An Interview with Michael Mewshaw
Why did you choose Central Asia as the setting for Shelter from
I traveled to Central Asia and finished Shelter from the Storm long before the events of September 11 and the attention that they focused on that part of the world. The area interested me as a setting for a variety of reasons. It's a dramatic landscape of mountains, desert, and rolling steppes. Its architecture, especially what remains of its sixteenth century splendor, is some of the most impressive I've ever seen. But it was the human situation that fascinated me most, the collision of cultures, religions, nations, and tribes. What would it be like, I wondered, to live where every belief system had failed, where the local currency was worthless, the police and army offered no protection, and there was no chance of escape? In short, what was it like to be human in inhuman circumstances?
What interests you about the figure of the wolf-boy? Why did you decide to make him a central character in the story?
More than twenty years ago I reviewed a book about the wolf children of Midnapore, India. The subject interested me. No, I should say it obsessed me, and I started reading the scientific literature and case studies. So much of what is written about alleged feral children actually reveals more about the observers and their presumptions than it does about the kids under examination. This seemed to me to offer an intriguing fictional opportunity. By moving a wild child to the center of a narrative, I could reveal the nature of the characters around him by dramatizing their reactions to the boy. Some want to study him. Some want to free him. Some want to kill him. Others want to convert him. In the end, he remains the same, but everything and everybody around him changes.
In your forthcoming memoir, Do I Owe You Something?, you discuss writers who have been important for you, like William Styron and Graham Greene. How have they influenced your development as a novelist? In what ways does Shelter from the Storm bear their imprint?
My self-serving answer would be that the best way to learn how Styron, Greene, Paul Bowles, Gore Vidal, and a host of other writers have influenced me is to read the memoir, which will be published in the spring of 2003. In general I would say that any writer eventually comes to know other writers, and especially when one is young one can't help being influenced. But the greatest influence of older writers remains their published work, their literary accomplishments, not what they say or do at cocktail parties.
How do you see your own work in relation to the thriller tradition?
This question is related to the one previous, specifically to Graham Greene, who showed that it's possible to use the thriller tradition for serious purposes; a novel of action can also be a novel of ideas and character. Having written five of my nine novels in what might be construed as the thriller tradition, I would stress that I've tried to expand the genre, infusing it with political, religious, and psychological insights.
How has your other writingjournalism, travel writing, reviewinginfluenced your fiction?
Fiction writing is an isolated occupation. To escape my desk, I've often turned my hand to other kinds of writing. The hope is not just to get up off the seat of my pants but to get out into the world where I'll meet people, visit places, and confront situations that will in turn feed my fiction. Travel writing, tennis reporting, and other forms of journalism have all served this purpose for me, as I think anyone who has looked at the subject of my novels will agree. A good case in point, Shelter from the Storm. I went to Central Asia first to cover a tennis tournament in Tashkent. I returned the next year to write travel articles on Samarkand and Bukhara for The New York Times. Only afterward did I decide to write a novel set there.
You directed the creative writing program at the University of Texas at Austin for a number of years. Was that a good experience for you? What's your opinion of creative writing programs generally? What advice would you give to young writers?
During the seventies, Austin was a lively town, full of amiable people. My job at the University of Texas was a good one, as these things go, and it paid the bills and allowed me free time to write. In the end, though, I tired of the administrative duties and wanted to concentrate on my own fiction. Still, I respect what teachers of creative writing attempt to do, and generally I agree that creative writing programs can be appropriate training grounds for young writers. Of course not everybody emerges from them a professional writer or a published one. But as I used to point out at the University of Texas, not every player on the Longhorn football team became a professional either.
What is your sense of the situation in Central Asia and the Middle East now?
I cannot pretend to be a geopolitical expert and would have little faith in anyone who made sweeping predictions about the situation in Central Asia and the Middle East. But on the strictly personal level, I would observe that the problems in both areas aren't likely to be solved unless or until Americans come to a deeper understanding of Islam.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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