Christopher Hebert may be best known around Knoxville as a professor of English at the University of Tennessee, but all of that is about to change with the publication of his first book, The Boiling Season (Harper). In progress for the past eight years, the novel follows the life of a servant on a fictional Caribbean island as he rises to manage an exclusive luxury resort, only to be faced with devastating political turmoil. Hebert will be celebrating this week's book release with a pair of readings, one with the Knoxville Writer' Guild and one at the University of Tennessee.
For a first novel, The Boiling Season seems very epic and self-assured.
Well, that's good to hear. I think often the idea of the first novel is that it tends to be very autobiographical. And in some ways it is that, but it tends to be very well masked. I think there's a lot of me, even though if you look at the book, you couldn't see in any way a connection between me and the protagonist, especially, but I identify him with him a lot, and I think the book really grew out of my own experience and interests, but in ways that are really clear only to me, not to readers.
So you almost pursued a career in hotel management?
Ha! No, not at all. But I've been really interested in political activism, not actually as a participant but as sort of an observer, and so politics and political struggles, that kind of thing, was my entry into it. But resort management sounds kind of nice too.
Yeah, the resort in the book sounds fabulous.
Yeah, and it's based on a real place. It was developed in the early '70s. It didn't last very long. But it was an incredibly posh, decadent place sort of surrounded by slums. It was an interesting idea, to create this sort of Eden surrounded by what was so much turmoil. They thought it was a good idea, but it didn't really take.
The novel's set on a fictional Caribbean island that's much like Haiti. Have you spent a lot of time there?
I just came back. It was over the new year. I took a trip down with a local group through Sacred Heart Cathedral. … It's definitely much different seeing the place in person than from reading about it, writing about it.
Was that your first trip to Haiti?
It was. Initially, when I was first thinking about writing the book, I sort of had the idea I was going to go and spend a lot of time and really research it, but at a certain point I just felt a need to distance this creative project, an imaginative work, from reality. That's also the reason why the place remains unnamed. I mean, at a certain point I felt like I couldn't be as faithful as I would need to be to the actual history of everything in order to call it Haiti. And once I did that I sort of decided that I wanted to make a distinct break—this is a work of fiction, it's a work of imagination—and so I decided I wasn't going to go down in person until the book was done.
So did it live up to your imagination?
It did. You know, I spent eight years on this book, and I've read and watched and listened to everything I could, I'd done every bit of research I possibly could, but even so I think the main difference was just the scope of things. You can read about how treeless and denuded the island is, and just the environmental problems, but then—we spent some time in some really remote locations, and one day when we were hiking, just standing there and seeing these mountains going on forever and so few trees and just really grasping in person just how vast and denuded it really is.
Your protagonist Alexandre's dedication to duty and his asexuality really reminded me of The Remains of the Day.
Yeah, I thought about that a lot, too, as I was writing the book. Part of what I was interested in was what it meant to be in a place like that where turmoil is a daily part of your life, as opposed to here, where we're cushioned a lot from our politics and it's possible to be an American and not pay attention to what's going on, and I was just struck by how much even if you want to avoid it, stuff like that comes and finds you. And I was curious to create a character and see what it would be like if you—like we have the luxury of doing—just tried to distance yourself, break yourself off from the turmoil, and just say, "I don't want to have anything to do with this. There are despots in power and gangs fighting and I don't want to be a part of it. I want to build something beautiful and have this perfect life in my own private Eden."
You're represented by super-agent Bill Clegg. How did that happen?
Everything with Bill Clegg is a long story. He and I have been working together for a number of years. … I was just drawn to Bill because he takes on a lot of courageous books, a lot of sort of unusual things that aren't your standard literary fare.
Knoxville Writers' Guild • Laurel Theater (1538 Laurel Ave.) • Thursday, March 1, • 7 p.m. • $2
Writers in the Library • UT Hodges Library Auditorium • Monday, March 5, • 7 p.m. • Free