Last July, on a Greek island outcrop overhanging the Aegean, US author Paula Saunders gave her first public reading from her superb debut novel, The Distance Home.
On a balcony against a backdrop of silver blue sea, Saunders stands up. Her husband, George – whose novel, Lincoln In The Bardo, won the Man Booker in 2017 – remains seated, ready to conduct an interview with the writer after her reading. The US memoirist Mary Karr, a friend and colleague of the couple, beams encouragement from the audience.
I have the good fortune to be here among the 50 or so predominantly women who are gathered on the unspoilt island of Patmos for a GoodWorld Journeys writing retreat.
Beyond the Saunders, islands are silhouetted on a canvas of sea stretching out to the horizon. The vast sky separates into distinct, pastel-coloured bands of light, as the glorious Greek sun sinks behind us.
Paula Saunders, now in her 60th year, has waited a long time for this moment. She fled her economically challenged Rapid City upbringing as a young teen, traumatised by the violence – emotional, psychological, and at times, physical – that had, despite the presence of love, been the steady diet of family life throughout her childhood.
Having made her way in the world via her talent as a ballet dancer, when the adult Saunders finally got to college, she developed a passion for literature. She took creative writing at Syracuse University in her 20s, where she and George met and quickly fell in love, and she won a postgraduate scholarship to study under Toni Morrison at the State University of New York.
During this time, the Saunders had the first of their two, now adult, daughters. Teaching part-time at university, Paula continued to write throughout her daughters’ early childhoods. She produced a novel, a screenplay and collections of short stories and poems, but she never committed to the task of securing publication for her work.
Between the ages of 40 and 50, Saunders stopped reading or writing fiction, devoting her time instead to the study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism.
In an insightful essay from last year entitled Finding A Way Back, Saunders describes her return to the garden of literature, exhorting creative women to “overcorrect for confidence” as a means to move beyond internalised diminishment.
Many women in Saunders' audience here on Patmos are hungry for such advice. The scene from The Distance Home that Saunders reads captures the novel's essence beautifully. Framed within rhythmically-claused descriptive paragraphs, warring parents Eve and Al - carrying wounds from their own harsh, South Dakota childhoods - unconsciously lash out at and demean, unfairly elevate and demote, their children: René and her brother, Leon (Saunders' fictionalised self and brother).
Both children are exceptionally talented ballet dancers. But in mid-20th century, cattle-ranching South Dakota, the girl is encouraged, while the boy is shamed. Their mother rages at her husband’s bullying of their son, and his favouring of their daughter, and she treats René resentfully as a result; while the father, Al, inflicts the kind of damage on Leon that is almost impossible to survive.
The complexity and intensity of fraught family relations, and their repercussions over generations, is the stuff of Saunders’ autobiographical fiction. What underpins the meaning and redemption that the author skilfully sublimates from her gnarly base material, is her commitment, as a writer, to values of compassion, understanding, empathy and spiritual growth.
At the close of Saunders’ reading, the audience on the Greek balcony are rapturous. Saunders smiles ecstatically. She has travelled the distance back to writing.
Six months later, in advance of the European publication of The Distance Home, Paula Saunders is talking to me by phone from the home she shares with George in the Californian countryside.
“It was always very puzzling to me,” she says, “how people who loved each other so much – there was never any doubt in my family of the love we had for each other – how people can treat each other so badly, in spite of that, and how people can treat each other so roughly in spite of that; and I would say, so violently. When I say violent, lots of people get ideas that I’m talking about the truly violent acts – some of them happen in the book, obviously – but I’m really talking about the small violences, which open the door to our conception of being willing to accept these larger events.
“We’re trained in our families that these are ways we can speak to and treat each other. These are the things we can expect from each other: perfection, masculinity, competition, aggression. We can accept all of that, as long as it leads to what we might call a kind of success.
“We learn that how to be a person is to be aggressive, to be a winner. In the US we see a lot of acceptance of that in our politics. Look at what we accept in the name of these horrible ideals of winning versus losing.”
Family stress is an almost constant destructive force in The Distance Home. Why?
“In this family, there’s a continuation of trauma and crisis,” says Saunders. “That’s why you see the children’s father’s childhood, when he’s taunted by his mother and sister, and put down by his father for something he thought he’d done well. These are continuations. To me, this seems very American. I think there’s a trauma that comes from need, and then is passed down when it isn’t needed, because it’s learned.”
We discuss how these learnings from historically traumatic events are still present several generations later, only now they’ve morphed into something more insidious, or harder to pin down.
“Because the reactions,” notes Saunders, “are no longer related to an emergency based on survival, or real loss. It’s just a behaviour, that whatever seems in your mind to be going a bit off, feels like an emergency. And you’re reacting very strongly to something that really only requires a little understanding and patience.
“One of the things that helped me in my attempts to not pass on too much of this stuff in my own family, was meditation. It was crucial for my life.”
Saunders also attributes her ability to return to the rawness of autobiographical fiction, and the writing of The Distance Home, to her immersion in Buddhism.
“I couldn’t have done it otherwise,” she says. “It gave me the perspective of looking at other people, and not being totally shut down by looking; and the possibility of seeing other people and their circumstances. Whereas before, I was very caught up and angry – for my brother, for myself, for my parents. Meditation helped me to realise how that wasn’t productive. It helped me to see my family as people with their own limitations, and their own struggles, who were trying to work, as best they could, out of where they were.”
Despite dealing with gritty reality, Saunders’s story-telling has distinctive notes of fable and fairy-tale. While never dogmatic, there are moral teachings in her work.
“You asked what the parents in the novel could have done to change their behaviour,” says Saunders. “One of the things that we can all do is remember how short a time we’re going to have together. Remember that at the end of your life, it’s going to look different than it does this minute. You’re going to have a more expansive view, if you’re lucky. And that’s incredibly important. If in the moment you remember that view of impermanence, and that we’re not here for long, it changes what you do. It changes the level of aggression you’re willing to put out there.”
Closing the masterful final chapter of The Distance Home, I resolve to try to remember our impermanence, and let this inform my relationships with the people I care about henceforth.
The Distance Home: a novel by Paula Saunders is published by Picador on January 24th, 2019