Weathering the Storms of Life

Marianne Wiggins braves the elements, in life as in fiction.

We've made no more detailed arrangements, Ms. Wiggins and I, than to simply meet in the green room at the LA Times Book Festival. I check inside in search of the writer I thought I'd recognize from the breathless photo on the book jackets of John Dollar, Eveless Eden, and her latest, Almost Heaven. She's invisible to me. Just as I'm about to head back into the festival crowds, I hear an Americanized English accent from the woman speaking with her daughter at a picnic table. They sit less than a foot from me. "Are you Marianne Wiggins?" I ask, honestly not knowing. If it is her, she looks less platinum than her portrait. The strands and sinews around and in her face are longer, leaner, calmer. "Yes, I am," she replies. She tells me she's been traveling around SoCal for a few days with her daughter since she arrived from her home in London. Her voice is quiet but distinct inside the almost-accent of an American-born female activist with a worldly scope. Wiggins is a writer who's traveled around the world and back to catch the cadence of the human psyche, about which she writes with a lyricism cherished by her readers and praised by her peers. Almost Heaven picks up with the burned-out existence of Holden Garfield, who was introduced a few years ago in Wiggins' novel Eveless Eden. Now a writer in his twenties, Holden is back stateside in Virginia after covering the first months of the Bosnian war for Newsweek. His psyche is something less than stable; having witnessed a heart-first crucifixion of a Muslim baby, he is now trying to erase his memory of the war by focusing, like the rest of the country, on the unpredictable weather that is just as capable of senseless killing and maiming. Fresh off the plane, he marvels at how El Ni�ominates news on the domestic front. Less than 24 hours from the Bosnian battlefield, he learns that Melanie Page, the sister of Holden's mentor and a character who also made her debut in Eveless Eden, has just lost her sons and husband in a freak accident of nature. Melanie is hospitalized because she's unable to remember the tornado that struck so suddenly, the family she lost, and the life she's lived for the past decade. She spends her resting hours writing—preserving, really—her memories on an invisible wall with an invisible pen. Holden sets out to find Melanie's only living relative, a brother and fellow journalist on the run from the ravages of the AIDS-tainted blood scare that began in Eveless Eden. Weather acts as a character in the novel, much as a soundtrack provides an off-camera voice in a film. "Weather is Old Testament stuff," Wiggins says. "Weather is a way of referring back to forces beyond human control. It's also a way of taking human beings out of the landscape of responsibility because you can't change the weather. "The fact that news stations were leading with these [weather] stories," she continues, "reminded me very much of the plagues and the crises and the catastrophes that the Old Testament is full of. And I thought that for some far-reaching philosophical reason, this obsession with the weather may be fulfilling a sort of Old Testament lack in our spirituality. The language of weather is so passionate, it's powerful, it's irresistible to write about." Since her acrimonious parting with Salman Rushdie in 1993, six months after the start of the fatwa that relegated both to a life of hiding, Wiggins has kept her silence about that hurricane in her own life. Rushdie recently revealed, in a New York Times interview, that his next book will likely cover the years he spent in hiding and the toll the fatwa took. For Wiggins, if her silenced fear didn't find its way into Almost Heaven and the character of Melanie, it may never be heard—even in Wiggins' own mind. "I didn't realize why it was so hard for me to write [Almost Heaven] until I started going out on the interview circuit and explaining this woman whose psyche had forced her to forget painful events in her life," Wiggins says. "And an interviewer told me, 'That's you.' And I said, no, I don't write autobiography at all, nor am I anything like Melanie. I have maintained a silence on the subject [of Rushdie] for 10 years and will continue to do so. The one person that I can talk to about it, is somebody that I—" She pauses. "We don't speak. We've gone on and created our own separate lives. And so it's carrying a history that is unspoken. And what I've done is taken that emotional field and created art out of it. I don't think that writing is catharsis at this point in my career. But to some extent, I think my unconscious psyche was certainly at work." Ironically, Wiggins says her next book will be set in the India and Pakistan from which Rushdie hails and about which he has written. "Last May in the subcontinent, India and Pakistan set off their nuclear devices," she recalls, shaking her head, "and I was really hard hit by that. So I'm writing about the bomb. The new novel takes place in the United States and gives voice to the indigenous populations that were downwind in Nevada and New Mexico, and to whole cancer populations that have been unrecognized by the United States government even though we did a lot of above-ground testing in the desert. "Now, radiation also saved my life," she counters wryly. (Earlier in our conversation, Wiggins had mentioned that she was a "cancer survivor," but declined to elaborate.) "It is this cutting edge and this tension of something like love which can kill you and which can also save you. My big worry is . . . well, I wish we could eradicate all nuclear weapons. After the events of Littleton, every human being has this capacity. The weapon becomes the reason. Everybody's talking about trench coats—how about out and out guns? And what do we do with the waste of the nuclear weapons once they're outlawed? "It's a big theme," she confesses. "But then I don't think you're ever going to get the little book of meditation from me." Rosalind Alexander is a writer living in Southern California.

 
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