Tuesday, February 3, 2015

What I Pour Into My Books by Tatjana Soli, Author of The Last Good Paradise + Giveaway! (US/Can only)

The Last Good Paradise
Tatjana Soli

From Tatjana Soli, the bestselling author of The Lotus Eaters and The Forgetting Tree, comes a black comedy set on an island resort, where guests attempting to flee their troubles realize they can’t escape who they are.

On a small, unnamed coral atoll in the South Pacific, a group of troubled dreamers must face the possibility that the hopes they’ve labored after so single-mindedly might not lead them to the happiness they feel they were promised. Ann and Richard, an aspiring, Los Angeles power couple, are already sensing the cracks in their version of the American dream when their life unexpectedly implodes, leading them to brashly run away from home to a Robinson Crusoe idyll. Dex Cooper, lead singer of the rock band, Prospero, is facing his own slide from greatness, experimenting with artistic asceticism while accompanied by his sexy, young, and increasingly entrepreneurial muse, Wende. Loren, the French owner of the resort sauvage, has made his own Gauguin-like retreat from the world years before, only to find that the modern world has become impossible to disconnect from. Titi, descendent of Tahitian royalty, worker, and eventual inheritor of the resort, must fashion a vision of the island’s future that includes its indigenous people, while her partner, Cooked, is torn between anarchy and lust.

By turns funny and tragic, The Last Good Paradise explores our modern, complex and often, self-contradictory discontents, crafting an exhilarating and darkly satirical story about our need to connect in an increasingly networked but isolating world.

Behind the Scenes of The Last Good Paradise: The Gauntlet of Laughter

Before ever attending my first writing class, I imagined finding a wise teacher kind of like the Shaolin master in the 70’s TV show Kung Fu. I would sit respectfully at his/her feet, they would call me “Grasshopper,” and unravel the secrets of literature that I needed to make my stories soar. Let me save you time if you are suffering from similar MFA rescue delusions: no one can teach you how to write. If you are lucky, a sensitive teacher can tell you what isn’t working and point you in the right direction. Metaphor time: Picture being in a canoe with the task of crossing the ocean; a good teacher can provide a paddle, definitely helpful, but it’s still a scary big ocean.

Fast forward to writing my own books. It came as a rude awakening that in addition to feeling relief at finally finishing a novel there was also an ennui that I can only describe as the postpartum blues. This is one of those things you wished your writing “master” would have told you, but if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Imagine your closest relationships, the people you spend every day with for years, one day suddenly vanishing. Yes, once in a while you get to revisit by reading aloud a short passage at a bookstore or festival, but in such a public setting it is more like meeting an ex-boyfriend or ex-husband at a large gathering. You self- consciously smile and shake hands while trying to remember what it was like waking up countless mornings next to this stranger in front of you. My solution was to immediately dive into a new book. What I have found is that there is a kind of key that needs to be found in order to start in earnest on a new book.

The joy and agony of writing novels is this daily focus on characters, the world they inhabit, and the things that happen both over the time in the book and during the time it is being written. In that way, novels mirror the way we experience our lives, a large net of influences coloring our days. It is very traumatic when that gets kicked out from under you. At the least, it’s like losing a job; at worst it’s like losing a loved one. The characters might be imagined, but the writer’s relationship to them is all too real. It’s not beneath wondering if this novelist obsession thing is healthy.

After copy-edits had been handed in on my second novel, I knew that the only way to cope with losing yet another world was to immerse myself in another story as soon as possible. I had the subject but that key was missing.

During this time, a friend of mine who is not a big reader of literary fiction asked me for some recommendations. We decided to pick a few books in order to talk about them as we read. Our first one was Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, which is a marvelous work of imagination if not particularly cheerful, and then we went on to Snow, by Orhan Pamuk, which has, well, a lot of snow in it, as well as brooding political unrest. Our next choice was My Name is Red, again by Pamuk, a historical, tour-de-force, literary who-done-it, with the first sentence: “I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well.” My friend at this point was feeling battered and asked me: Aren’t any of the books you read funny? Don’t any of them have humor in them? Short answer: no. Long answer is that the thought never occurred to me.

I think I’m fairly typical of English Lit majors who read voraciously and don’t think in terms of tragedy/comedy but only Is it good? Good trumps all. The idea of light reading, entertainment, never influenced me because I’ve always felt such pressure to read the great books, classics and contemporary, that anything else seemed a waste of time, and right there was the false division. This prejudice against comedy had to do with a feeling that it could not deal with the way life really is. I accept the rosy-tinted glasses in comedic movies I watch, but I have a higher standard for books. Books, I believe, change one. The mark of a good book for me is that when I have finished it, the copy is much dog-eared and highlighted and rumpled from having been toted around through days or weeks of my life. The margins are clouded with notes. Passages are underlined, loved so much that I cannot consign them to the oblivion of the turned page. Without consciously thinking about it, I equated serious with important, humor with entertainment. I owed this insight entirely to my friend who then laid down the gauntlet: Why can’t a humorous book, a book that is light in tone, be just as important as a serious one? Why can’t it have a happy ending?

No, I immediately thought, and then, maybe. The real answer was, Of course, it can. I was still holding as ideals the kinds of books I first fell in love with, from writers such as Hemingway, Conrad, Greene, Rhys, McCarthy (The Road so harrowing I could only read a page a day, but that was nothing compared to the brutal masterpiece Blood Meridian which slowed to a page a day), Coetzee (Disgrace so bleak it requires a stiff drink). All of these writers probably were fun to go drinking with, quite a few have reputations as marvelous raconteurs, but in their work they seem to have bigger fish to fry than being “entertaining.” These are the types of books that made me want to become a writer, but were they the only kind of book worth reading? Or writing?

“What about Shakespeare?” my friend asked. True, the plays are neatly divided between the tragedies and comedies, but that’s theater. Even so, who can say Hamlet is the greater work over Twelfth Night? Then there is my own hero, Graham Greene, who not only wrote my all time favorites The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter, but also lighter books he called entertainments, such as Our Man in Havana and Travels with My Aunt. The plot thickens. In his later years, Greene blurred the distinction between these works.

What about having both elements in one work? Arguably The Winter’s Tale, featuring both tragedy and comedy, is considered among Shakespeare’s masterpieces. Just in my own haphazard reading of contemporary novels, The Corrections by Franzen, The Ask by Lipsyte, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Fountain all stand out equally for commanding both laughter and tears; more subtly A Hologram for the King by Eggers, Bel Canto by Patchett, Birds of America by Lorrie Moore, as well as A Visit from the Goon Squad by Egan, all accomplish the feat of making you laugh and cry within one book, sometimes within one chapter, or even one page.

As so often happens, the more you look for these things, the more you find. I just recently finished A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki in which one of the main characters, Nao, a Japanese teenage girl reminiscent of a contemporary Holden Caulfield, has a deadpan wit that makes a tragic family story fill with air and light. As my quest for examples continued and great examples multiplied, I realized that the limitation had been in my own mind, self-created, as most authors’ writing problems tend to be.

Searching for my next book, characters from a long, forty-page short story I had written as part of my thesis kept circling. I realized that these characters weren’t finished. There were serious themes running through the story, a large cast of characters, an island resort setting, but I didn’t have a through line, a point of view, an approach on the material, until I thought of my friend’s challenge. What I discovered by straddling the tragic-comic line was it created space between voice and subject matter that gave the book its voice. New possibilities were unleashed.

My stepfather is an attorney and my first part-time job was working in a law office, but how do you write about the Kafkaesque nature of our legal system? My character Ann is a thirty-eight-year-old junior partner at a prestigious law firm, and her answer to being an overworked, under-loved attorney is to undress, lie on a conference table, and binge on chocolate bars. For good measure, I threw in a laundry list of lawyer jokes because not only are they groan-worthy, they are at the same time daggers to her heart. As Ann begins to fear that she has chosen the wrong life, she comes to a realization that I could only arrive at on the roller coaster of humor: “The embarrassing truth was that she wanted to be loved, and people hardly ever loved, or even liked, their attorneys—they were a necessary evil, like dentists or hookers.” I’ve test-run this passage during readings, always fearing to offend attorneys in the audience, but to my surprise and delight they—some still practicing, some not—are great people (they are attending a book event after all) with a wicked sense of humor. They agree with Ann: “That’s the way it is!” Isn’t that one of the goals of any book—to reflect life back to us? Another character, Richard, Ann’s husband, is a chef with Emeril Lagasse-size ambition, but he has developed an aversion to French cooking technique. He laments: “If there was a God, how could people peel asparagus?” The credulity of this situation is not that far a jump to every writer who meticulously guards her time to write only to find herself using those same, hard-won hours procrastinating on the Internet.

I joke that the third book, filled with black comedy, tragi-comedy, alternating light and dark, how ever you want to label it, is my most autobiographical, and, of course, I am both joking and not. Humor ends up being a way both to lay bare pain and overcome it. My friend’s challenge, coming at the right moment in my development as a writer and in the vulnerable limbo between books, ended up being one of my most valuable writing lessons. Grasshopper-worthy, at last.

About the Author

Tatjana Soli is a novelist and short story writer. Her New York Times bestselling debut novel, The Lotus Eaters, was the winner of the James Tait Black Prize, a New York Times Notable Book, and a finalist for the LA Times Book Award. Her critically acclaimed second novel The Forgetting Tree was also a New York Times Notable book.

Her stories have appeared in Zyzzyva, Boulevard, and The Sun, and have been listed in Best American Short Stories. She lives with her husband in Southern California.


Books à la Mode is giving away one print copy of The Last Good Paradise—yay!!

To enter, all you have to do is answer Tatjana's question in a comment below:
The Last Good Paradise is partly about the second acts in people's lives. What is the second act—actual or contemplated—in your life?
Please make your comment MEANINGFUL. Comments solely consisting of stock responses or irrelevant fluff like "Thanks for the giveaway!" will not be considered for entry. Tatjana and I really want to hear from you guys! :)

Don't forget the entry eligibility terms and conditions!
Sponsored wholly by the tour publicist and publisher—a huge thank you to TLC Book Tours and St. Martin's Press!
Giveaway ends February 17th at 11.59 PM (your time).
Open to US and Canada readers only—sorry, everyone else! Please check my sidebar for the list of currently running giveaways that are open worldwide. There are plenty to choose from!
Void where prohibited.
Winners have 48 hours to claim their prize once they are chosen, or else their winnings will be forfeited.
Although I do randomly select winners, I am in no way responsible for prizes, nor for shipping and handling.
As a reminder, you do not have to follow my blog to enter, though it is always very much appreciated ❤
Good luck!