Rudy & Shirley Nelson and Paula Huston

Gods, Guns, and Guatemala

A conversation between novelists.

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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.

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