If you could assemble a dream career for a writer, it might look something like Bob Shacochis’s. Already a National Book Award winner, his 2013 novel, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul—a scathing look at American exceptionalism disguised as a multi-generational spy tale—was recently awarded the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Shacochis chatted about the power of the written word from his home in New Mexico, which he shares with his wife and their three dogs.
In your acceptance speech for the Dayton Peace Prize, you talked about how books can be dangerous. What makes your new book dangerous?
My book dramatizes national security issues and it points to people within the government who have a lot more power than they should. Raising the American psyche about that is a grand ambition. The colonial writers, starting with Rudyard Kipling and going on to Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad, were subversive. They helped convince the public that colonialism wasn’t sustainable. Literature has an enormous effect over time in raising consciousness.
Growing up near Washington, D.C., were you aware of those people in power?
Of course. My dad [a former director at the Bureau of Naval Personnel] and everybody else’s dad were running the world. These were the parents who started the Vietnam War. Instantly the generations took sides, and a lot of parents were very disappointed in their children.
Do you see your novels as a rebellion against that kind of power?
Any serious novel is a rebellion against the status quo, a status quo that is destroying us at an accelerated rate these days. But mostly I see my novels as a dramatization and illumination of America’s power across the globe.
Yet in your acceptance speech, you sounded hopeful. Where does that optimism come from?
When the Roman legionnaires went into a city, they killed everyone. In Vietnam we killed 3.5 million people. While those kinds of things still happen, it’s historically very small, because the public is more conscious of hurting innocent people. There’s an international criminal court now. Although Americans will never be dragged into it, because we run the world.
Originally published in the January 2015 issue