Author Interviews
12:21 pm
Sat August 31, 2013

Shacochis Spans Generations In 'The Woman Who Lost Her Soul'

Originally published on Sun September 1, 2013 5:06 am

As a journalist and essayist, Bob Shacochis has covered conflict in the Balkans and Haiti, the abuse of American power overseas, spycraft, and the sexual politics that divide men and women. He is also a novelist and the winner of a National Book Award. His new novel, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, was a long time coming, but critics are saying it was well worth the wait.

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul is a 700-page work that spans continents and generations. It's been compared to the work of Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and Norman Mailer.

The book's title character came from a real-life encounter Shacochis had while he was working as a reporter in Haiti. He was sitting at a hotel bar in Port-au-Prince when a striking and mysterious female photojournalist approached him and asked him if he knew any voodoo priests. She said she had lost her soul.

On his mission as a writer

"I consider myself a writer who writes about American expatriates. And if I have any overt cause as a writer besides writing the best prose I can, it's to try to make Americans have a more visceral feeling about how America impacts everybody in the world."

On writing about male sexuality

"What I wanted to explore through it was the dark side of male sexuality. And I, I think, am a normal male and that dark side gets played out in fantasy and imagination and it's fine, but it's there. The difference between me and a pedophile would be if I see a 14-year-old girl [and] think she's sexually attractive, I can go imagine whatever I want about that. But a pedophile has no imagination, he has to act on the attraction. The problem in writing about it was trying not to be too heavy-handed."

On how the feelings of men affect society

"When you meet powerful men or just read about them in the newspapers, you see that they don't have a sense of boundaries. And that goes from, 'Well, let's go kick some butt in Syria,' to, 'Oh, look at that beautiful woman. I want her. She's mine'. But when you see a family malfunction, all the patterns and the dynamics that you see eroding the structure of that family, you can find those same dynamics all the way up the chain of society, all the way to the ruling class and the top of government."

On the biggest challenge in writing the book

"I think the biggest challenge of the book, besides just the dread of doing the ugly sexuality and the violence — I mean, it felt like a type of punishment I had inflicted on myself — but the biggest challenge was to introduce a reader to a woman who is rather unappealing and reverse that reader's feeling about the woman by the end of the book."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Coming up, a newscast from Area 51.

But first, Bob Shacochis has covered conflict in the Balkans and Haiti, the abuse of American power, spy craft and the sexual politics that divide men and women. He's written both fiction and nonfiction. A National Book Award winner and professor and mentor to many younger novelists, it's been a long time since Shacochis had a new novel. Critics are saying it's well worth waiting for, and it's an epic: a 700-page tome that spans continents and generations. He's being compared to Conrad, Greene and Mailer.

The book is called "The Woman Who Lost Her Soul," and the woman in question came from a real-life encounter Shacochis had while working as a reporter in Haiti. While sitting at a hotel bar in Port-au-Prince, a striking and mysterious female photographer approached him.

BOB SHACOCHIS: This woman came and sat at my table and asked if I knew any voodoo priests. And I said: Yeah, I know a lot of them. And she said: Well, I'd like to meet one. This young, very beautiful woman told me that she had lost her soul. And I said: My God. What are you talking about? So we can stop there with my own personal experience and let that fester for a few years, until somebody asked me to get in touch with this guy who used to be an FBI guy. Now he was a private detective.

LYDEN: This is a real person.

SHACOCHIS: It's a real person. He called me up, and he said: I have a client who's been accused of murdering his wife. I need to go to Haiti. Will you come with me? All this time, I'm thinking about this young woman who told me she lost her soul. And I'm thinking: Hmm, I think I'd like to go just to get a sense of this murder in this place where it's impossible to solve any murder. So we walked through the murder for a weekend and I thought: Huh, this is the woman who lost her soul. Now I think I know how to begin writing my book.

LYDEN: You've written five books, at least, inside this one tome. From Haiti, we go to Croatia during World War II. There's a long, long, long section in the '90s in Istanbul, finally America, Special Forces, the CIA. Is there a thread here? Is there a reason that you wanted to go to so many places?

SHACOCHIS: I think the easiest way to answer that is because America is in so many places. I consider myself a writer who writes about American expatriates. And, you know, if I have any overt cause as a writer besides trying to write the best prose I can, it's to try to make Americans have a more visceral feeling about how America impacts everybody in the world.

LYDEN: Let's go into this section, and this is where your book can either be read as a thriller, as a murder mystery or a spy novel, "The Friends of Golf." You know, some of them are in the CIA, some of them are in black ops. They all do shady things, and we meet them on a golf links. Read us that section, would you?

SHACOCHIS: (Reading) You could find them some days between temperate equinoxes on the links outside the district convened on the first tee in those final years of the millennium. Chins tucked and heads bowed and testicles snug, smacking their drives 250 yards and beyond toward the middle of the fairway. They made the game look easy and natural and powered by grace, dialed into the sweet and the straight, their balls nested in a little egg-like cluster out at the edge of your vision.

It was the kind of perfect placement you get from guidance systems orbiting the planet and that tempted you to think they had the course wired up, had punched the coordinates. What they called themselves with wry, half-smiles was the Friends of Golf, FOG, F-O-G, perhaps an advertent self-parody. The world, the Friends of Golf were fond of saying, is not run from a house on Pennsylvania Avenue. They were the architects of the unseen, the fabrication of interlocking subterranean networks and processes that formed the human infrastructure of what are known as deep events, deep events evolved in deep time and produced tectonic shifts in human affairs.

Something happens, something obviously cataclysmic, where even the unexpected was not to be mistaken for a coincidence. There are no coincidences, and everything counts.

LYDEN: We meet the father of this photographer, Jackie, Steven, when he's a young boy in wartime Croatia. He's about to behold sheer terror.

SHACOCHIS: What Steven is seeing is both a communist partisan and a Muslim partisan kill his Catholic father. Now, his Catholic father also happens to be Ustase, which was the Nazi-affiliated military in Croatia during World War II. Of course, it's fascinating to me that you have a Nazi, a communist and a Muslim, they're all at each others' throats, and one of them is going to be the ultimate winner. And it's the boy, because he and his mother will be rescued by an American soldier who will marry the mom and move them to Pittsburgh. And the boy will grow up to be a fervent, zealous, anticommunist Cold War Catholic warrior.

LYDEN: Steven becomes basically a spy, and he has this incredibly weird, strange relationship with Jackie. She's always calling him daddy, reminds me of the Sylvia Plath poem "Daddy."

SHACOCHIS: Right. Every woman loves a fascist.

LYDEN: Yeah. There are incestuous overtones in their relationship. Tell us a little bit about this father-daughter story.

SHACOCHIS: What I wanted to explore through it was the dark side of male sexuality. And I - I think - am a normal male, and that dark side gets played out in fantasy and imagination, and it's fine and it - but it's there. The difference between me and a pedophile would be if I see a 14-year-old girl and think she's sexually attractive, I can go imagine whatever I want about that. But a pedophile has no imagination. He has to act on the attraction. The problem in writing about it was trying not to be too heavy-handed.

LYDEN: Do you think that the power that so many of the men in your pages have, you really are showing the seeds of policy, the sense of domination, conquering?

SHACOCHIS: Right. I don't know what - when you meet powerful men or just read about them in the newspapers, you see that they don't have a sense of boundaries. And that goes from things like, well, let's go kick some butt in Syria, to, oh, look at that beautiful woman. I want her. She's mine. But when you see a family malfunction, all the patterns and the dynamics that you see eroding the structure of that family, you can find those same dynamics all the way up the chain of society, all the way to the ruling class and the top of government.

LYDEN: Yeah. I don't want to give the end of this book away, Bob, but...

SHACOCHIS: Thanks.

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: ...but the woman at the center of it, this person who starts out as a lost and unappealing photojournalist, she has to endure this really chaotic sense of oppression, and she's a lot more sympathetic by the time we leave her. Did you have a lot of sympathy for this character as you created her?

SHACOCHIS: Oh, my gosh. Well, I think the biggest challenge of the book, besides just the dread of doing the ugly sexuality and the violence - I mean, it felt like a type of punishment I had inflicted on myself - but the biggest challenge was to introduce a reader to a woman who is rather unappealing and reverse that reader's feeling about that woman by the end of the book. I'm pretty sure I did that. I certainly did it in my own heart. It's very easy for me to start grieving thinking about his woman and who she was when she had a chance to be herself.

LYDEN: That's Bob Shacochis. He's the author of the new novel "The Woman Who Lost Her Soul." Bob, thank you so much for being with us.

SHACOCHIS: Thank you, Jacki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.