Wendy Orange: Both of your novels are set in the Middle East. It’s amazing to me that you wrote Staircase almost fully from your imagination, while Distance is based on current realities. In that sense, do you see Distance as being a non-fiction novel – meaning that all in the background is true, while Caddie’s personal interactions in the foreground are imagined?
Masha Hamilton: I love that concept of a cross-genre, non-fiction novel. Yes, that’s it exactly. The story of Distance, or something pretty similar, might have been told in memoir or non-fictional form. The main character, Caddie, becomes cut off from her own emotions as she reports on conflict and bloodshed. Being a professional, she focuses on the victims, suppressing her own horror. That is, in fact, a common reaction. But writing the story as fiction allows the reader to get closer to the characters involved — their most private thoughts and embarrassing emotions. This translates, I think, into a truer understanding of what being immersed in violence has meant to Caddie.
WO: Is Caddie like you? Is she based on others? How did you come up with her name, her style, those repetitive ticks of hers, mental and verbal, that make her seem unique and real and so much her own self?
MH: Though Caddie shares some traits with me and other journalists I know, she’s not modeled after anyone. In fact, a few months into the writing of Distance, I had to throw out a hundred fairly polished pages because I realized I wasn’t allowing Caddie to be herself; I was making her too much an extension of me. I had to slow down and get to know Caddie so I could understand precisely how she would respond to extreme moments in her life.
WO: It’s interesting that Caddie, though she thinks about children, is decidedly not a mother, while you are fulltime mom to three kids, ages nine to 16. Were you leading a double life by deleting kids from her life? Why make Caddie childless?
MH: As I got to know her, Caddie didn’t seem like mom material; she had too many attachment fears to even stay in a relationship. Besides, her response when another character dies would have been far different if she’d been a mom. To me, she’s an example of how violence has scarred us all — it’s a question of degree. I wanted to be able to watch her go all the way to the edge, with nothing solid like kids to pull her back.
WO: The love affair between Goronsky and Caddie is memorable. He, too, feels so real to me. But the reader sees far before Caddie does that he’s . . . well, a cad. How do you, as a writer, let the reader know something your main character doesn’t?
MH: I don’t outline, so I didn’t know how Goronsky was going to turn out when he first showed up on the page. I knew he had to be someone who would intrigue Caddie enough to break through her natural resistance and the pain she was feeling, and who would take her somewhere new in terms of a love relationship. I also wanted him to eventually force her to examine her impulse for revenge after Marcus’s death. It was a process of getting to know Goronsky, just as I had to get to know Caddie. The first step was recognizing why Caddie was drawn to him. Then I began to realize just how dangerous he was. So I had to go back to the beginning and make sure those traits were consistently present.
WO: Okay, so let me get this straight: the character is just there and you sculpt him or her, and work with a first draft, maybe making very slight edits, and then you revise again, and then again. Don’t you ever get bored editing the basic elements that keep the plot moving? It sounds tedious, these fourth rounds of editing, or do you like that part of the process?
MH: Fourth round is still the first draft for me! And yes, I do like it, Wendy. The first draft is like a new friend. You enjoy the friend, but it’s still a superficial relationship. Only after you’ve hung out together for a while, argued and laughed and cried together, do you really start to know one another intimately. Then your friendship takes on greater meaning. That’s what revision is to me.
WO: Your novel is so topical. Did you anticipate that?
MH: I sure didn’t know when I began writing that it would be as topical as it turned out to be. I didn’t anticipate that we would be fed this daily diet of beheadings, abuse of POWs, bombs, crumbled buildings, loss of life from combat. As parents, we’re forced to consider the effects that violence has on us — and on our children. I want my three to be aware of how it shapes them. The other day I visited my nine-year-old’s classroom and saw the newspaper articles the teacher had pinned to the current events board. They were nearly all about violence. How do we teach our kids to stay optimistic about the world and at the same time, concerned about terrorism and warfare? How do we prevent ourselves from becoming inured to violence? These are the kinds of issues Caddie deals with in the novel.
WO: As a mother, how did you manage to write with all that activity underfoot? Did you have a personal assistant?
MH: I luckily have a very supportive family, as I think is true of most women who manage to be moms and live out their dreams at the same time. Also, I usually am able to write through a fair amount of commotion! I don’t have a room of my own, but I do have a little corner. And my kids like to joke that when I’m writing, they can come ask for permission to eat chocolate sundaes and s’mores for dinner for the rest of their lives, and I will blankly nod okay. I’m not really quite that oblivious when writing, but I don’t mind that they think I am. When I was overseas, I had nannies who helped, and I took my kids on the road with me a lot. In fact, when my firstborn was a baby, I became kind of well known as the woman journalist who traveled with the nursing babe!
WO: Can we hear a bit more about your kids? Have any of them read your books in manuscript?
MH: Actually, I’ve read more to them from the manuscript I’m working on now, a third novel about a camel bookmobile in Africa, but I did read them bits and pieces from Distance. Mothering and writing: it’s never simple. There are still the squabbles that only you, the mom, can resolve, or that secret ingredient to your egg salad sandwich that no one remembers, or the kid who falls off the stool while brushing his teeth and the sitter wants you to know even though, at three time zones away, all you can do is worry.
MH: I loved Yaddo; it was an enormous gift. I did a lot of prepping before I went, hiring sitters and typing up schedules that I printed out in many colors, and my husband picked up the slack when he could. Friends and neighbors pitched in, as I live in a supportive neighborhood, and that helped too. But in general, my kids were great about it. They were less thrilled when I went to Afghanistan in March for two weeks. Still, even that trip led to plenty of heartfelt talks with all three about how we moms have to balance life and work.
WO: How long did you stay in Jerusalem and why were you there?
MH: I lived in Israel for about five years, working as a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press. My first child was born there. Then I moved to Moscow, Russia, and worked there for nearly another five years, as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, reporting for NBC-Mutual Radio and writing a column, “Postcards from Moscow.” My second child was born during the Moscow tenure. My third child was born after we returned to the States.
WO: Did you return to the Middle East while writing Distance? And do you have a take on the region today?
MH: Yes, I went back at the beginning of the second intifada. I was able to go to demonstrations, get close to flying bullets, attend a funeral, and talk to journalists and also non-journalists, both Israelis and Palestinians. This visit in October 2000 helped me set the scene for Caddie. It was great being back in the region in terms of smelling the air, wandering the streets, seeing friends. But it was difficult in other ways: the second intifada began after a period of relative rapprochement and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. It was disturbing to witness the start of a new round of escalating and mutually self-destructive violence.
WO: What kinds of family discussions do you have about the Middle East? Do you feel that your children are better informed because of your experiences?
MH: We do talk about conflicts and current events in other parts of the world, and we’ve had friends from other countries stay with us, which further exposes the kids to other worldviews. I do feel they are better informed because of this. Also, from Afghanistan, I sent them nearly daily e-mails, and we had discussions about that country and American involvement there. I’d say they follow the news out of the Middle East and Afghanistan more carefully than they might have otherwise.
WO: You are neither Arab nor Jewish, and yet you write passionately about the region, giving equal weight to both sides. Why do you think the Middle East — and Jerusalem in particular — so captivated you?
MH: Maybe it’s the potent mix of spirituality and violence, of history and modernity. Maybe it’s simply that it is a land of large stories and big passions. I feel lucky to have spent the time there I did. My first child, and my first two novels, were all born there.