A Conversation with Gae Rusk

Why did you set your novel in Nepal?

I started the book while living in the Rabibhawan section of Kathmandu, near the Soltee Hotel and Casino. We moved there August, 1977, and left June, 1979.

I was impelled to record the multi-sensory details of daily life in Kathmandu because it was beyond anything I’d ever experienced. I immersed myself in Kathmandu for almost two years. I wrote the first draft of this book in six weeks during the monsoon of 1978 by working day and night on my manual Olivetti typewriter, by kerosene lamplight a lot of the time.

What do you mean when you say that the Nepal you write about doesn’t exist anymore?

In 1978, old Kathmandu still existed because of isolated geography and a Hindu-based monarchy: the population believed the King was actually the living Vishnu. There was no TV, radio reception was limited, and the monarchy had outlawed proselytizing by missionaries. The only outside agencies allowed to work there were international aid groups like the UN and the U.S. Peace Corp.

There are around two hundred separate and distinct languages in Nepal. They exist in isolated villages, sometimes separated by a single ridgeline. Mind you, the ridgeline could be six-thousand meters high.

In 1978, roads were few and hazardous and trips took forever. Because the cultural mosaic was still intact and animated, wherever you were, you could tell who was who by their dress and their jewelry. And, late at night I could walk home alone through the bazaar. The nights I did this, I carried a steel-cored umbrella to beat off stray dogs.

The book cover is a beautiful photograph of a god and goddess. Who are they? Where are these statues located? What is the story of the book cover?

The photo on the cover is a detail from a carved panel at the Tusha Hiti at Sundari Chowk, a shrine in Patan, another old town in Kathmandu Valley. The Tusha Hiti was a royal bath where medieval Patan kings came for tantric worship and meditation. Tantrism is the active form of both Hinduism and Buddhism, where a devotee pursues nirvana through leading a focused and active life.

The multi-armed god in the picture is Vishnu in his tantric form, and the small female he is holding is his consort Laxmi, also in tantric form.

The photo was taken by international photographer Thomas Kelly, who has lived and worked in Kathmandu for many years. His work is very successful and diverse, resulting in fascinating and exquisite photography of arcane subjects.

You entitle your Prologue "Old Gods, New Tricks." What do the old gods – Zeus, Prometheus and Hera - have to do with a story set in 1978?

I have this theory that all the gods ever believed in are still around. In a world so crowded and pawed over, I entertain the notion that old gods seek out unclaimed skies.

The Greek deities have few devotees left in Greece, and the sky there is crowded with contemporary orthodoxy. What I see is Zeus and his Pantheon now enjoying a more rarified existence among the Himalayan peaks. You could call it the migration of the gods.

You say old gods were exaggerated personalities acting out extreme behavior. If no one believes in these gods anymore, do they still have power?

A modern lack of believers does not necessarily kill a belief. Simply recording the historical fact of a belief keeps it alive and a part of our modern experience.

Throughout history, documents were burned and believers murdered to replace one belief with another. I don’t see that these heinous activities have worked out all that well. The world is still full of hatred and intolerance, so all those exaggerated feelings must be part of our hardwiring.

Churches disapprove of, but can’t actually disprove, the old gods. Personally, all the gods who were ever believed in have power over my imagination, and what is clear to me is beliefs layer and encircle human history like bark encircles a tree. To discredit one layer of growth kills the whole tree.

How is Nepal, where Kathmandu is an exotic Parnassus and Everest an extreme Olympus, a beacon for these Gods?

Kathmandu in 1978 was a complicated, boisterous, messy place that throbbed with life. Every shrine, large or small, public or personal, was busy with believers.

My sense from living in Kathmandu was that any and every belief would be honored there – even the ancient beliefs of another time and culture could find self-respect and a new address in Kathmandu.

That is how I imagine the original Athens. But my sense of modern Greece while on a visit there, also in 1978, were isolated piles of white ruins, where I saw no one worshipping anything. I hope very much that the 2004 Olympics held in Athens have changed that.

Against these fates, does any mortal, particularly a woman like Cecily, have a chance for survival? What does it take to survive?

In this story an extreme thing happens to a conventional woman. Cecily’s disastrous predicament requires she make an enormous effort just to survive. I don’t mean surviving just her injuries, I mean living true to the full extent of all her knowledge and all her senses.

So, what Cecily survives in the end is her own stifled nature.

Cecily is a woman of her time – the late 1970s. Is she a victim of circumstances?

In 1978, society was flamboyant as the US discoed into the 1980s. Cecily is one of the invisible women of that era, the silent ones who were out of step with that wild dance.

When she finds herself living in Kathmandu with its excessive color and drama and ongoing street theater, Cecily is at a loss. The complexities of life there dismay her. She does everything to be correct and still feels inadequate. Cecily has no real sense of self, and therefore no real sense of her worth. She is essentially asleep.

Which is why I had to play with her fate to wake her up.

Do you see her as antifeminist?

Cecily is neither anit-feminist nor pro-feminist. She is “afeminist”, as in “amoral”.

She is a memsahib with a palace, servants and hand-tailored wardrobe, but she also works as a full-time teacher.

She is fearful of society and any type of exuberance and of her own sexual nature, but she will walk the bazaar alone at night.

I think Cecily is like most of us: neither here nor there, neither pro-this nor anti-that, but instead each with our own set of rules and personal measurements and sense of self and place.

When Cecily turns vindictive, is her anger then equivalent to Hera's jealous rage against Zeus?

The deity Hera makes up her own rules, which makes her amoral. Cecily has joined Hera on this amoral journey through space and time, but her quest for revenge will be on a mortal plane. Her peers will no doubt view this as an immoral act.

Remember, none of the old gods spent their time seeking Nirvana. They were too busy making power plays for control of all that mattered to their believers. Thus old gods paralleled the human experience at an exaggerated level, which makes Cecily’s thirst for revenge an exaggerated quest.

However, in my opinion, nothing is ever equivalent to Hera’s rage upon discovering Zeus has swan-dived another mortal maid.

To what extent does she grow and change? When you rewrote the end of the book, what did you learn about Cecily that you hadn’t realized?

I learned Cecily is a mythic character. She is now a concubine of the gods, a survivor of both Beau’s ravaging and the dire assault of monsoon out in the mountains.

Because of that, she is purposeful. Her feelings of revenge and desire are pure but exaggerated. At the end, she is just beginning a wide-awake life, for better and for worse.

Is Beau also a mythic character? Some might think he is simply abusive because he kidnaps and assaults Cecily, then blames her.

First of all, Beau is the classical “dark stranger in the bazaar.” He is flat; for example, he has no last name and no sense of humor.

My literary conceit is that Beau is Zeus taking human form to enjoy some mortal mating, so his actions are both illogical and pure, designed to satisfy himself alone. And, important to the deitic persona, Beau performs the mythic rape of an unawakened human female, thus tickling Nature’s nerves and stirring up monsoon madness to an unusual and provoking degree.

By framing your story against the story of the old gods, do you elevate a passionate and misguided affair to a level of universal experience?

I would not call Beau’s and Cecily’s experience an affair. It was more a clashing of life forces on nature’s stage.

Most of us would be both fortunate and unfortunate to experience such passion.

Of all the international aid groups and UN groups in Nepal, why is the US Peace Corp so important in this story?

A Peace Corp Volunteer (PCV) stationed in the Helambu area is the only true hero in this odd tale. This PCV rescues a very damaged Cecily from atop a big rock in a monsoon-swollen river and carries her to safety, for which he has her almost-dying gratitude.

Since you were living in Nepal when you wrote Monsoon Madness, to what extent is your book autobiographical?

In Kathmandu, I was married and teaching, but my husband was not a diplomat. He left Kathmandu for three months for a graduate school summer session in the US, So, I did spend the monsoon of 1978 alone, trying not to go mad by writing the first draft of this story, which is fiction. The characters are my own conceits. It is Kathmandu itself that is as realistic and multi-sensory as I could make it.

You’ve made many films. Is this your first work of fiction?

This is my first novel. My films and videos are documentaries and specials, mostly cultural and musical themes.

I have two more novels I’m working on, but Alvarez is nearer completion. It is set deep in the bootheel of New Mexico, where it borders Chihuahua State, Mexico.

After Alvarez is done, I will finish Licking Knives, one of many other books I work on all the time so my head won’t explode.

You have a very active website. You’ve published short stories there and I also understand you collect “Odd Signs.” What interests you about the signs?

I have two websites, www.gaerusk.com and www.oddsigns.com. I publish my shorter work at www.gaerusk.com. This includes a new poem, essay and short story each month or so.

On my other site, www.oddsigns.com, you will find my global homage to inexplicable signage. There are many categories of odd signs, and sometimes the oddness of an odd sign is unquantifiable. Rule of thumb? No staged photos.


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