Santa Fe author Sarah Stark’s 2014 novel, Out There, recounts the heroic tale of Jefferson Long Soldier, a young army veteran after he returns home from Iraq. He wrestles with PTSD as he attempts to reconcile his experience “out there” with who he was and who he wants to be. Guided by One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book he feels saved his life overseas, he embarks on a road trip to Mexico to meet the author, Gabriel García Márquez.
Stark put years of work into her award-winning debut novel. Here, she sits down and discusses the themes of resilience, the healing power of literature and her writing process.
How did you become interested in writing about the healing journey of a young Iraq War veteran living with post-traumatic stress disorder?
I can locate where I was when I first heard the term PTSD: it was 2003, and I was driving to the grocery store. There was a segment on NPR about it. It was a new term at that time. I thought, “I want to write about this, and I don’t know how to write about this.” I began doing a lot of reading and research from the first moment I heard that term.
How did Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude become such a central piece of the story? What was your writing process like?
I had been working on the novel in different forms. I think it takes me five years to write a novel. The first four years are trying to figure out what the novel is about and what the voice is. There’s a balance between the research side and this sort of leap you have to take as a novelist to try as much as you can to imagine something that you haven’t experienced.
Then I had this experience with a student, Reuben Santos. [At the time, Stark was teaching a world literature class at IAIA, the Institute of American Indian Arts, a college in Santa Fe. She had assigned One Hundred Years of Solitude.] One day, Reuben shared [his thoughts] about [the character] Colonel Aureliano Buendía. There’s a passage where he’s back from war, and his family is all around him. He draws a circle around himself twenty feet in diameter and says, “No one can come closer to me than this.” Reuben was explaining that part of the novel saying, “I get this, I understand. I’ve been to Iraq twice.” It was this moment in the classroom when I was like “Okay, this is it; this is what I’m writing about, this connection.”
A few years later, I wanted to reach out to him to tell him about the novel, and that was when I learned Reuben had taken his own life. At that point, I decided this story was going to be about someone who chose life, who survived.
In the novel, Jefferson Long Soldier feels his life was saved by Gabriel García Márquez’s book. Do you see that as a part of the function of literature?
First, as a reader, I’m always looking for the sort of “salvation” in a piece of work. It’s hard for me to read something that moves me without feeling a connection to the writer. I let that part of the character just be me; it was my connection to those words. The connection that Jefferson feels to the book as his own story progresses was something that I experienced myself as I was writing. I took Márquez’s book with me everywhere. I would write lists and lists of quotes. Then I would take those quotes apart word by word and think about if that was a quote — I was saying to myself over and over — what would the significance be?
One of the themes of your novel is returning from “out there” and finding the resilience to overcome difficult circumstances. You describe Jefferson discovering “the eyes to see miracles.” How does one practice having eyes to see miracles?
It’s one of those things that’s so important and makes a difference in life in a day-to-day way. When things are hard, as they are in our country and world today, it’s all the more important and all the more difficult to find the good. I wanted to write about the character that chooses life and ask the questions: why do people go through very similar circumstances but come out in different places?
I was thinking that maybe there are people who are better equipped to see miracles, to look at a situation that appears hopeless and tragic and see some form of redemption in it. This is something Jefferson does when he stands on his hands upside-down, he turns a situation on its head. I thought, maybe this is a decision we make every single day, given whatever we’re given, that you have to search for that miraculous thing, or you’re not going to see it. I think it’s a basic life philosophy that is possible but takes practice. It’s a practice like any kind of spiritual practice — to do things with mindfulness — and it seems to be relevant in all situations and all times.
Near the end of his road trip to meet Gabriel García Márquez, Jefferson gets the thing he believed would bring healing, but you also leave the reader with the question of whether it actually happened. This felt significant.
There were a couple things going on. I wanted to leave open the possibility for the reader to wonder what exactly had happened, that magical realism of “was this something that Jefferson did on his own and imagined” or was this reality? That scene felt dream-like to me in many ways, and I wanted to keep that aspect going. I didn’t want the ending to be too pat and everything wrapped up. It was tricky to balance — that thing that he thought was going to help him, having that be fulfilled and not have it be an end-all be-all answer to everything. That’s because we know life isn’t really that way. We have to go back home and have to continue living.
Meg Peralta-Silva was born in Baltimore and lived in many states and countries before moving to New Mexico three years ago. She has worked as a youth advocate, creative expression instructor, program director and farm intern. She enjoys learning from others’ perspectives and challenging her own biases.