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Rudy & Shirley Nelson and Paula Huston

Gods, Guns, and Guatemala

A conversation between novelists.

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In August 2013, Slant, a new imprint of Wipf & Stock presided over by Greg Wolfe, published A Land Without Sin, a novel by Paula Huston. In October, Rudy and Shirley Nelson self-published their collaborative novel The Risk of Returning, also now available through Wipf & Stock. The authors of the two books were not acquainted, nor had they read each other's earlier work. The rather remarkable similarities between the two novels have drawn them together in conversation.

Both stories are initiated by a search. In A Land Without Sin, Eva Kovic, a photojournalist from Chicago, is in southern Mexico looking for her brother, who has disappeared. In The Risk of Returning, Ted Peterson, an English teacher from Boston, is attempting to uncover the mystery surrounding his father's apparent death in Guatemala years before. Stefan, Eva's brother, is a priest, and Ted's father a Protestant missionary under an interdenominational board.

Huston's story takes place in 1993 and the Nelsons' in 1987, time frames at the center of revolutionary uprisings throughout the area. Huston's story begins in the Peten of Guatemala, at the sites of ancient Mayan empires, and moves to the Chiapas region of Mexico. The Nelsons' story takes place in central Guatemala, as well as the western highlands. In both books the civil wars of the region, in their terrifying phases of subterfuge and open weaponry, provide a context for everything else that takes place.

Both stories are narrated by characters who have been wounded in their childhoods and who find themselves dangling in midlife. Eva comes to the country purportedly on a work assignment, as assistant to an archaeologist working in the Mayan ruins, a job she hopes will lead her eventually to her brother's location—though, as she admits, she is really just "running," with no destination. Ted, jobless, his marriage failing, is "running" too, escaping to Guatemala, in his habitual flight from life's hard choices. And both run straight into evils beyond their imagination.

NELSONS: Paula, what drew us to your book first of all was the geographical location. We were amazed that another novel, published at close to the same time, was set in the same corner of the world, one not many people know a lot about. So we are curious about why you chose Guatemala and southern Mexico as the setting.

PAULA: Setting is what triggers most of my writing. Something in a particular landscape will make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and then I know I've got to write about it. I think Wordsworth felt this too. For all his Romantic rhapsodizing about the beauties of creation, he seemed to sense in nature a dark, amoral Presence. Rudolf Otto, in The Idea of the Holy, would call these experiences of the "numinous," times in which we stumble upon something so wholly other that we "recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb." I first experienced this numinous quality of the Central American landscape in 1969, when I went to Honduras as a medical volunteer. I was 17, my partner was another naïve high school girl from the States, and the two of us spent much of that summer on horseback, wending our way through forests and over rivers to tiny mountain hamlets, our bags of medicine tied to our saddles beneath voluminous rain ponchos.

Then, during Christmas week of 1993, I went back, this time to southern Mexico and Guatemala, with my husband. Instead of medicine bags, we hauled backpacks; instead of horses, we rode second-class buses. And it was there in the great jungle, cut through by the sinuous green Usumacinta River and punctured by the crumbling black roof combs of Maya pyramids, that I once again felt that Wordsworthian shiver. Later, after I read Bob Carmack's harrowing account of the 1980s Maya genocide called Harvest of Violence,[1] I realized that propitiatory slaughter was still very much a part of this hauntingly beautiful landscape. Hence my ironic title, and hence the Henri Rousseau painting of death in the heart of paradise on the book jacket.

RUDY: Our earliest initiation into Central America was in 1987. I was part of a Presbyterian study group to Guatemala, led by a former missionary, David Scotchmer. He had come back to the States, having learned his name was on a death list because he'd been a supporter of Mayan causes. At about the same time, we learned that Bob Carmack, the anthropologist who edited Harvest of Violence, also had to abandon his work among the Maya and escape to save his neck. Carmack was an acquaintance at Albany-SUNY, so here were actually two people we knew personally who had been in real danger.

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