a conversation with Dennis Bock      

Bold Type: What led you to write The Ash Garden?

Dennis Bock: I didn't start writing the book with a peculiar or identifiable burst of energy or certain controlling idea. Writing, for me, is a very slow, deliberate and arduous process. Moments of euphoria happen, and tremendous elation; but more accurately, it's a day to day slog. The process of revelation is [piece]meal and vague and hit and miss. One of the responsibilities of the writer, I should think, is hanging on long enough to be there for the moment the next layer of the onion skin is peeled back.

BT: Emiko, one of The Ash Garden's principal characters, tells family stories to her little brother as he lays dying of injuries sustained during the blast, and later becomes a documentary filmmaker - an unflinching, pictorial storyteller. I found myself wondering if Emiko is a stand-in for you in particular, or the figure of the writer or storyteller in general, in your novel. Is that what you intended?

DB: It was not my intention that any character in the novel should represent anyone or anything other than themselves or, for that matter, any calling or pursuit or disciple. I don't think in terms of symbols or representations - not when it comes to my characters. I try to write the character as best as I can. I find if I spend time thinking about what the character means, rather than who he or she is, the game is up. It's the reader's responsibility, if he's so inclined, to make whatever connections he can.

BT: Following the previous question, how do you think Emiko as a documentary filmmaker, a conveyer of truth and reality, affects the status of your novel as potential truth? Do you think that the parallels there give your story more authority? Or do they emphasize that you, too, are more trying to tell a story than present an interpretation?

DB: The fact that Emiko records history falls within the purview of her vocation. That's her job; that's what she does. Now, if you're to tell me that a writer also records history, and is a purveyor of truth and so on, well, I'll accept that. But such a connection or parallel is secondary to my intention.

BT: Did you feel a heightened sense of responsibility to your subject in approaching the topic of how people's lives were affected by the bombing of Hiroshima? Is that something you actively seek out as a writer?

DB: Sadly, these are actual historical events I deal with in the novel. When you're working with a subject matter like this, when you know there are real people out there who still have a living memory of the day the bomb was dropped, and may still be living with the physical and mental scars that the bomb caused, you've got to be prepared to give everything to the novel. You have to treat your characters with great respect. I actively seek out big and challenging terrain, if only because that's what fascinates me. When you're talking about the kind of time investment that the writing of a novel demands, you have to guarantee yourself a project that will keep you thinking hard for years.

BT: What did you read in preparation for writing this book? Also, what books or writers serve as inspiration for your technique?

DB: I did a ton of research. This is something I enjoy. First, it gets me out of the house. I go down to the library and nose around there for hours, looking for anything connected to what I'm writing. I rarely go with something specific in mind. I happen across something, it takes hold of my imagination or not. Immediately I see how it might fit into the book I'm writing. It's a very haphazard sort of research style. In preparation for The Ash Garden, I looked at a lot of scientific reports, photo essays and documentaries. I didn't read books from cover to cover because I wasn't concerned with gaining any sort of encyclopedic knowledge of the time that would shape my characters' lives. I looked for small details that would serve to reveal something about these people. An understanding of the big historical events is crucial in setting the scene, as it were; but more interesting for me is slowing the characters down sufficiently so that they becomes real and representative of no one but themselves.

I consciously avoided fictionalized accounts of the historical events in question because I didn't want to be influenced by another writer's voice. Likewise, I stayed away from novels like Memoirs of a Geisha in order to avoid any indirect or unconscious absorption of a non-Japanese writer's take on a Japanese voice.

BT: The Ash Garden pulls off the considerable feat of presenting three principal characters with equal complexity and depth. I did note, however, that your characters seem invested with different levels of empathy - I was able to feel much more for and through Emiko than for and through Anton, for example. Do you want readers to empathize equally with all of the main characters? Do you empathize equally with all of them?

DB: I wasn't really trying for empathy. What I was trying for was balance. Equal time, equal validity. You may not agree with Anton's point of view, or the reason he chose to participate on the Manhattan Project, and that's fine. What I wanted to do, though, was to show that his reasons for living his life the way he does was necessary and inevitable for him. It's about respecting the characters you create, not agreeing with them. And if you respect them as the writer they will find the space they need in order to establish their motivations, in so far as they are able and willing to reveal them.

BT: I was struck by your ability to take a narrative and characters so impacted by these cataclysmic events, potentially the most important moments of the 20th century, and make them "ordinary" - that is to say, believable. How were you able to do this? Was it a challenge?

DB: This goes back to something [I've said before]. A basic understanding of the historical events is necessary. But just as necessary, if not moreso, is the impulse to make these people real. Otherwise you end up with a trio of stock characters who are merely representative and not at all believable. Anton, especially, was a challenge to write. His emotional secrecy, intellectual brilliance and moral slipperiness are all things I don't possess. Beating those qualities out of him (or into him) took the greatest effort; you can't just say a character possesses these qualities and therefore it is so. You've got to find as many ways as possible to suggest these qualities to the reader.

BT: You describe in detail the progression of Sophie's lupus and the painful reconstruction that Emiko undergoes after her face is burned off by the bomb. Both are referred to as having scars, the physical register of trauma. I'm curious about Anton, since his scars are not physical, but clearly present. What does his turn inward say about his relation to his physicality and to his wife?

DB: Anton, Emiko and Sophie, all in their own way, are scarred. Anton's scars are not visible. I'd say this may be appropriate because he is the type of person who lives in his head. He is a man of ideas, abstractions, and theories. This is where he lives; this is where his battles are won and lost. It is his sense of his own superiority, the triumph of his ideas, that suffers. The turn inward occurred long before he comes of age, I think. This is me talking as a reader now, because I don't think there is anything absolute in the text to suggest when this turn inward might have occurred. But as a reader I would look to his childhood, and the relationship his mother shares with his traumatized father, who is a veteran of the First War. Maybe this is when he abandons the cruelty of the outside world for the safety of ideas.

BT: I'm also interested in the way both cameras and mirrors act as revelatory devices in The Ash Garden. For so long, Anton fears both of them. One of Sophie's last experiences is noticing that her husband covers and hides the mirrors in their home so that she can't see her deteriorating body. But then Anton comes around and shows Emiko old films and photographs at the end of the novel. Why?

DB: Anton is selective of the reflections he's interested in viewing. What helps his cause stands the test. He uses those old films to make his point. Other reflections he's not so interested in. Yet, covering those mirrors is for Anton an act of generosity. This he does for his wife, Sophie, in order to lessen the burden of her physical degeneration, though, of course, we might not see it as an act of charity.

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