Rudy & Shirley Nelson and Paula Huston

Gods, Guns, and Guatemala

A conversation between novelists.

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.

SHIRLEY: By then Rudy had begun the first draft of the novel, and our own trips there continued without any problems. Nothing the least bit scary. Then, in 1999, our daughter and I, in another study group, were held up by gunpoint on a mountain highway. The intent was clearly robbery. We weren't even sure there were bullets in those guns. But it was the first time I had ever faced imminent threat to my life, let alone what might happen to my daughter. I wanted to convey that stark fear in this story, an experience so foreign to most U.S. citizens, yet so common in Guatemala, a place of so much beauty and friendship and dependable kindness.

PAULA: Something that really stood out for me in your story was a Mam word, Xob'il, that your Maya activist character Luis uses during a conversation with Ted about the various synonyms for fear. Xob'il, he says, means "a panicked state that affects your thinking." There is something a little crazed about that level of terror. I found your book fascinating on many levels, but perhaps more than anything because it makes this potentially life-destroying fear an important part of the story. I had not before read a novel that makes fear the moral fulcrum around which the tale turns—a little surprising, given that terror is such a fact of contemporary life. It's the way your characters react to that constant fear that tells us who they really are.

RUDY: I'd like to go back to something you said about Wordsworth—his rhapsodizing about nature but sensing also a dark Presence pervading the natural world. The reference triggered a memory from my first year or two of college teaching. I was handed a two-semester English Lit survey course for which I was woefully unprepared. When we got to Wordsworth, casting about for an angle, I came across Aldous Huxley's essay "Words-worth in the Tropics." How that influenced class discussion long ago disappeared in the mists of memory. But more important than anything Huxley said is your own experience of Wordsworth in the tropics, riding horseback as a 17-year-old through the forests of Honduras. The dark side of the numinous face of nature comes through clearly in A Land Without Sin.

SHIRLEY: Both of our stories are also dependent on historical circumstances. The tough thing in writing fiction, one that drives me crazy, is knowing how much factual information to include without turning the story into an exposition—that is, what the writer wants the reader to know, which is bound to be deadly. How did you decide what to include and what to disregard?

PAULA: While I agree that the inclusion of too much historical detail can wind up hijacking a story, I think much contemporary fiction suffers instead from not having enough of it. Unfolding events might provide a bit of atmosphere, but the true focus is on the individual-as-individual. My protagonist Eva, who tries her best to live as a totally free being, un-fazed by familial, cultural, or historical constraints, provides a case in point. Yet when we novelists relegate historical context to atmospheric backdrop, we unnecessarily limit the sorts of challenges we can throw at our characters. I think history can be a sort of meta-character, its dynamism and energy generating conflict on a grand scale and highlighting the moral weaknesses and strengths of those who must deal with it. For example, ahistorical Eva tries to dart and dodge her way around the breaking wave of an indigenous revolution in order to fulfill her own personal agenda. Her priest brother Stefan, on the other hand, believes that even seemingly inconsequential personal decisions can turn out to have important historical consequences. So how did I decide what historical facts to include and what to leave out? I tried to treat history as a character. And this gave me a helpful anchor-point when it came to the inevitable detail-sifting process. What were your own guidelines for this?

SHIRLEY: I keep a quote from Italo Calvino tacked up over my workspace: "The book I would like to read now is a novel in which you sense the story arriving like still vague thunder, the historical story along with the individual's story."[2] I love that, but the question, obviously, is what you do when the historical thunder starts to get louder. We finally developed one rule. Include only the facts that the characters need to know in order to function within the story. How they learn those facts must be part of the action. Our lead character, Ted Peterson, started out pretty clueless, so part of the story is what he learned in order to understand what happened to his father.

RUDY: Along the same line, both of our stories are dependent in part on how the characters deal with religious issues. So again there's the question of how much overt theologizing to include. In certain drafts we included references to Reinhold Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and various representatives of liberation theology, which would have been totally relevant in the story. But we chose finally to not assume any particular theological lens. At one point Ted claims, half-joking, to be an "unreconstructed post-modern skeptic," but he hears himself inserting quotes from Scripture into ordinary conversation, and in the course of a few weeks he tangles with Mayan spirituality, as well as classical and radical Catholicism, and his mother's fundamentalist tendencies. He gets his best political advice from a savvy Mennonite.

SHIRLEY: And throughout the book there's a certain character who keeps popping into Ted's life, someone he facetiously views as godlike, since he repeatedly comes to Ted's aid. But the guy is actually hapless himself. He can't finish the dissertation he's been working on for years, because he can't nail down the thesis. I admit to delighting in that idea, a lovable god who can't finish his dissertation.

RUDY: Yet all that is just part of the story. A Land Without Sin, in contrast, takes a more overt theological position. Can you tell us what sat behind that?

PAULA: I'm glad you asked this question, which has been on my mind for some time. How much can a literary audience handle in regard to novels that take Christianity seriously? I once paid a painful price for misplaced optimism on this score. I originally wrote this novel in the mid-Nineties under contract to Random House. When they decided not to publish it, I was so disheartened—and so convinced that it was the religious content that had turned them off—that I stopped writing fiction for years. And so I've been following with great interest the ongoing debate regarding the alleged demise of the Catholic novel. One side contends that its golden era is long since past, the other that we live in different circumstances now, a reality to which writers must adjust if they are ever to be heard. Though I love the prophetic fervor of those who call for bolder novelists, I am inclined to take the second, more pragmatic view. My years of university teaching convinced me that the literary audience is generally wary of faith. My problem in this book was how to tell the story of a missing priest without triggering an automatic recoil in the very readers I was trying to attract. One technique was to give Stefan a background much like any other Sixties kid: he grows out his hair, smokes pot, gets kicked out of the house, and winds up on the hippie trail to Kathmandu. Another strategy was to make his internal wranglings about the nature of evil personal and emotional rather than intellectual. The most important choice I made, however, was to designate Eva first-person narrator of the story. Brave, tough, and cynical, she is actively hostile to the Christianity he finally comes to embrace. Diffusing my audience's worries by creating characters who did not seem threatening to them then allowed me to include quite a lot of theological material and get away with it … Or at least I hope I did.

RUDY: What I found interesting was your narrative device for including most of the theological material: Stefan's letters, nine of them. I found that going back and re-reading those in succession was a gratifying study in the development of Stefan's ideas, especially his growing commitment to the thought of René Girard.

PAULA: I have to admit, I took a bit of a chance with that strategy. The epistolary novel went out with the Victorians, after all. But because Stefan is a missing person, we have no way to hear from him except through the letters, so the device seemed justifiable. And since he is such an intense young man, the theologizing follows quite naturally. And now a question for you. What fascinates me about The Risk of Returning is the fact that you wrote it together. I find that absolutely stunning. And I certainly can't imagine ever trying it myself—especially with my spouse! Can you talk a little about your collaborative process?

SHIRLEY: Well, first of all, you have to agree to yell a lot.

RUDY: Hey, wait a minute. You yelled. I didn't.

SHIRLEY: Not true! I can think of two specific times when you really, really yelled. I was worried about the neighbors.

RUDY: I did not!

SHIRLEY: You did so!

RUDY: See? There's the answer to the question. We're still talking to each other, sort of.

SHIRLEY: The point is that collaboration can't work without a built-in trust. You've got to know you can say what you think without ruining a relationship.

RUDY: Actually, we've never been competitive. It's a left-brain/right-brain thing. I'm Apollonian to a fault and Shirley has a Dionysian streak.

SHIRLEY: And Paula, you seem to be blessed with an equal amount of each.

PAULA: Maybe the conversation should end here.

1. Harvest of Violence: The Maya Indians and the Guatemalan Crisis, edited by Robert M. Carmack (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, rev. ed., 1992).

2. Italo Calvino, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, translated by William Weaver (Harcourt, 1981).

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