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Stephen Dau: The Powells.com Interview

Stephen DauStephen Dau's The Book of Jonas is a marvelous, lyrical debut that examines the effects of war on everyone involved. Dau weaves together the stories of Jonas, a teenage refugee from an unnamed Muslim country who comes to live in Pittsburgh after American soldiers destroy his village, Christopher, a missing American soldier who may have helped save Jonas's life, and Rose, Christopher's mother, who is searching for answers about her son. Jean Thompson, author of The Year We Left Home, raved, "The Book of Jonas is a vivid portrait of a distant war we might scarcely be able to imagine. It challenges our assumptions about the survivors of war, and about guilt, justice, and memory. This is first-rate, original, powerful storytelling." We were so moved by Dau's storytelling, we chose The Book of Jonas as Volume 32 for Indiespensable.

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Jill Owens: What inspired The Book of Jonas?

Stephen Dau: It draws its inspiration from a couple of different things. Part of it is that, for a little while, I worked with people who had lived through a war. So, I had an interest in what that does to people, and how people respond to it.

It's gone pretty far beyond what I'm about to say, but if I had to trace it to one specific incident, there was a press conference that George Bush gave in 2003, if I remember correctly. It was right after the invasion of Iraq. One of the reporters asked him how many innocent civilians had been killed in Iraq. He looked at the guy who asked the question and said, "Oh, I think it's around 30,000," as if he was reciting a bowling score.One of the reporters asked him how many innocent civilians had been killed in Iraq. He looked at the guy who asked the question and said, "Oh, I think it's around 30,000," as if he was reciting a bowling score.

I remember thinking to myself at that time, "Someone has got to tell one of their stories." That was what sparked it. Since then, it's gone far beyond that. But his response to that question triggered a pretty visceral reaction. It wasn't just against that comment; it was against the lack of understanding of what war costs in human terms — not just on his part, but at that time, it seemed, on everyone's part. Having had this tiny bit of experience with people who had lived through that, in a different context, I thought, this needs to be explored and talked about. When you make the decision to go off to war, you're making a decision that's going to affect, in this case, literally millions of lives. You don't take it lightly. And I felt like he was taking it lightly at that point.

Jill: I read that you worked in the Balkans, postwar; is that what you're referring to here?

Dau: Yes, I did. I worked for an aid organization, and in that context I spent a very little bit of time in Sarajevo, right after the war, in 1997 or 1998. It was a short period of time that I was there, but it made a really big impact on me, in terms of what you miss when you depend on the news for your information, and how much more wide-ranging people's situations and lives are than the little tidbits you get.

So, probably the two things taken together sparked an interest that was enough for me to write a book. Since then, it grew to encompass a lot more than that. But if I had to trace it back to one specific thing, that would probably be it.

Jill: I was wondering after I read about your postwar work whether you saw a bit of yourself in the volunteer that Jonas talks to at the beginning of the novel.

Dau: Yes, I think so, probably in terms of his cluelessness and naiveté. [Laughter] That pretty much described me at that time. There are certainly portions of that.

But I think like any writer, there are portions of myself in almost every one of the characters.

Jill: Why did you decide not to name the country Jonas was from, especially since you do name the places that other characters, like Hakma and Shakri, are from?

Dau: There was a lot of thought that went into that decision. I wavered back and forth between the potential of naming it as a place and the potential of leaving it unnamed. I finally decided that the book gained more by leaving it unnamed for two reasons.

One of them is very practical: I didn't feel like I knew any one place well enough to stick a flag in the ground and say, "This is where Jonas is from." If you do that, everyone who's been there, and everyone who lives there currently, will inevitably have more information about that place than you do, especially if it's some place you've just visited. You have to get it exactly, absolutely right, and I didn't feel like I knew any plausible place well enough to be able to get it that right.

The other, and probably more important, reason for leaving it vague is the fact that this is a story that could have happened in lots and lots of different places. It plausibly could have happened in many different places.

At the same time I was doing that, I felt like I needed a counterbalance, so when Jonas comes to Pittsburgh, that's a place I know very well, having grown up there and spending the first 24 years of my life there. I felt like I could write about that practically in my sleep. I know that it's a fictionalized version of Pittsburgh, but it rings true. It feels right to me. I felt like the book needed that counterbalance of someplace concrete and real against this place that was vague and impressionistic and undefined.

Jill: It makes sense, too, because Pittsburgh is Jonas's present, but his country is his past, being remembered through the haziness of memory.

Dau: Yes, absolutely.

Jill: How much research did you do for this book?

Dau: It feels like a lot. [Laughter] But I don't really know. I would just do research as it came up. If I had a question, I'd either look it up or I'd talk to people. I did the research as a part of the writing, rather than something separate from it. So, for me the work was all tied up in the same bundle. The writing of it goes along with the research of it which goes along with the rewriting of it in this effort to try and get it to look like what I wanted it to look like.

Jill: Somehow, I had never really thought about the fact that there are programs like the one Jonas is in, for refugee children from countries that we are at war with to come live with host families in the United States.

Dau: Yes. Just before I come out to Portland to see you all in March, there's an organization in Southern California, Los Angeles and San Diego, called Adventures by the Book. We're going to do a reading at the International Rescue Committee, which is an organization that does work very much like the organization in the novel. They bring in refugees that have sought asylum status here, and give them job training and place them as best they can. I'm still learning about the work they're doing, but it's fantastic. I knew there were other organizations doing this kind of thing, but here's this really concrete example you can point to and say, "yes, that's exactly what they do." There are a number of others. There are a lot of religious organizations that do similar types of work, too. There are a couple of Quaker organizations, and I don't know if they do work similar to this, and they're a faith-based organization, but they really keep the faith part out of it, for the most part, and they do a lot of international charitable work. The organization in the book is fictional, but it's based on these sorts of organizations.

Jill: Jonas's first impressions of the United States and his host family are really fascinating and perceptive, in an anthropological way. How did you get into that mindset?

Dau: Part of it is because I live outside of the United States. I've lived outside the U.S. for almost eight years now. Even before that, I'd lived outside the U.S. periodically. This is the longest stint I've done, but ever since I left for the first time when I was 24, I've had the urge every two years to leave. I can handle living in the U.S. for about two years, and then I have to get out again.

In doing that, I guess I have the experience of coming to other countries as an outsider and what that's like. There's the language barrier. There's how do you get around, where do you get food, how do you rent an apartment, and all the stuff that goes into all those things, the basic stuff that you need. You definitely think about that stuff when you're in the U.S., but it doesn't present the same kind of logistical challenges. When you've just arrived in a country, you have to figure all that out for yourself.

So, I've got that little bit of experience, but also when I go back to the U.S. now, either the country has changed enough or I have changed enough that I perceive differences between visits. I perceive how things have changed. I think if you pay attention, you get that anyway, but when I get off a plane in the U.S. now, it takes me a solid week to readjust. It's almost like coming to a foreign country.when I get off a plane in the U.S. now, it takes me a solid week to readjust. It's almost like coming to a foreign country. Not quite, but almost.

Jill: Jonas has a strong sense of duality; he has two names (Younis and Jonas), and he has two competing existences, his memories and his current life. What interested you about the idea of not being fully one thing or another?

Dau: I think on the one side, there's the experience I have not living in one place. That's part of it. But beyond that, there's this human need, or tendency, to categorize people. It strikes me that the U.S. is particularly good at doing this, at fitting people into boxes. It felt very important to me that the characters break out of these boxes. One way of doing that was having them inhabit multiple boxes at the same time. This is certainly true in Jonas's case, but I think it's true for the other characters as well.

Categorization, when it comes to people, is a kind of human evasion. It's a method of applying shorthand to someone so that you don't then have to think about their humanity beyond that category anymore. I think the duality that you're talking about goes to the heart of trying to keep these people out of boxes.

Jill: Christopher is obviously a good example of that, too.

Dau: Right, because he doesn't fit that stereotype. Rose is, as well. One of my favorite sayings is, As soon as you generalize, you're wrong — [Laughter] which is itself a generalization. But it applies. Generalization removes the specifics of a given situation, and any situation by definition is specific. All the duality in the book is a way of trying to break out of these categorizations that can be very damaging.

Jill: Were the characters of Christopher or Rose based on anyone in particular, or any cases in the media?

Dau: Maybe, but very, very loosely. I think the characters drew inspiration from a lot of places. Again, there's a little bit of myself in Christopher, who grew up in the same place I did; his childhood and background is very much mine. I've gotten a chance to talk to some soldiers who've been in Iraq or Afghanistan, and speaking of categories — they always impressed the hell out of me by not fitting into categories or stereotypes. The guys I've talked to have been, for the most part, incredibly thoughtful about what they're doing.

There was the case a few years ago of a soldier named Pat Tillman, who was an NFL player. There's a lot of controversy about how he died, and what exactly happened. Part of it was that he kept a journal, which they either haven't been able to find, or... I'm not saying that Christopher's based on him at all, but I'm sure that sparked something. The fact that he had this journal certainly got me interested in having that as a device in the novel.

Jill: How did you decide to structure the book the way you did, with sections like "Processional," "Invocation," "Remembrance," "Communion"? Are they part of a church service?

Dau: That's exactly what it is. Someone told me one time they thought that it reminded them of a Catholic mass. I was brought up Presbyterian, and so for me it reminds me of a Presbyterian church service.

I think as I was writing the book, I started to see it as sort of a prayer.I think as I was writing the book, I started to see it as sort of a prayer. The religious imagery that's in there also flowed out of that. The idea of sacrifice flowed out of that. The section titles flowed out of that. That's the best explanation I can give for it; I came to see it over the course of writing it as a sort of prayer.

Jill: Did you find that structuring it that way affected the pacing at all?

Dau: A little bit, but the great thing was that I felt I could adjust the pacing of each section as necessary. If you look at a program for a church service, you can see one section that's really tiny, and then another section that's a huge long list of readings, and then another smaller part. The sections expand to accommodate the content, basically. With the pacing, I think it was the same thing. It was a structure that was flexible enough to allow me to change the pacing where it needed it, to speed it up in places and slow it down in places, but still allow it to have structure.

I feel like I'm giving away all my secrets. [Laughter]

Jill: Oh, I'm sorry. [Laughter]

Dau: I actually really like to talk about it, because I haven't had a chance to talk about it at all, so it's fun.

Jill: As he's talking to Rose, Jonas thinks that it's nearly impossible to tell a true story. He's crafting his story because he wants Rose to feel something, to understand. Is that something you think about as you write?

Dau: Absolutely. I think the first time you write a first draft, you're thinking about how it makes you feel, as a writer. And when you're going through and doing revisions, you're thinking about how this is going to make someone else feel. You do the first draft for you, and the revisions and rewriting for everybody else. I don't know if that's true or not for everyone, but it feels true for me. You're trying to tell the best story you possibly can.

This is one of the reasons I'm always hesitant to answer your first question about what inspired this novel, because immediately, as soon as I talk about the Bush press conference, people will think, Oh, it's a political book. It belies the fact that I don't consider myself a particularly political person, and I don't think of this book as a particularly political book. As soon as you start thinking in those terms, you're screwed. You're getting away from trying to tell a good story, which is what you're trying to do. The politics should fall to the side.

The only thing that matters is trying to tell the best story that you can, given the characters that you have. At a certain point, it becomes up to the characters. If you're injecting politics into it, forget it. I think you're lost. It's about characters, the decisions they make, whether or not they take responsibility for those decisions. It's about them and their development, and the politics should just fall to the side.

Jill: You know, I'm realizing as you're saying this that I interview a lot of fiction writers, but with your book and with Running the Rift, which was our last Indiespensable selection and was about the genocide in Rwanda...

Dau: I have to read that book. I haven't read it yet, but I really want to read it soon.

Jill: It's wonderful. I've asked both of you, far more than I usually do, questions about whether particular elements are based in reality. But as you were just saying, obviously this is just as much a work of fiction as anything else, so I'm noticing my own bias, a bit, here.

Dau: That makes sense. When you create a work of fiction, you're creating an object. I think of it a little bit like sculpture, which might sound really strange, but you're adding things up at the beginning. You're writing a first draft and you're piling on as much as you can. Then you're refining it and taking away, and you're trying to get it to look like what you want it to look like at the end. And you're creating an object that has to exist outside of that specific political time. People are going to read it, hopefully, not just at the time that it's being created.

Jill: Another thing I like about this book is its concern with the unreliability of memory. Jonas and Christopher and everyone, really, are shaping their own narratives very explicitly.

Dau: I think memory is absolutely fascinating, and I think the different ways of communicating memory and communicating how unreliable it is are interesting. I have memories from my childhood, which I think most people have, that are just sort of flashes of images and poignant moments that stand out, or shocking moments that stand out. You've got these filed away, but the very act of trying to access them changes them.

I guess a simple example might be a movie that you remember seeing as a kid, and you remember it as a fantastic movie, and you remember specific scenes. Then, you see it again 10 or 15 years later, and it's completely different. It's nothing like what you remembered it was. It's this communication that your brain has with reality that forms your memories. That whole process is fascinating. And then how any traumatic incident can mess with that — I think that's fascinating as well.

My mother and my stepfather are both family therapists, so my sister and I say we've been on the couch since we were three years old. [Laughter] We're very used to talking about memory and experiences. I think all that interest is rolled into those reminiscences on the parts of the characters.

Jill: Speaking of that, Jonas's relationship with Paul, his therapist, is a big part of the novel. How did you decide to include that kind of relationship?

Dau: Well, as I said, I've been around therapists my whole life, so that's part of it. Also, in a very practical way, it provided a method through which Jonas would be forced to access his experiences. It felt like that was an important piece to have in there.

You do all this stuff by feel, you know? Even down to the sentence level — that looks right, or that word is right, that word isn't — and you just go over and over it again. Eventually you get it to look right. And that relationship just felt like the right thing to have in there.

There's the legalistic aspect; the school was afraid of getting sued, so they're going to mandate something. They're going to tell him he has to get counseling. That's a legalistic measure the school can take to protect itself. But it also provides an access to Jonas's story.

Jill: I was going to ask about your writing on the sentence level, because we (myself and some of my coworkers) found it so striking. It's spare and lyrical at the same time.

Dau: Thank you. That means a lot that you say that, because I think I still have a whole lot to learn in terms of writing good sentences. [Laughter] I wouldn't do this if I didn't love language, and love words. I always have. I love putting together sentences, and I love trying to get the sentences to match up with the images in my head.

It's like the definition of insanity, isn't it? You sit in a room all day and look at images in your head and try to depict them accurately. [Laughter] It really is.

I've always liked playing with words, and getting them to mean multiple things at the same time. But there are some phenomenal writers on the sentence level that I think, Man, if I could write a sentence like that!

Jill: Like who?

Dau: Michael Ondaatje is absolutely fantastic at it. Amy Hempel, who was one of my teachers at Bennington. You look at her sentences, and you just think, holy shit. [Laughter] Aleksandar Hemon absolutely must be mentioned. I had another teacher when I was at Pitt named Gary Lutz, who was wonderful. At the sentence level, these are amazing, amazing writers.

I feel like I've got content, I've got subject, but I don't feel like I'm a particularly good sentence-maker. I love doing it, but I don't know.I feel like I've got content, I've got subject, but I don't feel like I'm a particularly good sentence-maker. I love doing it, but I don't know.

Jill: Even though I said I should stop asking you if things are based in reality, I did wonder about the lioness and the gazelle, because that was such a striking image.

Dau: That is an absolutely one-hundred-percent-true story.

Jill: Wow.

Dau: It was on a BBC documentary that I saw. Obviously, I've adjusted it somewhat; the setting is different. But there was a wildlife biologist in Africa who had been tracking a pack of lions, and there was a male lion which had killed one of the lioness's cubs and had also killed the mother of this gazelle. And the lioness and gazelle adopted each other. It remains to this day among the most moving things I've ever seen in my life.

Jill: What are you reading and enjoying, these days?

Dau: I'm not reading as much as I should be. My wife and I have a three-year-old daughter, and she takes up a lot of time. I feel like I have a choice between writing and reading, and I generally opt to write rather than read because it feels more productive to me. [Laughter]

Jill: What are you working on, then?

Dau: I'm working on a couple of things, but I don't know what they are yet. [Laughter] They're all too early in the process — a couple of short stories, an essay or two, and what I think is going to be a novel, but it's so early that I don't know. I have no idea what it's going to look like even a month or two down the road. But there's a lot of stuff on the burner.

As far as reading goes, probably the book I read most recently was Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table.

Jill: I haven't read it yet; it's been sitting on my desk for a few months.

Dau: Oh, it's great. Anything he writes is fantastic. If I have a living literary hero, it's him. I just think he's amazing.

The first book I ever read by him was Running in the Family, which was his memoir. My wife is half Sri Lankan and half English, and she gave it to me just before we went to Sri Lanka to get married. The whole thing is set in Sri Lanka. I had never read a book and then gone somewhere and felt like I had been there already. It was an amazing experience. I'm sure that's the main reason I like that book so much, because of that association that I have with it. But now I've read all his other books, and he's fantastic.

I spoke to Stephen Dau by phone from his home in Brussels on February 8, 2012.

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