Your description of men finding peace with the challenge of celibacy is exceptional. Where does that insight come from?
I wanted that to be part of the book for a pragmatic reason and an artistic reason. The pragmatic reason was that I wanted more than science fiction readers to read the book, and I figured that for most readers, the truly alien society would be the Society of Jesus. It would be the most different, and people would really want to learn about it.
The other thing is that I’ve been married for 27 years. I was a virgin bride, and I am a one man woman. I married in 1970. The atmosphere was “Love the one you’re with,” and I was doing field work 12,000 miles from home for four months at a time. So I have had the experience personally of taking a vow and keeping it. I have had the experience of governing my own sexuality. I have had the experience of being attracted to someone with whom it was not appropriate to act on the attraction. And to take that and turn it into friendship, and then years later to be very glad that I didn’t screw up that relationship. I just felt it was a natural expression of my own experience. And I think that one of the reasons that you have novelists who cannot understand that is because they don’t understand it in their own lives. If you haven’t had the experience of really getting the hots for somebody and then working it through without acting on it, maybe you just can’t imagine it.
How did you come upon rape as the major source of suffering?
I knew something had broken that man’s heart. And something had enraged him. I knew it wasn’t the hands. Like I said, I wrote this book from beginning to end. I started with him in this state of devastation. The hands were the outward and visible sign. That was what people were focusing on. I think that, in order to get a believable male character to the point where is vulnerable enough to reveal himself emotionally, or to need help, to connect in that manner, you have to have something that breaks down the walls.
So, the hands were the outward and visible sign of something that was much deeper. There was an anger in him, a real rage, and at the same time, this kind of global sadness. So, I had to explain that to myself. The novel was about two-thirds done. It was on Rakhat. I had already written the Reshtar. I knew that he was a poet, I knew that he was really nuts himself, that there were some real things wrong with him. But I also understood him in a way that didn’t come out until the second book. There were things acting on that man’s life that twisted him. I woke up at about three o’clock in the morning with that scene in my head. And I went downstairs and fired up the computer, and wrote it, just as it appears in the book today. And then I shook for half an hour. And I thought to myself, “Well, that’s it then. I can’t even hope to publish this.”
I was so shaken by this that I just couldn’t handle it. I literally put the manuscript in my briefcase, I drove to Chicago, I sat down with my stepmother, and said, “OK I think I know what happened, but I really don’t know if I can do this.” If she had reacted to it with the same kind of shuddering horror, I probably would never have finished the book. Instead, she said, “That’s it. That’s what happened. That poor man, that’s what happened.”
I had the drama of this Latino male. There’s a lot going on that has nothing to do with being a priest. What was interesting to me was that Emilio did not react to the rape with despair. He became murderous. He wanted to kill somebody, or die. He wanted it to end. He was helpless any other way than to become so dangerous that they wouldn’t come anywhere near him. What broke him apart was Askama. In the Talmud it says that the reason that sacrifices done for inadvertent guilt are more elaborate and more difficult to carry out than for sin offerings is that is so much more difficult to forgive yourself for something that was unintentional. He had caused irreversible harm. He went there wanting to do everything right, all he wanted to do was help the people that he met, and to be responsible for this catastrophe, for the death of this child that he loved so dearly, that’s what breaks his heart.
The question of the suffering of innocents is very important in the books. But it’s never easy to tell who’s innocent. In your mind, are any of the three species actually innocent?
No. If you’re sentient, you can’t be innocent. Babies are innocent. And that’s why every single generation, you try to do it right. That’s why I have babies born at the end of this book. There are a lot of children at the end.
That is one of the enduring images from Christianity for me, even though I am now a Jew. It’s a combination of things. The Jewish messiah has not yet been born, but every baby has a chance. Each child has to be nurtured with this hope that this will be the one that brings peace, who makes things right. We are all involved with that.
In Reform Jewish though, the messiah will not be born until we have made a world ourselves where it is easier to choose good than evil . Then, then the messiah comes. So, you have to prepare the world. There is that notion that every time you hold a baby in your arms, maybe this time we can get it right. This child will see the right society. It has never happened, but there is always that sense of renewal. So, that’s why I ended this way. In some ways the second book is a family saga. It takes you through three generations. And you end with this hope that he will be better.
Another way of looking at your books is that they explore the relationship between the power of sexuality and the power of spirituality. Emilio is destroyed on both of those planes. How are his needs for healing in both of these realms met, and how did you choose the agents of that healing?
In some ways the second book was about the aftermath of an irreversible tragedy. It’s happened and he lived through it. Survivors have a lot of work to do. And there are a lot of ways you can approach that, and he tries most of them. One of the things he tries, in a typical male reaction: “What is behind me is not important. It’s over, I’m done with it, I don’t want to think about it anymore.” He buries himself in work, he tries to deal with it physically by making himself so tired he won’t dream. He doesn’t want to talk to anybody about it. His feeling is that if he brings it out, it’s going to be worse. That doesn’t work for people. You know, you pay a price for that. I admire it in some ways. There’s a lot of strength that goes into it, but you are using so much of your energy and your strength to hold it at bay, that you don’t have energy for anything else. You can’t do anything. You’re stuck, right there, holding that wall up.
Then the next thing that comes up is to begin to have a relationship with people who are not a part of his past. With Gina and Celestina I’m going to live in the future now. I’m not going to be a priest anymore, I’m not going to have anything to do with God anymore, I’m going to renounce all of it, it’s all the past, I’m going to move forward, I’m going to have this family, I’m going to focus on the future. And that might have worked, but like he says at the end of the book, he was still having the dreams.
But then I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Ray Bucko hated that. From the very beginning he said “Don’t do the kidnaping. Find some other way to do it, don’t do the kidnaping.” I couldn’t think of any other way for him to go. I kept throwing things in front of him, and Emilio would think, “Oh, not if you were down on your knees and begged me.” So, then he’s on the ship, and he’s doped to the gills, and that’s fine with him. He’s completely content to the extent that he advises John Candotti, who is terribly upset by the situation he finds himself in, “Hey, John try this stuff. Chemical Zen. You’ll love it.”
And again, that takes a toll; you cannot keep these things inside you, either chemically, or emotionally, forever. You’ve got to deal with it. And so, ultimately, the way he has to deal with it is that he has to face his fears. I was drawing on the experience of Vietnam veterans.
He’s not happy about returning. He doesn’t really have a choice, but he chooses to learn from it. His choice at this point is to take the situation as it exists and make something good happen out of it. Ultimately, that is the way that you redeem an irreversible tragedy. You force meaning on it, you find a way to make good out of bad. If your child is hit by a drunk driver, you can be bitter and angry all your life, or you can start Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, and change America’s attitude about having a drink behind the wheel.