Talking with Jonathan Weisman (Philippines 1988-90)

Jonathan Weisman (Philippines 1988-90) is the Washington based economic policy reporter for The New York Times.  He has also worked for the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal , and USA Today. Now he has written a novel, No. 4 Imperial Lane.

What was you college background and reasons for joining the Peace Corps?

I went to Northwestern University with a year abroad at the University of Sussex, double majoring in journalism and history with a concentration in Africa and the Middle East. I was torn in those years between my love of old-fashioned newspaper writing and my interest in economic development. I actually had been thinking of the Peace Corps for years — I had a romantic vision of myself in an arid village in the Sahel struggling against the elements. But in the end, I applied more to use it as a tie breaker. My experience in the Peace Corps would either hook me on development for life or send me back to journalism, perhaps as a foreign correspondent, far more jaundiced by my exposure to the developing world.

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When did you go and what were your many countries of assignment?

My Peace Corps experience was atypical to say the least. At the time I applied, I was dating a woman who was interested in Third World development as well, so she sent in her application. To our surprise, we were both accepted at the same time; she was to go to Tunisia; I to Togo. I was thrilled, but we both realized the separation would likely doom our relationship, and in the most impulsive move of my life, we decided to marry and reapply. This time, we were accepted as a couple and assigned to the Cape Verde Islands, Cape Verde I, the first Peace Corps Volunteers in what had been a Soviet client state. That was spring of 1988. Our training would begin that July in Guinea-Bissau, another former Portuguese colony and Soviet client and another country that was seeing its first Volunteers.

While we were training, the Cape Verdean government realized its request for doctors, city planners and agronomists had turned up a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears college grads. They were not happy. Before they signed the final country agreement, they cut the first contingent in half, and my wife and I found ourselves without an assignment. We were given a choice: Stay in Guinea-Bissau or try our luck elsewhere. It was my wife who decided to leave. Initially we were offered a post in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. We were to fly directly there, with only a cursory training. Peace Corps/Washington got word of this and said no way is a couple going to drop into such an assignment without proper warning. Apparently, it was to be a very dangerous posting, inaccessible by road, with a tribe known for rape. We went back to Washington, got our briefing, and still were willing, but the Australian administrator responsible for insuring that we would have a house with concrete walls and a dead-bolt lock had quit. Peace Corps decided they could not guarantee our safety, and we were sent to the Philippines.

I would never complain about all that. Our posting there was in the mountains of Northern Luzon, with the Ifugao, an upland tribe struggling with modernity.

Jonathan in Ifugao, 1990

Jonathan in Northern Luzon, 1990

It was a fantastic experience, but that too was cut short. In 1990, the Peace Corps was evacuated from the Philippines, ostensibly because the State Department had intercepted a communique from the communist New Peoples Army that the guerrillas would begin targeting Volunteers. We actually asked for a new assignment, but with the first Gulf War looming, so many Volunteers were being pulled from countries in the Middle East and North Africa that we were told, you’ve had your two years. Please, get on with your life.

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When you got back from the Philippines what was next for you?

In part because of our abrupt departure, I made my decision: journalism. I had figured Peace Corps would end with me still abroad. Instead, it ended suddenly with a debriefing at the University of Hawaii and a ticket to Atlanta. Our grand, post-service travel plans were dashed. Foreign correspondence seemed impossible, development a bit of a racket.  We drove to Washington to use the Peace Corps’ job placement office; I found a reporting position quickly in Washington, at a little newspaper called Education Week, and I have been in the newspaper world ever since.

no-4-imperial-laneNow let’s talk about your novel, No. 4 Imperial Lane.

One of Henry James’ contributions to fiction, as you know, is in his use of point-of-view. For example, much of the fiction of the nineteenth century had the author as the storyteller, and the author would create scenes in which certain characters would be involved, but each scene would not necessarily have the same characters in them. In James’ fiction, we have the central character of the novel, and it is as though the central character were telling the story because we see or hear about all events through him. Now in your novel you break point-of-view, which many writers do today. I am curious how you came to this decision to write separate stories from separate points-of-view, and then add letters from one character to the other, linking their stories.

There were numerous revisions to the novel before the version you read, but from the beginning, my intention was to have two distinct points of view: A first-person view from the perspective of an aimless college student refusing to return to the life he was born to, and a far grander view, told in third person, that would sweep across continents, tell of war, history and the dissolution of empire. That section was to be Elizabeth’s story, but her story-telling was to be implied, not explicit. I added a scattering of dialogue in Elizabeth’s voice to make that clear. I was worried for a time that readers would question Elizabeth’s ability to tell such a story and flirted with David telling it as a history graduate student later in life. In the end, I believe my approach worked.

The letters actually were a bit of a cheat. Hans is obviously the most compelling character in the novel, a dying quadriplegic and fallen aristocrat slowly warming to his American helpmate. But between David’s narrative and Elizabeth’s story, I realized a reader was going to want to know what Hans was doing while his sister was progressing through Africa. I already had two alternating and parallel stories in two different times, late-’80s Britain and early-’70s Africa. I thought that an entirely new story, young Hans in Paris, would be too confusing, not to mention I did not think I could convincingly capture early-’70s Paris. The letters served two purposes — to give readers a glimpse of Hans at that time and to contrast his relationship with his sister then to the distant and fraught relationship they have in the David narrative.

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A number of reviews have spoken about your novel as being three novels in one. No. 4 is rather ambitious attempt by you, as a first time novelists, and impressive. What was your thinking in developing the plot this way? For example, did you cobble together the three separate plots — or stories — to create a world view of that time and period?

I have been pleasantly surprised at the response to the novel’s complexity, but honestly, I didn’t see it as particularly groundbreaking. Much of the story of David and Hans is an idealized account of an experience I really had, caring for a quadriplegic in Brighton, England, in a year off between my junior and senior years. I did live with a fallen aristocrat and his alcoholic sister. How these two people came to their decrepit state was left to my imagination, and as I thought of fictionalizing it, I always intended to go back and forth in time, like Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Every Is Illuminated, and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose.

The working title of the novel was Empires End, and I hoped to portray one dead empire, Britain, just as it was beginning to redefine itself in more humble but still distinctive terms, and another empire, Portugal, in its last days.

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Readers seem to respond positively to the African material, saying that they learned a great deal about this historical moment which was not important to America at the time. Now, I’m a great fan of “novels of information” (James Mitchener was famous for this kind of book —  you came away from one of his novels knowing you had learned something while reading an interesting story). Was this “novels of information” part of your thinking in writing No.4 or just a result of your years of journalism?

Ha, this question gets to a sensitive point. Yes, I think my journalism informed the Africa sections a lot. I read turgid, out-of-print books on Portuguese counterinsurgency strategy, mined old news accounts of Angola’s collapse, and spent hours on YouTube. Just as the Vietnam war played out nightly on American televisions, the Portuguese wars in Africa were on the nightly news in Lisbon. I learned — with the help of a Brazilian au pair — that I could find amazing news accounts and war footage by searching YouTube in Portuguese. Former Portuguese residents of cities like Luanda and Nova Lisboa assembled sad elegies to their abandoned homes.

In the original drafts, I had much longer asides on the wars in Angola and Guinea-Bissau, the way they developed and the way they were fought. My editor at Hachette felt that the sections slowed the narrative, and they were cut back a lot. I imagine someday releasing a director’s cut. And I too love reading books that delve into little-explored corners of history.  Every sentence can be a revelation.

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For me, the most interesting and realized character is Hans. You have created a wonderful character in him. Elizabeth is the second most. Then her daughter, Cristina. David is the least interesting. Do you think this is because David — in the first person — is telling the story? He seems to be walking through the pages of the novel. There isn’t much conflict within him, though he reports on the conflicts within his American family and the people around him.

You are not the first person to tell me this, and it doesn’t surprise me. I think I first viewed David as a vehicle to tell the story of Hans and Elizabeth. He was like the crotchety narrator and historian in Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. In fact, most of the major revisions were done to humanize David.  I filled out some of the women characters like Cristina and Maggie because initially their thinness — Cristina was merely an object of lust, Maggie someone to hang out with — reflected poorly on David’s view of women. I added the story of David’s dead sister to give him a more concrete reason for refusing to return home, and finally I layered on the last love story to give his story an arc. Obviously for you, it didn’t quite work, but I take the criticism. If the larger themes of the book are imperial decline and personal rebirth from that, David is less central to that narrative. He might have suffered from that.

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That said, I actually find the story of David’s home life and his sister’s death moving, even if delicately sketched.

I am curious that you appear not to, as I might say, paint the walls of a scene. There is very little physical description of the characters, rooms, settings. Was that done on purpose? Or you felt it wasn’t necessary to the plot. I don’t have a feeling for the surroundings in England or in Africa.

Jonathan today

Jonathan today

That is the journalist in me. Reporters don’t generally have the space or inclination to describe a scene narratively. We have space constraints and photographers to rely on. My initial draft of this book was short and thin, written by a newspaper reporter with 25 years of experience writing that way. Filling out a scene became a retraining process. I would tell myself, OK, you have a conversation here between Joao, your Portuguese doctor, and the commander of forces in Guine, do it in five pages, not two.  I believe I have enough description of place to bring the reader there, and later fill it out. As a fiction reader, that is one of my great pleasures, transforming a scene in my mind from word to image. I think I provide plenty of tools to do that.

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You had a time line on what happened in Guinea but not England. Was that done on purpose? Did you think what the characters were living in London didn’t matter that much and/or we would know about it already.

Great and sweeping events were happening to the Portuguese empire in that story line, involving people and places few readers would have known existed. We have the death of a fascist dictator, uprisings in three African colonies, the entry and exit of generals who reappear in different contexts, first in Africa, than in Lisbon, a “democratic coup,” and the final collapse of empire. I wrote the timeline to try to help readers through that. Thatcher’s reign in Britain was enormously consequential, and I do touch on some of the events of the time — the miners strike, the Brighton bombing, anti-nuclear protests — but those individual events do not drive the action of the novel. Elizabeth and Joao are swept along by the historical events of Portugal’s imperial collapse. Hans and Elizabeth live quietly as the remaking of Britain under Thatcher plays out in the background. There was no need to have a timeline in that case.

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Your dialogue works very well, and some of it is quite moving and telling. In fact, I think your dialogue is the best thing in the book. I presume you felt that was enough to “tell” what the characters were about, right, with how they spoke and what they said, and didn’t need physical descriptions of who, what and where?

Yes, I am proud of the dialogue, and used it more than any other literary tool to portray and convey character. I gather you came to know Hans, Elizabeth, David, Joao and Cristina that way. There is an old journalism adage: “show, don’t tell.” I suppose that informed my style. I didn’t want to tell readers what a character like Hans was like, or give too much description of place.  Conversation was the show.

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I found the African material mostly journalism with little drama . . . all reporting. You wrote the scenes that way, why? While the brief back-and-forth with Elizabeth and her husband worked well, the war doesn’t come into focus, nor is their marriage breakup emotional. It just happens in the background. Did you think it was too much to get into the emotional tug of war of a marriage crumbling?

Hmm, that is a tough question. I certainly wanted drama in Africa and used set-piece action sequences to try to add tension: the brief and bloody battle that led to Joao’s capture, the airstrike that led to his escape, a battle scene in Angola.

Joao and Elizabeth fell into marriage heedlessly and thoughtlessly. The collapse of that marriage was to be of no surprise, but the descent of Joao into violence and anger was to reflect the disorienting collapse of his country’s grandiosity. Perhaps that sapped it of some emotional resonance, but you are the first person to tell me so. I think sexual and domestic violence carry emotional power without a lot of work. Perhaps that power resonates with some readers more than others.

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What is nice is how you have the parallel situations, Guinea becoming free, the end of colonial rule, and the end of this British family’s fortune. Have reviewers responded to what you were doing there with the story?

I think most reviewers have picked up the parallels pretty well. I haven’t seen any reviews in Britain. There may not be any yet. But a newspaper in Winnipeg was particularly keen on the Thatcher elements. I have been pleasantly surprised that reviewers and readers alike are understanding the link between the domestic lives of the characters and the historical events behind them.

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Cristina and Hans have — it appears — no real relationship in the novel. I mean, he sees value in her, but she isn’t involved with him, and then in one line on the last page in the last paragraph we learn she’s living with David in Chicago (I presume they have a relationship, even a marriage?) and the last line of the book is “I miss him” . . . what about her mother? She dropped off the page and the earth?

There is, however, a nice twist that you have in that everything ends with nothing tied up nicely like a package . . . it isn’t a happy, Hollywood movie. That works for me.

Cristina represents the new, post-imperial Britain. Her attachment to the world of Hans and Elizabeth’s aristocratic ancestry lies in the same school-girl knowledge of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” that she acknowledges all her peers have. She sleeps with American basketball players, thinks about fashion, goes out nightly to Brighton’s hopping clubs.

In that final scene, I thought of her as visiting David in his Chicago apartment. It would have been after he finally got around to graduating from college, and certainly I was trying to convey that they were together romantically. I was leaving the seriousness of that relationship — and its future — ambiguous. That line, “ miss him,” was to tell the readers that Hans had died — not a surprise but never stated — and to say she did have feelings for her uncle and understood his concern for her. In no way was I trying to write Elizabeth out of the picture. I envisioned Cristina returning to her studies in Britain after that summer visit very much still Elizabeth’s daughter. I left it to readers to decide whether Elizabeth could cope with life without her brother, without antiques to see to get by, to deal with the normal work life she had been preparing for throughout the Brighton narrative.

Beyond leaving readers with the understanding that Hans was dead, David had indeed gone home, and he and Cristina were somehow still romantically involved, the next chapter was kept open deliberately. And to your point, I did not want Hans to die on David’s watch, certainly not with David at his bedside. If Hollywood gets ahold of the book, I suppose some director will do that.

On another front . . . what RPCV readers have you read and what books did you enjoy?

I do not mean to sound churlish here, but I have a hard time answering this. My Peace Corps experience was transformative. I drive people crazy with my stories and constant references. My next novel will be more firmly based on my time in the Philippines, although the two Peace Corps Volunteers in the center of the action are transformed into missionaries. I just found missionaries more credible characters than Peace Corps Volunteers to be grappling with faith, religious and sectarian conflict and the death of native culture. But I don’t think about RPCV writers. I read George Packer’s The Village of Waiting between Peace Corps assignments. His descriptions resonated, as did the gossip in the Peace Corps community about the book at the time. Blue Taxis: Stories about Africa by Eileen Drew (Zaire 1979-81) is a favorite.

Other than that, I can’t say I’ve given it much thought. Sorry!

Both of those writers are first rate, and there are many, many more fine writer who were in the Peace Corps. We welcome you to our ranks, Jonathan. Good luck with No. 4 Imperial Lane and thank you for your time and your novel.

No. 4 Imperial Lane: A Novel
by Jonathan Weisman (Guinea Bissau 1988; Philippines 1988–90)
Twelve
August 2015
352 pages
$26.00 (paperback), $12.99 (Kindle), $20.65 (Audible)

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