by Terry Hong
Freshly back from the Jersey Shore, debut novelist P.S. Duffy talks about writing her first book at age 10 although she didn’t publish her first novel until she was 65, her inability to ever return to her birth country of China, and how a stranger’s insistence that a group of men in khaki uniforms were waiting for her to tell their Great War story became her illuminating, haunting The Cartographer of No Man’s Land.
Terry Hong: Let’s get the rude, obvious question out of the way … you made your fiction debut at 65, which is definitely inspiring for other BLOOMers. What took so long? And where did your journey take you before you settled on being a writer in your seventh decade?
P.S. Duffy: I don’t think that’s rude at all. There are two points in life when you’re proud to be your age – as a young child and sometime after you’re 65. It’s a great relief. Plus I know I couldn’t have written Cartographer when I was young. It took a lifetime of experience. My upbringing was full of word play, poetry, made-up songs, telling stories, acting out the parts to make ordinary events funny or dramatic, and a firm grasp of the absurd. As children we all had roles as our talents emerged – my sister Polly was designated “the painter,” Patty “the pianist,” and I was “just Penny,” which was thought to be quite enough until I picked up a pencil and was deemed a writer and everyone was pleased. I wrote my first novel at age 10 – in a speckled copy book – about two boys in Greece, a country I knew absolutely nothing about.
I majored in history, and while waiting to get into law school, I worked at a big city hospital where my job was to identify the John and Jane Does who came into the emergency room – the people with no IDs, no names, who were neurologically or otherwise too impaired to explain who they were. My piecing together their stories led me to want to help them more directly, and so although I got into law school, I decided instead to study neurologically-based communication disorders. I wanted to help people regain speech and tell their own stories. That led to a 27-year career in which I worked clinically and also conducted research on right brain damage.
In my 50s, with my husband’s encouragement, I took a six-week fiction class from a writer from Utah named Phyllis Barber, and she pulled me aside and said I should write. A year later, a publisher asked if I could expand a 10-page piece I’d written about our time in China into a book. I said no, but then remembered the three- and four-page typewritten letters my father wrote every day to my mother while he was in captivity. Many didn’t reach her, but a student of his escaping to Hong Kong took the carbon copies through enemy lines, and somehow found us there and delivered them. I hadn’t read them, but my mother gave them to me just before she died, saying, “I think you’ll know what to do with these.” The universe had spoken.
TH: And that became A Stockbridge Homecoming, your memoir about your family’s time in 1940s Communist China, where you were born – although your family’s roots trace back some 250 years in Nova Scotia, Canada. And then you grew up in Baltimore and now live in Minnesota. That’s quite a peripatetic ancestral history! Could you share some of your mobile adventures?
PSD: I should add that I did my undergraduate degree in Montreal. So yes, lots of moving around. My parents were from Boston. My father was an Episcopalian minister, a very liberal one, with a doctorate in philosophy from Harvard. China had been devastated by the war, and he went there as part of the Anglican Mission in Wuhan where I was born. He opted to stay – against U.S. State Department objections – during the Communist Revolution, hoping he could continue teaching at the university there, as did other missionaries who were staffing the hospital, the school for the blind, and so on. But when Mao’s forces came through, my father was put under house arrest, and the students who were loyal to him were in danger. Some were executed. So he tried to escape for their sake and his own, and eventually made it through enemy lines to Hong Kong where my mother, sisters, and I were refugeeing. He was helped all along the way by strangers – that light in the darkness is the underlying theme of my childhood and of A Stockbridge Homecoming. And aspects of that theme come through in Cartographer, as well.
We moved with his career from China to Stockbridge, Massachusetts to a teaching post he took at Kenyon College, to Baltimore, where he was the rector of a large downtown church. Some parishioners loaned us their house for a summer in Nova Scotia, and we ended up with our own house there – spending three months a year for 35 years. My ancestors went there from Scotland via New England in the 1750s.
My grandfather left Nova Scotia when he was 16 for New England. I was never allowed to meet him. He was a good and generous man, but also a very bad one. His name, oddly enough, was Simon Peter. I think that by choosing that name for the young boy in my novel, I was unconsciously trying to rehabilitate him.
TH: Have you been back to China? Do you still spend summers in Canada? Where is ‘home’?
PSD: Home is now very much Minnesota, where I’ve lived for 30 years. I love the open sky, the closeness to nature, the quiet, and the people. But my roots don’t go back here so there is that slight sense of displacement. A piece of my heart will always be Nova Scotia – sailing is in my DNA, as is that rocky coastline and the danger and peace of the North Atlantic. I set the home front sections of Cartographer in Nova Scotia because even as a 10-year-old, I felt I’d been there before. Maybe I had because when I went sailing for the first time that summer, the rhythm of it – everything about it felt familiar. I still visit and, of course, went back when researching the novel.
As for China, my parents lost so many Chinese friends that it was too sad to contemplate going back, and the life we had there has vanished. But I did just get a copy of the Chinese version of Cartographer, and the cover – a man made out of a relief map, some delicate Chinese mountains in the background – struck some deep chord in me as does the Chinese language whenever I hear it.
TH: Oh, do you speak and/or read Chinese?
PSD: No, but my parents did. As a baby surrounded by Chinese villagers and professors and clergy who were part of the mission, I was awash in the tonal rhythms of the language, and because it was a very, very happy time for the whole family, the language, like the spark of some long forgotten memory, still brings me pleasure.
TH: Before your memoir, you wrote a scientific textbook, Right Brain Damage: Disorders of Communication and Cognition. You continue to write about neuroscience as part of your day job at the Mayo Clinic. Did writing nonfiction prepare you for writing fiction?
PSD: Yes, actually. Science at its best requires imagination and a leap of faith, and inspires wonder just as fiction does, and both require precision of language. However, in nonfiction the story is there, though it requires interpretation, whether of memory or data. In fiction, there are no boundaries – a scary prospect and a freeing one. You are the god of the universe you create – until your characters begin to drive the story, and you see that by staying “in character” they are setting the boundaries, often taking you to uncharted territory.
Most of my nonfiction is under the name Penelope S. Duffy, and the fiction under P.S. Duffy, but I am the same person. I often write both during a given day. For Mayo’s Neural Engineering Laboratory, I contribute to research design, help write papers for peer-reviewed medical/scientific journals, and am co-editing a book. I’m very drawn to the unknowns and mysteries of the brain and our attempts to unravel them. Similarly, with fiction, you’re immersed in a universe of unknowns and ambiguities. But you let yourself get lost, you forget time, you’re alive, expanded! Creative writing has a spiritual quality to it – a sense that when the writing pours out you have been given a gift from a place beyond yourself; you are unsure of where the words are coming from. The differing content – scientific journey, fictional journey – acts as a nice counterbalance between reality as we know it now and reality as it might be.
TH: Why did you set The Cartographer during World War I? How did you research/prepare, especially for writing the meticulous battle scenes?
PSD: I never thought I’d be writing about war and had intended to set the book just after the war. But to understand my characters who would have so recently experienced it, I had to research it. The more I did, the more intensely I felt the sacrifice, futility, the deep dark place that it was, and the uplifting moments that come only from those darkest places. I wanted to know what it took for the soul to survive. I visited the battlefields, fell to my knees in the pristine cemeteries, felt the hush of the dead in those quiet fields of France and Belgium. I wept. I understood that I had no choice but to see my characters through that lens.
I researched primary and secondary sources for four years. It was said in a British review that while other female novelists have taken on the war, I’m the first to have written actual battle scenes that were not in flashback or dreamlike sequences. I don’t know if that is true, but luckily, I didn’t know it at the time. Who was I to write about combat? But by the time I wrote that first scene of Angus coming up the line at night alone, I felt I could do it. It wasn’t just the years of research, I felt I was there; I was Angus. It’s a mysterious process – inexplicable really.
I’ve gotten letters from veterans of recent wars who have said Cartographer was hard for them read because it resonated so deeply, but they were glad they did. One said, “I’m 75 years old; you changed the way I see the world and myself.”
A psychic person I chanced to meet at an art gallery told me once, “I realize I don’t know you, but I have to tell you that I see a group of men all around you in khaki uniforms with suspenders and collarless shirts. They’re asking you to do something for them.” This occurred about two weeks after I began to think that maybe the book should take place during the Great War.
TH: Did writing in such detail about war make you a pacifist? Did your thoughts on war change during the writing of this novel?
PSD: Oddly, it gave me much more sympathy for combatants. My father was on the National Board of Conscientious Objectors during Vietnam. I shared his views of Vietnam, but now regret my youthful lack of sympathy for those who fought in it. The question is, how do we honor the sacrifice without glorifying war itself? It’s a major issue for all of us, and one I felt keenly as Cartographer grew into the novel it became.
TH: Your writing reminds me of the sustained control of Kazuo Ishiguro, the calm of Carol Shields, the detailed depth of Marilynne Robinson. That’s from a reader’s point of view … who inspired you from a writer’s point of view?
PSD: Thank you. I’m honored to be thought of in such company. When writing Cartographer, I pretty much avoided novels, especially World War I fiction. I’ve only recently read Marilynne Robinson, who is brilliant. When I was young, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel made me want to write. In my 20s, I loved D.H. Lawrence. The books that inspire me now, that I return to for sheer pleasure, are Ian McEwan’s Atonement and On Chesil Beach, Colm Tóibín’s The Master, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, and bits and pieces of Michael Ondaatje. Lately, I go back to Stoner by John Williams, brilliantly understated with a character whose passivity drives you to distraction, but whose ultimate dignity stays with you forever.
TH: Speaking of readers … what were some surprising things you learned from your readers after Cartographer hit shelves?
PSD: It was hard to let this story go out into the world. But I discovered that by bringing their own experiences and perspectives to it, which may differ from my own, readers keep the story alive. I think Cartographer leaves enough room for the reader’s imagination to breathe, especially those who are willing to read a book on more than one level, and it stays with them. Their responses, too, have enriched my own experience of life, which surprised and moved me. A 20-something I met quoted me a passage she’d memorized near the end of the book, and with tears streaming told me that it helped her get through the suicide of a friend of hers. As a writer, you are amazed at having your words quoted back to you, but in a situation like that, you understand that the words are no longer your own.
TH: Since your Cartographer has been out in the world for a couple of years, could you please share with us what you might be working on now?
PSD: My next novel is still very much in progress, but I can say that throughout writing Cartographer, I wanted to write more about the somewhat ethereal and mysterious Hettie Ellen, Angus’s wife, but knew it would detract from the story and would take the reader down a garden path. Recently, I heard her voice again, and I thought of keeping her in a follow-on to Cartographer. As I contemplated this possibility, some lines from T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” came back to me:
“But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know,
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?”
“We shall,” I responded. Now, I’m hoping to take her essence, her secrets, her strengths and flaws, and breathe them into a female protagonist in another setting and set of circumstances, leaving the world of Cartographer undisturbed.
Click here to read Terry Hong’s feature piece about P.S. Duffy.
Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.
Author photo credit: Karl Beighley