Aya Katz is an author who also runs Inverted-A Press. Some readers who prefer non-fiction often lament that novels are simply “made up stories”. However, writing historical fiction can be quite arduous because this often means novelists have to understand the events of a time period better than the editors of a textbook. This is especially true with Aya Katz’s novels Our Lady of Kaifeng and Theodosia and the Pirates, which deal with various historical events. I decided interview Aya about some of her recently published novels, and the recurring themes in these. Even if you are not of the libertarian persuasion when it comes to politics, I believe most people will leave this interview with more knowledge about how fiction can be quite educational. Katz’s novels contribute to the national discussion, and she presents her ideas is a respectful way that allow others to discuss real issues rather than simply arguing about minutiae.
1. Can you explain the concept of didactic fiction for people who have never heard of this term, and how this pertains to the novels you have written?
At its simplest, didactic fiction is a story that teaches us something new. We not only get to vicariously experience the actions and feelings of the characters in the story, but we also leave the tale having learned about ourselves, our world and how people’s actions can affect outcomes. At its best, didactic fiction can lead to emotional catharsis and expanded horizons. At its worst, it can be a wooden, contrived story with a tacked on moral.
Didactic fiction is frowned upon these days in literary circles, because people don’t like to be dictated to. They don’t want to be manipulated and told what to think. But if it is done well, even a short parable is going to have enough open texture so that what you take away from it depends to some extent on where you are and what your own perspective brings to the story.
Years ago, I told a little girl the parable of the boy who cried wolf. I was hoping to get across that if we raise a false alarm too many times, no one will come to our aid when we really need help. I finished the tale with all the sheep and the boy getting killed by the wolf and nobody coming to help because they thought it was a hoax, and then I asked: “Do you understand the moral of the story?” She nodded. “What did your learn from this story?” I asked. She answered very seriously: “Wolves are dangerous.” She was only three years old, and for her this was a new thought.
There is more than one way to interpret any story, and so there is no reason to suppose that even in the case of didactic fiction, everyone will come away with the exactly the same learning experience. But what is compelling about novels of ideas is that they touch upon more than just concretes, and they stimulate our thinking by means of a vicarious experience.
All of my novels are about ideas. I follow in the tradition of Ayn Rand in that sense, and I very much sympathize with her when it is suggested that her writing is less than fiction just because it explores ideas.
On the other hand, because my ideas can be very subtle, many people experience my fiction as mere story and do not always come to the same conclusion as I do. I think that’s just fine, and it shows that there is a real story there, which can be interpreted many different ways, depending on who you are.
2. What are some of the recurring themes in your novels, and are there any pivotal scenes the readers should know about?
I am a libertarian, and so my writing is geared toward an exploration of freedom and how we should go about getting and preserving it. My recurring themes are justice and honor. I am very internally motivated, and I tend to take the side of people who act on internal rather than external compulsions.
When I was younger, I came up with the doctrine of “commercial chastity” which suggested we should all do what we feel deeply that we should, rather than allowing other people to dictate to us or to motivate us by bribes or rewards or threats or even something as subtle as withholding approval. I considered people who were motivated by these external means to be sell-outs who were prostituting themselves. My first novel, The Few Who Count was really about that, though it also made an important point about corporations: that limited liability for corporations is a violation of free enterprise, because it takes away rights of recourse of individuals against a collective entity. No group of people should possess a right collectively that none of them would have as individuals. This is a very important principle for me.
People mistakenly assume that if you are in favor of free enterprise you have to be a big supporter of corporations. Actually, it’s quite the other way. The Few Who Count dramatizes that.
But there is another bigger conflict between different types of people that I did not come to understand until later: not everyone is equally internally motivated, and this is why we don’t all embrace freedom of choice to the same extent. If you are listening to the voices in your head — if you are compelled by your own preferences to make choices that are not necessarily in harmony with others around you — you might fail to understand that other people have fewer strong preferences, fewer compulsions, and they might actually feel more secure if someone is telling them what to do. As a child I thought everyone would be happier if they just did what they wanted. As an adult, I came to learn that not everyone knows what he wants.
When I wrote Vacuum County, I tried to tackle this issue by presenting many different types of people who compose society and showing how, though they don’t all have the same basic internal motivation, they can still work together for the greater good, in a way that supports personal liberty, but allows those people who like being more dependent to feel secure and protected. We can all belong, without all being the same.
While The Few Who Count was not historically grounded and has a sort of limbo-like time frame and locale, Vacuum County was very grounded, both in terms of being set in Texas, and in terms of the many historical influences that went into the story. On top of which, it was actually prophetic of a government atrocity that happened after I was nearly done writing the book: The Mount Carmel Massacre. The video below explains some of that:
After Vacuum County, which was finished in 1993, I had a long lull during which I didn’t write any novels. I went to Taiwan, where I taught for three years, on the university level, and Our Lady of Kaifeng is what eventually came from that. It’s set in China during World War II, but I would not have taken interest in all of the events it depicted, if I had not taught at a Catholic University that was a direct descendant of a girls’ school in China.
Our Lady of Kaifeng is possibly my most personal novel. It deals with the issue of love and limerence. Not everybody is limerent, because not everyone is internally motivated. Many people think of romantic love as a relationship — they actually imagine love as occupying some space between individuals, as opposed to residing in the heart and mind of each person who loves. So this novel returns to the theme of personal motivation first addressed in The Few Who Count, but the reader is allowed to see the extreme individualist as isolated and possibly pathological. People with different values experience the limerent state of Marah Fallowfield as external and odd or internal and uplifting, depending on their point of view. The novel also explores religion and its origins, cultural differences with regard to individualism and different styles of learning.
After I wrote Our Lady of Kaifeng, I turned to a completely different era and a two-sided love story in Theodosia and the Pirates. Grounded in the real history of the War of 1812 and based on many different historical documents, this novel explores love and war and patriotism and honor. Patriotism is a kind of love, too, and many misunderstand how one can be an individualist and still feel it. Distinguishing between our country and our government is the first step we have to take if we want to understand true patriotism.
3. As a pacifist I feel it is preferable to avoid war, but I also know realistically that is not always possible. I believe many Americans of various political persuasions agree that the expenditures for war are way too high, and this is at the expense of the American tax payers. How do your novels explore the idea of financing war by alternative means?
Theodosia and the Pirates shows how calamitous for the general welfare financing war through taxation can be, and it gives an example of how the United States was saved from annihilation by enterprising privateers, despite the interference of the government-run Navy and Revenue Service. It’s not just a question of it being easier on the taxpayer financially to do it this way: allowing war to be privately funded in the long run will lead to fewer wars and more peaceful interludes.
All of that is dramatized in the novel by the real events leading up to the Battle of New Orleans, but for those people who prefer to have things spelled out in a non-fiction essay, I wrote this article: Who should pay for war?