Why this story?
I began Corner of the Dead when my son was ill. I would stare out his hospital window into the blackness of the East River, unable to hear the sound of the traffic on the FDR, the planes, not even the helicopters—it was the children crying that blocked all other sound.
I wrote a first draft, realized no one including myself would want to read the story I was writing. It is the ultimate horror story. What I wanted to write was how we manage to go on, regardless; and how is it we negotiate our way in a world that is oftentimes deeply indifferent to suffering. Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others served as a guide. Sontag urges us to act, for me writing became that lifesaving act.
Why this location?
I lived in Ecuador in the early 1980s. My memories of the mountain air, the glacial streams and wild flowers, the color of the light, but mostly the resilience and dignity of the indigenous people, have been a source of inspiration for me. In Corner of the Dead I offer the reader something of the peace that this part of the world has given to me, and although it is a difficult story there is solace to be found.
Why do you write?
It is how I answer and ask questions. It provides a framework. But I also write to make things how I would like them to be. I prefer to live in a fictional world where there is some degree of control, even one as difficult as in Corner of the Dead. I write to make things better.
What do you mean by you write to make things better?
Corner of the Dead is, in part, a story of a disenfranchised people, a people overlooked. They have stories to tell but no mechanism. I quote two poems from Poems from the Quechua translated by Mark Strand. I am grateful Strand brought these voices to the world. I wanted them in Corner of the Dead to disseminate them further. The story of the village in Corner of the Dead isn't my story, it belongs to many others in different communities and countries. I hope I am helping them tell it. Some segment of the world might want to know. You give people dignity by telling their stories.
When I read accounts collected by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in Peru and in other countries from Bosnia to Argentina, the witnesses often reiterate their reason for coming forward is their need to honor the dead. It is the act of telling that memorializes the missing. It is Sontag's book again that I am hearing: the need to act. It is our obligation to listen to these stories and if we are moved to report them, then to do so.
Corner of the Dead is also a story of one woman's fragility. We read stories of survivors, be they in Rwanda or Nazi Germany and they often talk of one act of kindness that saved them. This one act of kindness is something one of us might provide. There are survivors everywhere. It is a good way to live, thinking you might be offering a moment of reprieve.
How do you start a story?
Often I work off of an image, a photograph, a piece of art or some exchange between people. Usually it is a visual clue not auditory. I am inspired by children. The children in Corner of the Dead help save the narrator. I believe this is possible.
The next book I am working on is told from a child's perspective. Her name is Ana. Ana came to me on a five hour bus ride along the coastal desert of Peru. A little girl sat in front of me and we played hide and seek most of the bus ride. When I inhabit Ana to write her story I close my eyes and imagine this little girl and her ice cream, the sound of her voice and lovely laughter. I do not know who or where she is, but I will always remember her and that bus ride.