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Border Crossings: A conversation between Forrest Gander and John Benditt
Forrest Gander: The Boatmaker is certainly a book about crossing borders. The protagonist crosses borders in himself, overcoming weaknesses, developing strengths. But he also launches himself from Small Island to Big Island to a Mainland that, at its southern limits, borders Europe, a place of noted culinary and cultural differences. Although the events take place far from America, they seem drawn from the Native American tradition of the vision quest. The boatmaker’s dreams, in fact, are his guides. That seems in keeping with the ambiguity you create about where the novel takes place. Would you say that borders are important to The Boatmaker more as symbols than as markers of particular geographies?
John Benditt: Something that is central to The Boatmaker is that it’s both specific and not specific in its geography. I think of it as being set on a border itself: the border between what is “real” in the ordinary sense and what is “unreal” in the ordinary sense. The Mainland is close to Europe but it’s not in Europe. It seems to hover in between. Symbols, on the other hand, do seem to belong to the world of the unreal.
FG: Both our books relate critical events brought on by anti-Semitism. In The Boatmaker, it is one of the stronger themes and connected to the boatmaker’s name, which we don’t learn until the end of the book. In The Trace, one anti-Semitic incident breaks down the defenses that have protected the main characters, Dale and Hoa, from their respective guilt and grief and blame. Did you think of your protagonist, from the start, as a representative of The Lost Tribe? Does his wandering and his search for his own identity parallel a Jewish story of diaspora and search for homeland?
JB: I was surprised to see anti-Semitism pop up at that crucial moment in The Trace. It has a great deal of force. It shakes your characters. Partly because it seems to come out of nowhere. After all, there aren’t any Jews around. But that’s one of the funny things about anti-Semitism: it persists and reappears in places where there aren’t any actual Jews. For instance, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion has always sold well in Japan, despite the fact that the number of Jews in Japan has historically been vanishingly small. The thing has a life of its own.
But I definitely did not think of the boatmaker from the beginning as a representative of the Jewish people. The book began as a short story that took place on Small Island, where there are no practicing Jews. At the beginning, it wasn’t clear to me that the boatmaker is a Jew. And even now, I have mixed feelings. I’m not sure there’s a single clear answer to that question.
FG: Your protagonist is one of the mutest characters I’ve encountered since I read David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life, about Ovid in exile. The boatmaker’s intelligence, his very consciousness, is intensely corporeal. He seems to think and feel with his hands. But that muteness increases his intrigue; it is, in part, what draws others to respect him. As you worked on the novel, what particular problems arose from creating a main character of so few words?
JB: It did present challenges in dialog. There are only so many times a character can say nothing in response to something that’s said to him. Only so many times a writer can write: “The boatmaker says nothing.” On the other hand, silence is powerful. It makes people think there is something important dwelling behind the silence; they want to get at that. It allows people to project their own wishes and dreams onto the boatmaker—as some characters do in the book.
Your novel, The Trace, is a wonderful evocation of a healing journey, undertaken by the two main characters, Dale and Hoa. For some reason, both the desert and Mexico seem to stimulate thoughts of this kind of journey. What drew you to these two things—the desert and Mexico—as the setting for your book?
FG: Well, I like what you say about the power of silence. And details become clearer when there’s a less busy background. The stark vastness of the desert isolates and magnifies the gestures of the couple traveling through it. Their car becomes a kind of isolation tank, intensifying their awareness of their own thoughts. So they can almost hear the blood pumping through each other’s bodies.
JB: “Isolation tank” is a good way of putting it. We started this conversation talking about border crossings. And in The Trace there are definitely literal borders to be crossed. But I was more struck by the small-scale boundaries that exist between the main characters. When they travel in the car they’re always wearing shades. That’s natural in Mexico, but the dark lenses put a barrier between them. And then the windshield is always between them and the outside world. So there are two sets of semi-transparent barriers. And outside the windshield, the landscape is described in a way that is sometimes quite technical, and the technical language is a kind of abstraction that puts us at a further remove. As the characters drive, they seem to get farther and farther away from each other—and from themselves—until things reach a breaking point.
FG: I wanted to give the two main narratives distinct but reflective rhythms and visual qualities. There’s the medium shot against the close-up: El Palomo and the sicarios are always seen moving through and dominating a landscape. Dale and Hoa are dominated by the landscape. Against dramatic events involving the narcos, the gringo couple acts out their emotional tragedy through the slenderest gestures or comments in a car, in a microscopic world within the world. And still, as you say, in that tiny space between the two front seats, a chasm opens that seems a metaphor of the gaping landscape outside.
JB: I called the story in your novel a “healing journey.” Mostly what seemed to need healing was the relationship between the main characters, Dale and Hoa, a husband and wife. The book put me in mind of three other stories involving couples in need of transformation who push into the desert and/or into Mexico: The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles, a French movie called 29 Palms, and The Ultimate Good Luck by Richard Ford. Do you know those?
FG: 29 Palms is fun—a kind of French take on the Coen brothers. And I love The Sheltering Sky. Ford’s novel is propelled by a more classical, macho character than I wanted to develop. In fact, one of the things essential to The Trace is that the man, Dale, fails. He’s the athlete, he’s the stalwart nursing his wife through her depression, it’s his research trip to Mexico, but when they get down to the lick-log, his body and confidence snap as his wife, Hoa, rises into her strength and clarity of purpose. A movie that very much influenced my book is Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, with Casey Affleck and Matt Damon and about zero other characters. There are these long tracking shots, just Casey and Matt trudging side by side, that I think are a bit of homage to the great Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, when nothing is said, when moving bodies come into mutual rhythm and fall out of it, when the physical and immediate is everything that needs to be spoken.
Speaking of mutual rhythms, there’s a fantastic moment in The Boatmaker when the boatmaker and the woman he’s seeing are sitting together and you write, “She begins to smoke in rhythm with him, taking the smoke in and letting it go when he does.” And later, as another woman “cuts and sews, her scent comes up from the fabric mingling with his for the last time.” I love the subtlety of these unspoken erotic moments in your work, when the senses themselves are in communion.
JB: Maybe those moments are my attempt to capture communion, in a language that doesn’t rely too much on abstractions but on things in the body. An attempt to touch on the rhythms of coming together and falling apart that seem to be all around us, within us, and that also get played out in relationships.
Speaking of falling apart, in two of the three stories I mentioned above, the tensions between the couple build up into an explosion that destroys everything around it; in the other one there is a healing change, as there seems to be in The Trace. When you were writing, did you feel a tension between the possibility of annihilation and the possibility of healing? I did, as a reader. I think it’s part of what gives the book its power.
FG: Yes, and there are likesame tensions in The Boatmaker where the boatmaker’s drinking and his violence constantly undercut him and tip him toward catastrophe. I found myself as a reader trying to talk him out of that next drink, trying to talk him sane. You make him a character we want to see healed. We’re talking to him as we read.
JB: One of the things that makes The Trace compelling to me is the layering of stories. I counted four: the story in the literary “present,” which is Dale and Hoa’s journey; the mysterious disappearance of Ambrose Bierce; the story of the narco traficante El Palomo; and finally the story of the couple’s son, which hovers around the main narrative in a fairly ghostly way. How did you think about fitting these pieces together? And how much of a story do you think needs to be told to make the story effective? A complete narrative with a beginning, middle and end, or something much more fragmentary?
FG: You know I come into fiction from poetry, where the unspoken, the telling fragment, and juxtaposition are often the coins of the realm. I didn’t start the novel with a sense of its structure. I don’t think I really see where I’m going until I’m actually writing. And then, over years, sketches fall together, relationships suggest themselves. But that’s just one way, my way with this novel. Complete narratives, no narratives, good writers have at it every which way.
Curiously, both of us are authors with science backgrounds. My first degree was in geology, for which I’ve sustained a lifelong interest. You’ve had a career as a science journalist. There’s definitely a lot of attention to rocks and formations in The Trace. But it’s not science so much as a love of artisanry that really stands out in The Boatmaker. The quality of handmade things, a sideboard that can be “taken apart, piece by piece, and put back together without a single tool”; expertise in knot-tying; even a barber who is compared to a sculptor. And yet was it science that trained you somehow to write fiction?
JB: I don’t think science taught me how to write a novel. Like you, I come at writing fiction as someone who started writing poetry—and did that for a long time, sliding through prose-poetry into fiction. And I was another kind of journalist—a newspaper reporter—before becoming a science journalist. I think all these experiences got gathered into the fiction; it’s hard to disentangle the threads.
FG: That love for artisanry leads into spiritual territory, too, doesn’t it? In The Boatmaker, men and objects both have agency. They’re intersubjective. It’s insistently the boat that teaches the boatmaker how to build the boat, “showing him the next step at every stage, each piece appearing as it was needed.” Is it science or philosophy or simply work with your hands that disposes you toward such a phenomenological point of view?
JB: I do have a fascination for things that are well made. Whether they are “art” or “craft” or purely utilitarian. The notion that pieces fit together into a whole and yet can be disassembled and become pieces again, which is the thing you point out about the sideboard, is endlessly interesting to me. I’m not sure I could tell you why. It just is. But it’s probably also relevant to add here that my interest in science is more or less in the blood, since my father was a scientist. And that he was someone who was good with his hands; he was a sculptor and made woodcuts before he became a doctor and a scientist. For him science was not what it often is today—work with huge disembodied datasets—but something closer to handwork or handiwork.
And perhaps on that note of handiwork we should finish up our conversation. Thank you, Forrest, it’s been a great pleasure to talk to you in this virtual way about writing and about our novels.
Forrest Gander, a writer and translator with degrees in geology and literature, was born in the Mojave Desert and grew up in Virginia. Among his recent books are the novel The Trace, the book of poems Eiko & Koma, and Fungus Skull Eye Wing: Selected Poems of Alfonso D’Aquino. Gander’s book Core Samples from the World was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He’s the AK Seaver Professor of Comparative Literature and Literary Arts at Brown University.
John Benditt is the author of the debut novel, The Boatmaker. As an editor at Scientific American he was responsible for conceiving and editing that magazine’s 1988 single-topic issue on AIDS, which was at the time the biggest seller in that magazine’s 150-year history. His journalism career culminated in five years as Editor-in-Chief of Technology Review, published by MIT. As an undergraduate at Swarthmore College he studied with Adrienne Rich and was awarded the John Russell Hayes Poetry Prize by Robert Creeley. He grew up in Seattle and lives in Brooklyn.