September 2005 A Conversation with Nicholas Evans About The Divide.
Q: Your novel opens with the discovery of the body of a young woman, a daughter of privilege who falls into a world of eco-terrorism and murder after the break-up of her parents’ marriage. What made this premise compelling for you?
A: One of the questions readers most frequently ask is: ‘where do you get your ideas?’ An author I know always replies that she just clicks on to a website called ideasfornovels.com. If only. I always seem to have dozens of part-ideas, scribbled notes and newspaper cuttings squirrelled away in a box file, many of them interesting enough for a short story perhaps but not big enough for a novel. Then, one happy day, a couple (or more) of them will collide and fuse and suddenly I know — or fondly believe — I’m on to something.
This usually seems to happen when I’m traveling, doing research for the previous book. I suppose this is because the mind is sensitized and alert to the new. With The Divide, that moment came when I heard about George Bush’s plan to make America more self-sufficient in fuel by drilling for gas on the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. That range is one of the wildest and most beautiful places in all the world, a wall of limestone a hundred miles long and a hundred million years old, a habitat for grizzly bears, mountain lions and wolves. It’s a place I have come to know well and features, in one way or another, in all my books so far.
It also happens to be a great place for backcountry skiing, one of my great passions in life, and the place where after a long and idiotic fall into a frozen creek one day, with all my bones miraculously intact, I suddenly had the image of a body encased in the ice beneath me, perfectly preserved. A young woman in a red ski jacket. Then the mind got whirring. Who might she be? And how and why could she have died?
With that setting and spark, I could finally tell a story that I had been wanting to write about for some time: The story of what happens when a long marriage comes apart. It had happened to me and to several close friends, but I didn’t want to write the facts of our stories. I wanted to write about the truths, about what I thought I had learned from it all.
Q: Your title carries several meanings, starting with The Divide between men and women. What do you think that divide is, and do you think it’s an unbridgeable one?
A: Men are a much more primitive species than women. Men’s primal role is full of action, women’s full of reflection. Men hunted and killed, women gathered and nurtured. To nurture, you need to understand human nature. Even in the choice of a mate, women have to make fine calculations and compromises: the macho character with the six-pack abs may not hang around long enough to protect your kids from the sabre-tooth tiger. That nerdy looking guy, on the other hand, may not be able to put meat on the table and the kids may turn out just like him.
The title of the book has several layers. It is the name of the guest ranch where Abbie Cooper and her family had their happiest vacations. It refers to The Divide between those who want to preserve beautiful areas of wilderness such as the Front Range, and those who want to exploit them. But most of all, it refers to The Divide between men and women, and what happens when, over the years, they change in different ways and their needs and hopes, their passions and yearnings diverge. Talking with people whose long marriages have broken up, it seems that this division tends to occur when the kids start to leave home. For women this phase often brims with a sense of accomplishment and hope; new opportunities to do things together again, to travel, have time to be a couple again. The men, on the other hand, often seem to see this moment as dauntingly symbolic — the end of youth, the onset of old age. Is that it? Is that all there is? Evolutionary psychologists, of course, have an explanation for all this: propelling our genes into the future is our most powerful motivation, they say, and men (especially in the Viagra age) can go on doing that until they drop dead. Women, on the other hand, cannot. Women get the menopause, men the ‘menoporsche.’
Q: Is the divorce that takes place between Ben and Sarah inevitable? Are they fundamentally incompatible people, or is the split between them the result of choices that they make?
A: I don’t see them as incompatible. They met young and grew together. But people change and not always in parallel ways. Life is busy and tough and, especially when there are kids and work pressures, a couple can forget to look after each other, forget to be a couple. Passion always fades but couples — men especially — don’t always recognize or value what takes its place, love is organic; it is always changing.
Q: Both Sarah and Eve, the woman Ben leaves her for, are basically attractive and admirable people. Was it important for you not to make any of them into villains?
A: Villains have their place in stories, but they are generally much more interesting if they are human. What always interests me is how good, decent, intelligent people have the capacity to make each other so unhappy and how the ones we hurt most are the ones we love the most.
Q: The daughter in the story, Abbie, becomes a victim of Patty Hearst Syndrome, in which a young woman commits a crime under the spell of an older, sexually powerful man. How common is this?
A: There are plenty of examples, both famous and not. What interested me here, with Abbie, is that when her father leaves, she, of course, feels she has been rejected every bit as much as her mother. She adored her father and, in Rolf, clearly finds some new kind of male endorsement.
Q: The son in the story, Josh, wonders whether people can choose to be happy or not. What do you think?
A: I absolutely think that happiness is a choice. One of the most potent forces in human psychology is the power of habit. Do something, think something, often enough and it will become the only thing you can do or think. Choose to be unhappy and soon that’s all you will be. Live in a swamp and you’ll grow webbed feet.
Q: The conflict between humanity and nature is a major theme in all your work. In this novel, it’s manifest in the degradation of the land by the oil industry and the efforts of environmental activists to combat it. Do you consider yourself an environmental activist? Do you have any sympathy for the eco-terrorists?
A: I care a lot about environmental issues but don’t consider myself an activist. Like a lot of people who are angry and frustrated about the way the human race is murdering the planet, I have a hundred contradictions in my life. I use too much fuel, I buy things (sometimes) whose manufacture is damaging to the planet — and so on. As someone who respects the rule of law, however, I have no sympathy for those who endanger human or animal life of any kind in the furtherance of ecological objectives. I can understand the frustration of those who believe politicians are failing them on this issue and who resent the hold we have allowed multi-national corporations to have over our political systems. Democracy has to find a way of developing out of this bind. The suppression of the search for viable alternatives to fossil fuel is a disgrace that should never have been allowed to happen.
Q: The novel dramatizes how difficult it is to escape surveillance in our technological age. But the same technology makes it quite easy to steal an identity and create a new life. How is that done?
A: With the Internet, we have created a wondrous monster. Anyone with the know-how can find ways of stealing somebody else’s identity. I was shocked to find out how easy it is. There is so much data on us all out there, all you have to do is find out how to access it. Private detectives do it every day of their lives. How do we fight it without further restricting personal freedom? This is the great conundrum.
Q: In the novel, you touch on the way that the events of September 11 turned America into a society that was much more ready to divide everything into good and evil, black and white, and not to see shades of gray. Is this tendency increasing or decreasing? Is it a dangerous trend?
A: When a herd is attacked they group together and the whole ‘he who is not for us is against us’ thing clicks in. My heart sinks. The war on terror has, I believe, made the world a much more dangerous place. Freedoms sacrificed in the name of security, are rarely if ever restored. If only our political systems allowed us to use the most powerful weapons in our arsenal: forgiveness and understanding. So-called civilized man has stepped outside the circle of life and doesn’t know how to get back in.
Q: Family conflict — both the way it develops and the way it gets healed — is a major theme in all your novels. Is there a new twist on it here?
A: All my books have dealt with the dynamics of family life, the relationships between parents and children. I don’t know why it so fascinates me, but it does. I love all the characters in the book, but the one I love most is Josh. Of all of them, it is he whose journey most touches my heart. He is a boy who has always had trouble, been seen as a bit of a loser; and it is he who, in the end, pulls himself and everyone else together. The ability of human beings, even the most seemingly no-hopers, to redeem and transform themselves, is, in my view, one of the most wondrous things about us as a species.
Q: As in The Horse Whisperer, an event that takes place on horseback sets this novel in motion. Why do horses play such a powerful role in your stories?
A: I don’t think they do, really. I love all animals and have always found it easy to get along with them (easier, in fact, than with a lot of human beings). Horses move me, it’s true. And I guess it is because they are this astonishing blend of power and vulnerability. They can kill you with a flick of a hoof, but have the sweetest, most forgiving hearts in all the world.
Q: Montana is the major setting of all your novels, and you’ve been praised for your lyrical descriptions of its beauty. What is your connection to it, and why is it so significant for you?
A: As a kid I was always a sucker for westerns — books, movies, those corny old TV shows — I was enthralled. All I did was play cowboys and Indians. And I was always the Indian. It’s a culture that I have a great passion and respect for. When I first saw Montana it connected with something deep inside me and the more I go there, the stronger that feeling becomes. As an outsider I think I see things there through a lens that helps me understand more than if I had been born or brought up there. And now, of course, I have a lot of good friends there and plenty of excuses to go. There is something about those wide spaces, the tilt of the sky, the wildness of the place that moves me greatly. And I love the slightly old fashioned way (some) people there still behave — the old world courtesy, the tipping of hats, generous hospitality and suspicion of strangers in equal measure.
Q: Did you do any special research for this novel?
A: Lots. Research is always important to me. I traveled through Wyoming and Montana and then down to New Mexico. I looked at the places where they are drilling for coalbed methane and saw for myself the damage it is doing to these beautiful places.
Q: Are you working on a new book?
Q: What do you hope readers take away from this novel?
A: I hope it moves them in the way it moved me writing it. I hope they love the characters and feel for their plight. I hope that maybe it will make them think about their own lives and relationships in a slightly different way; that they might look at the way they are treating their loved ones, maybe understand a little more why things aren’t so good and how, with effort, the terrible power of habit can be challenged and conquered. And that they can choose to be happy.