When asked what inspired her to travel to the jungles of southern Mexico on the eve of the 1994 Zapatista uprising, Arroyo Grande author Paula Huston offers a two-word answer: “Sheer idiocy.”
In 1993, Huston and her then-husband backpacked from Palenque, Mexico, to Tikal, Guatemala, encountering truckloads of soldiers along the way. At one point, while traveling through the Lacandon rainforest that stretches from the Mexican state of Chiapas to the Yucatan Peninsula, their bus was stopped, boarded and searched at gunpoint.
“I’d always been fascinated by the Mayans and wanted to see the ruins if I could,” recalled Huston, who now realizes the danger she and her fellow travelers faced. “It was just one of those trips where we must have had a battalion of arch-angels watching over us.”
Huston, 61, revisits southern Mexico, circa 1993, in her new novel, “A Land Without Sin,” which follows battle-hardened photojournalist Eva Kovic as she searches for her missing brother, Stefan, an idealistic activist-priest. As a cover, Eva joins a taciturn Dutch scholar on a secret quest of his own.
As the title indicates, the 312-page novel deals with issues of faith, family and the nature of evil.
“The book to me is really about grappling with this question of evil,” Huston said. “Personally, I think if we reach the place where we’re not freshly shocked and stunned and horrified every time we see fresh evidence of evil, then something’s happened to us (and) I don’t think it’s good.”
Other literary genres
Raised in Long Beach and Minnesota, Huston moved to the Central Coast 40 years ago as a young newlywed. Entranced by the beauty of Grover Beach, “I completely fell in love with this area,” she said.
The author’s home for the past 28 years has been a four-acre ranch in rural Arroyo Grande, where she and her husband make their own wine, press their own olive oil and raise bees, chickens, fruits and vegetables. Huston, a Camaldolese Benedictine oblate, does most of her writing in an 8-by-10-foot studio modeled after a monastic cell.
In 1995, Random House published Huston’s critically acclaimed debut novel “Daughters of Song,” about a young piano prodigy struggling to understand Ludwig van Beethoven and her own life.
After “Daughters of Song,” Huston started work on what would become “A Land Without Sin” — inspired by her experiences in Central America, includ ing a trip to Honduras in the summer of 1969, and her return to Christianity in the early 1990s.
Huston sent Random House an early draft of the novel in 1997.
“They saw it as too much work on their end to whip it into shape,” Huston recalled, while other publishing houses shied away from the religious themes in the book.
“The doors were closed to any book that had any religious element running through it,” said Huston, who converted to Catholicism through visits to the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur. “I was of course totally crushed. I honestly thought I was never going to write fiction again.”
Instead, literary agent Thomas Grady encouraged her to explore a new genre, spiritual nonfiction.
An essay collection edited by Grady and Huston, “Signatures of Grace: Catholic Writers on the Sacraments,” came out in 2000.
Five spiritual nonfiction books followed, starting with 2003’s “The Holy Way: Practices for a Simple Life.” Huston’s most recent nonfiction book, “A Season of Mystery: 10 Spiritual Practices for Embracing a Happier Second Half of Life,” was published in 2012.
A return to fiction
Last summer, when Image journal editor Gregory Wolfe contacted her to see if she had “any old novels lying around” for Slant, a new literary imprint he created with Wipf and Stock Publishers, she immediately thought of “A Land Without Sin.”
Of course, Huston didn’t actually have an electronic copy of the 360-page manuscript. “All I had was a Kinkos box with a stack of dusty papers,” she said, which meant retyping and updating as she went. Fortunately, she was able to rely on her original research for the book, including travel journals and contemporary books.
“A Land Without Sin,” published in August by Slant, marks her return to literary fiction after 18 years. Huston said she’s learned a lot during her hiatus.
“For one thing, I realized that even novels have to have a point,” quipped the former Cal Poly instructor, who now mentors graduate students in Seattle Pacific University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. “That’s easy to forget when you’re raised with the notion that your creativity comes from some mysterious force and your job is to stay in a good relationship with the muse.”
Huston also learned to more clearly identify her audience and subject area.
Noting that two of the central characters in “A Land Without Sin” have “entirely opposite viewpoints when it comes to faith” — Eva is an atheist, while her brother is a clergyman — Huston said she strives to address thorny subjects such as religion in a way that makes all readers feel welcome.
“Our ideas about life and reality and what happens next — these are questions that everybody grapples with,” she said, regardless of their background. “Mockery doesn’t do anybody any good at all.”
Through her writing experiences, “I (am) more than ever convinced that the real vehicle for communication is story,” she said. “People can’t resist a good story.”
BOOK READING AND SIGNING NOV. 17
Paula Huston will speak about “A Land Without Sin” and sign copies of her book Nov. 17 at Coalesce Bookstore in Morro Bay. The reception lasts from 1 to 3 p.m.