Q & A
A Conversation with David Rain about
THE HEAT OF THE SUNHow did you first become interested in writing?
I’ve written since I was a child. Reading and writing went together for me: once I’d started to read, I started to write. I don’t claim my early efforts were all that good. But some people, both adults and other children, seemed to like them. My first “novel,” as I thought of it, was called Moon Escape – a party of lunar explorers were kidnapped by evil aliens. My third-grade teacher had it bound and put in the school library. A bit later I started my own magazine, and a story appeared about me in the local paper. After that … well, I suppose my fate was sealed.How did the idea for your book originate? Did you have any previous interest in opera or World War II history?
I’d seen Madame Butterfly several times, but it was after one performance (in Prague, as it happened) that my partner Antony said afterwards, “What happened to that boy?” He meant Butterfly’s son, who, after his mother’s suicide, will be taken back to America by Lieutenant Pinkerton and his new wife, Kate. The novel started once I’d put together three facts: that the opera is set in Nagasaki, a city on which an atomic bomb would later be dropped; that the action is said, in the libretto, to be “in the present day” – the early twentieth century; and that, therefore, characters from the opera could still have been alive during World War II. At that point, I knew I had a story.What kind of research did you do for The Heat of the Sun? What sources did you find most helpful?
The single most helpful source was a brief but brilliant book by Jan van Rij called Madame Butterfly: Japonisme, Puccini, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San, published in 2001. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about Puccini’s opera. There was lots of other reading: American history; Japanese history; books about the war; books about the atomic bomb. It sounds more arduous than it was. I didn’t do it all in one hit, but spread out during the writing of the book. I’d realize I needed to know something, and go and find out. That’s part of the fun for me: not writing what I already know, but learning new things.This book picks up where a well-known story – Puccini’s Madame Butterfly – leaves off. What are the challenges of working from an established narrative? What did you enjoy about the process?
Most of the survivors from Madame Butterfly turn up in my novel. My narrator, Woodley Sharpless, is even the son of the American consul in the opera – and, just like his father, can only look on as tragic events unfold. This structure put me under big constraints: I was following a line and had to stick to it. But, strangely enough, once I was really into the story, the characters felt like mine. Those I’d invented, like Woodley’s eccentric Aunt Toolie or his left-wing friend, Le Vol, existed for me on the same level as the Butterfly characters. One day I turned on BBC Radio 3, the classical music station, to hear the announcer talking about somebody called “Pinkerton” and I was actually shocked. “Hey,” I said, “that’s my character!”Kate Pinkerton, who only played a small role in Puccini’s narrative, is expanded into a fascinating and highly complex character in The Heat of the Sun. How did you go about developing her?
Butterfly thinks Pinkerton must be a great man back in America, and of course he isn’t. He’s a lieutenant in the navy. But what if, in the future, he became a great man? I didn’t want the Pinkertons to go home and be ordinary people. Pinkerton, I decided, would be a senator, a major player in government. But then there’s the problem: How did he get ahead? What if he’d made an advantageous marriage? What if Kate Pinkerton, his wife, was the daughter of a great political family? Her role, in that period, would be to stand by her man. But what if she had political ambitions of her own? Those were the clues that gave me her character.Your book tackles some of the most significant events in American history. Since you’re an Australian who has also lived at length in the UK, how did you pursue writing such an American novel?
My family background is British – I’m a somewhat belated child of the British Empire – but America certainly loomed large in my mind when I was growing up in Australia. I didn’t visit America until I was well into adulthood, but, as with England, I’d spent so much imaginative time there that it felt like going home. Of course that’s partly illusion: the reality of any place is never, or is never only, what it looks like in books or films. But I don’t feel there’s any problem in someone like me writing about American history. They say the twentieth century was “the American century.” Modern American history is world history, too. That means it’s mine.Similarly, The Heat of the Sun has a really strong grasp of Japanese culture and history. Have you spent time there? What was it like to write this book as someone who isn’t from the United States or Japan?
I’ve spent no time at all in Japan, unless you count a stopover on a flight to Australia. I toured Japan from a desk in the London Library, with a wall of books piled up in front of me. Some might call that faking, but writing for me has always been about making things up. Getting away with it is half the fun. I’ll admit I wouldn’t write a contemporary novel set in Japan, or indeed the US, unless I’d lived there for a long time. But historical novels are different. I’m getting it from the same place anyone else will be: reading, looking at pictures, watching films, listening to music, and, most importantly, using imagination.