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Stephen Dau’s Buried Memories

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The Book of Jonas cover
The Book of Jonas
by Stephen Dau

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An Exclusive Authorlink Interview
with Stephen Dau, Author of The Book of Jonas

By Diane Slocum

July 2012

Younis and Christopher share a cave in the mountains above a destroyed village. Younis is a teenage refugee from the village. Christopher is an American soldier. Christopher treats Younis’ wounds and writes in his journal. Younis changes his name to Jonas and comes to America. Christopher doesn’t return. While Jonas tries to adapt to life in the United States, his memories keep returning him to those last days in his homeland. The memories are incomplete as he shares them with his counselor, Paul, but he can’t escape them. And he can’t escape the connection he had with Christopher.

“.I can put myself into the mind of a teenager pretty easily, because I used to be one.”

AUTHORLINK: How did you develop the character of Jonas? How did you put yourself into the mind of a teenage refugee?

DAU: That's a good question, especially when it's phrased like that. I guess I sort of tend to break up those categories. I can put myself into the mind of a teenager pretty easily, because I used to be one. And while I've never been a refugee, I have lived outside my home country a lot, and I know what it feels like to be not entirely part of a place, to observe from outside of a culture. And I've worked with people who have survived a war, which gives me a little bit of an idea of what people have gone through. But beyond that, it's all just an act of imagination. You try to mentally put yourself into these situations and try to feel what it could plausibly be like, and then report back on that experience. That's really the only way I can describe it.

AUTHORLINK: Each time Younis/Jonas relives his experiences, another layer, another detail is revealed, like peeling off an onion. Why did you decide to write it this way, with an unreliable narrator?

“. . . parceling out little bits of information at a time like that can be a very compelling way to tell a story.”

DAU: I guess on the one hand there's a very practical reason, which is that from a storytelling or technique standpoint, parceling out little bits of information at a time like that can be a very compelling way to tell a story. Beyond that, like many storytellers, I have an interest in memory, its unreliability, and malleability, and particularly in what any sort of trauma does to memory, how it alters and bends it. Jonas, the narrator, is either unaware or unable to communicate the extent of what he's been through, so he goes through this process of excavating that story in what I think feels like a natural way, which, as I said, also happens to aid the storytelling.

AUTHORLINK: When you started writing, did you know how the story would turn out?

DAU: I didn't. I didn't realize it until I was clear through a first draft and well into a second, and the realization hit me square between the eyes that the story basically had to go in a certain direction, even if I didn't necessarily want it to.

AUTHORLINK: What did you use from your background in reconstruction?

DAU: There aren't any specific scenes or anecdotes from my experience in the book, but that experience certainly underpins and informs the story, in particular how those affected deal with loss.

AUTHORLINK: What did you do for research?

DAU: I read a lot. And I talked to people. I watched a bunch of documentaries, in particular a PBS Frontline documentary called “The Wounded Platoon,” which tracks one particular group of soldiers deployed in Iraq, and looks at what happens to them both in country and after they return home.

“I was ecstatic when it sold, and not just because of the sale but also because of who bought it. Blue Rider Press has been absolutely amazing . . .”

AUTHORLINK: What were your best and worst experiences in marketing and publishing your first novel? How did you feel when it sold?

DAU: I was ecstatic when it sold, and not just because of the sale but also because of who bought it. Blue Rider Press has been absolutely amazing to me, and I was completely onboard the moment I first spoke with Sarah Hochman, my editor there. As a writer, all you can hope for is that someone will show up who understands your book and thinks they can sell it to people. At the next level, you want someone who loves your book and will go to bat for it within their publishing house, with the sales team and everyone who actually makes the bookselling process happen, and that's exactly what BRP has done. I honestly have no bad stories about them, which makes me a rarity among my writer friends. It also makes me incredibly lucky.

AUTHORLINK: What do you hope people will take with them from reading your story?

DAU: This is a question I hope never to answer. That's because I view stories fundamentally as conversations between the writer and the reader. The written work is my side of the conversation, and the reader brings to the discussion his or her own context, background and predispositions. As soon as I start giving my opinion about what I think readers should get from the story, I feel I've gone from engaging in a conversation to monopolizing it, and that feels all wrong to me.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

DAU: I'm about a quarter of the way into another novel, about which it is far too early to talk at this point.

About Stephen Dau:

Before The Book of Jonas, Dau’s credits included MSNBC, McSweeney’s and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. After a career in postwar reconstruction, he received an MFA from Bennington College. A native of western Pennsylvania, he now lives with his family in Brussels, Belgium.

Diane Slocum
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.