Today we're talking with Catherine Aerie, author of The Dance of the Spirits
FQ: War can be a tough subject to write about, how did you decide what to include when describing the battles, surgeries, and wounded?
AERIE: I wanted to emphasize the varying reactions of the human mind when under the crushing weight of hopelessness, despair, and depression - in this case, that of the barren, hellish, bleak, napalm burnt, and shell scarred terrain that was the Korean Peninsula. In my personal opinion, the various scenes of carnage and violence are there to serve the developments of the characters involved in them.
FQ: The Korean War doesn't get as much attention in novels as other wars (thinking WWII for example). What made you decide to write about this war/time period?
AERIE: In the past, I’ve noticed that many historical fiction books set during the Second World War take place on the European fronts. Without meaning any offense, this seems to be because many of the writers behind such literature tend to be unfamiliar with the complexity of Asian cultures, and thus is perhaps why there’s a tendency for fewer novels revolving around the Pacific campaigns.
While there’s also the uniqueness that comes with setting the novel in a conflict and time period often left obscure and untouched by fiction writers, a major aspect of Dancing with the Spirits and the Korean War in general, is of the symbolic clash between the cultures and nations of the West and East. Also, I felt that such symbolism can be timed perfectly with the current rising influence of Asia into the cultural, political, and economic affairs of the West.
FQ: There are times in this book that Chinese architecture is mentioned, is this an interest of yours?
AERIE: Yes; in fact, I was originally born into a family of architects whom were often on the move due to the valuable nature of their work. The quaint, foreign, and mysterious nature of the described architecture also serves to highlight the alien and unfamiliar world in which the book’s Western characters are dropped in.
FQ: Jasmine is an intriguing character who is strong and determined so I was expecting her upbringing to be different. Was she an easy or difficult character to create?
AERIE: It was indeed challenging to write about Jasmine, whose story is a complete inverse of the fabled rags-to-riches adventure. However, almost all humans will inevitably have to face the unpredictable currents of the sea that is life, or else be swept away and consumed by time and misfortune. Both Jasmine and Wesley are shipwrecked in some sense, with the former being disavowed by her country while the latter is captured in battle. In the trials and tests that follow, both characters are tempted to give up to the figurative sea in desperation of escaping the suffering and pain around them. However, a major theme in my book is of how people can find the inspiration and drive to keep on swimming despite the tides around them, and eventually hold on long enough to be rescued while many others fail to.
In essence, Jasmine’s fall from a comfortable and carefree girl living in wealth and residing in a prosperous city to a mud and blood soaked woman struggling to get by on a battlefield, does the job of serving as a platform for trials and tribulations to be thrown at her. Instead of an optimistic Dickens style transformation where the miserable achieve strength and courage through rising to happiness, Jasmine gains such traits through coping with life after being robbed of such happiness and learning to find another form of it in the process.
FQ: It is mentioned a few times about certain characters having a “thinking problem.” What is your definition of this in regards to this story?
AERIE: The aforementioned “thinking problem” as stated by several of the Chinese characters, is a blanket term for personality traits and behavior deemed potentially dangerous or resistant against the supposed merits of the new Maoist culture of China. Those suspected of “thinking problems” were thought to be unappreciative of the reforms theoretically meant to benefit them. Thus, it was lawful in the new China for political personnel to take the initiative in “correcting” these “thinking problems” in whichever method they thought to be effective. On a much more broader scale, the “thinking problems” as mentioned in the book represent the iron handed nature by which tyrannical governments in general assert their authority and ruthlessly stamp out even the most subtle forms of potential discord.
FQ: It was interesting to see a glimpse into Wesley’s point of view and he seems to have some of the same compassion and determination as Jasmine. Was it your intention for them to be alike personality wise?
AERIE: Yes; as readers may have noticed, it is in fact the willpower and perseverance of the two that enables them to reunite and interact with each other again and again, lest alone survive individually, despite the constantly changing circumstances of the war raging around them often striving to separate them.
FQ: The efforts of doctors in the war was highlighted with Jasmine’s character, what research did you have to do in order to write about that part of the war?
AERIE: Apart from several notable books regarding the US MASH units, namely Otto Apel’s MASH: An Army Surgeon in Korea and as well as various passages describing them from general Korean War histories, my main sources for The Dance of the Spirits also included several dated surgical textbooks, and as well as interviews with relatives who practice medicine.
FQ: The ending was a surprise for me. Without giving the ending away, did you plan from the beginning to have the story end that way it did?
AERIE: Surprisingly, yes; I wanted the plot to ultimately fall along realist lines despite using a number of liberties over the course of the book. I also wanted to reflect the prevalent misfortune and suffering people go through in harsh times, even if it meant slightly upsetting readers expecting a more optimistic and satisfying conclusion.
As a matter of historical fact that can hand-wave the nature of the book’s final climax, it should be noted that the United Nations’ faction of the war struggled with the immense burden of providing safety and shelter for its thousands of communist prisoners; despite the alliance’s best efforts, suicides, violence, and even riots continued to occur in its camp housing its prisoners of war.