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Gina Ochsner and Paula Huston

How to Catch an Eel

A conversation between novelists.

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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.

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