Janette Turner Hospital: Negotiating with the dead

Janette Turner Hospital's novel about a hijacked plane was overtaken by the events of September 11. She talks to Julie Wheelwright about survival, trauma and God

The Australian novelist Janette Turner Hospital remembers precisely the first time she questioned her parents' evangelical faith. Every evening, over their supper table, her parents or brothers would read aloud passages from the Bible, in a never-ending cycle from Genesis to Revelation. Turner Hospital, then aged nine, asked why God should be so unfair to Cain while praising Abel.

"My parents were clearly disturbed and the answer was always, it's not for us to question the ways of God, his ways are always just," she tells me, her hand making a flutter of apology. "This may sound ludicrous, but you can't imagine what it's like when you grow up in a family that is always expecting the Second Coming of Christ. It could be Friday and very likely next week, so you're always living in this apocalyptic state."

Janette Turner Hospital had already discovered that her classmates in postwar Brisbane had little interest in theology. So from a home without television, radio or comic books, she set out for school like a space traveller to another planet. "There was nothing you knew in one world that helped you survive or function normally in the other world; it was the reverse," she says. We meet in the South Kensington hotel where the novelist, now based in South Carolina, is staying. "You had to acquire two complete sets of being, two sets of vocabulary, two sets of acceptable topics to speak about." Living a double life, Turner Hospital became an astute observer and fostered a life-long fascination with psychological survival.

That willingness to probe her own psychic wounds is visible in her new novel, Due Preparations for the Plague (Fourth Estate, £17.99). In this deliciously complex story, Turner Hospital explores the terrible reverberations of a fictional Air France hijacking by Islamic fundamentalists in 1987, in which the child hostages are let off the plane while their parents perish.

The children are held at a Berlin army base where they watch their parents' ordeal on the television news, burning images into their brains. Samantha's closest friends are all fellow-survivors and all grow up deeply damaged. Watching a group of children playing in a Washington park, Samantha meditates on the fragility of peace. "You have no idea, she wants to tell the children; the swings, the sandbox: they are all illusions. You have no idea how unreliable things are, or how suddenly the sky can turn to fire."

This is a central motif of Turner Hospital's writing: the way that people who have endured a trauma must negotiate it long after the event. "My observation is that it's never a done thing," she says. "These days people throw around words like 'closure'. The idea is that you have this dreadful crisis, you have a dreadful period and you reach closure and then it's not a problem any more. But it's just not like that."

She admits that her need to understand "the secret of survival" also stems from her grief and confusion after two high school friends committed suicide in their early twenties. "I'm always conscious that the risk of not making it is high."

The child-survivor in Due Preparations who seems less likely to survive is Lowell, the son of a CIA operative code-named Salamander who set up the hijacking as a sting operation that went badly wrong. Lowell's mother died in the incident with the lover, for whom she was leaving her husband. Before Salamander's death in a dubious car accident, he bequeaths Lowell material evidence of the CIA's culpability.

Lowell eventually teams up with Samantha, who is obsessed with piecing together why the intelligence services seemed to have sacrificed the passengers for their own political ends. Salamander has saved vital documents and video tapes of the final moments of 10 passengers who were taken as hostages to an undisclosed underground bunker as potential human shields. Each is given an anti-gas suit with the knowledge that they might just survive the nerve-agents being pumped into their bunker.

While she was researching the book, Turner Hospital - ironically - had a neighbour who taught intelligence at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. He loaned her a Nato manual on surviving gas attacks and a standard-issue gas mask and suit. "All sorts of things happen to you quite quickly when you're inside these," says Turner Hospital. "Because you're hermetically sealed, you body's sweat cannot evaporate, and to compensate, the sweat glands work overtime, and then your temperature rises. You're slopping around in your own sweat and you get delusional." The suits are so uncomfortable and unreliable that Turner Hospital's 10 hostages all choose to remove their gas masks, to send a final message back home, knowing that they risk a swifter death.

The hostages have their moment of "radiant calm before the camera"; making peace with their families, asking for forgiveness for old hurts, offering final moments of love to their children. Her original impulses for these scenes, however, were changed after 11 September 2001, which happened while she was writing her final draft. For three months, she stopped altogether.

"I had this completely hubristic feeling, this eerie sense that the book had gotten loose in the world like Pandora'sbox," she says. The hundreds of mobile phone messages that went out from the people trapped in the twin towers, who knew that death was imminent, compelled her to rewrite the cameos in the bunker.

"When I read that mosaic of calls I was profoundly reassured about human nature in crisis," she says. "People were not screaming and raging, the issue of survival was not on the table." Turner Hospital describes these scenes as "hellishly difficult" to write because she feared descending into sentimentality or trivialising the horrible deaths the hostages suffered. "It's a heck of a lot easier for a novelist to do angst and Stürm und Drang than it is to do radiant calm." It is an accomplished performance, and deeply moving in that her hostages, many of whom are artists, seize this final moment in triumph. "Even out of atrocity, one is stirred to make art. Especially out of atrocity," she writes. "One feels compelled to transform it. They felt so impelled."

Although the novel is set in the 1980s and has the carapace of a spy thriller, Turner Hospital says that her inspiration was Boccaccio's 14th-century masterpiece, Decameron, where a group of 10 people are holed up in a Tuscan villa, waiting for the plague to dissipate. To entertain and reassure themselves, each tells a story. There are obvious parallels between the medieval fear of the plague and our contemporary anxiety about inter- national terrorism.

"No matter what you do, how rich you are or where you flee, it's going to crop up randomly," she says. Turner Hospital is a master at creating an atmosphere poignant with foreboding in her fiction. In her previous novel, Oyster, the Apocalypse is impending in outback Australia. Here, the eponymous evangelical priest and his flock of young believers become involved in a turf war over an opal mine with the local townspeople.

Turner Hospital was inspired to write Oyster when she heard the news about the siege at Wacko, Texas, while travelling through outback Queensland. She began to see striking parallels between the two places. They had in common a distrust of federal government, an isolation that can breed hardened prejudices, and fundamentalist religions that appear to offer hope to marginalised people.

Oyster also featured Jesse, a mute female character, one of Turner Hospital's recurring literary motifs. "You would have thought that I'd have noticed that I had mute women in several novels, but I hadn't," she says. Jesse, like many of the other residents of Outer Maroo, is in flight from her past and the horrors that have robbed her of speech.

Her young friend Mercy is another female character who is struggling to find her voice. Mercy devours books illicitly and, while she reads the Bible from the lectern of the Living Word Gospel Hall, transforms the words, making them her own. She discovers the power of language and its capacity for liberation.

"Oyster was one of those books that I wished to God I'd never begun," the author says. "I never meant to draw on my own childhood. I have immensely ambivalent feelings about the whole issue of religion because I extracted myself when I began to have all sorts of intellectual problems with it very early on."

But Turner Hospital has little patience with liberals who contemptuously dismiss fundamentalist beliefs. "Indeed, it's a crippling straitjacket - intellectually, culturally and socially," she comments. "But it's also a form of consolation and empowerment for very marginalised lives." Dismissing the fundamentalists' beliefs only hardens them and turns them into martyrs, she says. When Turner Hospital has students from fundamentalist backgrounds at the University of South Carolina, where she now teaches literature, she understands their fears of reading "godless" novels.

"I know how to mediate between those worlds," she says, "and that helps me as a teacher in the deep South." It is through these cracks and fissures, where ideas and cultures sit uncomfortably together, that Turner Hospital has made her own brilliantly executed fiction worlds.

Biography

Janette Turner Hospital was a war baby, born in Melbourne in 1942. She grew up in Brisbane, where her parents were members of the Apostolic Pentecostal Church. She attended Queensland University and Kelvin Grove Teaching College, where she graduated with a BA in 1965. During the same year, she married Clifford Hospital, an academic, and after teaching in outback Queensland, she moved with her husband to Boston in the United States and later to Kingston, Ontario. She has won international awards for her short stories and novels, which have included The Tiger in the Tiger Pit, Borderline, The Last Magician and Oyster (all published in Britain by Virago). When Due Preparations for the Plague was published in North America in 2003, it became her first bestseller in Canada and also in Australia. In 1999, she became Professor and Distinguished Writer in Residence at the University of South Carolina. She lives in the South Carolinian city of Columbia with her husband, now retired from Queen's University. Due Preparations for the Plague was published this month by Fourth Estate.

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