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Gina Ochsner and Paula Huston

How to Catch an Eel

A conversation between novelists.

Though novelists Gina Ochsner and Paula Huston first met only five years ago, they've developed the kind of friendship that usually takes decades to mature. Both mentors in Seattle Pacific University's MFA in Creative Writing Program, they've shared quarters every winter and summer during ten-day residencies on Whidbey Island and at St. John's College in Santa Fe, along with annual meetings of the Chrysostom Society at Laity Lodge in Texas. They've also exchanged work, in the process discovering that they share significant common ground. Both have traveled alone in far-flung and sometimes dangerous places. Both have written about the evils of war and its aftermath. Both find their best characters in cultures not their own.

In between MFA workshops and craft lectures, they've conducted an on-going conversation about their faith (Ochsner is Pentecostal; Huston, Catholic) and their fiction. One cold and rainy morning on Whidbey Island not so long ago, they asked each other a series of questions. Do you think that being a Christian makes it harder for you to be taken seriously by the literary world? Do you feel there are topics you can't write about, given your beliefs? Have you found that your faith constrains your art? Their answers revealed passionate convictions that surprised them both. The following dialogue grew out of this conversation between friends.

Ochsner: Every artist develops over a period of time an idea of what makes good writing good and also a sense of which topics are most worthy of exploration. Your characters include concert pianists, guerrillas, archaeologists, and war-zone photojournalists, most with dark, complicated problems. Are there certain topics you think should be kept off limits in authentically Christian literary writing? Can artistic excellence and genuine faith co-exist in the same work?

Huston: Absolutely! Why should being a Christian preclude being a great writer? Most of the finest writers in the Western pantheon were Christian: Dante, Chaucer, Spenser, Donne, Wordsworth, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and many more. Even the heterodox, hopeless, or staunchly atheist writers of the 20th century were somehow responding to the magnificent Christian vision, which was so much deeper, richer, and more artistically fertile than anything modernism had to offer. In the hands of a great Christian writer, even the most despairing stuff is saturated at the molecular level with eschatological hope. I think the real question is whether contemporary intellectual prejudices against Christianity are strong enough to keep writers of faith from writing.

In that regard, Gina, you are clearly a great exemplar for young Christian writers. Based on the literary acclaim your work has received, not to mention how long you are willing to spend writing a novel—your most recent took you twelve years, didn't it?—you clearly hold yourself to a very high standard. It's obvious that you have learned well from the contemporary masters. Does this mean that you also embrace the strain of irony that runs through 20th- and 21st-century fiction? Is it possible to be a significant literary writer today without adopting that ironic stance?

Ochsner: Horace recommended that literary compositions be kept from the public eye for nine years at least. I took his advice and added a few more years to it. During that time, I noticed the ironic strain (stain?) in literature. I think irony may have been so enthusiastically embraced by artists because it looks and sounds smart. There's nothing wrong with being smart, nothing wrong with examining the absurdity of the world we live in with a detached eye, a stance that allows some room for examination, play, even. But what I'm noticing is a not-so-subtle cynicism that pervades the current strain of literature like a foul odor. The tone in these works represents a slide from irony to cynicism, an intellectual petulance in regard to everything and everyone. When cynicism becomes the default posture, meaning and beauty are leached from all that is seen, remembered, apprehended. What the artist offers the reader is a husk, a body with no spirit. The job of artists is to challenge whatever is currently trending. To this end I am battling the toxicity of cynicism. And what disturbs or confounds cynicism more than joy? Pure, ineluctable, inexplicable joy. Fleet-footed, gravity-defying leaps of image or thought that radiate curiosity and wonder.

But Paula, I'd like to go back to my first question about craft, specifically about the temptations a literary Christian novelist might face that other writers do not, which is to reach for easy Christian clichés. Why do you so stubbornly resist using them in your work? After all, they exist because on some level they bear truth, don't they?

Huston: Clichés tend to block genuine intellectual engagement on the part of the reader, who, lulled into complacency by the overly familiar, especially when it sounds "Christian," can fall into a pious coma. They also offer false assurance to the writer that she really does see, grasp, and is conveying the truth of what is in front of her instead of simply repeating a comfortable truism. Finally, they make it impossible for fiction to do what it does best: invite a reader into an actual experience. The very thing that makes clichés feel so "right"—their generic nature, their familiarity—means they can no longer trigger genuine wonder, awe, shock, or grief, but only the ersatz version of these, which is sentimentality. Yet Christian writers, wanting to reassure their readers that they are of the same "tribe," are tempted to speak the lingo: they talk about their "brokenness," "the scandal of the Cross," of being in a particular "season," of "having a heart for the poor," or if they are Catholic, of "offering it up." This is all code for "I am a not only a Christian but culturally speaking, a certain kind of Christian—one safe for you to read."

But I can't imagine ever finding one of these in an Ochsner novel, Gina. You are seemingly fearless when it comes to writing about cultures not your own. In The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight, you adopt the perspective of post-Soviet Russians. In Pleased to be Otherwise, you give us the interior life of Timi, a young Uzbek on the Central Asian steppes. In your most recent novel, The Hidden Letters of Velta B., you enter the private mental and emotional space of Latvian villagers, some of whom are Roma. You live with these people as they go about their daily round—you even show them hunting and cooking eels, which I'm pretty sure is not done in your part of Oregon. How can you, an American writer from the Pacific Northwest, a professor at a small evangelical college, know anything real about people so different from yourself? Don't you worry about opportunistic appropriation here?

Ochsner: Guilty but unrepentant. Unbounded curiosity compelled me to visit as much of Latvia as possible and talk to as many different kinds of people as possible: university lecturers, gulag camp survivors, elementary school teachers, janitors, famous poets. In the process, some of my preconceived notions have been challenged and exposed. In Latvia I quickly learned not to assume that, just because I heard Russian being spoken, the speaker was in fact Russian. I learned that language itself was a sore point in certain parts of the country. History, too, was a point of contention. What I thought I knew, what I had read in books, I sometimes had to jettison. Near Talsi, a university student led me on a tour of the village. I commented on the pretty marsh and the ducks gliding regally in the dark water. "Oh. That's the slough where all the Jews in our town were drowned." I hadn't read that in any of the history books. "Well. There are two histories in Latvia. There's the history taught in school and then there's the history of events we all know happened but nobody talks about. We don't talk about what happened to those Jews. But we all know it happened."

But now that we're on the subject, Paula, I must accuse you of the same tendency to stray far from your own culture. You once told me that one of your goals, both as a Christian and as a writer, has been to "plunge into the unknown." Does this sit behind your solo travels to Israel, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, India, Nepal? Do you feel like you've made discoveries you couldn't have made if you followed a scripted plan?

Huston: I read Kierkegaard's Training in Christianity when I was coming back to the church in my early forties, and ever since, I've been downright skittish about the possibility of spiritual complacency—for example, falling into the trap of assuming I'm good because I admire good things. When Jesus is someone to be admired rather than imitated, Christianity loses its power to transform. The antidote to a comfortable, socially approved faith is the embrace of a mystery that draws us into the "oscura," as John of the Cross would put it, and strips us of illusion. But venturing on the narrow way can be frightening. We don't know where Jesus is headed, where he might lead us next. My travels in the Middle East and Central Asia forced me to let go of my reassuring sense that I was in charge of my own life, and that was profoundly destabilizing. But only then could I find what I was looking for without even knowing I was looking. The spiritual life and the artist's life are in so many ways parallel that I'm convinced I've also got to let go of the creative script if I'm ever going to write anything true.

Which leads me to ask about your story, Gina. You've done a lot of lone traveling in places most Americans would never go, especially if they are women. You've put yourself in some risky situations. Is being vulnerable somehow necessary for you to do what you do in your writing?

Ochsner: Every journey has been fraught with uncertainly and doubt. What I'm learning is that I see more clearly when I'm reduced to a state of complete dependence. With few or no language skills, I am like a baby needing help to understand the simplest of things. In response to my obvious vulnerability, several of my hosts and hostesses made themselves vulnerable to me. Radko, a Roma who lives and ministers to other Roma in Sliven, Bulgaria, housed me for many days with his family. While there he showed me what he called a Gypsy "ghetto" nicknamed "Hope." Many of the inhabitants, I observed, seemed bright, capable. "Why don't the younger ones go to school, university even?" I asked Radko. "It's a problem with motivation. Younger Roma don't have a vision for the future, theirs or anyone else's." Radko then described the deep-seated discrimination against the Roma in Eastern Europe, how hard it is to get a job, even obtain an interview, if one's Roma ethnicity is made known. This had led to what he calls Gypsy Shame. "Roma kids sit in the back of the classroom. Not because the teacher puts them there, they put themselves there." He was making himself vulnerable to me in that moment. And in that moment we were no longer interviewer and interviewee, but two sojourners walking alongside each other and pointing out the potholes and stones along the trail.

But I have to ask you about something that intrigues me, Paula, which is your willingness to write about evil. In your novel A Land Without Sin, you recount some of the worst atrocities human beings can commit. Why do you think evil is a worthwhile subject for a novelist? And don't you ever worry about depressing your readers with these forays into the dark side?

Huston: If it were up to me, I'd live a semi-eremitical life of sweet prayer in a lovely rural setting, accompanied by a kind and handsome husband who is also my best friend, the two of us surrounded by gamboling farm animals and beautiful grandkids. Actually, I do sort of live this way. Which means that it's easy to hide from evil's reality. But Jesus didn't do that, and neither can I, not if I want to live an honest life. So I've made it a spiritual practice to look at, absorb, and pray about what most horrifies me: for example, the beheadings of three Syrian priests by amateur executioners, recorded on an iPhone that captured the jeering laughter of the surrounding mob. As a novelist of faith, I feel compelled to stand in whatever way I can with the victims of evil, whether this means telling their untold stories or simply reminding people that these victims once lived and loved and hoped, just like the rest of us, and that they died in the throes of monumental, undeserved suffering. I am convinced that genuine evil always has a spiritual element to it. Every time it wreaks havoc in the world, it confirms C. S. Lewis's assertion that we live in "occupied territory." But as a Christian writer, I know that the Evil One will never run the whole show. As for depressing my readers, mea culpa.

But this reminds me, Gina, that in your work the line seems very thin between the physical and the supernatural. Is this because you often write about less modern, more traditional cultures? How did you attain this comfort level with what a lot of folks might call the primitive and the spooky? Why do the dead have so much to say in your novels?

Ochsner: Jacob wrestled an angel. That encounter with the divine left him with a permanent wound announced in every step he took thereafter. I think every character in a serious novel has to bear a similar scar. A scar is a map of one's undoing and one's reconciliation. In one of her essays, Doris Betts talked about the importance of identifying and exposing the wounds on the body. Only after the wounds have been identified can they be addressed. I admire that unflinching gaze, the refusal to look away.

I showed a story to my parents, who have staunchly supported everything I've written. But this story, like others I've written, was all about the way we are walking train wrecks: wounded and unable to keep from wounding others. My mom shook her head, clicked her tongue. "What did we do wrong with you?" She didn't do anything wrong. She put a Bible in my hand when I was young. And the Bible is a deeply disturbing book. The divine and supernatural intersect, regularly, with the human and the natural. All this to say that I believe in the supernatural as fact, not fiction. This worlds spins on the axis of the mysterious and the miraculous. This conviction fuels my vision and perception. When I write, I feel as if I'm standing on the precipice. I'm peering into a widening darkness. The light is behind me, my body casts a long shadow. In the shadow God hovers and broods.

Gina Ochsner's most recent novel is The Hidden Letters of Velta B. (just published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Paula Huston's is A Land Without Sin (Slant/Wipf & Stock). They can both be reached via their websites: www.ginaochsner.com and www.paulahuston.com.

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