Carrie Arcos vividly depicts the horrors of the 1990s Bosnian conflict in her new novel, We Are All That’s Left, which parallels the harrowing ordeal of 17-year-old Nadja with a trauma her daughter experiences 25 years later. PW spoke with Arcos about her inspiration for the novel, the process of writing it, and her impressions of Bosnia today.
In the 1990s, you worked with Bosnian refugees in America. Can you talk about your experience and how it influenced the creation of your book?
In the fall of 1995 until the fall of 1996, I was with AmeriCorps, a program that was basically a domestic peace program under Clinton. I was placed with Catholic Charities Immigration and Refugee Services in Somerville, Mass. I had all kinds of duties there, but one of my main ones was helping immigrants get resettled. I worked with a team finding apartments, getting furniture, enrolling kids in school and doing follow-up visits at the schools. I also taught classes in English as a second language and citizenship. There were immigrants from all over, but at the time we had a large influx of Bosnians.
Working with the Bosnians had a huge effect on me. I’d been really naïve, having spent the last four years at a small New England college kind of tucked away from the world. I’d heard about the Bosnian conflict but I hadn’t known about the genocide. When I started meeting the families and hearing their stories, I just couldn’t believe it. There were quite a few refugees my age, and I kept thinking, “They’re no different from me,” and I kept wondering what it would be like if something like that happened to me.
Did you know right then you wanted to write a book about the Bosnian conflict?
I didn’t know right then because I wasn’t pursuing writing yet. I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. It wasn’t until years later when I began writing seriously, that the idea for the book started percolating. I kept circling around it. Then, in the summer of 2014 I was offered a writing residency at Hedgebrook [a retreat for women writers near Seattle], and it was there that the story began germinating. At dinner one night, the other writers and I were talking about the difficulty in relationships between mothers and daughters. Fortunately, I have a very good relationship with my own mother, but many people I know don’t. I started thinking about my book as a mother-daughter story, making a connection between what happens to each of them during their 17th year. “Aha! That’s my structure.” I thought.
Are the main characters of your book based on people you have met or did they spring solely from your imagination?
I’d say it’s kind of a combination. Nadja [the mother] is loosely based on a woman I knew, at least in terms of her appearance.
Was this woman, like the mother in your story, reluctant to talk about the horrors of her past?
She told me some things, but not much. At the time it was still so raw. It was difficult for people to talk about specifics. They would talk about the general situation in Bosnia but weren’t very forthcoming about personal things. I had to learn the personal stories through my research.
What kind of research did you do?
I saw a lot of movies. I read books, especially journalistic accounts and first-person accounts. I got a lot of information from YouTube, too. There are so many clips of the war there. For example, I could see what it was actually like in hospitals back then.
The Bosnian settings of the book are very vividly painted. Have you visited these places? If so, what impressions did they leave?
After doing my research I went to Bosnia with my husband. The plane flew into Sarajevo, and the first thing we noticed going from the airport into the city was how fresh the war still was. There were bullet holes in buildings. There were these big craters in the streets left from bombs and shrapnel, which people had painted red to memorialize. They were called Sarajevo roses.
The people in Bosnia were exactly as I thought they’d be, hospitable and warm. While we were in Sarajevo, we met this amazing couple through our Airbnb. When I was talking to the husband about my book, he said, “You’ve got to talk to my wife! She’s from the same town [Višegrad] where your story starts.” As it turned out, this woman became an amazing contact for me. I even sent her a copy of my book before it was published to make sure I got facts right.
Did you go on to visit Višegrad during your trip?
Yes, and while we were there we got to go through the underground tunnels—now open to the public—which were used as escape routes during the war. Višegrad had a different feel to it than Sarajevo did, though. There were barely any Muslims there. They’d all been driven out. I kept feeling like people were looking at us, wondering what we were doing there. It was a smaller town that didn’t get a lot of outsiders.
While I was in Bosnia, I did notice that there was still some tension there, like there had been a Band-Aid put over the war. There was a man who was tried and convicted for a war crime, and it was like one side of the street was happy he was convicted and the other side was defending him. There’s still some segregation present there, too. Muslims, Croats, and Russian Orthodox students go to school at different times, and there are three presidents representing the three ethnic and religious groups. It was supposed to be a short-term solution after the war, but the model is still being used today.
How was the process of writing the novel different from writing your other books?
It was the same in some senses, but I felt more pressure. I was nervous writing this book; I was taking more of a risk since it’s historic. There was that aspect of wanting to “get it right.” I felt it was a love letter to people I’d met only briefly and I wanted to honor them. I had to dig deeper artistically.
What impact do you hope the book has on readers?
I hope they take away a greater empathy and more openness for people outside their experience. What happens in the book isn’t that different from what’s happening today in Syria and other parts of the world.
What are you working on now?
I just sold another novel, tentatively called Sky Watchers, to Philomel. It’s set in the 1950s and is about a group of high school kids who see a light in the sky and follow it into the woods. Only one of them comes back.... Dum, dum, dum.... It’s my UFO novel, a whole new direction for me.
We Are All That’s Left by Carrie Arcos. Philomel, $17.99 May ISBN 978-0-399-17554-1