I tried to think of it as an admirable restraint. Some of that restraint, after all, had to do with my desire to protect their privacy. More of it had to do with my fear that I couldn't handle the material. And some had to do with my impatience with the way autobiographical fiction often seemed designed to exonerate, confessing to what we suspected was the lesser crime in order to divert attention from even more massive failures, and offering with a kind of a wheedle a pathetic determinism in the form of past injustices that explained present character flaws.

But I also knew that eventually I would deal with that subject. How could I not? And that the attempt to work through that kind of suffering, on all our parts, depending on the emotional honesty with which it was approached, could proceed from the exploitative to the redemptive. I finally found myself doing so the way my family did everything: through the back door.

My whole life, I've had an obsession with tidal waves. Tidal waves used to cruise through my dreams on the average of once a month. Tidal waves were a subject I could never turn away from. Tidal waves turned out to be, I discovered, a difficult thing to work into serious fiction. I gave it a shot at the end of my third novel, if only in my protagonist's imagination.

But I wanted to write about a real tidal wave. And those of us who are obsessive tsunami fanatics prick up our ears at almost any mention of Krakatoa, the volcanic island in Indonesia that annihilated itself so spectacularly in 1883. I mean, come on: 300-foot waves storming in out of the ash-choked darkness with such appalling majesty that survivors from high ground first registered them as far-off mountain ranges that seemed to be moving. Over the years I read everything I could about what they were like, what they might have been like, what happened on Krakatoa.

And of course I wanted to write fiction about it. Maybe something historical? But I wasn't so far gone that I aspired to a cheesy literary version of Krakatoa, East of Java. So I had to ask myself what I asked my students: What about the subject was in any way fraught for me? What about it transcended what would otherwise be just your typical small boy's mesmerized fascination with a particular kind of catastrophe?

I began to feel as though my brother was somehow involved in the project. Thoughts about one led me to thoughts about the other. Though the metaphoric connections that suggested themselves at first seemed reductive and simplistic.

Then it occurred to me that the link I was seeking involved that very urge to reduce and simplify causality, when it came to dealing with catastrophe. That maybe picking over the bombed-out ruins of familial dysfunction was analogous to investigating the causes of great volcanic eruptions. In both cases, we're dealing with braided events: not single motives or causes but a constellation of interlocking constellations, a situation in which each system is conditioned by and conditions others. The jaw-dropping tsunamis that fanned out from Krakatoa in 1883 turned out not to have been generated by any single geologic factor but by a massive interlocking system of events: one that could be picked apart with care and appalled fascination, but also one that would never offer up all of its mysteries.

Photo: Courtesy of Jim Shepard


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