Bearing Witness: Writer Bob Shacochis

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Haiti market (photo: Kent MacElwee, Creative Commons license)

The seed of Bob Shacochis’s second novel was planted during an encounter with a woman in a bar in Haiti. She asked whether he knew a voodoo priest because she had lost her soul. Shacochis is interviewed in the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Glimmer Train. His novels are Swimming in the Volcano (a finalist for the 1993 National Book Award) and The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, published in 2013 and a 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist. Possibly you know him for five years of “Dining In” columns for GQ. Now he also teaches at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Shacochis grew up “in a very politicized world inside the (Washington) Beltway,” which must have confined his spirit like a too-tight corset, because what he most liked to read as a boy were National Geographic and books about traveling to different countries around the world. He says his writing remains an amalgam of “a kid’s curiosity about the outside world, and then the inside world of power and humanity and fallibility.” Whether America declines in power and influence or rises to new levels, literature needs to document its progress, and his books attempt to accomplish this feat. As he said in an NPR interview, he wants “to make Americans have a more visceral feeling about how America impacts everybody in the world.” A role of fiction is, thus, to bear witness to the exercise of power.

At the same time, he says, the nation’s myths need to be updated and made relevant to new generations facing what seems to be an endless cycle of vengeance and wars. The myths that shape us—like the myths of the Glorious Revolution, of the American West, of The Right Stuff astronauts, of the Silicon Valley pioneers—can be recast through fiction. Says Shacochis, “in order to have an engaged experience with our culture in the years ahead, writers need to be able to move throughout and chronicle the spectrum of art, and politics, and history.” It goes without saying that he is a strong believer in context; as context changes, myths evolve. He quotes his fellow author Jim Harrison as saying, “There are no old myths. There are just new people.”

The central theme of Swimming in the Volcano, he says, is an attempt to answer the question, “where does hate begin?” and its epigraph is a quote from Charles Newman: “Forgiveness is based on the fact that there is no adequate form of revenge.” The Woman Who Lost Her Soul starts with a different question, “where does hate end?” The principal character is initially not particularly likeable, but Shacochis hopes he’s succeeded in the daunting task of enabling his character to change enough that readers, by the end of the book, forgive her and let hate go. To do that, his story crosses continents and generations. (Read an excerpt here).

It’s interesting to contemplate what Shacochis’s approach to teaching might be, because, when asked whether writing his first novel taught him something that helped in writing the second, 20 years later, Shacochis said, “the thing that writing one novel teaches you is that writing a novel is a long haul and a lot of work.” The interviewer tried again, asking whether his books of short stories prepared him for writing his first novel, and Shacochis gave his most curmudgeonly reply of the interview: “I don’t think they taught me a damn thing, just like having an affair doesn’t teach you about marriage.”