Butler is better known for his novels and Pulitzer Prize-winning story collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, (and his novel Perfume River is a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize) but a flash fiction workshop a few years ago introduced me to his short-form work. This led to my discovery of From Where You Dream, which advances the idea of writing as an emotional rather than intellectual process, and shows writers how to “achieve the dreamspace necessary for composing honest, inspired fiction.”
Butler was down-to-earth, with a great sense of humor, and he shared moving stories about serving as a military intelligence agent during the Vietnam War, which inspired several of this books. (Of the Vietnamese, he said, “Much of what I know of the human heart, I learned from them.”) But two other authors ended up captivating me: Nadia Hashimi and Paulette Jiles.
Hashimi wrote The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, When the Moon is Low, The Sky at Our Feet, One Half from the East. Jiles is a poet and novelist who has written seven books, mostly recently News of the World, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Chris Cleave called Hashimi’s latest novel, A House Without Windows, “A wonderful story of redemption.” Booklist said, “More than just the Afghan Orange Is the New Black, Hashimi’s novel is populated by vibrant, complex characters and offers a piercing look at the lives of women in Afghanistan.”
Rather than talk about her writing, Hashimi, an Afghan-American pediatrician born and raised in New York and New Jersey, gave a powerful presentation on “The Burdened Lives of Afghan Women,” featuring photos and statistics of women in Afghan prisons, the subject of A House Without Windows. But she also sprinkled humor and anecdotes about “My big, fat Afghan family” throughout her talk.
Hashimi mentioned having to reconcile two different Afghanistans, the one where her parents were born, in which her mother was provided an education and sent to graduate school in Europe to earn a master’s degree and become a civil engineer. And, in contrast, the one that became – after the Taliban took over in 1996 – a country where “A rumor can land a woman in prison” and “Women wouldn’t wear nail polish for fear of having their fingernails ripped out.”
The author learned from her parents to “Number one, never take any opportunity for granted.” She said her father would have rather gone hungry than take a penny away from her college fund.
Hashimi, who is married with four children, mentioned the anger and rage she experiences when watching the news. Writing is “cheaper than therapy,” she said, smiling. “Thank you for allowing me to sit on your couches and work out my issues.”
Add to that the dash of humility delivered by her children. When her oldest son saw the price tag on one of her novels, he said, “Mommy, you charge people money?!” Another time, when he saw her on the computer ordering copies of her novel, he said, “I thought you wrote the books; you just order them online.”
Hashimi announced she’s running for Congress, prompting one audience member to ask, “Which district are you running for, and how can we donate?” (Answer: Maryland’s 6th District, and her website is http://www.NadiaHashimiForCongress.)
Paulette Jiles’ books include The Color of Lightning, Lighthouse Island, Enemy Women, and the memoir Cousins. Chris Cleave called her a great writer and poet, and also a down-to-earth person who lives and works on a ranch in San Antonio, Texas, sings alto in her local choir and rides horses with her friends. He called News of the World “An absolute gem of a novel that I defy anyone to not like.” Tom Hanks will star in the movie based on the novel; it’s currently in development.
(When asked if she’ll be involved in the filmmaking process, her dry reply included a saying she heard from other authors whose novels were optioned for film: “Check your book at the California border.”)
Jiles described how she based the protagonist, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, on the ancestor of an acquaintance who rode from town to town reading newspapers to audiences after the Civil War, then researched history and family stories to construct his background. “As a writer…you’re a hoarder,” she said. “You can end up using absolutely anything.” So it’s important to research only as needed. “I try not to get completely distracted.”
Writers of historical fiction must not get caught up in the words, Jiles said. She researched whether there was a local newspaper at the time in San Antonio. “I couldn’t find one, so I made one up.” She also corrected one error in time for the recently-published paperback version of News of the World: When the hardcover was released, “Fifty people emailed to tell me there’s no safety on a revolver.”
One audience member asked, “How does place inform your writing?” Jiles replied, “All landscapes are alive in their own way.” Even desiccated landscapes like deserts.
Jiles kept her talk brief so that she could spend most of her allotted 35 minutes answering questions. Her most compelling anecdotes were about research for The Color of Lightning, working with the native people near the Canadian border and learning their language and culture over 10 years; and about their history in which children were kidnapped to be “adopted” by white couples.
When reunited with their families, the children “couldn’t adjust back to their Native American people and society. One little girl kept for a year didn’t want to return.” A similar girl serves as one of the main characters in News of the World, but in the opposite way: her family is murdered by a band of Kiowa raiders who raise her as their own. Four years later, Captain Kidd is hired to bring the orphan to her relatives near San Antonio.
Katherine Valdez covers author events and book festivals in Colorado and California. She recently finished Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst, and is currently reading News of the World by Paulette Jiles, and Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.
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