Boulder writer Janis Hallowell’s second book, She Was, will be released in paperback this month from Harper Perennial. She Was is a fascinating, harrowing journey into Doreen Woods’ life. Woods is a successful, caring dentist, wife, mother, and sister living in Denver, who used to be Lucy Johansson, a student dissenter and member of Fishbone, a group opposed to the Vietnam War whose protests started out peaceful. No one was supposed to get hurt when Lucy planted a bomb at Columbia University to protest the ROTC, but Louis Nilon, a janitor, decided to work late that night and listen to the Frazier/Ali fight. His death sets off a round of consequences that hounds Lucy as she recreates herself as Doreen, until Janey, an old Fishbone comrade, tracks Doreen down in Denver thirty years later. In the week that She Was takes place, Doreen’s façade begins to crumble and she will have to tell her husband and son about her past, while taking care of her ill brother who once helped save her from prison, which she may no longer be able to avoid.
Janis Hallowell is a Colorado native and teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. Recently, we met in her home in Boulder to talk about her new book and writing about the West. She will discuss She Was at the Highlands Ranch Library on April 30 (7 p.m.), and at the Tattered Cover on May 28 (Colfax, 7:30 p.m.).
New West: In the The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn, your first novel, you have a young girl who some people think is the blessed Virgin. She’s an innocent and naive character, someone who hasn’t done anything really bad yet. In She Was, you have a wife and mother paying for the mistakes of the fanaticism and ideals of her youth. Why the big change from a religious idea to a political one?
Janis Hallowell: Most of the time of writing She Was, I didn’t think about it having any relationship at all to The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn. I thought I was making a huge departure, but somewhere along the line after I finished writing and in the publishing process and since, probably because of people asking questions, I’ve realized that they are related. Francesca Dunn is about a young innocent individual involved with a group of people who are inclined towards religion. So I kind of explored the religious group aspect of it, but I wouldn’t say I explored the religion, because it really isn’t a religious novel. It’s more about the social aspects. They influence her so that she comes to believe that she is this holy being and that’s her downfall. There’s that pressure of the group on the individual.
There is that same pressure of the group on the individual in She Was. Lucy is four years older than Francesca, eighteen instead of fourteen, but still a young girl who’s fairly innocent. It’s a political group and has a national political hook, but there is a correlation in how groups influence the individual. I read somewhere that all novels are about that, but I think specifically I’m talking about the type of influence that is almost brainwashing, which might be a little more extreme than other novels. The main character in She Was is Doreen when she’s in her fifties, but she remembers back to when she was Lucy. I think of Doreen as the main character and Lucy as the sub-main character.
NW: Your major character is two different people: Doreen and the person she used to be, Lucy. There is a different energy when you’re the writing about Lucy.
JH: They really are different characters, because she really does leave Lucy behind and become Doreen.
NW: Was it tricky to do that? Did it help you to separate her two selves?
JH: It just happened. It was immediately apparent. It wasn’t something I orchestrated.
NW: In a lot of ways, I saw this as an idea book, with much to say about the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Did you start with the idea or the character of Doreen?
JH: I started with the character, but Doreen was loosely influenced by a real life person, Sarah Jane Olson. I didn’t extract details from Olson’s life at all, but when she was arrested in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1999 I became aware of this phenomenon of 60’s radicals who were women. There are a handful of them out there who committed crimes protesting the war or the establishment behind the Vietnam War. I was interested in how women had an equal role in protesting when they didn’t have much of an equal role in anything else in the 60’s and 70’s. In a way it was a powerful role for a young woman, but tragic in the sense that it is deeply flawed. The basis for committing a crime in which someone gets killed reverberates on Doreen.
In the process of writing She Was, I became politicized to the issues of that time. I was too young to be one of those student radicals. I was in junior high school when the Vietnam War was going on. When I was doing the research and writing about it during the Bush administration, when I saw many similarities, I really became more sympathetic to the protestors’ impulses and beliefs. It was a real discovery process for me, which both of my books have been. It kind of has to be for me to stay with it for as long as it takes me to write one. I have to be learning something about myself and about the world to write a book. It was a rough book to write.
NW: In She Was you make correlations between the Vietnam and Iraq wars, which a lot of us have done. In Doreen’s perspective, she’s surprised at the kind of apathetic reaction from people; she doesn’t feel many people are doing much of anything in protest.
JH: The book is set in 2005. I was writing it right after 9/11 on. The first part of the Bush administration I was writing the book and no one was correlating Iraq to Vietnam, at least not out loud. We were still publicly saying we have to support this President and this war because we were attacked by terrorists, so any doubts you have just shelve them for now because we really do need to get behind the troops. We were all saying that, but here I was writing this book on radicals and seeing these correlations. As the years went on and I kept working on the book, all of a sudden, around 2005, in the second Bush administration, things took a turn and the public started to be much more vocal about the war. The tide started to turn and in the public opinion it started to become all right to say that we kind of blew it, that there weren’t any weapons of mass destruction. The people who bombed the twin towers in New York aren’t in Iraq.
NW: Was it hard to write such a contemporary book?
JH: When you’re writing a novel you have to fix time somewhere, and trying to write about something that is set in current events was crazy making and I hope I never have to do it again. It was really like shooting a moving target. It moves every time you try to pin it down. I decided to set the novel in 2005 because it seemed like that was when the public opinion shifted.
I was worried that the Bush administration would be over with by the time the book came out. It would be long gone and we would be out of Iraq and it would be old news. I had to write with an eye to how would the book stand up to time even after these events were no longer news worthy. Writing something that’s current is really tricky that way because you’re so influenced by what’s going on. There is no perspective.
NW: It’s impressive to see you tackling something so contemporary when people often advise you to have distance from events so that you can have perspective. The process of publishing a book can take a long time too, but the hardcover for She Was has been out, the paperback is coming out, and we’re still in Iraq.
JH: It feels like there is a shift that’s happened and we’re moving into the direction of getting out of Iraq. I think the Iraq War, being as long as it’s been now and as damaging as it’s been, is not going to just disappear. It’s not going to be something people just forget about. We’re going to have the damage, just even in the people, if not the economy, for quite some time. The suicide rate is higher than the casualty rate for veterans from the Iraq War. That’s got to say something about what’s going on.
Writing this book was a real odyssey for me. It’s hard to take on contemporary events and put them in recent history; a lot of people are alive that remember the 60’s and 70’s. Writing about war was a challenge too.
NW: In She Was you write about Denver and Boston. Why these two cities?
JH: Doreen is a fugitive and Denver is a great place to hide. I’ve lived here most of my life, but I also see that there’s this bland surface. The middle of the country is a place where people can go to disappear as opposed to the coasts.
When Doreen commits the crime in New York and then she runs, I was thinking where should she run to? I was looking at her options like she would have. She called Adam (her brother), and he has this lover in Boston. They hide her in Chinatown and there’s no way anyone could have found her there. She disappears into Chinatown and the underbelly of Boston. So why Boston? I lived in Boston for a while in the ‘80s. I knew it well enough to write with some resonance about it. I also went there and did some research. Whenever I write about a place more than just fleeting I like to have some resident memory of it so that it feels natural in the work.
NW: I am a Colorado native and I love this quote about Denver: “Still, Doreen’s learned to like Denver in spite of, or maybe because of, how uncool it is. There’s a shiny goodwill here, on top of the gritty misery that exists in every city.”
JH: I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Denver. In recent years it’s become much more interesting than in the past, especially during the Hickenlooper administration. I think it’s taken on a lot of interest. My memory of it growing up is this very beige and bland place. There’s more than that going on but you don’t see it at first blush. It’s a much newer city than Boston, and most anywhere on the east coast. Denver is putting its best foot forward right now and has a viable downtown again, which is really great.
NW: You can get away with a quote that Denver is uncool when you’re a native.
JH: I’m uncool too. I grew up here!
NW: How did you feel about Denver being in the spotlight during the Democratic convention?
JH: I thought it was great, part of putting Denver on the map in a real way. It is a city and it’s time we claimed it as the city it is, instead of trying to be some other city or instead of getting too hackneyed about our cowboy past. Just claim it as the modern city that it is and the patina will come.
NW: I thought Denver came across well during the convention.
JH: It was great, and how Colorado played a real key role in that election. The Western states are definitely a changing political landscape right now.
NW: You have drought as a theme in your book. When you were writing, did you see it as having a particular meaning? Or did it just appear?
JH: As my favorite filmmaker Agnès Varda says, “I am not the postman. I don’t deliver messages.” I love that. She’s right. When you’re working, you often don’t think of this as ‘I’m delivering a message’ and if you are, you know you ought to stop. I wasn’t aware of the drought as a deeper meaning, I just wanted there to be tension, and Denver, even on a good year, is very dry. There’s that thirsty sense of sucking up all the moisture. It just spoke to me.
NW: Now that your book is finished, do you see it have a particular meaning?
JH: I try to refrain from that too. I think people have seen it as that, and are welcome to see it as that. Drought is an element of writing something set in the West. Water is always important here. I am a Western writer, though I don’t write with my spurs on. I don’t write about the whole, ‘gee shucks, I’m from the West and it’s all about cowboys.’ For me, it doesn’t work. For me, it would feel condescending to the reader, and would feel condescending to the place that I live.
NW: I grew up on an acreage riding horses and I dislike when people portray Colorado that way. I even had cowboy boots.
JH: I love cowboy boots! I spent all my summers on a cattle ranch in Wyoming. All that stuff is great and there are people who make that their genre, but I think there is a place, and I was really glad to see this in NewWest, that you can be a Western writer and not necessarily have a hayseed in your mouth. That’s one other reason I picked Denver for my novel, which goes back to the earlier question. I wanted to see Denver be a real, viable place for a fugitive from the coast to hide.
NW: But she’s from Kansas originally.
JH: She’s from Kansas, but she commits the crime on the east coast and she was in the organization on the other coast. Here in Denver, in the middle of the country, we’re in what they call the flyovers, where it’s neither coast. Everything in between New York and California gets ignored. I think that’s a limited view.
NW: I think so too. I’m happy that the University of Nebraska press has their flyover series.
JH: It’s great. It’s changing. I was noticing in NewWest they were talking a lot about publishing in New York and that the business is changing. Who knows what will happen? Maybe publishing will become a little more decentralized. Maybe it won’t really be all about New York. I think that would be healthy. People that write from out here, most of us have been other places, most of us have lived in other places, so it’s kind of limiting to think that we can only write about cowboys and Indians.
One of my first jobs was in New York City in 1977. I had been to art school and I worked as a secretary in a design firm on Madison Avenue. I remember these college-educated men who were very cosmopolitan and were designing things for Bergdorf’s and Bloomingdales asking me if we had television in Colorado. I’m here to say that we have TV in Colorado. I would venture to say even New Yorkers would be interested in reading something about Denver if it’s written well.
NW: I agree. It’s nice to see a good novel take place in Denver.
JH: Thank you, if you’re talking about my novel. Whenever I say I don’t like to write about this area as a cowboy thing, I always can hear a little voice in the back of my head say, “But someday you might.” I may. It’s an option, but we have a whole wealth of material to explore here in the West that is beyond those stereotypes.
NW: Did you grow up going to the stock show too?
JH: Oh yeah, in the cattle truck with my Uncle Joe.
NW: One of my favorite lines in She Was is: “Unlike human beings, plants never shun the thing they crave.” Which, for me, tied in with the drought and felt like a theme in your novel. Doreen shuns what she craves to live under cover and has to give up many things that we take for granted.
JH: She has to deny herself a lot of stuff to survive and not get caught, and she pays the price, and not just in getting arrested in the end. (That’s a spoiler right there.) Her personality becomes very guarded. She doesn’t let anybody very far in. She’s pretty neurotic based on what she’s been through. I think she does pretty well given that she had to basically kill off her younger self to become this new person. The fact that she has a husband and a son she loves, and work that she’s good at and compassionate in, I think that’s amazing. It would stunt you to leave eighteen years of your life behind and invent yourself brand new. I was trying to work with that but still make her sympathetic enough. But I have issues with characters having to be sympathetic. I think that’s kind of a crock. For me, they have to be interesting enough for me to want to write them. If I’m trying to think of every reader out there in the world I would go crazy and my characters would be sappy. Some of my characters are a little tough to like, but I hope it’s worth it if you spend the time to read them, that you find something there.
NW: I always found Doreen accessible and interesting, which is important for me as a reader. So I’m curious, why did you choose for Doreen to be a dentist?
JH: It wasn’t a conscious thing, but looking back on it and hearing other comments, there really is something symbolic about the teeth as the place where we grab onto life. If you don’t have teeth, you can’t eat very well, can’t speak very well. You lose your ability to attack the world in any way. I wanted Doreen to be a professional, but I didn’t want her to get all the way to a doctor and be on that pedestal we put doctors on. Dentists are, like she says in the story, the car mechanics of the medical profession. She accomplished a lot in school, but I wanted her to have a middle-of-the-road, though accomplished profession. We love to sort of scorn dentists, probably because of the pain we feel. We have this thing about dentists that we fear them but we also like to take pot shots at them. Doreen is kind of like that. She fears herself in some ways because of what she did, and scorns herself in some ways. For me, she had be someone who accomplished a lot in the world, that she reinvented herself.
NW: Did People’s Dental, Doreen’s charity, come along early? Was that a way for Doreen to deal with her guilt?
JH: I wanted her to be a dentist that has compassion, and I wanted us to see at least one patient who was from the poorer side of life. Also, it was a little bit of homage to Virginia Woolf’s opening scene of Mrs. Dalloway where the point of view flits between all of these characters, and there is the character on the street that goes “I, I, I.” I wanted to make a tiny bit of a homage to that when Doreen saw her patient Zeeda Bouray on the street in her blue bathrobe. I do tiny homages to great writers in my work sometimes that no one else would see. I thought Zeeda gave humanity to the whole dental thing.
NW: It also shows Doreen’s idealist’s roots.
JH: She is an idealist, still is, deep down inside, even though she doesn’t vote anymore. The fact that she became a fugitive, got rid of all her rights to actually affect change in her government, is very sad. Just as Louis Nilon, the man that was killed in the bombing, was exactly the person she thought she was fighting for.
NW: Another quote that I enjoyed is: “As the last of the radical fugitives were caught and brought in, middle-aged, middle-class people with families and lives, Doreen watched along with everybody else. Patty Hearst was given a presidential pardon, but Kathy Boudin and Kathleen Soliah were put away.” It seems a directed remark that Patti Hearst was pardoned but others not. What do you think about some of the old radicals were prosecuted while the wealthy ones like Hearst and Bill Ayers were able to resume their privileged lives?
JH: Right, like Bernadine Dohrn. But then you think about others, like Diane Oughton who was killed and several others who were killed who didn’t get to resume their privileged lives, and then some that are in prison. Recently Sarah Jane Olson was released from prison and is now home in St. Paul, Minnesota. I think she did eight years on a twenty-year bid, which was not the same crime as my character’s crime. There was this public outcry and a New York Times Op-Ed about how everybody went so easy on her and she was really a terrorist. My feeling is that she was not a terrorist. She was a dissenter. We didn’t really call the student radicals ‘terrorists’ at that time. When you look at it in a post 9/11 viewpoint, you could construe it that way. But I think that in some ways Olson was scapegoated because we had her to arrest and send to prison instead of Osama bin Laden. It satisfied some urge to hang somebody up.
NW: What was her crime?
JH: She put bombs in the tailpipes of a police car. They never went off. But they also had her placed in the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California where Patty Hearst drove the getaway car. Patty Hearst, as I recall, testified about Sarah Jane Olson and other people in that bank robbery in exchange for her own immunity.
NW: So she’s like Janey.
JH: A little bit, maybe. But these people thought they were fighting a revolution, rightly or wrongly, that’s how it seemed to them. When you look at our own revolution in our country, people did things to fight what they saw as the controlling element, the established government, to undermine it. I think it’s ironic that we’re in this position we are today, that there are certain chickens that came home to roost during the Iraq War that started in the Vietnam War and that these people really did see something that needed to change and were fighting against it. I don’t agree with their methods, but there was something nonetheless.
NW: Do you see Lucy as a dissenter and not a terrorist?
JH: I think that she crossed the line when she got involved with the bombs. She absolutely committed a crime. I didn’t think of her as a terrorist because it was my job to get inside of her and to write her from that point of view, and she didn’t think of herself as a terrorist, so I couldn’t think of her as a terrorist either.
NW: Did you know from the beginning that her crime would have someone who died?
JH: Yeah, I wanted the outcomes to be extreme. It wasn’t going to be a bomb in the tailpipe that didn’t go off. It had to be that somebody died, that there were real costs to the folly of setting a bomb. Because in a novel you want to make those distinctions, you want to make it a little larger than life so as to set up the conflicts that then get played out.
NW: Was it hard for you to write from Louis’ point of view, someone who is going to be the victim and die?
JH: Well, it was third person, but pretty close in. No, I loved writing that part. I really got into the whole Frazier/Ali fight. I like writing male characters that are from different walks of life from me. I’ve never had the nerve to write a whole novel from the point of view of one, because I feel I need to relate to my characters a little more, in terms of more similar to me, usually female, but I love having them there and being able to write to them. In The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn, Chester is often seen as the strongest character and I think he’s the lifeblood of the book and he’s a similar character to Adam (Doreen’s brother), and in some ways to Louis Nilon. Those characters are gifts to me. I love writing them.
NW: How did you decide on the different points of view in your book? Was this a structure that you decided from the beginning, or did it evolve?
JH: It was clear it was going to be Doreen/Lucy and her brother, Adam. The Janey scenes are little vignettes; we don’t get far into her. Those are there to be the perspective from the governmental side, and I didn’t want there to be the standard police detective/FBI guy hunting Doreen down. I didn’t want to make it a legal thriller. But Janey was interesting to me because she appears in the earlier student protest sections and it’s her betrayal of an old friend for her own gain that causes the events to happen in the week of the book.
NW: Why did you write from Miles’ (Doreen’s husband) point of view?
JH: So that we could see Doreen.
NW: Was it hard for you to have Miles be in the dark about in her past?
JH: No, she was who she was. She didn’t go around thinking about her past, she left it behind and she was living her life. By the time the story starts, she’s been thirty-four years in this new life, almost twice as long as she was in her original eighteen years. She’s very comfortable being Doreen Woods, in fact probably more comfortable than being Lucy Johansson. So, Miles didn’t know he was in the dark. He was trotting along and feeling pretty good about it all and then the poor guy finds out his wife was this other person in the past. He’s also very mentally healthy; he’s a very calm, rational man. The story needed that, because Adam (Doreen’s brother) isn’t very rational.
NW: In Adam’s viewpoint, you have him thinking that Doreen married Miles to help with her cover. Did you see that as true?
JH: I think there was an element of that, but she loved him, no doubt. I don’t see why there can’t be both things. I think, in truth, marriages are often a combination of love and convenience. We marry people for all kinds of reasons, so why not Doreen? It didn’t seem real for her to be idealistic about her marriage in that way. She loved Miles and it helped her put another layer between herself and Lucy Johansson.
NW: The structure of the novel takes place in a week. There is a lot of flashback as well. Did you know this from the beginning?
JH: It kind of evolved after I got into the first draft, but it came about pretty soon. I realized I needed to compact the time. I like to write with a structure. I find the form of the novel, and this one in particular, unwieldy. Structure helps. You’re trying to hold up all these various things – characters, events, real history, history that you’re making up, historical characters – there is just so much going on. I wanted a structure that would hold the thing together. One week appealed to me for a lot of reasons.
NW: This is going to sound like a random question, but when we started training our dog, we were told that dogs don’t understand punishment, only consequences. As I read your book, I kept thinking about punishment vs. consequences. What do you think about the idea, and how did this impact Doreen?
JH: How so?
NW: I see punishment as having to serve time in jail. I would see the consequence as Louis died. Doreen sends money to his widow, to try to alleviate her guilt a bit.
JH: So, the question of rehabilitation vs. just putting people away. In the case of Doreen, given that she’s been living in the world for thirty-four years as a respectable person, she sort of did prove her own rehabilitation, but she knew the way it works in the law is if you commit a crime you will be sent to jail. On some level she always knew it would happen. When it did there was a kind of a relief to it, as much as she could have gone on without anyone finding out. It wasn’t going to make sense for her getting off for good behavior. It doesn’t work that way and she never expected it to work that way.
NW: You can sense her relief when she’s giving up her secrecy, and when she goes to see her mother.
JH: And her mother isn’t exactly sympathetic to her. It’s a difficult relationship, which probably says something about why Doreen wasn’t in touch all those years. She probably could have been in touch if she really tried. It was a good excuse for her and Adam to leave their family behind.
NW: I liked that Adam gives up his life to help his sister but it improved his life and helped him to be happy.
JH: Doreen was really very happy too. A little tortured, but a little torture never hurt.
The funniest thing a reader said to me was, “What woman doesn’t have something in her past that she can’t tell her husband and child?” And I thought, Whoa, that’s interesting. I wonder about that. I think it’s that kind of a feeling that doesn’t make it such a stretch for her not to tell Miles. He would have been guilty of harboring a criminal, so she couldn’t tell him.
NW: When the truth comes out, you don’t have a big, dramatic scene between her, Miles and Ian (her son). It’s parceled out. Did you intentionally avoid this?
JH: There is that scene in the cornfield where she and Miles have to face up to this. They don’t have the luxury of time for him to get mad and pout about it and then to finally come around and decide to help her. He has to go through that pretty fast to be able to help her when she needs it. They’ve been married a long time, and I didn’t see it being a deal breaker. It’s kind of a slow leak of the information to Miles and Ian. I try to avoid melodramatic scenes most of the time. It just wasn’t going to be the climax for me. It wasn’t going to be the ultimate moment.
NW: I enjoyed the relationship between Doreen and her brother, Adam. In a way, they have the most intimate relationship. Did you have this relationship in mind from the beginning?
JH: Yeah, that just occurred. They were really tight and he has everything to do with her disappearing successfully. They’re close in a way that nobody else can be.
NW: Was his illness always a part of the book?
JH: For me characters sort of emerge fully formed. They have their sets of stuff. I don’t consciously add things to them like that. This was the hand Adam was holding: he was a Vietnam Vet, that he had been injured there, that he had PTSD, he was gay, and, at this point in the story, his MS, which has been under control for a while, is starting to become a serious problem, cognitively.
NW: What is the purpose of the chimera that Adam sees?
JH: The creature is his death angel, but it’s not an evil thing. The creature sort of helps him along through the last stretch of his life and she is definitely his hallucination. But because we’re in his point of view, she’s real to us. She was real to me. I saw her as a real character. I particularly love it when she tries to fit in the truck with him; she has to hunch in because she’s a life-sized sort of praying mantis/moth character. Her head’s bumping on the windshield and it’s just fun. I love it when things get really weird like that.
NW: You use the Vietnam War and Adam’s involvement in it to parallel Doreen/Lucy’s beliefs and activities. I like how you don’t hold back with the victims of Lucy’s acts. The details about Louis’ family are great and heartbreaking. You also don’t hold back with what Adam did in the Vietnam War, such as cutting off people’s ears to have R&R in China Beach. Did you do this to show that no one is truly innocent?
JH: I think that’s true that no one is truly innocent in war. All those war atrocity things are true accounts. I did a lot of research. I listened to the Winter Soldier tapes and it was all there. Sadly. Guys come home from war, all the wars, carrying these kinds of atrocities that have been committed for all kinds of crazy reasons. When Adam was in Vietnam, that was when “the wheels came off from the war.” That was a term a vet I interviewed used.
NW: You describe it well in the book. There was a sergeant who was on drugs and the horrible helicopter scene.
JH: It’s the beserker state soldiers get when they’re in war, especially when it’s one no one seems to be winning. The homeland has not been attacked, so what are you fighting for? At a certain point you’re just out there killing people and it tends to make people crazy. Then when they come home, they continue to revisit the beserker state. I got a sense of that talking to these vets. You prod long enough about how was it to be a marine in Vietnam and they start to get this crazed look if you prod in certain places. You can see it start to come over them. It’s a little bit daunting, because the war is really present. So, I wanted to capture that beserker state, but I know that it’s not just the Vietnam War. It’s World War II, Korea, all the wars.
NW: The self-immolation of Vietnamese monks and nuns seems integral to your story. How did you see these martyrs who burn themselves in protest working into the larger frame of your book?
JH: This is a real thing about Vietnam, that there were these self-immolators. Everybody of a certain age has seen the image of the first famous guy. It was on TV when it happened and it’s become one of those icons of the Vietnam War: this monk sitting in Lotus position going up in flames. It just shocked the world. Nobody knew this was going on. But, our government, and the Vietnamese government too, really dampened down reports of these things. David Habersham and other journalists documented some of this. There were actually hundreds of immolations that happened, which we didn’t get to hear about here in the States so much. At that time, in the early 60’s, in the early part of the war, people didn’t know how to respond to this because how do you stop someone from taking their own life? It’s a little bit like suicide bombers except the immolators didn’t wish to hurt anybody else. They were Buddhists, monks and nuns. They were protesting by taking their lives. It’s still debated about in the Buddhist faith if it was the right thing to do, and politically, whether it helped or not. It’s negligible, nobody knows. There were Americans who copied immolators on the Pentagon and UN steps. One was a woman, but the American immolators were kept pretty quiet too.
NW: I was interested in the book of names of self-immolators that Tom Poole created and wore around his neck, and then Adam wore it after his friend’s death in the war. The immolators do seem like the true peaceful protest. It’s a violent act, but they aren’t taking anyone with them. What is your opinion of them?
JH: They fascinate me, and the fact that it was such a silent protest. Many of their names were never reported.
NW: The immolators felt like a strong image and a stronger message than Lucy or Fishbone’s bombings and protests. This is a spoiler alert, but what Adam does in the end is such a haunting image.
JH: I was looking for a haunting image and it grew out of the story. Adam was fascinated with the immolators because Tom Poole was fascinated with the immolators and so we all had this fascination and it goes through to the end. It revealed itself as what Adam would do. I didn’t know he was going to do that until the end.
I mostly wanted to break through that crust of nobody noticing. I wanted to show that people were going about their business, they didn’t even notice this guy was pouring gasoline on himself and then he burns himself. The question is then posed and not answered: Did anybody really notice that?
NW: It’s a horrifying scene in Vietnam when the nuns surround one woman and she burns herself and they act as if it’s an everyday event. It’s even more frightening how people clean up the mess. There is no reaction.
JH: Right. They didn’t even know their names. The crowded street just fills in over the place right way.
NW: It’s very shocking.
JH: I know, I’m sorry. It’s kind of an intense book that way. It’s sobering. I hope it’s not depressing, but it is sobering.
NW: It’s not depressing, but it does stay with you. What is the strongest sense you would like someone to come away with from your book?
JH: I hope that they feel they’ve been in good hands and taken on a ride where they wouldn’t have gone on their own and experience something that they wouldn’t get to experience in their own life: seeing these two wars through this one woman’s eyes, and experiencing her guilt and her struggle. As to what they would think about it, or their reaction, I’m not going to go there. That’s up to them. I wouldn’t want to impose my feelings on anybody else, but I would hope that they feel they were taken on a good trip with a good driver.