The Longer Interview: On My Book and On Writing

At the blog, “A Literary Vacation,” aliteraryvacationinterview.blogspot.com, there’s an edited interview with me about Troubled Mission and about writing. I thought you might be interested in the longer, unedited, version, which follows. (Somehow, the second part of the interview got into bold-face type. I’ve tried to get rid of that but haven’t figured out hhow to yet. I hope it’s not too distracting.

Q. To start off with, please tell us a little about your book, Troubled Mission: Fighting for Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru.

A. Troubled Mission is my true—and I hope inspirational—story of what it’s like to try to change your life in very fundamental ways, dealing with the important “big issues” of life we all face: love, spirituality, and what is the essence of who we are, in my case my desire to do human rights work. I try to place the reader directly in my shoes and see directly through my eyes: what I wanted to do, the problems I encountered, how I tried to overcome those problems, and also the desperate situation of Peru during the time I was there, the violence from both the terrorists and the Peruvian government, the repression, poverty, and disease, and somehow despite all that the incredible character and resilience of the Peruvian people. I use a “flat” chronological style, showing what happened, in order to draw the reader in as opposed to trying to paint a picture essentially forcing my conclusions on the reader.

The first question, of course, is why would a successful, middle-aged attorney want to give up a comfortable life style in the US—I lived, and still do, in Sacramento, California—to live in reduced circumstances in Peru, to seek to develop a deeper spirituality, and to work for human rights in what could be a very dangerous situation. I show how this wasn’t an impulsive act just to seek adventure nor was it based on the feeling that there was something wrong with my life. Rather, the desire came as a result of becoming immersed in the Peruvian society as the result of an intensive study tour. Also, I describe how I met Bella, the woman who would change my life, a vibrant Peruvian teacher. While I easily could have tried to develop a relationship with her while continuing to be a lawyer in the US, I am candid that she certainly was a factor in my decision.

Then I show the reality. What’s it like to join a mission order, especially when I wasn’t a terribly religious person to begin with. I make it clear I wasn’t a saint—I was unmarried and very open to relationships with women—and I didn’t want to proselytize or try to get people to go to church. What’s the training program like, what was the mixture of other candidates to be missioners? What were some of the conflicts and issues that arose, as well as some of the deeply moving experiences? What was it like to go to language school where I was the odd man out—one of the few lay people and the only one from my religious order? And how did I stumble into the heart of the drug capital of the world and what was it like there. Then what was it like in Peru, including the big differences between life in Lima, a big city in many ways like any in the US but with much worse problems, and life in the rural altiplano, the high altitude area dominated by indigenous races and belief systems centered around the earth and reciprocity?

Now I get into the “what happened,” not as a history but as an involved observer who at times simply could not believe what was happening. The brutal terrorist assassinations. The horrific government overreactions. The strong popular, meaning “of the people,” organizations. The president overnight becoming a dictator! What is it like to see that? To see a censored newspaper? To see troops attacking lawfully elected senators. To hear a popular radio announcer, host of a nationwide interview program, say, “I’d like to continue my program but there are soldiers in the studio who won’t let me?” Imagine. We have serious problems but we’ve never had anything like that in the US.

Finally, there were two situations in which I was heavily involved. In one, terrorists attacked Alta Perla, a nearby town, killing police and civilians, and I was one of a group of church workers asked to be of assistance. The director of my human rights agency made it clear she didn’t want me to go, although she wouldn’t stop me. Then the Army tried to keep us out of the town. Here I was, in conflict not only with the terrorists but with the Army and even my own agency director. It was there I came to grips with the visceral reality of violent death, in helping to prepare for burial the ravaged body of Dioncia, a pregnant campesina woman. I also describe the effect of the attack on the town and the townspeople.

Then there was the world of working in a human rights agency in a foreign country. The conflicts within organizations and between organizations. The worlds of religious organizations, and of human rights organizations, aren’t at a higher plane of values than other organizations—they have turf wars, political battles, and interpersonal conflicts just like all other organizations. Also, there are vital issues of the role of women versus the role of men, in a variety of circumstances.

Suddenly, for the first time ever, the Peruvian government tried to prosecute a Peruvian human right attorney for doing lawful human rights work, for doing his job. That attorney just happened to be our attorney, Victor, who by now had become my friend. I rushed into an intense campaign to fight for him and the book describes the details of that fight, which would become a landmark case in Peru.

My goal is to have the reader keenly feel these experiences along with me, feel the reality of living in Peru in this situation, all the while feeling my struggle with the ups and downs of a relationship with Bella, and feeling my struggle to achieve a life of more spirituality.

Q. There are a lot of heavy, shocking themes running through the book, made all the more terrifying for the reader given that this is your true story. Do you ever sit back and think, “Wow, I can’t believe I survived that?” Are there any particular moments or memories that still haunt you today?

Yeah, there were so many things that could have gone wrong in a hurry I do wonder how I survived. One thing is that, as a tall gringo, I tended to stand out in any setting, even public transportation. Street crime was very bad during that time and I’m still amazed I wasn’t mugged or worse. I never felt targeted by either the military or the terrorists but then I suppose if you were targeted you wouldn’t be aware of it. I tried to always be alert, even to the point of walking down the middle of the street if there were suspicious characters around.

Many memories haunt me, especially the terrorist attack at Alta Perla and helping prepare Dioncia’s body for burial. Her body had been horribly torn apart by the terrorist bombs. I’d never seen such a horribly mutilated body and it was all I could do to keep myself together. I later had PTSD type reactions and for a long time I wondered if I could be intimate with a woman without seeing in my mind her body ripped open and all of her internal organs visible and gouged out. Eventually, I did become able to compartmentalize that and I am able to appreciate the beauty of all people I deal with, including a satisfying intimacy with my wife. In a way, maybe that horrible incident has even helped me—to really and vividly understand, not just intellectually, which I already knew, that everything can be over, or horribly changed, in an instant and all that we really have is our spirit, our essence.

Q. I’m not as aware now of all the many political, social, and spiritual conflicts going on in Peru, but it does seem that there might be some similarities with issues (even if not as extreme) we are facing here in America. Are there any similarities you particularly notice?

Yes indeed. Sometimes I feel like shouting: “Don’t you see what this,” the particular incident, “will lead to?” I realize terrorism and illegal immigration are problems but the current push by some is a dangerous overreaction. And often we don’t even recognize the problem.

In many ways, our society is already in a police state and most of us don’t realize it, or don’t realize how serious it can be. When traveling, I saw once how the Border Patrol literally takes control of US cities near the border, in this case, Douglas, Arizona. Many dismiss the NSA and other electronic surveillance as something that, “doesn’t affect me if I haven’t done anything wrong.” That is SO short sighted and fails to realize all the real problems of a total surveillance state. And the recent “reforms” of the NSA aren’t real reforms at all.

I see in the current support for certain politicians the same attitudes I saw in Peru—“the problems are so bad we have to do something and so what if we violate the Constitution.” Often we forget how important it is to have the rule of law and how that, often—not always—distinguishes us for the better from other countries. One example is that we don’t realize how close we are to censorship, especially self-censorship to avoid confrontations with the governmental. To be trite, we can’t throw out the baby with the bath water!

Every day in the news there are more examples.

Q. With all the themes running through Troubled Mission, is there any point or points that you most hope readers take away from the reading?

There are three main themes weaving through the book: First, seeking and testing love, is it for real, can we trust each other, are we fully compatible? Second, fighting for spirituality. And I mean a fight. We have to dig into our real self, our essence, our spirit, and to do that means digging through the layers of the exterior self that we put on to mask our insecurities from others and from ourselves. Finally, there is the fight for human rights, in this case the fight to prevent the Peruvian government from imprisoning a Peruvian attorney who did nothing wrong—he did his job as a human rights attorney and he did it lawfully. The consequences could be dire and the story is very up and down.

For all of these themes, what I want the reader to take away is that we must confront the issues head-on. The first two themes are timeless and relate to the human condition, any time any where. The human rights theme is more location-specific and time-specific. Most of us, thankfully, won’t be involved in a human rights struggle. But we will be involved in struggles for love, for spirituality. And we will be involved in struggles relating to what we choose to do with our lives.

In a real way, the book is inspirational. The reader can see how these themes are inter-related and how we need deep honesty and authenticity to confront these challenges.

Q. What does a typical day (if there is one) look like for you? How do you balance writing and the rest of your life?

I wish I could say I’m one of these writers who gets up at 4 a.m. and writes for several hours in peace and quiet. Unfortunately, even when I get up at my usual time, say, between 7 and 8, I just don’t feel like writing. After breakfast, I might keep reading whatever book I was reading the night before or even work on the stack of bills always on my desk. Even on good days, I usually don’t start writing before 10 or 11 in the morning.

Three days a week I have to drive across town for my physical therapy and workout program in the afternoon. On these days, I don’t assign myself any writing goals. That’s also when I try to schedule my routine appointments. Two days a week I try to keep clear just for writing. Not that I always succeed. On these days I do have a goal of getting at least a thousand words down on paper, actually, in the “cloud” nowadays. I’m not fussy about this. I don’t require that they be polished sentences at all. If I get a thousand words and know that I’ll have to cut the majority of them I still feel I’ve accomplished my goal. Then I have the freedom to just keep writing as much as I can after that, knowing that’s it’s all “free money’ in a way, it’s all gravy. Sometimes this is where I hit my stride and I really feel I’m writing creatively and “in the zone.”

Now those are “original writing” days. I also spend countless days editing and revising, often far more than I did writing the first draft. I probably edit and revise more than some other authors because of my prior legal career. Editing and revising is just a way of life that’s been burned into me. Also, I tend to get much more accomplished on these days because I have a text in front of me. I may change it all around but at least I have a jumping-off point. It’s not like staring at a blank page.

For relaxation, I may watch a movie or something else on TV. I’m not a big fan of TV but I’m not a saint—I can get sucked into shows, especially dramatic series. I must have watched The Sopranos and The Wire ten times and if a TV channel repeats them now for the nth time, I’d probably get sucked in again and watch it all over again. I’m also a news junkie, especially during election season. When I’m watching a program or a movie on TV, I always have a pen and notebook nearby and I often write notes to myself for future use. Not notes from what I’m watching but just thoughts that occur to me. Finally, I always like to read something page-turning before going to sleep. I’ve recently discovered Joseph Kanon’s series on intrigues of the post-World War II world and they’re great for night time reading.

I shouldn’t admit it but I’m kind of a hermit and a homebody. Also, I’m at an age where I’ve had “the talk” with my dermatologist and I have to stay out of the sun as much as possible. On some weekends we have get-togethers with my extended family—two step-daughters, one step-son, and my five grandkids, and some friends. I’m generally not big on going out to eat just to try out a new restaurant. And my days of going out to bars are long over.

Music has always been an important part of my life. I discovered the Grateful Dead late, after law school, and I’m still a hard-core Deadhead. And paradoxically I’ve become an opera buff, particularly the operas of Richard Wagner. No, it’s not because we have the same last name and no, I don’t think we’re related. I’ll now think nothing of traveling to Europe for one of his cycles of The Ring, a series of four connected operas. It gets to be an expensive hobby!

Q. Are you a big fan of using social media to promote your writing or to interact with readers? How do you prefer to promote your writing?

My publicist is going to hate me for saying this but I’m a real troglodyte with social media. I do have a web site, http.//johnpwagner.com, but I’m not nearly as active on it as I should be. The reason is I feel my first priority is to work on whatever book I’m writing (I’m now in the middle of my second book and plan at least two more after that–“if God wishes” as they say in Spanish). After doing that all day I don’t have much interest or energy for going back to the computer. I need to get some more blog posts out there and I promise I’ll try to do that. As for the rest of it, I don’t know how to and I don’t really care to spend my time on Facebook or Twitter or Snap Chat or whatever else is available. I’d love to but I just don’t have the time. Now that I’m retired, I realize I only have so much time left and I want to focus on my writing. I’ve gotten to be an ol’ curmudgeon who wants to write and hope that reviews on Amazon and elsewhere will help an audience find me. I know, I know, this is so old school. At least I’m not using pencil and paper!

Q. Finally, I’ve noticed that many writers are also big readers. Have you read anything worth reading recently?

Yes, I’m a voracious reader, a habit I picked up from my mom. I have a wide range of interests. Some of my all-time faves are: Joseph Heller’s Catch 22; all the books of John LeCarré, who I think is unfairly stereotyped as a “spy novelist” and actually is one of the greatest writers of his time, period; everything by the wild and crazy inventor of “gonzo,” Hunter S. Thompson; the poems of Paul Celan and Sharon Doubiago, who are completely different from each other but amazing poets; the works, depressing as they are, of French writer Michel Houellebecq; and what to me is the all time classic of how life can completely change, minute-by-minute, step by step, Fatelessness by Imre Kertész.

Some interesting books I’ve been reading, or re-reading lately include: Edie Meidav’s Crawl Space, a true masterpiece dealing with memory and history; Michael Ignatieff’s political memoir, Fire and Ashes, which really pushes beyond the usual politician’s pat answers and struggles for a deep honesty; and Hilary Mantel’s unheralded A Change of Climate, which appeals to me much more than her recent best-selling bloody historical novels, which I haven’t read. And, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve recently discovered Joseph Kanon who may be the “new” John Le Carré for me. I also like the World War II novels of Alan Furst.

Recently I stumbled onto Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Why We Took The Car, which is actually considered YA literature. It’s very well written, hilarious, and profoundly insightful on coming of age issues in contemporary Germany. Finally, at this exact moment I’m re-reading one of my favorite books of various analytical pieces on Elvis Presley, Kevin Quain’s The Elvis Reader. There are so many more books I like, and new books I want to read, I could go on and on.

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