My interview with P.S. Duffy continues today. In Part 2 the author of Cartographer of No Man’s Land tells us about her science writing at the Mayo Clinic, post-traumatic stress among returning WWI soldiers, and the strong sense of spirituality and religion that she inserts into her novel. Angels on the battlefield? Read on.
1. You’re a science writer at the Mayo Clinic. What is it that you write about? There are many moments in the book when you describe birds or seascapes, and I sensed those passages came from someone who loved and respected the natural world. Would you agree there was a connection between your background in science and those parts of the book?
I would agree on several levels. My research was actually in neurological (e.g., stroke, head-injury, disease-based) communication disorders, and after I retired, I began writing in the neurosciences for Mayo Clinic. I now write/edit for Mayo’s Neural Engineering Laboratory, which is investigating biologic mechanisms of deep brain stimulation for neurologic/psychiatric disease. Although fiction and science seem at odds with one another, both are focused on the unknown and call on the imagination. Whether setting out an experiment or starting a poem or a book, there is the leap—a moment of hope and faith. Both creative writing and science writing also demand precision of language and word choice. In fiction, I’m highly attuned to the rhythm of language and layers of meaning; in science to rigors of absolute, literal interpretation.
Regarding references to nature—birds and seascapes–these are part of me and of my growing up. My father, an Episcopalian theologian and philosopher, was a great observer of the natural world and extremely interested in science—especially physics and math (at which I am terrible!). Sailing with him, I learned to observe the patterns of wind, water, currents, sea birds, seaweed, dolphin, etc. You are always alert to the natural world on a boat. And my mother shared my love of birds. I think I share with my father a poetic sense of wonder and the scientist’s urge to catalogue. I’ve tried to share those two takes with my grandsons on our trail walks—they can now name the birds and plants, and honestly, what could be better than seeing the natural world all over again through their fresh eyes?
2. A strong thread of spirituality/religion runs through this novel. Simon Peter’s name has strong Christian ties, and you include tales of angel sightings around the battlefields as well as efforts to contact the dead. Did soldiers really have these visions during the fog of war? And did you select the name Simon Peter for that reason?
That’s a very good question. In fact, there were many sightings of angels and other religious phenomena during the war. As on ships, superstition and hallucination/delusions were rampant in the trenches. Hundreds of British soldiers, for example, were convinced at the battle of Mons that they saw their fallen comrades in the skies above them. “The Crucified Canadian” was believed to be true by Canadian troops. One of the best memoirs I read about the war was by Will R. Bird, who later became a well-known Canadian journalist. The book was titled Ghosts Have Warm Hands, a reference to his brother who had died in the war and came back from the dead twice to take Will Bird by the hand and rescue him.
Of the many other spiritual references in the book, some I was aware of like the hymns and the sense of a “knowing beyond our knowing,” and some I was unaware of, like Angus, Christ-like, washing the feet of the soldiers under his command. The subconscious has a way of taking over in the creative process! You mention the biblical implications of the name Simon Peter. That was the name of my grandfather, long dead, who left his home in Nova Scotia at age 16 and came to Boston, trailing his younger siblings. He was in many ways a very good man, but also a very bad one. I think I might have used the name in an a sort of unconscious effort to rehabilitate him (!), for it was the name that came to me, unbidden.
3. You take on post-traumatic stress syndrome as well, although at the time the soldiers enduring this had limited psychological and psychiatric services available. Is it inevitable that a WWI novel has to touch upon this subject?
While writing fiction, you make conscious choices, but are just as often led by the characters or the story into unplanned territory. The term “post-traumatic stress” never occurred to me as I wrote, but by inhabiting the character of Angus, I was able to experience his reaction to battle. Just as I didn’t set out to write a “World War I” novel, what happens to Angus was simply was the story I was telling. So I don’t know if a WW I novel must touch on the subject, but it makes sense. Every war brings these same readjustment issues, the recurring nightmares of experienced atrocities, of your part in them, and that lingering, heightened sense of vigilance. But WW I is particularly known for it (note that “shell shock” was the first reference to the concept of PTSD). Perhaps this is because WW I was the first war fought by a citizens’ army, an army extremely naïve to what lay ahead, and perhaps, too, it is because WW I was the first war in which people realized that modern weaponry gave man the capacity to actually wipe out civilization—as echoed in the dystopian world-view of so much art and poetry immediately after the war.
4. The book’s chapters alternate between the soldiers’ world in France and life by the sea on the Canadian home front. I found the chapters back at Snag Harbor a welcome respite from the vivid war accounts. Did those Canadian chapters offer relief to you as a writer as well?
Yes, they did. But I must say that the writing of the war chapters was not as hard on the soul as was reading about the war itself. It gave me a way to cope. I could be Angus and the other characters; I could act. I could feel the pain of loss, the terror of battle, but also the comfort of connection—whether to a comrade, a young boy at the front and his mother, or to a sunset above a trench, or a lark bravely making her nest in No Man’s Land.