ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Lawrence Osborne is a writer whose life and work are deeply connected to places. He has set books in Morocco, Cambodia and France, and he has lived in half a dozen countries all over the world. He joined me from a studio in Bangkok, which is his home base now. As he was getting settled, he shouted a few words of Thai to the audio engineer.
LAWRENCE OSBORNE: Hello. (Speaking Thai) - yes.
SHAPIRO: When he sat back down, I asked if he learns the language of every country he lives in. He said, bits and pieces.
OSBORNE: You know, learning language is actually quite amusing. I think if you're a writer, it's actually very interesting to learn languages because you're exploring how a language ticks, how it works, what its architecture is.
SHAPIRO: His latest novel, "Beautiful Animals," is set on an idyllic Greek island, Hydra. And there's a phrase in Greek that comes up again and again. It's a toast.
OSBORNE: (Speaking Greek).
SHAPIRO: Death to death, as in may death die.
OSBORNE: My pronunciation in Greek is probably terrible. But I'm sure that's sort of more or less (speaking Greek). And charos (ph) is, of course - charos is where we get the word Charon, the guy who takes you across the river Styx when you die, right?
SHAPIRO: Oh, right, the boatman...
OSBORNE: It's I assume - yeah, the boatman. So it's like death to charos, basically.
SHAPIRO: It's darker than most toasts, and also totally unattainable.
OSBORNE: It's pretty dark, isn't it? It's pretty dark (laughter).
SHAPIRO: "Beautiful Animals" is a sun-drenched summer novel with that shadow of death hanging over it. Early on, Lawrence Osborne describes the island of Hydra in passages that sound like they could come from a travelogue.
OSBORNE: (Reading) Even by 6:30, butterflies dance around the crooked fence poles, bumbling across slopes of gleaming hot and tart figs and disappearing into thin air when they felt like it. Like primitive armor, prickly pears grew along the low walls, and the paddles were finely robed with tiny cobwebs. It was hushed even near the houses. They could smell fresh hay and coffee. And from the coves came the ghostly repetitions of little waves.
SHAPIRO: It's so idyllic, and at the same time they're walking towards the Four Seasons resort (laughter).
OSBORNE: Yeah, well, that's Europe now, you know? You know, I haven't written about Europe for a very long time, if ever, really, because my books have been set in more far-flung places. So it's a sort of homecoming for me in a way. And these landscapes I know from my childhood. I know them very well. And there's a sort of emotion to even writing these very short descriptions of these landscapes that surprised me when I wrote them. They meant a lot to me when I was writing them. They were sort of - memories came up from deeper places, which I hadn't expected.
SHAPIRO: So you've created this world that is familiar to you as a young person that is a kind of homecoming to Europe. And then you introduce an outsider, somebody who washes ashore, this mysterious character. What did you want to bring in there?
OSBORNE: You know, I wasn't - I didn't want to have some sort of political program with having a Syrian refugee. I didn't want to go too heavy on that. But this is something which is happening in the eastern Mediterranean, so I thought it was perhaps an opportune moment to explore this phenomenon that has arrived in the last two or three years.
SHAPIRO: This character is the only refugee we meet in the book, the only Arab person we meet in the book. And I wonder whether you felt any pressure to make him in some way representative of the millions of people who have gone through this - you know, whether he's a good person or a bad person, whether he's fleeing war and tragedy or plotting to harm people in the West.
OSBORNE: Well, there is pressure to do that. And I think that's a pressure that has to be resisted. So I thought the most - in a way, the most subversive thing to do would just to be - make him - to make him normal. So I thought to myself, I'll make him as much like me as I can, in a way.
SHAPIRO: There is a scene where your character Naomi, who is a sort of spoiled teenage girl spending the summer on this Greek island, she's deciding whether or not to help the man she's discovered on the beach. Will you read this passage?
OSBORNE: Yeah. (Reading) She was the savior, and she relished the role. It made her vital in a new way. To save another person, it wasn't nothing. It wasn't exactly an achievement, but it was a small shift in the balance of power towards the weak. Such shifts were the substance of one's moral life. They made the intolerable tolerable.
SHAPIRO: Do you think that is generally true of philanthropy and good deeds, that, you know, you do it so that you can relish the role? You do it for self-interested reasons, almost?
OSBORNE: Yes. Oh, for sure. Yeah, I think so. I think that's just human nature. It's not to say that they don't have - such people don't have other altruistic motives. Of course they do. Human beings are complex. But there's a certain amount of grandstanding as well. I think that's just - it's in the human way, isn't it?
SHAPIRO: Well, part of the story of this book is something that is intended as an act of good goes awry.
OSBORNE: Yes. And I think that's what attracted me to that story because at the beginning I thought, what if this character was just out to rip off her parents and using the refugee as a kind of pawn in doing that? And that was my original premise. So it was quite a sort of dark premise. But then I thought, no, a person might have mixed motives. They might have that at the back of their minds but not at the forefront of their minds.
That's the way human beings work. There might be guilt, atonement, white guilt, all kinds of things that are going on in this - in the mind of someone like that. So I wanted a complex character. I didn't want a person who was just doing something evil all the time or doing something good all the time. The two things are intertwined at every moment.
SHAPIRO: She's complex, but I didn't find her especially likeable, I have to be honest (laughter).
OSBORNE: Well, she wasn't supposed to be likeable, no. I've got everything against likeable characters. I think likeable characters are usually completely forgettable and we don't really care. I think we love villains and we like unlikeable characters precisely because they show us these disturbing complexities that I don't think nice characters do.
SHAPIRO: This book weaves in themes from Homer's "The Odyssey." And at one point, a character even explicitly says, isn't Odysseus just like the refugees today, tossed on the stormy waves, destroying himself on the barren sea, the foiled journey home? And then the same character says, it makes you think about how it's all the same. Nothing ever changes. Is that your point of view?
OSBORNE: In a way, yes. I think humans are migratory animals. "The Odyssey" is a great poem to refugeedom (ph), if you like. Odysseus is not entirely a refugee in one sense, obviously, but he's somebody who's blown off course. And the entire book is an exploration of that theme.
SHAPIRO: He's so heroic.
OSBORNE: Yeah. Well, "The Odyssey's" a very strange book in many ways. You know, it's a much more - I read - you know, I reread it every year.
OSBORNE: I don't think - that's not as surprising as it sounds because it's a rip-roaring book to read. It's a rip-roaring story.
SHAPIRO: If you read "The Odyssey" every year, was it inevitable that someday you would write a novel about somebody who washes up on a Greek island?
OSBORNE: Yeah, because I think that probably goes into your subconscious year after year. It's amazing to think in Greece - and this is something that's always surprised me about that country. I'll tell you, I was asked to go to write a piece about the house of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the great British travel writer, in Mani, in the Peloponnesus a few years ago. And he positioned his house so that he could look over towards Pylos, where - he wanted the most Homeric landscape he could possibly find in the 20th century.
And what's amazing when you sit in the garden of that house and you look out over the sea is you realize the landscape hasn't changed one molecule since - well, it has obviously changed a little bit, but it hasn't changed very much in 3,000 years. So there is something haunting to me in the idea that this story could recur in the same landscape.
SHAPIRO: Well, Lawrence Osborne, it's been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much.
OSBORNE: My pleasure.
SHAPIRO: The new novel is "Beautiful Animals."
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