast, you let them set about determining how the story takes shape: but how do you decide what to embody, and why, in the characters you create to form that cast?
I’m wary of writers, like some of the Beats, who try to mystify, romanticize, and masculinize the writing process by suggesting that it’s all instinctive and automatic, like a muscular reflex — “first thought, best thought,” and so on. I don’t buy it. On the other hand, I think there are parts of every writer’s process that remain somewhat mysterious and, yes, instinctive. Intuitive. That’s how it is for me with character development. What I can tell you is that I try to locate, in each character, the node of entwined contradictions at the core of his or her being — because character is about contradiction, not the consistency of dominant traits — but I can’t tell you exactly how I go about it. For one thing, I’m doing it while I write the book, scene by scene, the characters slowly evolving. If I look back later on that evolution — maybe two or three years later — I find a fossil record full of gaps. I think I like it that way.
When I first told you that I’d read Every Lost Country in a single day, you were pleased — you said that you’d wanted to write a single-sitting page-turner. Why did you want to do so, and how did composing one differ from writing your previous novels?
Writing a novel that would hold a reader for eight hours straight is something I’ve always wanted to try, but rapid readability was far from my first criterion in writing Every Lost Country. There were other things I hoped to achieve — and yet, in the back of my mind, there lay a secondary desire to spin a propulsive story, one that would offer that special delight of total immersion that books often gave me when I was a child, and also a young adult. (If I no longer enjoy those spells of immersive delight, it’s not because gripping books aren’t being written, it’s because I no longer have chunks of time large enough for me to submerge in a story, and because I read like a writer now, slowly and attentively, and because my mental metabolism has changed, maybe with the times, so I find it hard to stick with the same activity for four hours straight, let alone eight hours. Still, I liked the idea of offering the one-day-read experience to those readers with the capacity or the leisure for it. I should add that over the last decade, I’ve stopped seeing that propulsive, immersive quality as something that defines a novel as non-literary.)
Did I go about writing this novel in a different way? No. The conventional way to write a page-turner is to plot the thing exhaustively, and I don’t do that. I can’t. I start a piece of fiction with a rough outline, but soon I start improvising, detouring, remapping, as the narrative and the characters evolve unpredictably. It was the same with Every Lost Country. It has a story, not a plot, inasmuch as it evolved along intuitive lines — it wasn’t mechanically pre-devised.
Every Lost Country is very interested in the nature of morality in today’s world. As a novelist, what for you are the possibilities of fiction when it comes to exploring questions of how one lives a moral life in contemporary society?
I wish I didn’t care about this stuff. What a luxury, a life unburdened by conscience! And on a writerly level, it would be nice not to have to expect reviews where critics refer to the moral dimensions of the story, or the moral concerns of the author. They have all the reason in the world to do so, but I can’t help worrying that readers will be driven away by the fear that they’re going to be lectured and hectored on moral questions. Which of course is not what I’m trying to do — not in this novel or in anything else I’ve written. If I’d wanted to moralize in Every Lost Country, I’d have created allegorically flat characters; the Chinese would all have been video-game villains and the Tibetans all innocent victims.
Having said that, I should just confess: I can’t write fiction that isn’t morally engaged, because I can’t write about anything except my obsessions and I’m obsessed with the question of what it means to be good. Not a saint, you understand — not someone who doesn’t misbehave or blow it — but someone who’s radically decent all the same. I want to know what that entails. I experiment on my characters. And, as I said, the focus of my obsession now is ethical intervention. Like my character Dr. Book, I don’t believe in bystanders: if you see something evil and don’t intervene, you’re not a bystander, you’re a passive participant, an accomplice, an accessory. You’ve got to butt in. If there were a campaign right now to get a Good Samaritan law on the books in Canada (not counting Quebec, which already has one), I’d want to be involved somehow.
In the meantime, I tell myself books can be interventions of a kind.