How did the title story of your new book Dinner With Osama
come to you?
Just after the Iraq war began, a group of people from Boulder’s Quaker community stood on the Pearl Street Mall at the intersection with Broadway in silent vigil to protest the declaration of war. I decided to stand with them. It felt good to be in their midst in quiet and calm. I imagined how it might have been, if instead declaring war, our politicians had invited their perceived enemy to sit, eat and talk together. Successful peace talks seem to me to require sharing some good foodbecause how can discussions go well if we’re not willing to break bread with our perceived enemy? Then the idea came: what would happen if an American woman invited Osama bin Laden to dinner?
What made you want to tackle such a controversial political subject?
When I start to write, I don’t have any plan. I wait like the audience to see how it will unfold. After the idea to invite Osama to dinner came, I did some research about his life. This included a photo in a newspaper of the bin Laden family on vacation somewhere in Europe. They’ve assembled in front of their hotel, fifteen or twenty of them, a big family. Osama looked about fourteen. He was dressed like any western teenager in jeans with a cool haircut, and he and one of his brothers are leaning on a moped, as though when the photo shoot is over they’ll hop on and zoom off. Though I don’t have sons, I’ve watched sons of my friends go through adolescence unsure of how to relate to girls, trying on different personas, deciding who they’re going to be. We know so little about the world when we’re that age, and the photo showed Osama as optimistic but clueless as the sons of my friends. I could imagine him not as a political figure but as a young, ordinary, hesitant but hopeful human being.
Some of your stories are humorous but others are extremely serious. What sparked you to write a light hearted story like Belly?
A friend of mine told me she was actually thinking of getting liposuction to deal with what she imagined was an obscenely protruding belly, and I was shocked. She seemed to me way overboard, and I worried she might actually do it. So I began to explore the whole issue of women’s bellies, and ended up writing a story that I hoped would convince her to give up this idea!
In Cherry Garcia, Pistacio Cream you the author burst into the story at intervals and comment on the story, on yourself, and on the reader. Why not just write the story?
Meta-fiction, the author interrupting her text and commenting on it, was avant-garde twenty years ago. Now it’s simply one of the available modes. It fascinated me to think about how readers might perceive this upbeat mother-daughter story in an era when the market has trained mainstream readers to expect fiction that features lots of shoot ‘em up action, violence and shocking events. So I tried to imagine what a reader’s unconscious expectations might be, and to articulate that, so that my readers then might think not just about the happiness of the mother and daughter but also about their own unconscious assumptions. The story won a prize, which suggests that this struck a cord with quite a few readers.
Dinner with Osama and Are We Dwelling Deep Yet? both feature Osama and George Bush as characters you make fun of. How do you manage to make them into cartoon characters, and at the same time explore serious issues like suicide bombers?
I like shifting gears. We don’t feel morose, scared, ecstatic or sanguine always but just for a while. Each time I’m given the beginning sentences of a story, the story’s tone is in those first sentencesserious, or light hearted, or foreboding, or bemusedand I know immediately then from that tone the story’s mood.
“You want lifethere has to be a death.” The voice that speaks that first sentence of “Dwelling” is practical and forthright, a bit like a parent explaining life’s terms to a child. The line also suggests that the speaker is smart, perhaps even wise, and definitely knows what the score is. Immediately a reader wants to know just how smart this person really is, and also how it is that death is required by life. It’s a line that writers call a hookit draws the reader’s attention.
All my collections feature some stories that satirize public figures. Satire is mode that’s playful, and at the same time invites the reader to think about serious subjects. Readers get to laugh, and also to think about controversial issues.
A suicide bomber in Boulder, Colorado seems a far fetched idea,
at least at first. By the end of the story though it feels entirely plausible.
It’s both far fetched and plausible, as you say. I find that idea fascinating, and enjoyed the challenge. I had lots of fun making fun of Boulder too, and of Boulderites politically correct concerns. At the same time though, I’m truly grateful to live here where so many people aren’t simply airheads but are smart, ethical, knowledgeable and wise, AND generousthe best company!
Did you travel to Sudan to write Welcome To the Torture
I’ve done some humanitarian work abroad, but in the late Nineties I knew nothing about Sudan. I was reading the Manchester Guardian Weeklythis was late Nineties, a decade before Darfurand came to an article about the war between Sudan’s northern Muslim Arabs and the south’s Dinka, Nuer and other black African tribes. There’d been a Seventeen Year War, then a decade of uneasy peace, and then a second war began around 1985. There was a stark, compelling photo of a young, extremely emaciated Dinka mother holding her bag of bones dead daughter who has died of starvation. She’s about to bury this dead child.
It was the kind of photo that immediately burned itself into my every synapse and cell, and the image is still there.
I clipped the photo and put it in my file. But I couldn’t forget it. From time to time look at it and feel how wrong it is that people starve. I knew almost nothing about Sudan and its history, and once I started researching, I realized I’d have to know a lot more if I was going to write intelligently. So I consulted with Francis Deng who’s written eloquently about Sudan’s history, then traveled to Kenya and Sudan to do more research.
I’m so happy that I embarked on that project because a little later 40 of Sudan’s Lost Boys came to live in Denver/Boulder, and some of them became friends, partly, I’m sure, because I knew about the history of their country.
When do you write, and how often, and where?
Morning. First thing. Coffee and my notebook, or the computer. I go into the quiet of my studio, no phone. Writing feels meditative, and concentrated. I like the feel of the world being quiet around me, suggesting that I don’t have to hurry. I don’t think about ideas. I simply wait for the interesting words to offer themselves.
I usually stay at it four or five hours, until I’m tired and hungry. Sometimes though, when I feel I need a change, I first go for a run or a hard half-hour swim, and then write.
What do you mean when you say you wait for words to
My maternal grandparents on their Kansas wheat and cattle land read the Bible aloud. Listening to them was like listening to Adam and Eve speak. I heard the Old Testament’s grandeur made immanent in waves of sound, and I imagined that words came out of the ground and were lifted by wind into our mouths. I heard words emerge from grasses, the Russian olive trees, the pond’s water. When words came, I knew they were not my words but given to me, and I was to share them, pass them on. I sang songs to birds and whispered stories to a rabbit that sometimes sat near me. I told cows what I thought. When I grew up, I gave up thinking that words came out of the ground because no one else seemed to think that, but now I believe this again. There’s no way to be alive and not to be enmeshed in the mesh of the world.