Elena Bowes catches up with Liese O’Halloran Schwarz about her latest book, What Could Be Saved, which is just as much of a page-turner as her last one, The Possible World. Part-thriller, part-family saga set in Bangkok in the early 1970s and then Washington DC more recently, Schwarz writes beautifully about family – love, loss, secrets, resentments, forgiveness, joy, acceptance and everything else that goes into being human and part of a family.
I interviewed you a few years ago about your second book The Possible World which was just as gripping as your latest original, fast-paced novel: What Could Be Saved. Are you now fully dedicating yourself to writing, no more practising medicine?
Hello again! Yes, I am fully concentrating on writing now. I’m no longer working clinically. I found it difficult to balance the two— and if there was any conflict, medicine had to win. (The stakes are much higher!) I know that other doctors do manage to do both, and I admire them. I always intended to write, and I’m so very happy to be focusing only on that, finally.
You begin What Could Be Saved with a Thai proverb: Bad seven times, good seven times. Can you tell us what that means?
I believe its colloquial meaning is analogous to the English proverb “to every cloud is a silver lining” — that there’s always bad with the good, they come together. I extend that interpretation, perhaps wrongly, to include the concept that nothing is completely bad or good, that everything that happens (and every person) has a dual nature.
You describe the city of Bangkok so vividly and with such detail. Can you tell us about your time there?
I was a child there when I was in primary school, for only a few years, but it was a formative period. Bangkok is the place I think of first when I think “childhood”. It was a lovely childhood. As a child I didn’t find the heat oppressive, and I loved my school (Bangkok Patana) and my schoolfriends, loved our swimming pool and playing in the garden. Bangkok was “home” to me then, and I thoroughly enjoyed living there.
And I’m sorry I have to ask, seeing as you have a sister Carla and a brother Harley just like your protagonist Laura, had siblings Beatrice and Philip, how autobiographical is this amazing tale? Where does real life end and fiction begin in What Could Be Saved?
What Could Be Saved shares a framework with our experience, but the book is not autobiographical at all. An analogy might be that the two (real life and the book) share the same stage set, but the play is totally different. Like the Prestons (the family in the book), we were a family of five, and we lived in the same part of Bangkok they did, and in the same era; the actual physical setting (house and garden and pool) in the book are almost exactly the same as I recall them. Also like the Prestons, we were there during a time of upheaval in the US; we missed a whole revolution in American culture (something that reverberated for me throughout my later childhood and life). So the setting is the same. But all the rest is fiction. The characters are not us. My mother loved Bangkok, unlike Genevieve Preston, and my father was not a feckless compulsive like Robert Preston. The sibling dynamics in some places do reflect my experience — for example, the older vs. younger tension that can exist in any sibling relationship — but the children themselves are fictitious. Also, while the household staff in the book do bear some similarities to the staff we had in Bangkok, they are not exactly the same people. I was a child then, and didn’t know the Thai staff as well as all that, so a lot of fiction had to come into play when I created those characters. And of course, the whole plot of the book is fabrication. The Prestons are not my family — and yet the book is also quite nostalgic to me.
I think of that sentiment expressed by Ann Patchett’s mother after she read her daughter’s wonderful novel COMMONWEALTH: “None of it happened, and all of it is true.” (I read that in the interview by Mary Laura Philpott.) I believe (I hope) that my family members would have that same reaction to reading my book.
Your narrative alternates deliciously between past and present, keeping readers on their toes throughout. What advice would you give a writer seeking to interweave multiple story lines. Are there any tricks of the trade, pitfalls to avoid?
Thank you for the kind words! I don’t know that I can put forth any general guidelines, but I created some challenges for myself with this book. The many third-person points of view and the world-building (the recreation of expatriate Bangkok in 1972) can be very distancing elements for a reader, and to create an immersive read I had to offset that distance. I used chunks of timeline, to allow the reader to sink into a narrative and get to know the different characters and the setting. So, no quick choppy chapters or timeline switches. The narrative does have a lot of threads; in revision I strove to make nothing extraneous: to make every detail and individual storyline eventually curve around to touch what I call the spine of the story. With the hope that when a reader finishes the book, every bit that has been read fits into the whole. (In a way things never do in real life!) I don’t believe that all books need to do that — I can enjoy reading a good digressive ramble — but I wanted to do that with this story, as part of creating a satisfying read.
During the course of your suspenseful book, Laura muses more than once upon the power of secrets. As a child, she believes that there are different kinds (some are more powerful when kept, and others better when shared), and she revisits this near the end of the book when the last of the family secrets are revealed. Can you expand on this?
I believe that as children we sometimes understand things very clearly, and then life can come along and complicate that understanding, and then as an adult the clouds can part and let us re-discover some fundamental, innate knowledge. Laura as a child is already aware of the power of secrets, and then through her adult life she struggles against her secretive family and takes on some black-and-white thinking. Then at the end of this book, she comes back to a fundamental understanding she had naturally as a child — something that she had lost for a long time while growing up. Some tenets adopted in adulthood can look very childish and crude when compared to the natural instincts of children.
You ask a question at the end of your thrilling family saga – Is it possible for someone to be truly good who has committed a terrible act? What do you think?
Ooh, I don’t know! Stories can ask questions, without the author having the answer. This story does ask the reader to consider that question. As for my thoughts: it might depend very much on the act. And on one’s belief system about guilt and forgiveness and karma. I do believe that an act is not the same as the person who commits it — but also that an act can represent something about that person’s nature. Ideally, there are hard stops in a good character that will prevent that person from committing truly evil acts — but that concept is probably too idealistic. I think it is possible in theory for a good person, in specific circumstances, to do a terrible thing.
What was the most challenging aspect to writing this book?
Probably creating the setting, of 1972 Bangkok. My childhood memories had to be refreshed and also bolstered, so that I could attempt to write 1972 Bangkok properly, and also from an adult’s point of view. Writing fiction is basically a lot of lying and trying to get people to enter into your world of lies, and this was a particularly ambitious set of lies. I did much more research than I probably needed to do, but that is the way I generally go about it — I put a lot of information into my brain and then let it marinate and macerate in there for a while, so that when I eventually go to write a scene I can envision it, and the details come naturally. I am sure the end result is not perfect, but I am delighted to say that several people who were there have read the book and told me that it did feel right to them. That feels like a magic trick. Yes, one that took a lot of gruelling effort to master, but in the end—magic!
And the most enjoyable?
Probably writing the children in Bangkok. It was deeply nostalgic and sentimental to revisit that time, even in the minds of fictional characters. I just loved those characters. I loved all the characters in the book, actually. I loved writing this book. Even considering how hard it was to do. When words come well (in drafting), that’s deliriously wonderful! And when story elements begin to come together (in revision) and the whole ramshackle creation begins to fall into a solid whole — I know no greater joy.
What new books do you want to read next?
All of them? Seriously. All of them. I just finished a terrific stretch of reading — Milkman and Olive, Again and Zorrie and The Bear and Nothing to See Here and The Round House and they were all different and all absolutely wonderful.I’m about to read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain and A Children’s Bible and The Bad Muslim Discount — I have been eagerly looking forward to those. On audio, I’m listening to The Future of Another Timeline, Half of a Yellow Sun, and The Night Watchman.
How did you fare during COVID? As a writer, I am guessing you fared better than others –living in your imaginary world. But maybe COVID made you miss the medical world? What did you miss most? And what are you most excited to do when restrictions are truly lifted?
COVID has been terrifying, of course. If it had happened when I was working in the ER, I would have simply gone to work, just as all my colleagues did, but I didn’t have to do that. I did feel a little bit of that itch to get into the trenches, but mainly I felt a huge, selfish relief that I was not being exposed every day. In all but psychological ways, my experience of COVID has been easy — I have been able to be very strict about minimising my exposure.
Honestly, most of my wishes for “return to normalcy” are so mundane. When it’s safe to do so, I want to go to the grocery store and see what’s new there, and choose my own produce. Ha! Obviously, I also want to travel to see friends, many of whom live far away, but I think I will start small. On my “full immunity day” two weeks after the second Pfizer shot, I really, really want to visit my local bookstores. I cherish opportunities to interact with book people even in normal times. It was super-hard to release a book during the pandemic and not even step inside a bookstore! I am endlessly grateful to the booksellers who enthusiastically embraced and championed What Could Be Saved, who helped readers to find it. While I dearly missed the opportunity to connect IRL with people around the release of my book (such a treat for a person who usually lives in a hole typing away and talking to herself), technology has allowed me to say ‘Yes’ to every invitation to speak, and make virtual visits to book clubs, and that has been lovely.
When my full-immunity day arrives, I would like to visit Flyleaf Books and Epilogue Books and McIntyre’s Books. It will be a quiet extravaganza: I will buy coffees! And definitely some books! And then scuttle home and take off my mask! There’s also an IRL book event coming in June in which I am slated to participate, and I am nervous about it, but ready. I miss the world and can’t wait to be back out in it.
Thank you so much for reading the book, Elena, and for your insightful questions. It has been a pleasure!
– Interview by Elena Bowes
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