A Conversation with P.S. Duffy, Author of The Cartographer of No Man's Land
What inspired you to write about World War I? What is it about this moment in history that speaks to you?
Young soldiers, the "flower of youth," die in every war, as do civilians. What breaks your heart about this war is how buoyantly innocent everyonesoldiers, commanders, and civilianswas to the utter devastation to come, how almost cheerfully they took up arms and made the fatal leap from that sun-dappled Edwardian idyll into the abyss of deadened hope and churned-up, wounded earth. No one was prepared for the slaughter to come as outdated tactics (massed frontal assaults) met modern weaponry (machine guns, poison gas, mass shelling, land mines).
As I began my research, I found myself staring in disbelief at facts like this: on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, 110,000 British soldiers marched in attacking waves across No Man's Land, staggering under forty-pound packs, cutting their way through the barbed wire. By nightfall some 58,000 of them lay on the field, mowed down by machine guns and shells, and some by their own barrage.
Amiens, the Somme, Verdun, Passchendaele, and onin battle after battle, thousands of lives were lost for a few yards' gain until in the end, as was said at the time, the only winner was the war. The Cartographer of No Man's Land is not a combat novel, but it is informed by these themes and by the question of survival.
Angus is a rich and beautifully rendered character, very dimensional and vivid. How did he come to you? Is he based on a real person?
Angus has probably been with me all my lifesomething about his lonely existence, his kindness, his humanity, makes my heart ache. He stands apart and alone, but longs for connection; is strong out at sea, but full of self-doubt on land. He senses something greater than himself, but can't quite reach it. When I was in my twenties, I used to listen to a Gordon Lightfoot ballad, "Steel Rail Blues," about a young man who gambled his train ticket away the night before and stands with his "hat in his hand" on the "broad highway," hoping for a ride to the one he loves. I wanted to give that boy a ride. I wanted to unburden Atticus Finch, to tell J. Alfred Prufrock that though he grew old and wore his trousers rolled, though "deferential, glad to be of use, a bit obtuse," he mattered. He mattered to me. The mermaids would sing to him if I had my way. But I knew that what really mattered was that the pathos of repeated regret stirred something deep and universal. Angus is not Prufrock by any means, nor a boy by the highway, lost and sorry. But he is that man trying to make sense of who he is, why he's here, what purpose he serves. Angus came to me in full, his own person; but I must add that his humility and the strength he gets from helping others and being of use remind me of my husband, Joe.
The home front setting is in Nova Scotiahow did you choose this location? Does it have special significance to you?
Absolutely. My ancestors settled there in the 1750s. My grandfather was born there. But that meant little to me when at the age of ten I went up there for the first time with my family. We spent the summer on Mahone Bay, which is the home front setting for Cartographer and nowhere near where my ancestors settled. And yet, looking out at its islands, I felt I had been there before. I asked my father if that was possible. He said, "Perhaps."
My father, an Episcopalian minister, was a gentle man, a great sailor, and, it turned out, a very competitive one. That summer he rented an old wooden sailboat. On our first race, my sisters, ages fifteen and sixteen, and I were stunned by the sudden blast of commands to trim the sails, duck under the boom, leap up on deck, man the bilge pump! When not racing, my father and I spent days on end exploring the inlets and islands of the bay. I'd just finished reading Treasure Island, and we searched for treasure, fought battles, and forced the mop to walk the plank. But mostly, I lay on the bow and listened to the music of water passing by the hull, attentive to feeling that I was exactly where I belonged.
We spent the next thirty summers there. As a young girl, I passed a lot of time on the bandstand above the harbor in the company of some "old salts," watching the big boats race. These were sleek, wooden-hulled racing yachts built in the 1920s. They were owned by wealthy families, but, as was the tradition then, often skippered by local men, such as the ones on the bandstand. Why these "old fellers" accepted me in their midst as they passed around unfiltered cigarettes and a flask of rum, critiquing the set of the sails on this boat and that, I do not know. But they did, and their voices have stayed with me my whole life. Theirs are the voices of Putnam Pugsley and Philip Mader and others in the home front chapters of the book.
When I was fifteen, we bought a racing sailboat and eventually, I had my own. But that summer when I was ten and I stepped for the first time aboard that old leaky boat and coiled the hemp lines and squinted up at her mast, I remember thinking, "I've done this before; I've been here before. And someday I'm going to write about it." And one day I did.
You've had a long and successful career in science; what made you turn to fiction at this point in your life? Do you think you were always a writer at heart, or is this a new chapter in your life?
I've always been a writer at heart. I come from a family of impassioned storytellers who loved to laugh and used humor to face down tragedy. It was expected that you'd turn a personal disaster into a good story, often by acting out the parts. We wrote long, humorous narrative poems for every celebration. My childhood was filled with wordplay, family singing, iconoclastic parodies, and made-up songs. I wrote a lot as a child. "Penny's sad stories," my perplexed family called them. But they loved them nonetheless.
My scientific research also centered on narrative expression. During my twenty-five year career, I investigated the effects of damage to non-language areas of the brain on cognition and communication. I got into this work because my first job out of college was identifying the unnamedthe John and Jane Doeswho came through a city-hospital emergency room in Washington, DC. Most were neurologically impaired, and piecing together their stories from scraps of paper in their pockets or their semi-comprehensible verbal expression took a lot of creativity and compassion. I wanted to do more to help them. I went on to get a doctorate in communication disorders, which led to scientific publications and a graduate-level textbook on right-hemisphere damage (under the last name Myers).
For the past ten years, I've combined my love of writing and neuroscience. Today, as a member of the Neural Engineering Laboratory at Mayo Clinic, I write and edit research papers on the neural mechanisms underlying deep brain stimulation, a treatment for neurologic disease. I'm proud to work for Mayo, where research is focused on improving patients' lives. As I've said before, the language of science is literal; the language of fiction, evocative; but both require precision and imagination. And both ask you to enter the territory of the unknown.
Several characters in The Cartographer of No Man's Land seek comfort and wisdom in classic literature; why do you think this is? Do you think people still find that kind of solace in the classics today?
What an interesting question. At the close of the nineteenth century, people were schooled in the classics, and "current day" fiction was still considered pulp by many. I think that today, people in the Western traditions still turn to classic literature for the fundamental narratives that shape our livesthe Bible, Homer, Shakespeare. These are stories of human failing, suffering, love, greed, hubris, and hope for redemption. These are the stories that define our human condition in the rawunadorned by modern affectations of irony and distanceand define our humanity as well. To know that "through suffering comes wisdom," as Aeschylus put it, is a comfort, for we all suffer.
Interest in World War I seems to be on the rise. What are some of your favorite books set during this era?
In thinking about American wars, there's a tendency to skip from the Civil War to the Second World War, but, you're right, interest here in World War I is growingin part because the one hundredth anniversary is coming up in 2014, and in part perhaps because of the immense popularity of Downton Abbey, with its exquisitely rendered prewar Edwardian innocence in season 1 and the devastating effects of the war on every social class in season 2.
I just finished the biography Now All Roads Lead to France by Matthew Hollis, which, with a deft and gentle touch, recounts the last years of the poet Edward Thomas, killed in the battle of Arras. As I wrote Cartographer, I returned again and again to my underlined copy of Ghosts Have Warm Hands, a World War I memoir by the Canadian writer Will R. Bird. With natural humor and the keen eye of the reporter he'd become, Bird captures in minute detail the boredom, chaos, and surreal effects of life in the trenches. I read World War I poetry but avoided war fiction as I wrote, so as not to be influenced by it. Since the research and writing took about ten years, I missed some very good books. I'm making up for that now. Among several recently published and acclaimed World War I novels, I very much look forward to Pat Barker's Toby's Room and John Boyne's The Absolutist.