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The Common Bond by Donigan Merritt, Other Press, NY, 2008

abstract:Donigan Merritt is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop and the author of seven novels. He lives in Washington, DC. A world traveler who has lived a rich life, Merritt imbues his novels with the same variety and intensity. He writes of love and loss and adventure in many different settings. The Common Bond is set in Hawaii in the '80s. The protagonist, Morgan Cary is a s a commercial fishing boat captain, who trolls the Pacific for yellowfin tuna and blue marlin. After a decade of life spent in California, Morgan flies home to Hawaii arriving with a broken heart and an overwhelming sense of guilt surrounding the death of his wife, Victoria. He finds comfort in the wet green mountain slopes, the pearl-colored volcanic haze, and the tropical perfume of gardenia, plumeria, and eucalyptus, but he cannot escape painful and persistent memories. "Resonant with human emotion and insight, The Common Bond is an exquisite novel of precision and grace that captures the depths of the human capacity for guilt, and the traps of compassion and hope in redemption."—Other Press. Join BookBuffet reviewer, Dee Raffo who untangles the unconventional story line of this novel, and follows with her interview with the author over SKYPE.


September 24, 2008
— The Common Bond by Donigan Merritt, Other Press, NY, 2008

Merritt transports us to Hawaii 1981 where the natural storms are emulated in the characters of this enthralling book. They tell a tale of love and friendship, the loss of both, and the painful experience of regaining them. Donigan Merritt is a Philosophy professor who decided to try his hand at fiction writing. He attended the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1980.

‘I am glad that I got into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, satisfied that I went through the entire degree process, and would do it again under those circumstances. It had some practical value in my life as an author. But it had nothing at all to do with being a writer. Writers are people who write, authors are people who are published; the first of those seems to be in the nature of a gift (or a curse), the second is the result of either blind luck or obnoxious calculation.’

The first part, aptly entitled ‘Rain’, introduces us to Morgan Cary, a former fisherman, whose return to the island stirs memories that he is not sure will help him or break him. Merritt sets the scene in beautiful Hilo, but juxtaposes this island of simple living with the complexities of a man trying to regain a life for himself after loosing his wife. Before Morgan can move forward he has to confront his past, whilst the present runs alongside both and Merritt manages to switch between these time frames with great skill. Morgan Cary is a habitual character that has to deal with many ghosts that inhabit this slow changing place, the fact that the friend he betrayed still lives on the island, the bar where they fought still serves the same beer and that he orders the same breakfast as he did years ago allows us to get to know this man, understand how a woman like Victoria would have rocked his otherwise simplistic existence.

‘He was going to get stumbling, reeking, shit-faced, plastered somewhere he could get sick in peace and drown again in his punishing memories of Victoria.’

Happy with drinking himself into oblivion in order to cope with what has happened, quite suddenly Morgan’s life begins to take on more purpose when he meets a fellow fisherman, Ben Iki. Through the act of fishing, something that he has done all his life, and the introduction to a stable and happy family man, Morgan starts to deal with the events that led to the suicide of his stunning, but volatile wife.

In the second section we are taken to Iowa to get to know a child Victoria, and begin to understand the woman that Morgan describes as the love of his life, a love that was not mature but unbelievably passionate and uncontrollable, the love of films and romance novels, which always seems doomed by its own intensity. As we already know the outcome of her life, it is very tragic to read into the tangle of events that made her what she was and in the end decide to take her own life.

‘There were only the memories now, the dreams. He fell asleep remembering the first time he was here with the beautiful and mad woman who would become his wife.’

As Morgan delves into their married life in California in the third part of the novel, we see a one-off writer struggling to meet the expectations of a supportive but demanding wife. They are so inexplicably linked but don’t really ever understand each other, hoping that pure love will iron out the problems they both have, from Victoria keeping secrets about her unstable and violent past, to Morgan never sharing that he doesn’t think he could write again and his eventual infidelity. Merritt has a great ability to really make a reader understand and connect emotionally with the characters and this makes the book very rich and thought provoking all the way through.

The book then returns to Morgan’s character and his eventual return to believing he has something to live for, people who care and obligations to others that now matter.

‘Lying in her arms and feeling her desire for him, he had felt the hope of a future; for the first time in more than a year, he actually wanted a future.’

This novel has a circular feel, the character betrays a friend but finds love, and leaves the island, only to return heart broken and without purpose, but over time finding both again. There are more circular themes that resonate throughout the book, the dying of Ben Iki but the friendship with his grandson, the reinstating of an old friendship with Tioni who he had previously betrayed and the eventual finding of love where none was expected. The fact that the boat is constantly re-used and repaired, the fisherman still go out to sea, the rain still falls and sun still shines. The feeling that life goes on regardless of what happens within it.

I enjoyed this book, Merritt’s way of writing captures the emotional complexities of his characters and he uses the setting beautifully to help create the scene and bring a reader into a world that is very much not their own, adding subtle aspects of Hawaiian culture into his tale. The story of Morgan’s failures, his betrayal and guilt and the painful journey of self-forgiveness and redemption will strike a cord with any reader. The only thing I was slightly confused by was the ending; because the rest of the book was so well thought out and rounded I found the abruptness of the end page a shock. I have read a similar comment and Donigan Merritt’s response was that he didn’t want to constrict the character to a happy or sad ending, therefore leaving the reader to make up their own mind.

‘After quite a while thinking about it and trying one thing and another, I decided on "the Soprano's ending." That is, any reader may decide based on his or her reading of the novel what happened after the last scene in the book: he lived happily ever after, he drowned, maybe Tioni drowned too, maybe Ben Iki came looking for them and saved their lives ... you decide. Whatever you think happened is exactly what happened.’

Unwilling to let this go I contacted the author who agreed to an interview via ‘Skype'. Read on for a more in-depth view into a book that kept me thinking for weeks……

SKYPE Interview with the Author

Transcript of the Donigan Merritt Interview

Dee: How are you today?

Donigan Merritt: Okay. It is a beautiful early autumn day in DC.

Dee: I can obviously appreciate that Hawaii must have been an inspirational place for your writing but where did the basis for the love story between Morgan and Victoria come from? Donigan Merritt: Good question. Mostly from my imagination, and a process of combining a series of girlfriends in my younger days and exaggerating one of them. There seems to me to be extraordinary similarities in the way each of us experiences love, and it doesn't change much from one person to another, assuming we are the kind of person who has loved more than once.

I did have a girlfriend in Hawaii, and I met her very much the way Morgan meets Victoria, and she was very much like Victoria. She is the direct model. Although that relationship did not last long at all, just a month or two. We did not get married or even live together, but the scene in the Sunset Lanai motel that opens the book, when they are discovered together, is essentially accurate, as is the confrontation in the Red Pants between Tioni and Morgan afterward. (The girl left us both actually, for someone else, and moved to Florida ... the end of that story.) Dee: You really seem to pull from your own life experiences; I think this really shows, as the stories are so realistic and intriguing for a reader.

Dee: Was it hard to write from a woman's perspective in Victoria's section of the book? Especially when dealing with issues such a rape and abandonment?

Donigan Merritt: I have often written from a woman's perspective. My first novel, One Easy Piece (1981) was written entirely from the POV of the female character. The novel before The Common Bond (Possessed by Shadows, 05) had extensive journal entries written by the female character in her voice. I prefer to write from the woman's perspective.

Dee: Why is this?

Donigan Merritt: Wish I knew ... but I suspect that it is because I both truly like women, and in fact, prefer the company of women to that of men. I have married three of them! The company of men bores me, we are too much alike, I don't learn from men, but women are always interesting an exciting to me, and it's not just the sexual attraction, even though it is certainly part of it; women are not like me, so the contrast is stimulating and educational. Women characters are more enjoyable for me to write, because women have, by nature, I believe, a kind of empathetic approach to the world, are more sensitive to their surroundings, and think about issues is a less "faux profound" way. My wife from time to time points out when I have a female character saying things in a male way, so she is a good editor for things like that.

Dee: That is excellent input! You do seem to draw from a lot of personal experiences but in your blog you do mention the issue of privacy, how do you draw the line?

Donigan Merritt: Carefully, and not always well. I follow the old maxim; write what you know. I always write about places I have been, never using a place I have not spent some time in. My characters have aspects of people I know, even though reimagined, often exaggerated, and sometimes blended. As far as the plot lines, most of that is imagination -- that's why they call it fiction. As far as privacy, I value and demand my privacy, and always supposed that only musicians and actors had a public art. But the Internet changes the rules, and I am very dubious.

Dee: I have never been to Hawaii; I went to Thailand last year and was amazed at how quickly commercialism is spreading to that part of the world, as a big traveller what are your views on these diminishing societies?

Donigan Merritt: I am 63, and that is a long time to get around and do things, if one is so inclined, and I am. I have been around the world a couple of times, have lived in about a dozen foreign countries, and generally wanted to try out everything that interested me, a lot of that corresponding with where I was intellectually and artistically at the time. I read Hemingway when young and wanted to fish for marlin. I read mountaineering books and wanted to climb mountains. That kind of thing. The effects of population and of global homogeneity on the planet sadden me.

Dee: I spoke to a friend who compared the native Hawaiian people with that of the Native Americans here in Canada, some aspects were merely there for the tourists whilst the culture was very much being pushed to the side.

Donigan Merritt: Hawaii is virtually unliveable now, although it remains my favourite place. My wife's theory, and I like it, is that we will always love best the first exotic or foreign place we spend time in when young and impressionable. For her it was the Philippines, for me Hawaii. Besides, I was in my early 20s in Hawaii, in good health and with good looks, and during the high point of the free love, sex, drugs, rock and roll part of the 60s, so it made quite an impression. Also, I got to live out one of my strongest fantasies -- to be a fishing boat captain. I think it is an accurate comparison, native populations in NA and the native pop of Hawaii.

Dee: When I saw the pictures it did make me very envious and you certainly sound like you made the most of your time there!

(Do not read on if you are planning to read this book and haven’t already done so as it discusses the ending at length!)

Dee: The ending of The Common Bond I must admit left me a little wanting, the rest of the book was so well rounded that when I could feel the end page getting nearer I was suddenly aware there couldn’t be enough pages left to satisfy me. I understand your dilemma of giving Morgan a happy or sad ending but could you explain your thought process in a little more detail for those of us who are still pondering it (me, for weeks!!!)

Donigan Merritt: Okay, now you have found the 64,000-dollar question...One review of the book, otherwise quite wonderful, went ballistic over the ending. Let me explain how this came about. You may have picked up on the idea I had of having aspects of the dream Morgan writes in his novel mimic aspects of the life he is living in the novel itself. I intended the irony that Morgan finds himself at the end in exactly the same place the person in his dream novel was in, and also a discussion Victoria had with him about it, wondering if maybe the entire novel had taken place in just the last minute or two of the character's life, that Morgan's novel, Decompression, was a depiction of the what was in that character's mind as he drowned. Therefore, in the original draft of the novel, Morgan dies at the end, drowns exactly as the character in Decompression drowns, with my hope that the reader would wonder what Victoria wondered -- was the entire novel (The Common Bond) taking place in Morgan's mind during the moments of his death?

EVERYBODY hated that ending -- my wife, my agent, my editor, and the publisher. They all, after going through the book with Morgan and, as my editor said, falling in love with him, wanted him to live, to find peace and happiness with Ana and Ben Iki. But to me that betrayed everything the book had been about. So I was stuck for quite a few days trying to find a solution. I refused the happy ending. Instead, I had what I thought a brilliant solution, which I quickly began calling "the Sopranos ending”. I left it open. Anything could have happened after that last paragraph, whatever any reader wants to happen to Morgan is exactly what did happen to him. So if you wanted him to make it to the surface with Tioni, be saved by Ben Iki, live happily ever after, then that's exactly what happened. If you thought it reasonable and that the entire movement of the story pointed to his death at the end, then he died.

Dee: I still can't decide though!!!! I wouldn't have wanted him to die but also the happy ending makes the story more fairy tale and that wasn't what I would have expected either.

Donigan Merritt: Exactly my dilemma, thus: the Sopranos. Do you understand what I mean by the Sopranos ending?

Dee: I think I know what you mean by ‘the Sopranos ending’, want to elaborate?

Donigan Merritt: The extremely popular and long running HBO drama called "The Sopranos," came to an end, it's last show, by having the main character with his family in a diner when a man comes in who could be coming to kill or him, or just coming in for something to eat, and the screen went to black ... the end. My editor now loves this ending, mainly because she things it will drive wild discussions during any book group readings. I can see that. It already drives such discussions among my friends. I can tell you, though; that what happens on the last page would make it extraordinarily difficult for both Morgan and Tioni to have made it alive to the surface. They could have, but it would have been difficult and they would have been in terrible pain from the Bends.

Dee: Do you have another project in mind, or taking a breather after 'Island in the Pines'? Donigan Merritt: I do not take breaks from writing. I write everyday, even if just in journals. Right now I am trying a variety of ideas -- one is to collect all the short fiction I've done, polish it up, and maybe do a collection of short stories. Another is to try the memoir again; although I have just used up a lot of the best material from that in Island in the Pines ... I also have a novel I wrote in the mid-80s and set aside that might be worth another look.

Dee: For someone who travels so much, where do you consider home?

Donigan Merritt: I don't know for sure. Hawaii is special for me, but I don't want to live there now. I miss Central Europe and think we may go to Vienna after Buenos Aires, but actually, I suppose I am simply connected with where I am when I am there.

I was born in Arkansas, left at the age of 17, and in the time since have lived everywhere. When my students at the university would ask that question, my answer was, wherever my stuff is. My wife is a Foreign Service officer with the US Dept. of State, so we live overseas most of the time. This is the longest period (2 years) we've lived in the States since 1992. (We will be moving to Buenos Aires in less than 4 months.) During the decade of the 90s, we lived in Europe for a long time and I took a job as a professor of philosophy for an American university. I found that I could not do a good job teaching and write seriously at the same time. So when I left the university (because we went to Africa), I started writing for publication again. That is why if you look at the description on my book covers, it will always have me living in a different place. Possessed said Berlin, Bond says DC, and Pines will say Buenos Aires.

The most honest answer is the one I joked off with my students. Where my books are on the shelf, my art on the walls, and my desk with pen and paper, that's my home.

Dee: That is a great answer!!!

Dee: What do you think of skype chat as an interview option?

Donigan Merritt I enjoyed this. But it is very different from having the time to think about questions sent by email and to answer at some length when necessary. I feel a little rushed because of the "dead air" time when I'm typing.

Dee: I did not mean for you to feel rushed, I do like the freshness of the answers, I know that a typical interview would have been me sending you some of the questions but this has been very honest and I have really enjoyed it!

Donigan Merritt: Next time let's meet at a cafe. In Buenos Aires.

Dee: Buenos Aires sounds amazing, meet you there! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me. Bye for now, and again it has been a pleasure!



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