Friday, April 10, 2009

Interview with Eleanor Bluestein of "Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales"

Eleanor Bluestein has worked as a science teacher, editor of science textbooks, and designer of multimedia educational materials for Internet delivery. For a decade, she co-edited Crawl Out Your Window, a San Diego based literary journal featuring the work of local writers and artists. She lives with her husband in La Jolla, California, where she writes fiction and volunteers as a court appointed special advocate for foster children. Tea & Other Ayama Na Tales is her first book. (courtesy BkMk Press)

Here is a brief Q &A session with the author:

1. How did this wonderful collection come about? I read you are a science teacher and a textbook editor by profession, so when or how did you make the leap to fiction?

Thank you, Angelique, for that characterization of this collection. I made that leap to fiction in the interval between my six years as a science teacher and my return to work as a science text book editor. I took some years off to be a full time Mom to my son and daughter, and during those years I enrolled in a writing class at UCSD extension (University of California, San Diego) and started writing fiction. I continued to write fiction when I returned to work as an editor, a profession less demanding than teaching. I could never have written fiction at the same time I taught public school (grades 7, 8, and 9).

2. I am most curious as to why you chose to base your stories in a mythical country over a real one and which country actually inspired Ayama Na. I have my guesses (Cambodia?) but I don't know for sure if I am right. And as a second part to the question, why the South East of Asia? What is your connection to that part of the world?

You are right. It was mostly Cambodia that inspired these stories. I’d traveled there and also to Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam. All these countries found their way into the Ayama Na tales (in Thailand, I visited hill tribes, for example), but the characters’ back stories, the war-torn landscape, the nation’s tragic recent history, the tension between tradition and modernization derive in large part from what I saw and learned in Cambodia. The choice of a mythical country evolved as I wrote the stories. A mythical country gave me the freedom to combine elements of real countries and to add purely fictional elements, such as the long drought. I have no connection to that part of the world, really, except that I was a tourist in South East Asia on three separate trips—relatively brief trips at that.

3. You have sketched some very entertaining and unforgettable characters in this volume of short stories. I was particularly taken with Dali-Roo, the robot-obsessed peasant; the one-legged prostitute in "The Artist's Story" and lil' Aleeta from "A Ruined World" you have any plans to use any of these characters in other stories or maybe in a novel? And while we're on the subject of characters I may as well ask you if you drive the characters and architecture of these stories, or have you found it is the other way round? :)

Thank you, again, Angelique. These characters are all fictional inventions, although the robot AIBO is real—an expensive Sony product, now discontinued. I saw it demonstrated at a mall shortly after returning from Cambodia. At present, I have no plans to use these characters in other stories or a novel, but I’d never say never. I have imagined Aleeta’s future. The second part of your question is so interesting to me and so hard to answer. Sometimes, when I’m very lucky, the characters take over—this happens for me especially when writing dialog. At other times, story is a cerebral act, thinking, thinking, trying this or that, seeing what works. And sometimes it just seems a miracle to pull off a paragraph.

4. The tourists in your stories are all pretty obnoxious...did you deliberately sketch them that way to make us think about our responsibilities as tourists? In the story titled "The Blanks", the guide Kenchoreeve was of the opinion that people who gawked at his country had an obligation to shop. It was the price they paid for the right to treat Ayama Na as if it were a third world theme park. I found that very interesting because it spoke to me as a tourist, reminding me that when I visit a country, I really do have a duty to give back.

No, I didn’t consciously intend any lessons for tourists, but I definitely found myself examining and using my own attitudes about travel as I wrote these stories. I didn’t say so aloud, but I didn’t like to be taken to crafts shops—I thought it a waste of time; I considered riding an elephant too hokey. I also left “good” jewelry back in America, took out hand wipes or Purel and sanitized my hands before eating, and I certainly liked knowing about a tour guide’s personal life. Maybe that’s why I feel forgiving and affectionate toward the Americans in these stories.

5.What's next for you Eleanor? Will you continue writing short stories or do you have your sights set on something different now?

I’m working on a novel that takes place in San Diego, the city I call home. I also have a completed novel that I’m trying to market. That one takes place in Los Angeles and France. It’s a newspaper story, literary mystery, and romance.

6.Have you been back to South East Asia recently?

I traveled to Thailand and Cambodia in 2003 and to Viet Nam in 2005, but not since. I would very much like to return to Cambodia, which was just at the beginning of a huge tourist influx when I was there—hotel construction all over the place. The country was modernizing rapidly and has changed.

7. What's the last book you read and immediately passed on to someone else?

Indignation. Philip Roth. I passed it along to my son. We have different reading tastes, but we are both huge Philip Roth fans.

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