I didn’t know what to expect when I opened Alice Hatcher’s first novel, The Wonder That Was Ours (Dzanc, September 4). I’d read the press release telling me that the novel won Dzanc’s Prize for Fiction in 2017, that it was narrated by cockroaches, that it was about a crisis on a Caribbean island—but press releases never communicate the texture of a novel, or the experience of reading it, or how you’ll feel when it’s over. When I was finished reading, I had even more questions about Hatcher’s book. It was clear to me that the book was a knockout, that Dzanc knew what it was about in awarding the novel publication and a prize (as did the Center for Fiction, which put The Wonder That Was Ours on its longlist for the First Novel Prize), but I wanted to know so much more about the book’s origin, its author, her attitudes and her inspirations. So I asked. Alice graciously answered. -Katharine Colidiron
What was your inspiration for this novel?
The seed for the novel was a conversation with a friend working on a cruise ship. She had the depressing job of kicking disruptive passengers off the ship at the next port of call, usually belligerent drunks, people who had committed assault, or employees who’d had sex with passengers. She said her most depressing day at work involved escorting a failed suicide off the ship because the woman had violated her booking agreement by harming a passenger—herself.
As she talked about work, I had a vision of two people kicked off at the same port, in humiliating circumstances. It’s easy to assume that shared trauma creates close bonds between people, but shared trauma can push people apart, especially when they see each other as painful reminders of something they would rather forget. My novel started off as an attempt to explore the dynamic between two people with little but misery in common. Noroviruses on cruise ships happened to be in the headlines, and so I introduced a viral outbreak and quarantined the island to prevent my characters from heading to the airport and ending the novel on page ten.
How wonderful. Big ideas arising from small details, gathered together.
As for Wynston and the roaches, Helen and Dave needed to get to a hotel, and when I imagined a taxi, I flashed to a roach-infested car I once rented from a shady outfit in Miami. The roaches in that car would scuttle around behind the vents every time I started the car. They seemed agitated by certain types of music. A few times, they climbed onto the dashboard while I was driving. It was fascinating, not to mention dangerously distracting. I decided to keep the car for the week and observe them in their habitat, or my habitat, or maybe our habitat. Roaches and humans are both opportunistic species, and it’s hard to say who had greater dibs on that ruined car. The difficulty of peaceful coexistence is a prominent theme in the novel. Professor Cleave’s arguments with the roaches in his taxi begin to explore that theme.
The main scene I haven’t been able to get out of my mind is the set piece at the Plantations late in the novel. How did you write it? Did you base it on personal experience?
I wrote that scene after the massive earthquake of 2010 devastated Port-au-Prince. A day after the earthquake, as Haitians were searching for lost loved ones in the rubble, cruise ships were still docking in Haiti and conducting jet ski outings and barbeques at a walled resort guarded by armed soldiers.
I read that some passengers were horrified, but the prevailing attitude seemed to be “we’re spending money in Haiti, and we can’t do much beyond that.” Certain cruise lines donated deck chairs to the refugee camps. Enough said. I drafted the Plantations scene while people in Port-au-Prince were literally piecing their lives back together. I still feel sick thinking about it. But to be honest, the sorts of conversations that take place in the Plantations can be heard in white America’s suburbs. I based that scene on things I’ve heard all over the place.
It’s not hard to find that kind of material, I don’t think.
Sadly, the research for that scene was pretty easy to do. Once, at a cruise ship terminal in the Caribbean, I was sitting on a bench and got talking to an English woman. She remarked that she had just finished a “terribly disappointing” bus tour during which she and her husband had witnessed a local man being beaten mercilessly by six policemen with batons. As I knew, the police had been scouring the island and arresting anyone even vaguely suspected of mugging a white tourist a week before. I started explaining this to the woman, but she cut me off, saying “it completely ruined my husband’s lunch.” I told her the situation had probably ruined the lunch of the guy getting beaten, too. Just like this woman, most of the white tourists ensconced in The Plantations, the all-inclusive resort in my novel, are indifferent to the plight of St. Anne’s residents as the island enters a period of civil breakdown. They just keep drinking.
On that topic, tell me about how you squared your whiteness with the black characters and communities in the novel.
I did a great deal of hard thinking about this issue. In the end, I realized I had two choices, one of them risky and difficult, the other, grotesque and unacceptable. We’ve all read novels that present a place or culture as so much wallpaper, an exotic backdrop for the adventures or misadventures of white characters. The thought of writing a novel like that sickened me. The roach narrators might be unusual, but this is ultimately a pretty straightforward novel about the world we live in, with all its diversity. It would have been dishonest and strange to write about a Caribbean island, or any tourist destination, without writing about people who live there.
I’m sure I got certain things wrong, but a greater wrong, I feel, would have been to ignore race and other critical aspects of most people’s experiences. Ultimately, I tried to write a multi-cultural novel that registered the importance of race and class without reducing characters to sociological categories, or worse, stereotypes.