Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Interview with Tatjana Soli - Author of "The Lotus Eaters"

Please join me in welcoming Tatjana Soli, author of The Lotus Eaters, to Lit And Life!

L&L: Tatjana, you're an acommplished and award-winning author of short stories. What made you decide to write a novel?

Tatjana: I love writing short stories, but I would get back many stories that I submitted to quarterlies saying they were too novelistic, so I guess maybe I've always been a novelist. I'm intrigued by the interaction of large casts of characters, by the effects of time and place, and these make for "baggy" (read: impossible) short stories. That said, I think there is a real beauty to the short story form is what it leaves out, the precision of it, much like poetry. I'll never quit writing them because I think the form demands much in terms of craft; they sharpen one's skills.

L&L: Your website mentions that you grew up haunted by the Vietnam war. Are there particular images that have stuck with you? Is the war something that you've done much reading about as an adult?

Tatjana: That's a great question. I have always been haunted by the images of the Fall of Saigon, and even after reading books on it, documentaries, pictures, I can't seem to come to the end of it. I can still easily lose myself in those images. Sometimes you hope that writing a book exorcises this kind of hold on you, but that wasn't the case for me.

L&L: The story of how you came to write the story is so interesting. Can you share it with my readers?

Tatjana: I was always fascinated by the war, especially since my mom worked for NATO and then she was at Fort Ord during the war. When you are a child, there are no politics, there are only people leaving, people not coming back. I remember women crying. But as an adult when I discovered that a handful of women worked as photojournalists in Vietnam, it suddenly became a story I could tell.

L&L: It seems that the photojournalists experience the same "rush" of war as soldiers. How much research did you do regarding the war and the role of photojournalists covering it?

Tatjana: I read all the major nonfiction books about the war. Then I read all the Vietnamese history books I could find. It was then I came across Dickey Chapelle, the first woman to cover Indochina, the first to be killed in action. But then my research spread out to journalists in general, including other wars. Of course, the technical nature of photojournalism has changed entirely since then. But the essence, I think, is the same. There definitely is an addiction to the adrenaline of war, but I also think that most journalists also feel a real weight of responsibility to cover wars, genocides, with the hope that bringing attention to them will end them. Think of Nick Ut's photo of Kim Phuc, the girl burned by napalm. That's the power of a picture.

L&L: Are there any books about the war that you would recommend?

Tatjana: I don't think one can understand the war without first reading Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. I just recently reread it and was blown away, once again, by its power. Another novel of O'Brien's, Going After Cacciato, is not mentioned nearly so often, but I think it is equally wonderful. I love Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers, which is about the American psyche as much as it is about the war. Michael Herr's nonfiction novel, Dispatches, which has the famous line: "I think Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods."

L&L: What made you decide to include the love relationships into the story?

Tatjana: On a practical level, the journalists living in Saigon carried on life in a fairly normalized way. It was almost a joke how they could enjoy city life and then fly out to cover war. Looking at it in a more serious way, the stresses of wartime create bonds that are incredibly strong. Soldiers who serve together will become lifetime friends. It's only natural that people might fall in love in such circumstances. I think people are driven to find that connection with another human being - to find something worth living for in the midst of the devastation of war. Love becomes something to believe in.

L&L: You start the book with the end of the story. Why did you choose to do that? Did you know where the book was going before you started or did it develop as you wrote?

Tatjana: When I wrote the first draft of the novel that beginning was in place. It always seemed natural to me, but I believe it has to do with coming tot he subject such a long time after the war was a fait accompli. My story is not about what happened in the war, but how these characters turned out as they did as a result of it. That said, it took me a long time to figure out how to work the rest of the novel after that premise was in place. I revised the rest of the book over and over.

L&L: The Lotus Eaters has been selected to be included in "O" Magazine's Books For Spring and Tim O'Brien and Richard Russo have high praise for it. How does it feel to be getting so much attention for your first novel?

Tatjana: I've been incredibly lucky. And it took ten years. I am absolutely overwhelmed by the generosity of the writers who have helped me. I remind my students that I worked on this book for years, worrying it like a dog with a bone. When all the reviews and interviews are over, I'll be back at my desk.

L&L: You have Red Room and Facebook pages and a Twitter account. How do you feel about the role of the internet on book publicity?

Tatjana: This whole world of social networking is very new to me. It's very time consuming, and I haven't decided for sure which I'll keep doing long term, though I like blogging. I haven't mastered Twitter at all. But I've enjoyed hearing from readers who've contacted me, telling me how they reacted to the book, and sharing their own stories. That's a wonderful antidote to the isolation writers feel when they are working.

L&L: Can you share what's up next for you?

Tatjana: I'm working on a contemporary novel set on a citrus farm in Southern California.

L&L: I know from talking to other authors that publicity is a full-time job when a book is coming out. Are you okay with that or are you chomping at the bit to get back to writing?

Tatjana: Yes, I'm chomping at the bit to get back to it. It feels more natural to be writing!

Thanks so much for taking time to share with us, Tatjana! My review of The Lotus Eaters will be posted on Thursday. I'll slip this much about it: I sure hope it doesn't take ten years for the next book to come out!

On a stifling day in 1975, the North Vietnamese army is poised to roll into Saigon. As the fall of the city begins, two lovers make their way through the streets to escape to a new life. Helen Adams, an American photojournalist, must take leave of a war she is addicted to and a devastated country she has come to love. Linh, the Vietnamese man who loves her, must grapple with his own conflicted loyalties of heart and homeland. As they race to leave, they play out a drama of devotion and betrayal that spins them back through twelve war-torn years, beginning in the splendor of Angkor Wat, with their mentor, larger-than-life war correspondent Sam Darrow, once Helen's infuriating love and fiercest competitor, and Linh's secret keeper, boss and truest friend.


  1. Great interview, Tatjana & Lisa! It was so interesting to read how the story came about. My mom worked at Fort Wayne in Detroit where enlisted men and draftees came to be sworn in and get buzz cuts and uniforms before going to Vietnam. It had a huge impact on her.

  2. Thank you so much for posting the interview, Lisa, and to Tatjana for allowing us the opportunity to get to know you more.

    I like the author's description of short stories being like poetry. There really is an art to writing a good short story, I think.

    Before this novel, I had no idea about the role female journalists played in the war. I find it so fascinating.

    My dad is a Vietnam Vet and as a result, I've always had an interest in it--in part hoping to better understand what my father went through. He was so tight-lipped about it for many years and yet I knew it had a profound impact on him.

    I'm with you, Lisa! I hope it doesn't take Tatjana another 10 years to write her next book. But if it does, I'll be waiting. :-)