Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Interview with Author Tess Callahan

   Today, as part of Hearts, Flowers, Romance, Tess Callahan is here to share her most romantic memory- one that will have you all swooning and itching to pick up her debut, April and Oliver. 

GC: April is a very sad character, with such a terrible past, do you believe that love redeemed her, or that she found her own path to salvation in the end?

TC: I like this question because I have to think about it. In a way, the answer is both. What redeems April from her hurtful past is her openness to grace. She is fortunate to have two people who care for her, her grandmother and Oliver. But being loved isn’t enough to bring about transcendence; she has to be able to receive it. For change to happen, she must be open to the ways in which love wants to alter her, to reconstruct her ideas of what feels normal, and attune her to the quiet, interim moments of her life, the touch of a breeze, the pause in a conversation. You could say this love manifests itself in her relationship to Oliver, but it’s even closer than that. It’s in the background sounds outside her apartment, the sparrows and the trains. It’s in the cool air on her face and the smell of rain. And yes, it’s in Oliver’s expression when he looks at her. Her courage in slowly letting herself experience these moments leads her, step by step, out of her abyss.

    GC: Grief and love are two heady emotions that plagued April and Oliver throughout their entire lives, do you believe they always knew they belonged together, and didn’t deserve the other, or do you think they grew into their love because of the path their lives took?

TC: Grief and love are part of the fabric of any human life. As the book opens, April and Oliver have a rather fixed notion of one another based on the memory of their childhood, the affection and the grief. They project onto one another some unnameable, lost sensibility from their past. Eventually, through their conversations, arguments, and even their silences, they begin to have an authentic experience of the people they have each become. It’s a tumultuous relationship, but it’s real. They belong to each other in the same way trees belong to earth; that is, without ownership. The idea that they don’t deserve each other is just another defense mechanism, a deliberate obfuscation to shield them from the corrosive power of love. Corrosive in the best sense of the word.

GC: Where did the names for your characters come from? You have such great taste! 

TC: April’s name came to me in the first draft, as if she announced it. As she states in the novel, she was named for the month she was born in, a kind of dated-received stamp. Oliver had many names in many drafts, all sophisticated names to reflect his character, but eventually “Oliver” felt right because of the internal alliteration with April’s name. I liked the liquid consonant sounds of the “r” and the “l” in April and Oliver.

GC: What is next for you as a writer?

TC: While living and working in China, I met many fascinating Chinese, as well as long-term expatriates intent on escaping their cultures and their pasts. These are the eclectic characters who inspire the novel I am currently writing, which is set in China during the Tiananmen protests of 1989.

GC: And finally, since this is an event to celebrate Love, would you share your most romantic memory, or share a story that epitomizes ‘Love’ for you?

TC: My notions of “love” and “romance” are different but overlapping. The essence of love, to my mind, was described perfectly in your recent interview with author Rachel Vail. She describes sitting in a hospital room with her husband awaiting news about their young son: “In the midst of this life we’re living together filled to the brim with wit, opinions, wisdom, and laughter, we had no words, and no need for words.”  The shared silence she describes, built on years of trust and companionship, says everything about love.

Romance is a different animal. While love is steady and sustaining, romance is about an idealized moment that seems to lift us out of reality. But when I was a young woman traveling in Poland, I had a romantic experience that was redemptive. I was in the middle of a six month soul searching trip through Europe and Asia.  I was traveling with big, unnameable questions, and no answers. Before leaving the States, a friend suggested I visit a concentration camp during my journey. He said it would change my life, as it had his. I wasn’t sure I had the strength for it, but I trusted my friend, so on this particular autumn day in Krakow, I visited Auschwitz. I won’t write about what I saw there because it is well documented. Suffice it to say I was obliterated, swept from my stem like seeds from a shaft of wheat. By the time I left the camp, there was nothing left of me. Even though I had read about the camps in books, being there had an altering effect down to the cellular level.

That night, I went out with some friends. It didn’t matter that I was incapable of speech; we went to a noisy dungeon-like place with dancing and music so loud that no one could be heard. I drank a few sips of the hot, mulled wine that was served there, and felt a tap on my shoulder. A young Polish man with a faint beard and a gentle gaze motioned to the dance floor. When our eyes met, there was instant recognition. He spoke no English, and I no Polish, but we knew each other. On the dance floor, he held me like someone he’d missed for all eternity. With our bodies pressed, he took my sorrow into himself. He made of himself a reservoir to hold my unspeakable grief. I thought of the people who never left Auschwitz, some of them young women my age, with young men they loved and would never see again. On this day, decades later, I had walked out of the camp with my body intact and my loved ones alive. Now I was dancing with this man with the soft beard and warm hands. We danced all night, and in his embrace I felt complete surrender. I was his. I was nobody’s. I was wheat blowing on the wind. When he motioned for us to leave, my friends nervously came over and pulled us apart. “You must leave her now,” said my friend in Polish. “She’s not herself tonight. She’s all broken.”

It was true I was broken, but so was he, and the pieces of our brokenness had fit together. In that moment on the dance floor, we were whole. In retrospect, I know he was a real person, but I think of him as an angel who helped me begin to absorb my sadness that night and be grateful for life. For that, I will always be grateful to the man whose name I never knew.

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