Luan Gaines interviewed author Janette Turner Hospital
about her most recent novel,
a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth set against a modern backdrop of
terrorism fears and revelations of torture.
Interviewer Luan Gaines: What was your inspiration for Orpheus Lost?
Janette Turner Hospital: All my novels have a very decisive moment of conception which involves the collision of an image and an idea. The idea trails a question that I feel a burning need to explore. This impact of image and question is as sudden and forceful as a flying baseball connecting with my head. I know the question isn't going to let me go until I've explored it for a few hundred pages. So for me a novel is a means of searching for answers.
The germination point for Orpheus Lostcame when I was on book tour for my previous novel, Due Preparations for the Plague, in the summer of 2003. I was back in Boston, after an absence of many years, though I'd previously lived there for considerable stretches of time (as spouse of graduate student and as librarian at Harvard in the
'60s; as Creative Writing faculty at MIT and Boston University in the '80s and
'90s). Boston is up there in my top five favorite cities in the world (and I've lived in a lot of cities in a lot of countries.) Full of nostalgia, I was taking the T from Harvard Square into the city. I've always loved the Red Line because there are always student musicians on the subway platforms and they are extremely good, being music students at either Harvard or the Berklee School of Music. So there I was, standing on the Harvard Square platform, listening to and watching a wonderful young violinist in that murky underground twilight, and I suddenly thought: He's the perfect contemporary image of Orpheus in the Underworld.
My academic and literary training is as a medievalist, so my thinking always tends to be overlaid by templates of myth and the great literary works of the past. I instantly felt the prickling on the back of my neck, the shiver of excitement that signals a novel coming on. I knew instantly that I would write a contemporary version of the Orpheus and Eurydice love story, but also that I'd give it a feminist twist. In the ancient myth, Orpheus, a musician so gifted that wild beasts become tame when he plays, loses the love of his life, Eurydice, to an early and untimely death. Distraught, he makes his way into the Underworld in search of her. He so charms the King of the Underworld with his music, that he is granted his heart's desire. He may take Eurydice back to life on earth, but on one condition. He must not turn back to look at her until they have completely emerged from the Underworld. Of course, at the last fateful second, Orpheus just has to know if she is really behind him as they climb the steep upward path back to the living. He can't stand the suspense. He glances back over his shoulder and sees his love for one radiant moment and then loses her forever.
Even when I was a child, it irritated me that in myths and fairytales, the only role for women was either to wait around to be rescued, or to wait around while assorted knights and princes competed for the right to win the maiden's hand in marriage. I knew that in my version of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, the Eurydice character would be the active one, the searcher, the rescuer.
So that was the image: a young man playing a violin in the underground.
And the idea that collided with the image? This was 2003, when we were all still jumpily waiting for possible further terrorist attacks, when we were reading of Homeland Security alerts and foiled terrorist attempts, when there were rumors of underground terrorist networks possibly in this country. We were also picking up newspaper accounts of another underground: that of secret prisons and detention camps and interrogation techniques outlawed by the Geneva Convention. Our recent history reveals that in times of high national anxiety we have a habit of trading off our democratic ideals (due process, habeus corpus, the principle of being presumed innocent until proven guilty, etc.) in return for a sense of security. (Think of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Think of the witch-hunts of the McCarthy era in the Cold War years.) What would happen, I asked myself, if more suicide bombings occur? What would happen to someone wrongly suspected of terrorist contacts?
Because I teach full time at the University of South Carolina, I never get any writing done during the academic year. So by the time I was able actually to begin work on the novel, in the summer of 2004, two more huge events had occurred that fed themselves into the plot and intensified the urgency of the initial questions: the Madrid train bombings of March 2004, with al Qaeda held responsible; and the breaking story of the Abu Ghraib abuses in April 2004.
We soon learned that the whistle-blower of Abu Ghraib, Joe Darby, a young American MP in Baghdad, who was shocked by what he saw, knew this was a violation of military law, felt that what was happening was profoundly un-American, felt it was a travesty of the very reason we were in Iraq (to overthrow a dictator who used barbaric practices), felt that it was his moral duty to report the abuse: for this, he was subject to such a backlash of hate that the military had to arrange protective custody. I found this a terribly disturbing omen of how many core beliefs of American democracy might get traded off if suicide bombings began to happen on American soil.
So these two disturbing "undergrounds" (our fear of terrorist networks; the existence of secret prisons and torture) became the shadowy underground world that would swallow up the Orpheus and Eurydice of my novel.
Set in the not-too-distant future, Orpheus Lost features random bombings of civilian targets and the growing fears of people under siege. Do you see this situation happening in the United States?
I don't think of the novel as set in the future, but rather "in a time like the present." As indicated above, at the time the novel was germinating, and when I began writing, it did seem like a horrible possibility that there could be random suicide bombings in this country. I was still working on the novel when the London Underground bombings occurred in the summer of 2005, and that made the possibility seem even more likely, especially since those terrorists were home-grown. They were British citizens. We began to ask ourselves: could that happen here? Are there sleeper cells of American Muslims? So I wrote the novel as though that were our present.
Do I think suicide bombings and mass civilian deaths could still be our future?
I suspect I'm like everyone else: there's a certain low level of anxiety, a buzz at the back of our minds, about the possibility. I think no one would feel terribly surprised if it did happen. But on the whole, I do feel there are reasons why such incidents are much less likely to happen here. One of those reasons is heightened security and heightened awareness. The other is that American Muslims are far more integrated into mainstream life and less alienated than they are in Europe. I believe the vast majority of American Muslims see themselves as American first. But still, there are definitely small disaffected elements. In the novel I've used actual anti-American quotations from a mullah at the mosque in Cambridge, Mass.
In her work at MIT, Leela Moore applies mathematical principles to music, hence a profound connection to Mishka Barton. How does her love of numbers and his of complex music create a language only they can share? For those of us who are mathematically challenged but love music, is this connection something you understand?
I myself am definitely among the mathematically challenged (in spite of the fact that I have taught at MIT.) And as for music: I am passionate about classical music, Early Music and Renaissance groups, and jazz, but my only musical skill is fervent listening. Nevertheless I have long known that there is a close correlation between mathematical and musical abilities (which is probably why I have neither). I had to do a lot of research in both areas. I'm lucky in having two resident musicians in the family. My husband is a fine pianist and organist; my daughter (now a mother of three) is a fine violinist, and I was a "Suzuki mom," which means I had to go to every one of my daughter's lessons and was more or less trained as her tutor for the violin (even though I can't play at all. I learned a lot about violins and violin playing by osmosis and observation).
On mathematics, I consulted colleagues in the field and was startled to find that there's a whole discipline devoted to the mathematics of music. I read an enormous amount in this area. I confess I understood only a fraction of what I read, but I plodded doggedly on, getting explanatory help from patient colleagues. Musical compositions can be mathematically analyzed, but luckily you don't have to do the math to enjoy the music.
“Famished people are unable to eat sensibly.” How does this statement reflect the bond between Leela and Mishka?
This comment, made by Mishka's mother, is close in meaning to another, by a mathematician, that Leela keeps on a card thumb-tacked above her desk: Obsession is its own heaven and its own hell. The idea is that certain passions, a certain kind of intense neediness, certain kinds of obsessive desire override rationality. The bond between Leela and Mishka is like this.
It begins, as the French are fond of saying, as un coup de foudre, a thunderclap, a bolt of lightning, an intense and instantaneous attraction that is intellectual, esthetic, and sexual all at once. From a rational point of view, the relationship between two people of such dissimilar backgrounds seems doomed to failure.
Raised in the south, Leela and Cobb Slaughter also have a deep bond, one forged in childhood loss and a strong mutual attraction. Yet Leela moves on and Cobb cannot. Why?
Both Cobb and Leela lost their mothers when they were very young, and both were reared by fathers thought to be a bit mad (in very different ways) by local society. This drew them together as children. Cobb's loss, however, was greater and far more traumatic. His mother committed suicide, and he was the one who found her hanged body. The prognosis for such trauma, at such a young age, is not good. That is why, for me, Cobb actually makes the longer and more difficult journey, and is, finally, the real moral hero of the novel. His act of atonement is loosely based on the actions of Joe Darby, the whistleblower of Abu Ghraib, similarly a patriot and idealist from a rural background, who paid dearly for doing what he felt morally bound to do. (It will be clear that I consider Joe Darby's courage quite extraordinary.)
Is Cobb misdirected in his mission to purge the country of terrorists? How does his troubled past influence Cobb’s ability to perform his duties?
I don't consider anyone misdirected for the desire to protect all of us from terrorist attacks. I'm quite willing to accept the ever-increasing hassle of airport security regulations, for example (and I fly a lot) in order to increase my chances of landing safely at the end of the flight. But there's a line to be drawn. We know it isn't always easy to draw that line. We know that sometimes one set of inalienable rights as spelled out in the constitution can be in conflict with another set of inalienable rights. Where do you draw the line between the right to free speech and incitement to hate, for example?
Cobb really has strong circumstantial evidence that puts Mishka under suspicion of terrorist links (even though, like all human beings, Cobb also has tangled motives, his personal jealousy fueling his patriotic zeal). But Cobb has every good reason to believe he is doing the right thing in forestalling a terrorist threat. When he realizes he has been in error, and when, furthermore, matters get taken out of his hands by the practice known as "rendition" – the handing over of suspects to foreign governments and foreign militia groups known to use torture with impunity – then Cobb knows in his gut that an unacceptable line as has been crossed, just as Joe Darby knew it at Abu Ghraib. Cobb is not under any illusion that it will be simple to undo his action. He knows what happens to whistleblowers. He knows any intervention will be costly and he doesn't want to be a martyr. But he has to do what he knows is right. That makes him a hero in my eyes.
Mishka’s past is filled with beauty, music and loss, Mishka haunted by the unknown. How does Mishka’s parallel life in Boston threaten his security?
I think anyone who is perceived to be, or feels himself/herself to be, an outsider in society is at risk in troubled times. There can be multiple reasons for outsider status, a history of family trauma being only one of them. Such outsiders don't have the kind of support network that keeps "normal" and "ordinary" people afloat, that vouches for them if they fall under suspicion for some reason. Because they are perceived as different, outsiders tend to keep to themselves, and are therefore perceived as secretive and suspicious. Shame kept Mishka from revealing his search for his father to Leela. If he'd only told her about this, she would have been able to react very differently to Cobb's evidence. She would have given extenuating explanations to Cobb. She would probably have been able to forestall what happened.
Given his complete immersion in music, Mishka is a compelling character, his longing perfectly matched to Leela’s compassion and unconditional love. Is it possible for two such characters to exist without interference?
I guess I'd have to call myself a Romantic Realist. I'd like to believe that love and shared passion can overcome all obstacles and all cultural differences. But relationships exist within a social and cultural matrix, and both history and literature are replete with examples of what happens when the relationship and the social context are out of kilter. Consider Romeo and Juliet; Othello and Desdemona, Anna Karenina and Vronsky. None of these transgressive passions ended well. The usual forecast is madness, suicide, murder. The great love stories are always as much about loss and yearning as about love. It is loss and yearning that sends Orpheus into the Underworld; it is anxiety and yearning that prompts the fateful backward glance that snatches Eurydice away forever (though their love triumphs historically in the multiple operas, poems, plays, and movies that have gone on recycling their story because we'd really like to believe that love triumphs.)
I do like to think of the possibility of Leela and Mishka being cocooned in the Daintree rainforest until he recovers, and then perhaps settling down in a small college town in Australia or America, he teaching music, she teaching mathematics.
Leela and Cobb’s shared history in Promised Land, South Carolina is an unbreakable bond. Although Cobb has been changed by his experiences since last they met, Leela refuses to see him in any other way. How does Leela’s faith in him create a conundrum for Cobb?
Cobb has always been in love with Leela and has always felt intense sexual passion for her. His love has always been mixed up with anger and jealousy: first simple jealousy of her easy self-confidence, then sexual jealousy of her popularity with other boys, and then jealousy of Mishka.
Leela has always loved Cobb, and her love is not devoid of sexual currents. But he has never been her "one and only" the way she is for him. She simply believes in him, believes in his essential decency, sees the Cobb he would be without the childhood trauma and anxiety. I don't think it's a question of her refusing to see him as changed. Rather, she is constant in her belief in the goodness behind the damaged child and the damaged man. That makes things complicated and confusing and painful for Cobb, but eventually he stretches to fit the image she has of him. I would say that her belief in him transforms him.
Why does Mishka cut himself off from his family after he leaves the Daintree? Does not this theme of anger and estrangement connect Mishka as well to Leela and Cobb?
After Mishka starts school, he becomes aware of the fact that he has no father and this fact is both an aching void and a sense of shame. He was always an oddity and an outsider at school. When he finds out who his father was, his very identity is thrown into chaos. While he knows it is not logical to blame his mother for this, he has nowhere else to direct the anger. It has been my observation (both in terms of people I have known, and also from reading the psychological literature) that human beings instinctively seek to reduce pain by blaming the nearest available target and the least dangerous one. The greater the pain, the greater and more irrational the anger that is focused on the available target. For Mishka, the available target was his mother. She was also the least dangerous one. No degree of hostility on his part would ever turn her against him.
All three protagonists—Mishka, Leela, Cobb – have a missing parent. The absence of that parent is painful to them in different ways and it complicates their relationship with the remaining parent. Cobb assuages his grief at his mother's death by being furious with her and by blaming her for his father's decline into bouts of alcoholic violence, about which, of course, he also feels angry, an anger which he daren't acknowledge but which he projects on to Leela (who committed the crime of simply knowing about this). Leela is his available and safe target. He also acts out his anger in somewhat sick sexual relations with prostitutes; but then someone who as a child was the first to find his mother's hanged body is definitely going to have complicated sexual relationships with women.
Leela is angry at her father's loving but suffocating control and reacts by being secretly wild and by not coming home to visit. And yes, what draws Leela to both Cobb and Mishka is this instinctive recognition of a shared emotional history of loss, grief, anger and estrangement.
Leela’s father cannot accept her flight to the north- “the other side,” but Maggie is more patient. Why does Leela find it impossible to return home?
Her father is a good and kind man. He also drives her crazy with his fundamentalist piety and his prayers for the wellbeing of her soul, which feel to her controlling and suffocating. When she goes home, she feels angry, and then she feels guilty for being angry with such a gentle person, so it's easier to stay off the merry-go-round altogether.
I happen to understand this phenomenon rather well, having grown up in a fundamentalist family whom I love dearly but who daily pray for my hell-bound soul. Although I travel back to Australia every year, and speak to my frail parents (both in their 90s) by phone every week, frankly, it's just simpler to live on the other side of the world.
What is Youssef Hajj’s part in Mishka’s evolution as a musician? Is he a natural extension of Uncle Otto?
Mishka wants to learn to play the oud, a classical Persian instrument, as a way of identifying with the oud-playing father he has never known. So he places an ad for a teacher and thus he meets Youssef Hajj, a Syrian refugee in Australia. Youssef is not an extension of Uncle Otto; but when Mishka finds out that Youssef Hajj lost a brother to torture and execution, just as Uncle Otto had been lost to the Holocaust, they have something more than their interest in music to bind them. They are both also interested in a dialogue between western and eastern music. (Here, I had in mind the collaborations between Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar.) In composing their duet for violin and oud, Elegy for Uncle Otto and Mustafa Hajj, they are also paying tribute to the survival of the spirit over both western and eastern barbarities.
Jamil Haddad declares there is no music in pure Islam and that “All of life is religious. Every statement is political.” Given the political environment in Boston, why isn’t Mishka more circumspect in his meetings with this radical young man?
I find it tragic that fundamentalist Islam bans music altogether, when some of the world's most beautiful music comes from the Sufi tradition in Islam.
Why isn't Mishka more careful? For two reasons: he is entirely wrapped up in his world of music and is the most apolitical of people. He's only dimly aware of the political currents around him. The second reason is his obsessive desire to make contact with his father, and Jamil Haddad holds the key to that contact. Mishka is oblivious to the implications of his contacts and his visits to the mosque.
The Orpheus legend runs throughout Orpheus Lost, Mishka at his weakest when he has left Leela to go to Beirut. How does the myth apply to these particular lovers (“He understood why Orpheus had gone mad.”)?
In the myth, after Orpheus has lost Eurydice, finally and irrevocably for the second time, because of his own forbidden backward glance, he goes mad. He's lost her forever and it's his own fault. Mishka has an ominous premonition that he may be about to lose Leela forever because of his actions.
Dream sequences bridge reality and the characters’ interior lives, a device that enriches the story. Are there pitfalls in blending fantasy and reality?
In real life, of course, there are terrible penalties for anyone who loses track of the line between fantasy and reality. Since I'm writing a novel about people in such extreme circumstances that their nightmares are invading their waking lives, then it's a necessary literary device as a way of telling their stories.
“Cobb thought of his addiction to the past as akin to his father’s benders.” Please explain this statement in the context of Cobb’s moral compass and his view of himself as a man.
Addictive behavior is one way of dealing with pain. Cobb's father drinks to blot out his guilt about Vietnam and about his wife's suicide. Alcohol provides temporary comfort.
Cobb's is angry about several forms of abandonment (his mother's death; his sense that his father was unjustly abandoned by the military administration, which has in turn led to the erratic violence which has caused Cobb to feel abandoned by his father as well). The pain of abandonment can be mitigated by his addictive re-ordering of the past. Putting the photographs in proper sequence has an effect equivalent to getting drunk. The pain is temporarily lessened because he has the sense of putting his life in order, of being able to pause before the bad sequence began. After he puts the photographs in order, he pays a prostitute to reenact a version of his mother's hanging. This act of venting anger also brings a temporary reduction of pain. The whole sequence is like an addiction. Whenever the sense of pain is acute, he needs to do this. Any therapist knows that such patterns are common as responses to emotional pain.
Given his troubled history, Leela is endlessly compassionate toward Calhoun Slaughter, Cobb’s father. Why? How does Calhoun compare to her Pentecostal Bible-quoting father?
In small rural towns, whether they are in South Carolina or in Queensland, Australia (and I'm familiar with both), townspeople all feel as though they belong to an extended family. They make allowances for one another. They have a familial affection for the town idiot, the town eccentric, the town drunk, the Bible-quoting pastor and the foul-mouthed hellcat.
As mentioned above, I happen to know about this. I grew up in a fundamentalist Bible-quoting family where just about everything was forbidden, and I've always had a soft spot for cranky old heavy-drinking reprobates.
What is the meaning of the term “ghosting”? What is its purpose?
There are two terms pertaining to the shadowy world of detention camps and the treatment of terrorist suspects that have been much written about in the New York Times, and in multiple newspaper and magazine articles. The terms are "rendition" and "ghosting." Over the past two or three years, I've amassed a thick file on these.
"Ghosting" is the practice of taking a suspect into custody but keeping no record whatsoever. Thus, if the person dies from harsh interrogation methods, there is no record of it, no way to trace what happened, no need to account for a death. If the interrogators decide an error has been made, the suspect may be released after days or weeks. Since there's no record that he was ever detained, there is no basis for legal action for violation of due process. There are families in Baghdad (according to newspaper reports in this country) who spend months simply trying to find out if a missing family member is in prison, and if so, where and why and for how long? Is that person living or dead? Since there are no records, there are no answers.
"Rendition" is the practice of shipping suspects to prisons in regimes, such as Egypt, where torture is used with impunity.
What was the most challenging in writing Orpheus Lost?
Writing the prison scene and the torture scene. I didn't think I could do it. I'm a member of Amnesty International because I do believe that a nation that tolerates torture, no matter what the degree of national risk, no longer has the right to call itself civilized. (That was part of our rationale for overthrowing Saddam Hussein: we were outlawing a barbaric regime and bringing the ideals of democracy to Iraq.) I have trouble even reading the depositions of victims that are in Amnesty International newsletters because they are so disturbing. So the only way I could write that scene was at an oblique angle, as it were, imagining Mishka separating himself from his body and hallucinating.
The most rewarding?
The most pleasurable part was recreating the Daintree rainforest around me. I felt like the children in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, being able to sneak away into my secret world. The year I was twenty (which is a very long time ago) I taught in the school that I have Mishka go to and I fell in love with the Daintree. Australian rainforest is one of my addictions. I return to it every year. It is another world, pristine and perfect.
What message would you like the reader to take from Orpheus Lost?
In a novel, I am exploring questions for myself, and the questions concern the intimate and personal human consequences of historical and political upheavals. I hope my exploration leads readers to ponder these questions for themselves and to arrive at their own answers. I simply want to make my reader think.
Do you have any advice for would-be authors?
Read voraciously. Become your own toughest critic. Only keep writing if the act of writing itself – the fondling of words and of rhythms and the creation of a self-contained world – is such a pleasurable addiction that you can't give it up.
Janette Turner Hospital received Australia's Patrick White Award for lifetime literary achievement. She holds an endowed chair as Carolina Distinguished Professor of English at the University of South Carolina.
Luan Gaines is a freelance writer and contributing reviewer to curledup.com.
Her interview with Janette Turner Hospital was written in conjunction with her review of Orpheus Lost. © Luan Gaines/2007.