Interview with author Paula Huston
1. A Land Without Sin is set in the Lacandon jungles of southern Mexico in the early 90s during political unrest. What inspired you to write a novel set in such a time and place?
I spent the summer of 1969 in a mountain village in Honduras. While I was there, war broke out between Honduras and El Salvador, and since we were only fifty miles from the border between the two countries, we had refugees come through our village. Then in 1993 my husband and I backpacked from Palenque in Southern Mexico to Tikal, Guatemala, camping along the way at most of the famous Maya sites. We spent one long day traveling through the Lacandon jungle in the back of a second-class bus. At one point, we found ourselves being passed by truckload after truckload of soldiers. Soon we were stopped, boarded, and searched at gunpoint. A day later, on New Year’s Eve, the Zapatista Revolution broke out. Like most American tourists, I knew very little about Mexican history or politics, but from then on I became fascinated.
2. Eva Kovic, the main character, is not your typical protagonist. How would you describe her?
Eva is young—only thirty-four—but extremely tough, the exact opposite of a confirmed coward like me, which is why I cannot help but admire her. As a photojournalist who has, by choice, spent her entire professional life chronicling the devastation of war, she is almost entirely hardened against emotional pain. Yet some part of her knows she is becoming a monster. When it comes to physical danger, she is monumentally self-confident and adept, yet ask her to take an emotional risk and she’s out of there. In a lot of ways, she’s your classic action movie hero: brave, loyal, and cunning. But this familiar-sounding role is usually filled by some Bruce Willis type, not a quiet, slender woman with an artist’s eye for beauty.
3. The importance and complexity of family is a major theme of the book. How did this become such an integral part of the story?
Amazingly (at least from my perspective as the author, who is often the last to see where the real story lines lie), this aspect of the book did not come into its own until late in the game. I was asked by Greg Wolfe to give a plausible reason for cynical Eva’s strange devotion to her brother, whose manner of life and beliefs are so obviously the antithesis of her own. These two characters literally have nothing in common—nothing, that is, but their bizarre family history. Once I figured that out, this part of the novel almost wrote itself.
4. The characters who populate A Land Without Sin seem to shuck their stereotypes: a wildly independent and emotionally distant protagonist; a theologically struggling priest-activist; a young, insecure guerrilla soldier. What attracts you to such complex and three-dimensional characters?
I learned early on that the novels I remembered were not nearly so plot-driven as they were people-driven. The really good ones were about characters I simply could not forget—characters I thought about, even worried about, long after I was done with the book. So it was very natural for me to focus on character development rather than plot construction, to put these idiosyncratic people together and see what evolved from their interaction. Aside from the original situation (brother disappears, sister goes in search of him) the characters themselves, along with the historical episode involving the Zapatistas, provided the energy around which the plot grew.
5. How is Catholicism important to the narrative?
When Mike and I went on that Maya trek through the jungles of southern Mexico and Guatemala, I was a brand-new Catholic after nearly twenty years of considering myself an atheist. Catholicism’s universality became real to me. And I began to wonder if whatever has allowed it to maintain its integrity while undergoing constant shaping and molding by various cultures throughout history might also give it the ability to speak with moral and spiritual authority in an era we bravely celebrate as “pluralistic” but which too often feels fragmented, even alienated, instead. For me, fiercely independent, skeptical, self-protective Eva personifies this contemporary worldview, and Catholicism, with all its failings, something very much the opposite. So Catholicism itself becomes yet another character in this book.
6. What authors and books have been a guide and inspiration for you, both generally but also specifically for A Land Without Sin?
So many, that trying to answer this question in any depth feels overwhelming! But here are a few titles, beginning with the most obvious: Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Ron Hansen’s Atticus, the poetry of Carolyn Forche. But then there were works of the culturally influential non-novelists, many of whom have influenced me as much or more as the great literary writers: Plato’s Republic, Iris Murdoch’sExistentialists and Mystics, Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, Douglas Burton-Christie’s The Word in the Desert, Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation.
7. Can you talk a bit about the process of writing A Land Without Sin? How did it come together for you?
I wrote a first draft of this novel nearly eighteen years ago under contract to Random House. But it’s clear that I wasn’t ready to write it yet. I was still too close in time to the personal experiences that precipitated the project, still too new a Catholic to be able to make any sense of the religious cross-currents surging through Central America, and still too busy working out my own theology and spirituality to do justice to a character like Stefan, the anguished priest. I submitted that draft in 1997 and they did what any self-respecting publisher would do: they told me it would take far too much editorial work to make it jell and that I should forgot about it and move on to something new. So I stuck it in a box and put it on a shelf and really didforget about it. When Greg Wolfe contacted me last summer to see if I had “any old novels lying around,” I could therefore tell him I actually did. He asked to see it, I sent it to him, and he saw enough merit in this early draft that he rolled up his editorial sleeves and went to work. The questions that came out of his careful reading spurred me into an almost total rewrite. It’s a whole different book now. And I’m so very grateful to have had a second chance with it.
8. How did your own life and experience inspire the characters and world of your writing?
Along with the Central American experiences I already mentioned, I was fortunate enough to receive, in 1998, a study grant from the university where I was teaching that allowed me to spend two months making a solo trip around the world. During this time, I went to seven countries I’d never been, including Nepal and India, and many of my intuitions about the shaping influences on Stefan-the-priest came from my time in those countries. Eva and Stefan are also of my own generation, and that was a great help in going back to the early 90s for this story. It did not feel like “history” to me but instead, in some strange way, the story of a whole era, my own era.
9. You are a teacher and have been for many years. How does teaching speak into your writing, and vice versa?
Teaching forces me to articulate what I’ve learned after hours and days and years of wrestling with my own fiction and creative nonfiction. I think this is the most valuable gift to the writer that comes from being a teacher—having to really assess what it is you’ve learned, what you know, and what is still a mystery to you in your own creative life. So I’m extremely grateful for the privilege of fulfilling those dual roles.
10. What do you teach your own students about the writing process? What advice do you give them when they tell you they want to be a novelist, too?
I tell them that it’s the work of a lifetime, that they will exercise very little control over the outcome of all their efforts, and that if they do not love what they are doing so much they are willing to keep struggling through disappointment, self-doubt, guilt, frustration, exhaustion, anger at being criticized unfairly, and plain old dry spells, no matter what happens on the publication front, then they should give it up as soon as possible. But I also tell them that being a writer has blessed me in a myriad of ways: with beautiful friendships, with an excuse for constant study, with the adventure of stretching my mind to its very limits, with the joy of seeing a difficult project to its completion and holding, once again, a new book in my hands. I tell them there is nothing like it, and that I sincerely hope they will someday have those experiences too.
About Paula Huston
Paula Huston is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Daughters of Song, plus six works of creative nonfiction. Her essays and short fiction have been honored by Best American Short Stories,Best Spiritual Writing, and the National Endowment of the Arts. She currently teaches in Seattle Pacific University’s MFA in Creative Writing program.