An occasional series introducing new books from Baltimoreans
Ron Tanner is a man who wears a lot of hats. He’s a professional jazz musician, a Loyola professor, a builder, and handyman, and a writer. But even as a writer, you can’t pin him down. When I first met him, he was working on a memoir about how he and his wife Jill bought a completely destroyed frat house in Charles Village and renovated it to its original glory, one window pane, banister rail, and brick at a time. That tale became From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story.
Not too long after that he published Kiss Me Stranger, a quirky graphic novel chronicling the adventures of a mother of fourteen who goes on the run in a post-apocalyptic future, illustrated and imagined by the multifarious Tanner.
And now for something completely different: a big, juicy, traditional novel with all the trimmings. His latest work, Missile Paradise, features interesting characters, a rollercoaster plot, and an unexpected setting that introduces a fascinating and troubled, beautiful and ugly part of the world most of us know nothing about.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands, 1156 islands located near Micronesia in the South Pacific, has a special relationship to the U.S., some of it benign and some of it very much not, as we did nuclear testing there that scarred a whole generation of natives. That’s the backdrop of this novel, which takes place in 2004.
Most of the population of 50,000 or so is concentrated on just a few of the islands. Tanner’s story focuses on two of them: Kwajalein, “an American military base without the military” where American civilians live in subsidized housing, and Ebeye, where thousands of ri-Majel (native Marshallese) are crowded in third-world conditions. Though they used to rule the place, the ri-Majel are now second class citizens, restricted to visiting Kwajalein during daylight hours.
The novel tracks several main characters. One is Alison, a single mom who moved to Kwajalein with her husband and two sons to “get away from it all.” The fun part is over, though, because her husband has drowned in a scuba accident and Alison is pouring rum into her morning coffee, screwing up as a mom and at work as she goes down the rabbit hole.
Another is Jeton, a ri-Majel teen whose American girlfriend, a sexy cheerleader, has just dumped him. The rejection sends him into freefall, a series of reckless actions which endanger himself and others.
Cooper is a heartbroken American programmer who decided to sail to the Marshalls alone after he, too, was dumped. This was back in California, and the whole disaster was carefully orchestrated by his girlfriend’s evil teenage daughter, a particularly great (and awful) character. An injury during the voyage ends up costing Cooper his leg, and he sets off on a collision course parallel to Jeton’s.
The fourth character is an embittered “cultural liaison” named Art whose bead on the situation is this: “Newcomers think this place is paradise because it’s all so fucking beautiful. Pick your favorite tropical postcard and the Marshalls will beat it at every turn. The whitest sand, the bluest water, the most colorful reefs, the most spectacular sunken ships. After a few months, though, the newcomers begin to feel an irritating itch. They can’t go anywhere because Kwajalein is only a quarter mile wide and 3.5 miles long and so they keep running into the same people every day … and everything they wear smells mildly of mildew. By the end of their first year… the States look like a never-ending carnival. And they’re stuck out here, 4500 miles west of California.”
In such a cramped landscape, Tanner’s four characters can’t help becoming intertwined, and their creator ups the ante by throwing everything from a nut allergy to a cyclone into their path. The result is a page-turner that you actually feel smarter after reading. You can start by watching the book’s trailer, then come to the book’s launch at the Pratt on May 1st at 2 p.m.
How do you know so much about the Marshall Islands?
I lived there as a teenager, on the Kwajalein, where there is an American-run missile base. My father was an electrical engineer, part of the top-secret civilian brain trust that was designing missiles for the U.S. Army. We kids had an amazing life there: summer year-round (just 7 degrees north of the Equator), barefoot all the time, beautiful beaches, free movies every night.
Also, Kwajalein was an international crossroads. I met people from all over the world. But most impressive were the Marshallese. I was disturbed by their poverty and the clear disadvantages Americans imposed upon them. They weren’t allowed to live on Kwajalein with us. They lived, instead, on a crappy little island nearby, called Ebeye.
For all it showed me of the world, the Marshall Islands changed my life. I went back to teach in 1993. Then I went back again in 2008 to direct the Marshall Islands Story Project, with funding from the U.S. National Park Service. The idea was to help Marshallese college students preserve the oral stories told by their elders and then build a website to post these stories. The Project was very successful, and you can see it here: http://mistories.org
Can you tell us a bit about the novel’s development? Was there a part of the plot or perhaps one of the characters who came first?
Jeton came first. I wrote his story almost twenty years ago, and it won a pretty big award — and that was the start of the novel. At first, it was a novel-in-stories. Then I was advised (by Alice McDermott, no less) to “just write the novel.” So I did.
Jeton came first because I’d met so many Jetons when I lived in the Marshalls. I wanted to see if I could capture his world and do justice to its complexity. The American missile base scenario seemed a perfect frame in which to explore the clash of American and Marshallese cultures.
At the beginning of the book, you warn people familiar with the Marshalls that you have taken liberties with some of the factual details. I was very curious to know what those are and why, if you can say.
Simple stuff, actually. Like the ferry that plies the waters between Kwajalein and Ebeye: I depicted the old ferry, not the new one–which is a hydrofoil, catamaran. My depiction of Ebeye is more 1990s than 2004 because I was last on Ebeye in 1993. The Causeway on Ebeye was completed by 2000 but in the novel I have it still being built in 2004. So, for the convenience of story-telling, I simply didn’t update some stuff.
You set the story during the build-up to the Iraq war. What does that backdrop add to the book?
The Iraq war highlights America’s global ambitions — and presumptions — all of which stand in stark contrast to the dreamy world Americans try to create on Kwajalein, their resort of a top-secret missile base.
Are you a sailor? Have you ever taken a trip as ambitious or faced conditions as dangerous as those that Cooper runs into in the book?
My father was a sailor, a scuba diver, and former Navy man. I am terrified of deep water and get violently seasick, though I love the romantic idea of sailing. As for adventures, mine are land-loving and not-so-daring, unless you call risking bankruptcy as I restore a tumble-down farmhouse adventurous.
You have some amazing pre-publication reviews from four writers I love! Julia Glass, Bob Shacochis, Joseph O’Neill, Kevin Wilson! Can you tell us about the book’s path to publication?
That’s a long and not-so-happy story. It took me ten years to write the book–I started working on it as stories in 1994 after my visit to the Marshalls to teach. I then turned these into a novel in 2004. And then a famous New York agent snatched up the manuscript and said the novel would make us rich. She shopped it to the six or so big publishing houses, but nobody wanted it because nobody knew how to market it. So this agent dropped the book and dropped me too. I was devastated.
I spent the next ten years revising the novel every which way, never to my satisfaction. Then I gave up for a while. When I returned to the novel two years ago, I went back to the original, rejected version and realized that it had been the right version from the start. So I revised that and sent it to my favorite small press, IG, who had done a great job with my previous novel, “Kiss Me, Stranger.” IG loved “Missile Paradise” and I knew they’d do it justice.
As for the blurbers, I met them along the way. When I was at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, I met Bob Schacochis, who was teaching there. I met Julia Glass in New Orleans in 1999 when we were recipients of writing awards from the Faulkner Society. Julia won for a novella that she would turn into “Three Junes.” I won for a short story — about Jeton — from my novel-in-progress, eventually to be named “Missile Paradise.” Julia hung out with Jill and me that weekend, and we had a great time.
I met Kevin Wilson when he was an administrator at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, where I was a Fellow (thanks in part to my Big Deal agent, who raved about “Missile Paradise”). I met Joe O’Neill a few years before he published “Netherland” — at Ledig House, an international writers’ retreat. All of these people are fabulous writers, and I’m grateful they took the time to read my manuscript.
You’ve left your storied house in Charles Village and moved to … a farm? Where you have a … bird sanctuary? And an artist’s retreat? Can you tell us about that?
Jill and I love old houses, and we love, especially, to work on them. So, a few years after thoroughly restoring our gorgeous Charles Village brownstone, we got itchy for a new challenge. Much to our surprise, we bought an historic farm in Reisterstown. Called “Good Contrivance Farm,” it belonged to the same family for five generations. We are now deep into restoring the house (a Victorian that was last worked on in 1959), its many buildings, and the surrounding land. We hope to open Good Contrivance to the public next year and hold monthly events here and, yes, even open its way-cool barn apartment as a writer’s retreat. In a couple of months, we’ll launch the website (not live yet) www.goodcontrivance.org
The launch for “Missile Paradise” (ig Publishing, 370 pgs, $16.95) will be held on May 1st at the Enoch Pratt Library at 2 p.m. More information at rontanner.com.