||Consorting with the Enemy: Interview with Paulette Jiles
by Linda Morra
Paulette Jiles was the winner of the Governor-General's award for poetry in 1984. Her previous publications include North Spirit (1995) and Cousins (1992). Her debut novel and the focus of the interview, Enemy Women addresses the effects of the Civil War upon the residents of southeastern Missouri, where Jiles herself was born and raised. Although she currently resides in San Antonio, Texas, she was interviewed by Linda Morra while vacationing on Padre Island, in the Gulf of Mexico.
Linda Morra: I wonder if you might begin by commenting on the shift from writing poetry to writing prose. . . . Do you find that there is a different working approach?
Paulette Jiles: You're telling a story and that has many different technical demands. You have to deal with plot and plot probability: I learned these things as I went along and had . . . several failures when I realizedű
LM: With this particular book?
PJ: I re-wrote this book three times, but I threw away approximately three novels. . .It was a matter of plot and having probable characters involved in probable situations.
LM: The nature of the subject matter is fascinating¨the American Civil War¨how did you come to decide upon writing about the war?
PJ: I don't really remember the point at which I decided I wanted to write about the Civil War. I like to read about the Civil War. I had been researching my family¨and not getting very much information¨but that took me into the Civil War Era and South Eastern Missouri. For a long time, I thought absolutely nothing had happened there whatsoever. About four or five years ago, I discovered that, in fact, an enormous number of things had happened that were really not the subject of very many books of history. . . .That really grabbed me: the history and the violence and the warfare that had gone on in South Eastern Missouri.
LM: You clearly did do extensive research for the book. I wonder if you might talk about the process you went through in order to get the research done.
PJ: While I was writing a novel about South Eastern Missouri during the Civil War, I picked up a book called Inside War by Professor Michael Felman. It contained a great deal of research on what happened in the smaller areas of Missouri, including many soldiers' diaries and letters. Secondly, I relied on a friend of mine, Jerry Ponder, who is a historian. I stumbled across him and his various small press books, in which he also detailed the history of Reed's 15th Missouri Calvary. It's a regular Confederate unit. . . . I had long talks with Jerry. He also detailed some of the union militia problems, the problems with undisciplined troops. Then, another friend, who is also researching in that area, sent me, about a hundred pages of zeroxes from the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, all having to deal with South Eastern Missouri. With those three resources combined, I saw that there was plenty of action at home. I didn't need to send my characters away at all.
LM: The excerpts introduce each chapter, although they don't necessarily intersect with the events in the chapters that follow. Sometimes I found that the excerpts anticipate or suggest what happens later. I wondered if you might comment upon their purpose.
PJ: Well, I love the way they echoed each other back and forth. Sometimes¨it's strange¨I would write about an event and then I would come upon an excerpt, say, in the Official Records¨the "OR," what most historians call the OR¨which exactly matched it. I was very inspired by Griffin Frost's Camp and Prison Journal. He wrote about a Union officer who fell in love with a woman prisoner and managed to get her released. He had asked her to marry him, and they were officially engaged. At the same time, I was reading in Inside War that women were being sent to prison. . . . But when I read in Griffin Frost's Camp and Prison Journal that the Union Officer had fallen in love with this southern girl in prison, it was just . . .it was heart-stopping. What a wonderful thing, what a wonderful plot for a story.
LM: This is where the title of the novel comes from. It's not Enemy Woman¨it's not just about Adair Randolph Colley¨but Enemy Women.
PJ: Yeah, Enemy Women was just more euphonious (laughter from both). I'm a poet, it sounds better.
LM: I also thought it might be about a whole range of women. It's not just one woman who suffered, but a whole range of women.
PJ: Yes, that's it. Exactly.
LM: Does Adair's name carry any resonance?
PJ: No. The children of that family and Marquis himself¨they all bear the same names as my ancestors. My great-great grandfather was Marquis Jiles and his children were Mary, Savanna, Sara¨whom I didn't include because there were just too many kids. I took one of my husband's family names. His grandmother's family name was Adair. . . . I thought, Šit's really a nice name.' And then, later, a friend of mine also here in San Antonio was reading it and said that she thought it was a perfect name. It's like "a dare"¨she would take "a dare".
LM: That's what I thought.
PJ: I didn't have that in mind, but it worked out that way.
LM: (Enemy Women) clearly has some personal interest for you, but then it also seems to be a subject which many writers are tapping into right now. Why do you think that might be? Why is war such a popular subject now?
PJ: Oh, I don't know. I don't believe we're taught this history as much as we used to be. I believe people are curious about the history of the United States. . . Saving Private Ryan was very popular, but it's also popular because it's a well-told tale. It's based on one of the oldest sort of mythic groupings, or myth structures on earth, which is the "band of brothers". That takes us back to Odysseus. The band of brothers strikes out with a certain mission that will benefit the home tribe.
LM: Only in this case, it's a "band of sisters", not a "band of brothers".
PJ: (laughter) It is a "band of sisters".
LM: The ending¨I don't want to give it away, so I'll try to speak of it indirectly. The ending, to me, seems to be ambiguous or irresolute. . . . Did you intend for it to be somewhat ambiguous?
PJ: I did intend for it to be somewhat ambiguous, but I also wanted the reader to see Adair is going down to him and that they will be together. I just didn't want the scene in which they rush through the meadow grass into each other's arms.
LM: (laughter) Right. In some ways, there's a holding back. . . .
PJ: Because that would fall into sentimentality.
LM: Okay. Let's talk about how this book now fits within the larger body of Canadian literature because, of course, it does deal with an American subject, and you yourself were raised in Missouri, and carry a dual citizenship.
PJ: It does if you look at it not in terms of its subject matter, the Civil War, but of the type of work that it is, a quest novel. It's odd that Canadians have not done quest stories¨"band of brothers" stories or those with similar mythic underpinnings¨but have opted for another story form, which is also very demanding¨the psychological novelÓWriters like Margaret Atwood and Carole Shields have given me many hours of pleasure; they have a skill with the psychological novel that is unsurpassed. Canadians have not been as concerned with the quest novel¨for lack of a better term¨and I don't know why.
LM: Do you see your novel as being quite different from other current Canadian novels?
PJ: Well, I think it's closer to Farley Mowat, who writes non-fiction, than it is to a novel of psychological exploration. . . . It's closer to the folktale
LM: Oh, that's interesting¨in what way?
PJ: In a folktale, personality is revealed through the character's choice of action rather than through interior dialogue or childhood flashbacks which reveal the person's psychological makeup. In the folktale, there's almost always a quest involved. And then there's various other mythical elements. . . . Heroes almost always have companion animals of some sort.
LM: Which Adair does ű
PJ: Which Adair does. And on the way they meet people who oppose them and people who help them. It sounds like a tarot card reading, I know. Adair meets the matron and those two terrible spinster women, those wicked women. But there are also people who help her, like the major, of course, and the two old men who give her horse, Dolly, back, and who give her food and send her on her way. So, you see the elements of the folk tale here.
LM: Yes, I do. Thank you. ˛