Debut novelist’s provocative tale reveals casualties of war through a camera lens
In college, her favorite professor gave her some good advice: Write the book you’d most like to read but haven’t yet found. “I loved big adventure novels—[Joseph] Conrad and stuff like that,” says Tatjana Soli, debut author of “The Lotus Eaters,” an ambitious work of literary fiction that captures the Vietnam War through the lens of a female photojournalist. “I remember it really bothering me that there were never women as main characters. They were always wives and girlfriends that got left behind. I really wanted to write a strong woman character that had exciting things happen to her.”
When Soli’s short fiction attracted the attention of an agent, he contacted her to ask if she had a novel. She told him her idea of writing a war story from the point of view of a woman. “He said that the Vietnam literature is very unpopular,” recounts Soli, “that there was no way women were going to be interested. I had no encouragement. I thought it would be my practice novel. But it was the only thing I really wanted to do.”
So she continued to practice. Soli draws a parallel between her journey as a writer and the journey of Helen, the protagonist of “The Lotus Eaters”: A woman following her destiny even though the odds stacked against her seem insurmountable.
Ten years and many rejection slips later, “The Lotus Eaters” has climbed up the New York Times Bestsellers list—not bad for a “practice novel.” It’s also been chosen by Bookshop Santa Cruz as the monthly read for their Community Book Group, which meets at 7 p.m. on Feb. 24. Soli herself will be present at the meeting to engage in dialogue with readers. The book will be offered at a 10 percent discount through the meeting date and there will be discussion questions posted at the Bookshop. Julie Minnis, facilitator for the Community Book Group will lead the discussion.
“The title intrigued me,” says Minnis, who was immediately familiar with the reference to The Odyssey after 46 years of teaching literature to high school students. “The lotus flower is one of the temptations of Odysseus. In the beginning of the book, [Soli] talks about the draw of the lotus flower. It’s a metaphor for the entire story itself. For one thing, the reader becomes addicted. It’s hard to put the book down. You become drawn into her camera.”
In this provocative tale that begins in a falling Saigon, the lotus flower is a metaphor for the narcotic power of ambition, violence and love. Though Helen has achieved fame by the powerful images she’s captured of the decimation around her, she begins to question what purpose these images serve. Meanwhile, her ambitions triangulate with her desires for two different men— Linh, a Vietnamese photojournalist who has nothing left to lose, and Sam Darrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent who is addicted to the adrenaline surge he gets from dangerous situations.
“I had always been fascinated by the war, but had no intention of writing about it myself,” says Soli, whose accounts her early childhood experience of living on Fort Ord, while her mother worked as a secretary during the Vietnam War, as a mysterious force that shaped her imagination. “You have stuff buried in your head and you don’t know why. When I realized there had been women photographers there, that was the opening. That was the way I could tell a different story from any I’d read before. I’d never even think of trying to write from a soldier’s perspective. This was a very interesting lens. The character was how I got in there.”
Thus she began the arduous task of research that constructing a historical novel of this caliber requires. A bibliographical reference list is included in the back of the book, as well as a list of recommended titles for those wishing to delve further into the Vietnam War experience. With the level of detail Soli has been able to evoke in the pages of “The Lotus Eaters,” it may come as a surprise to readers that she never set foot in Vietnam until one month ago.
“I never actually went there because I didn’t think the book would go anywhere,” says Soli, who drew on sense memories she had from a past trip to Thailand to help create the setting. “After a while, I didn’t want to go because I was afraid it would be different from what I’d imagined. With time, it became stronger and stronger in my mind.”
After being immersed in the place for 10 years in her imagination, she describes the experience of visiting the country as “amazing.” But still, the Vietnam that exists today is not the same Vietnam that existed in 1975. Nor is it the same place that exists between the pages of her book. Soli says that even after visiting, she would not change a thing in her novel. “That place in the novel is all about them,” she explains. “It is Linh and Helen’s version of Vietnam.”
More than about Vietnam specifically, “The Lotus Eaters” is about the witnessing of war and a population being decimated, a culture being destroyed. Readers cannot help but make parallels between the situation in this book and the foreign conflicts the U.S. is involved in today.
“When you ask people now why we are fighting, there is no clear answer—and this is very much what Vietnam was all about,” says Soli. “That’s what these characters are all about; they feel a huge sense that they’re changing history. I wanted people to finish my book and have an emotional bond with the people. It’s not just a threat of war with a blank enemy. Lack of understanding—that’s why we keep fighting war.”
Soli Tatjana will participate in a dialogue about “The Lotus Eaters” at the next meeting of Bookshop Santa Cruz’s Community Book Group at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 24 at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Bookshop will offer a 10 percent discount off the cover price of the book through the meeting date. For more information, call 423-0900.