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Steven Heighton on Every Lost Country

In the prefatory note to Every Lost Country, you describe the novel’s opening pages as loosely based on a recent incident along the Nepali-Tibetan border. Could you elaborate upon the nature of this event and how it shaped the characters you have created around it.

To start with, here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia description of the incident:

The Nangpa La shootings or Nangpa La massacre was a murder of unarmed Tibetan pilgrims attempting to leave Tibet via the Nangpa La pass by the Chinese Border Security police on September 30, 2006. It was confirmed that 2 were shot dead and 18 went missing. . . . Nangpa La is a traditional trade route between Tibet and Nepal. The victims were shot from a distance by Chinese Border Security police as they moved slowly through chest-deep snow. The Chinese government initially denied the charges but the shootings were filmed by a Romanian photographer.

And here are two links to articles that appeared in the Guardian in the weeks following the incident:

“China draws a veil across the mountains” and “Death on Tibetans’ long walk to freedom.”

The “Romanian photographer” mentioned in the Wikipedia entry was actually a mountaineer, present at a high-alpine base camp, where he and others were preparing to climb a peak called Cho Oyu. This is an important detail. When I first heard about the shootings I was both outraged and intrigued – outraged for obvious reasons and also because I travelled in Tibet in 1986 and experienced Tibetan warmth and hospitality first-hand; intrigued because in the hours after the shooting there was apparently some debate among the witnesses – those mountain climbers – about whether to go on with their climb or to go home and reveal what they’d just seen.

Over the last decade I’ve become obsessed with the ethics of intervention, and by the sort of people who get involved in other folks’ causes and crises, often putting themselves in harm’s way. Think of John Brown and his posse of abolitionists – some of them Canadians from Chatham, Ontario – not just lamenting the evils of slavery but acting, arming themselves and going down to Harper’s Ferry; George Orwell travelling to Spain in 1936 to fight the fascists; U.S. Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson landing his chopper between Lt. Calley and the surviving villagers at My Lai; or, to skip from the historical to the purely personal, my father, who I watched step in and stop two thugs, both bigger than himself, who were attacking one of my grade eight friends, a recent immigrant from Pakistan.

I see now that that last example was a formative event for me. And in a sense, writing Every Lost Country is my own small act of intervention; I hope the book provokes some reaction, draws attention to the predicament of Tibetans like the ones who were shot down at Nangpa La simply for trying to leave China and start a new life. As one of my characters remarks, it’s as if the Himalayas have become a new Berlin Wall.

My interest in people who intervene – including the men and women serving with MSF and similar outfits – crystallized into one of the main characters of Every Lost Country, a humanitarian doctor named Lewis Book, who finds himself at a base camp bearing witness to an event not unlike the massacre at Nangpa La. My other main characters – Book’s teenaged daughter, Sophana; a Chinese-Canadian woman filmmaker named Amaris; and the megalomaniacal leader of a fictional climbing expedition – also spring from my reflections on the incident. They emerged quickly in rough form, but I couldn’t start writing the novel for some months, not until they started to fill out and flesh out, to seem like people I really knew. Which means I had to figure out their obsessions, tune in to their voices, and above all triangulate their contradictions. Because contradiction is character; consistency is the stuff of caricature.

Once I felt I had a living cast, I was able to set them loose on the landscape and then see what happened. (I never know where my stories are headed or where they’re going to end; I want to write toward my ending with the same engaged uncertainty and tension I hope my readers feel, reading toward it.) 

Can you further discuss what you mean by giving life to your characters by “triangulating their contradictions”? Are there any tactics you regularly employ in your writing to achieve this end?

It was a fancy way of saying that I try to locate the contradiction – or the node of entwined contradictions – at the core of each character’s being. Stock characters and caricatures are simply figures built around a staple trait, like anger, or stuttering shyness, or bucktoothed, bespectacled nerdiness. But in a novel in the realist mode, main characters need to be as multifaceted as a disco ball. They might seem merely angry or nerdy to begin with, but scene by scene they should develop in the direction of complexity.
As for tactics I use to elaborate that complexity, I can’t really say. I’m not as instinctive a writer as I once was, if only because I know more technically than I used to, but when it comes to character development – to locating those main contradictions, to reading characters’ thoughts and finding their voices – I still go by instinct and intuition. So as I look back on the writing of Every Lost Country, I honestly can’t remember how the characters became what they are by the end. Scene by scene, as I wrote, they evolved – and the fossil record is full of gaps. I think I like it that way.

It certainly happens that we find each Western character taking stock of the limitations and the contradictions inherent in their personality and worldview as the action develops, just as they ruminate over one another’s actions and attitudes. How important were your travels to Tibet and your interest in Tibetan Buddhism to developing the personal and ethical trajectories of these Western characters? If it helps your answer, which characters best represent this influence?

If it hadn’t been for my time in Tibet and my interest in Buddhism, I could never have created those characters, even though, as you suggest, most of the main ones aren’t even Tibetan.

It was in Tibet, in 1986, that I first got a sense of the melodramatic, essentially hysterical worldview underlying so much of our thought and action in the West. In Tibet I met and spoke with people who had problems – not inconveniences, like long bank lineups to wait in, or getting passed over for a promotion – but genuine problems, like a daughter dying of tuberculosis, or a husband languishing in a Chinese prison – and yet they hadn’t lost their joy, their sense of humour, their kindness, their generosity (I noticed that most Tibetans and Nepalis, though poor themselves, always found a coin or two to give beggars on the streets). When I returned to North America in 1989, I was sickened by what I perceived as (and here I’m quoting from Every Lost Country) “an alien culture of complacency, ingratitude, the petulant expectation of ever-increasing comfort and plenty” (p. 115). A culture in which, alas, once the shock wore off, I was soon a participating member once again.

When I started work on the novel, I knew I wanted at least one of my main characters to embody that same disgust. I knew I wanted that character to be a kind of latent Buddhist, like myself – someone who basically accepts the philosophy and precepts, and who aspires to the ideals, though without practicing the rites or putting a checkmark in the “Buddhist” box under “Religion” when filling out census forms. That character is Dr. Lewis Book. The quote in the paragraph above is in fact from Book’s point of view, and elsewhere in the novel I transcribe a few of his thoughts on Buddhism:

An experiment not based on the notion that future utopias can be floated on seas of blood, or houses of worship built with enemies’ bones, or happiness mass-produced through material advancement. You’ve always felt an affinity for these Buddhists, in part because their faith replaces gods and temples with the human brain and heart, but also because your own work, field surgery above all, is a sort of Buddhist practice, demanding calmness in crisis, a mind fixed on the pulsing moment, an awareness that mental wobbling into past failures or future fears can mean disaster. (p. 149)

Although Book, like all my characters, is unlike myself in many ways, in this one particular he’s not only like me, he also thinks my own thoughts.

With your portrayal of the Tibetan refugees, you seem intent upon giving them a historical identity that is generally underrepresented in the media. Did you set out to challenge a Western audience’s understanding of the political and ethical character of the Tibetan people with this novel?

Above all I wanted to suggest that the Tibetans are not a monolithic group, so I couldn’t let my Tibetan cast resemble a set of Himalayan action figures moulded from a single block of plastic: the pious Nun, the chanting Pilgrim, the grinning Yakherd. As with any other national group, there’s plenty of variety in the mix. They’re not all conscientious Buddhists. They’re not all fans of the Dalai Lama. They’re not all pacifists. Some would rather listen to P. Diddy than to monastic chanting. Some – not many, but some – actually support the Chinese presence in Tibet.

Since literary fiction deals not in averages but in exceptions, not in the general but in the particular, I felt it was important to bypass central casting and find characters who embody the cultural/political diversity of modern Tibet. So one of my main Tibetan characters is actually a sergeant in the People’s Liberation Army, and takes part in the attack on the fleeing refugees at the beginning of the book.

Are there ways in which writing fiction is like climbing a mountain, perhaps in the sense that it is a “controlled, artificial adventure” (p. 213) not unlike Wade Lawson’s climb?

When I described the climb that way, it was to define a contrast between athletes from the affluent West who arrange “extreme sport” challenges for themselves, and refugees from poorer places who have to undertake life-or-death challenges whether they want to or not. In the case of the refugees, planning is difficult or impossible, so there’s little or no control. Of course it’s also true that in extreme sports like climbing, there are unfactorable elements – avalanches, storms, crevasses – and things can and do go wrong. But on the whole I believe the contrast holds.

And what about your implied comparison between climbing and novel writing?

On most levels it’s a good one. Writing a novel is a long, arduous task; the writer does plan for the ascent (so to speak) and controls the preparation; and novel writing is “artificial” in the sense that all art is artifice – something devised, planned and shaped. Another similarity is that both the climber’s and the writer’s planning often fails. Unforeseen screw-ups can force either of them to jettison the script and improvise. So control only carries you so far, and so does artifice; the moment the climber or writer begins to improvise, the activity turns more instinctive, more organic, more vital and exciting, more fraught with risk. And that’s where the analogy finally stalls, because once the improv starts, the worst a writer faces is failure, while the climber risks death.

Finally, which authors have been most influential to your own writing?

I think it’s for other people to say. Good critics, careful readers – they’re better positioned to spot my influences, if those influences haven’t been fully metabolized yet (which by my age they really ought to be). But let me throw out a few names – writers who might not occur even to good critics, for various reasons. Richard Hughes, Susan Sontag, Malcolm Lowry – I suspect these three might have had an influence on my last novel, Afterlands. And maybe a few years down the road I’ll be able to speculate on who influenced Every Lost Country.

© 2010 Random House of Canada Limited

Visit Steven Heighton’s WEBSITE

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Posted by Pearl on Jul 27 2010. Filed under Author Interviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.
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