It’s getting late in Belgium, and Stephen Dau, the critically acclaimed author of The Book of Jonas, has just tucked his young daughter into bed and is now settling in for some quiet reading before he, too, retires for the evening. There’s a fun family ski trip coming up in a couple of days, followed by a few book readings back in the States.
Dau’s real life is light years away from the fictional world of war and conflict he crafted so spectacularly in his debut novel (Kirkus called Jonas a “literary tour de force” in a starred review). But much of it, of course, comes from his years working for humanitarian organizations and philanthropic groups active in Eastern European cities like Sarajevo, where the dark specter of war is still never far away.
“It’s impossible to think of people you see on the news who have either been in war zones or disaster areas as abstractions after you live and work with them for any period of time,” Dau says. “It brought that home to me in a way I don’t think it would have had I not had those experiences.”
Dau felt compelled to write the story of a troubled 15-year-old battling to rebuild his life after losing everything to war. Jonas’ family is killed during a botched U.S. attack in an unnamed Middle Eastern country and he’s sent to the U.S. to live with a foster family and attend high school. He eventually meets the mother of the American soldier who saved his life but there’s a secret that’s difficult to disclose about what happened during the attack.
Dau was moved to write Jonas’ story, but he’s still surprised with what he ultimately produced. “The story that I started out writing was completely different than what it turned into,” he says. “Going into it, I knew the story was going to be about a kid who had survived a war, but I didn’t know the specifics of it. And I didn’t know it was going to expand like it did to encompass so many other aspects of the story.”
And just because the distinctive cadence and structure that defines Jonas remarkably mirrors the fragile psyche of Dau’s complex protagonist doesn’t mean the author had some master plan.
“Anytime anyone goes through trauma like that, it has the effect of shattering,” Dau says. “In response to that, people compartmentalize their experiences and it fragments their memories and consciousness. That was something that came out during the writing. But it wasn’t necessarily as pronounced as it is in the final version, so I had to go back in and emphasize that a little more.”
At book readings, Dau often finds that people will ask him variations of the same question that he, nevertheless, is never quite sure how to answer correctly.
“The question I get most frequently is, ‘How much of it is real, how much of it is true?’ and I’m never entirely sure how to answer that question because even though it’s not necessarily based on my own experiences, it’s not science fiction either,” Dau says. “Things like this have happened, and happen all the time. Not necessarily in this specific way. So, whenever people ask me whether or not it’s real or true, no. It’s not. Obviously, it’s fiction. But at the same time, there’s a lot of truth in there.”
Despite the challenges, Dau welcomes periodic sojourns away from his Belgian home where he has lived with his family for the past eight years.
“I really enjoy it because writing is such a solitary thing,” Dau says. “When you’re writing, you are living completely in your head, and it’s a very solitary endeavor. But I like to hang out with people. I like to talk.”
Dau believes the entire interaction between writer and reader constitutes a sort of non-verbal conversation–that’s why he’s uncomfortable with the idea of suggesting what people should get out of his stories.
“Everybody brings their own set of experiences to it, and their own preconceptions, and way of looking at it,” he says. “When you write a book or read a book, it’s like having a conversation with someone. My side of the conversation is the book, and I feel that if I then try to tell people what they should take out of it, then I’m starting to monopolize the conversation. I think it’s up to the reader to bring whatever conclusion they have. It’s really up to them.”
Publishing a critical hit hasn’t guaranteed acceptance in all quarters, however.
“I was at a reading in San Francisco, and there was a gentleman in the audience who was a former Army Ranger during the Viet Nam era,” Dau recalls. “He objected to my use of the word ‘killing’ to describe what happens in war. He seemed to say that it isn’t really killing–you are going after an objective, and in the course of going after that objective, unfortunately, people are killed. That’s collateral. Well, I guess this is a book about collateral.”
Joe Maniscalco is a writer living in New York.