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.
I see, but I wonder how you put it into practice. At a time when Lionel Shriver blithely insists that white writers can put themselves in the voices of whatever race they want…did you worry about writing sections where you vocalize through the black characters?
I think any meaningful or productive conversation about this has to start with an acknowledgment, without hesitations or qualifications, that white authors have been appropriating stories, experiences and cultures for years—sometimes with malice, sometimes with careless indifference, and sometimes with good intentions that go awry. It’s the last bit that scares me. Writing a novel with a diverse ensemble cast, I was well aware of the limits of my own knowledge. Of course I was nervous. But I had some professional and personal experiences to lean on.
The novel was definitely shaped by my training as a historian of British imperialism. I often taught classes focused on the Atlantic slave trade and British colonialism in the Caribbean. As a historian, you need to pay close attention to what other people have written and said, and imagine the worlds and motivations of other people who might not be at all like you. We often get it wrong, but we listen, read, and imagine, knowing we’ll never fully grasp the totality of another person’s experience, or fully reconstruct a time and place.
There’s a saying: “The past is another country.” It’s true.
Like historians, good writers listen carefully and critically to what others are saying. People in this country have gotten really good at talking without listening to others, or anything that sits uncomfortably with their assumptions. Good writers break that habit. Otherwise, they get trapped in their own heads.
Can you offer an example?
The best way to get specific is to talk about Tremor. On paper, he’s very unlike me. He’s a black man who grew up in a small fishing village in the Caribbean. I’m a white woman who grew up in the Chicago suburbs. But certain experiences bridge the gap between us. For a few years, I worked jobs like Tremor’s, and I was demeaned in every sort of way by men who assumed any woman in the service sector was fair game for insult, harassment, or assault. I’ve also experienced some of the medical problems Tremor has. As an adult, I started having seizures like his. I’ll never know for sure what caused them, but I was having them while I wrote the novel. I felt the same sort of panic and terror Tremor does, the same sort of rage and post-traumatic flashbacks.
Finally, I grew up with a father like Tremor’s, and I was afraid every day. Like Tremor, I did some really impulsive things for immediate relief, or to escape a hopeless situation. Tremor makes some bad decisions, but I always understood why he was making them. I got to the core of his psyche, where most of the drama in literary fiction takes place.
Still, there’s so much I don’t understand about Tremor. On some basic level, I don’t understand the first thing about being black in the United States or the Caribbean or anywhere else. I can only say that I understand Tremor. I hope I’m not evading the question or offering up some half-assed theory about understanding people as individuals, which in my view, is an impossibility, given the climate in this country and the reality that we operate on a playing field overwhelmingly defined by and for whites. I just want to explain how I ended up feeling like I was in any position to write about a guy like Tremor. Maybe it’s accurate to say that I loved him without fully knowing him.
I wish writers could have more often the sort of conversation we’re having here, without speaking categorically or abstractly. I understand the anger people have when someone claims their story and profits by its telling, especially if the story is told in an insulting way. My goal was always to be respectful. I’m obviously close to my work, so other people will need to judge the degree to which I succeeded.
Do you consider this a political novel?
The main conflicts in the novel arise from social and racial inequalities fostered by certain forms of economic development. All-inclusive resorts and cruise ships don’t exactly foster healthy forms of cross-cultural exchange. If anything, they reinforce Americans’, usually white Americans’, expectations of servility in others. Also, cruise ships do incredible damage to the environment, and climate change is hitting the poorest people on this planet the hardest. I grew up idolizing Jacques Cousteau, and I’m sickened by what cruise ships are doing to human communities and fragile ecosystems. They’re floating shopping malls spewing filth into the ocean. If the novel is political, it’s because the roaches question humans’ treatment of each other and the environment.
What’s the political posture of the book? I feel like the cockroaches are out-and-out communists, but their viewpoint is not necessarily what the book endorses.
I’m smiling at the thought of communist roaches. To use the language of the McCarthy hearings, the roaches are not, nor have they ever been, members of the Communist Party. They’re conscientious objectors in the most generalized sense. The roaches have been around for millennia, and they’ve witnessed far too many atrocities committed in the name of just about every ideology you can name, from communism to free-market capitalism, to feel anything but suspicious of dogma. They’ve been menaced by every sort of human, from Stalin to American sweatshop managers.
The roaches naturally act en masse. If anything, they’re perplexed by manifestos that outline steps to living collectively. If their views can be summed up—and I don’t have the collective intelligence they do, so I might get this wrong—they practice a radical form of empathy and compassion enabled by hyper-sensitized antennae. They sometimes get disheartened by the greed-heads hell-bent on hoarding every last crumb on Earth. As the cockroaches point out, there should be enough garbage to go around.
Are the cockroaches protagonists?
That’s a hard question. If we think of the protagonist as the driving force behind the action, the question gets complicated by the limits of individual agency. We’re all trying to steer the ship, but to some degree, powerful social and cultural currents end up setting our course.
I think of Wynston as the main character and Tremor as the protagonist, even though Tremor’s choices are seriously circumscribed. As for the cockroaches, they observe more than influence events, and yet they are characters. They have an arc. Witnessing a death forces them to confront their own limitations and failings. They need to figure out how to survive in an alienating environment.
Did you have the literary techniques like parallelism, binary oppositions, et cetera in mind as you wrote?
There are parallels and instances of mirroring throughout the novel. The mirroring emerged from my subconscious, at first, and then it became more intentional. The first time I used mirroring was when Helen, a white tourist, first meets Tremor, a bellboy delivering something to her room. When Helen meets Tremor, she’s sickened by the scars on his arms. He interprets her recoil as evidence of condescension. In fact, she’s horrified by his arms because they show her what her own arms will look like when they heal. He doesn’t know this because she’s wearing a long-sleeved sweater to disguise fresh stitches.
I first wrote that scene as an exercise. I was in an early stage of drafting, and I wanted to get to know Helen by watching her react to a stranger. I wanted to explore her state of mind when she’s reeling from being kicked off a cruise ship. But when Helen opened the door, my heart skipped a beat. I saw Tremor down to the last detail. I could smell his cologne. At the time, I didn’t know his backstory, and I can’t say exactly why I imagined him with scars. Maybe I just wanted to push Helen as far as I could.
Then, I realized Tremor’s scars could condition readers to recognize the similarities, and not simply the differences, between Tremor and Helen. Once I recognized the uses of mirroring, I did it more intentionally, to draw connections between characters and hint at psychic transformations.
The acknowledgments and other material indicate this book has been a long time coming.
I always knew I wanted to write fiction, but for a variety of reasons, mainly fear of failure, I hung out in the ivory tower far longer than I probably should have. In my History Ph.D. Program, I gained the self-discipline I needed to write a novel. Writing lectures as a professor, I learned a great deal about structuring narratives. Still, I felt a glass of ice water in the face when I left the academy and sat down to draft a novel. I quickly realized I had no idea how to write fiction. Most people have cringe moments. I have cringe years.
I ended up taking classes at the Writers Studio, where I thought about narrative voice for the first time. I also took classes with Meg Files, a great teacher, at Pima Community College. She made all her students start at the intro level, which was for the best. I’d never even heard of “frame stories.” I hunched over my desk and wrote down every word she said. I must have been that freaky student who seems a little too intense, but my learning curve was steep.
How are you coping with your novel’s arrival in the world?
Coping? Not much. I stumbled through the whole process, feeling pretty anxious the whole way. I learned to write a novel by writing a novel, and I published the novel without an agent. How I got here is still a mystery. So, I’m in shock. But clearly, I owe a lot to Dzanc Books. It’s been great working with an indie press, and especially with Michelle Dotter, Dzanc’s editor. I’ve never felt lost in the shuffle there, and I’ve gotten great feedback on my writing. So, I’m stunned and mainly grateful. The cockroaches are grateful, too.
Interviewed by Katharine Coldiron