Ward Just’s novels usually play out private dramas against a wallpaper of international politics. His 15th and latest, “Forgetfulness,” is no different, telling the story of a CIA odd-job man whose wife is randomly murdered. Given his rather serious subject matter, it may come as a surprise that Just likes to laugh. A lot.
Speaking by phone from his Martha’s Vineyard home, the 71-year-old author often breaks into merry chuckles over such things as how much more exciting his protagonists’ fictional lives are than his own. Of course, others might disagree. In his early incarnation as a journalist, Just was sent to Vietnam by The Washington Post and to London and Cyprus for Newsweek. Since then, he’s lived in Berlin and Paris — where he still spends every winter with his wife, Sarah Catchpole.
“Forgetfulness” is set in France, in the Pyrenees, in the tiny fictional town of St. Michel du Valcabrère. A restless American portrait painter, Thomas Railles has found respite there in his marriage to Florette, a local sweater maker. But even this isolated existence isn’t safe from the long reach of his old life as a part-time CIA operative, or from the present Mideast conflict. On an afternoon walk, Florette’s throat is slashed by Moroccan militants who stumble upon her while traversing the mountains, and Thomas is thrust back into the world of spy games.
“This is really a story about a man where grief comes into his house and sits down at the table and refuses to leave,” explains Just. “So he must look at the rest of his life in that context, meaning not just five years down the road, but this afternoon and tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. How he can maintain his sense of himself in the midst of this grief — refusing to become defined by it. Nonetheless, there it is.”
Just, who has covered territory ranging from the halls of the Capitol to Chicago society to Eastern bloc beaches, also wanted to capture the post-9/11 climate. “There is kind of an existential cloud that’s formed on the horizon,” he says. “I wanted to write about that in a way that was utterly remote from the Twin Towers or the Pentagon. It’s almost kind of a drizzle. Like many of us — we pick up the paper, you look at the headline, and you either read that story about four more killed, or 12 more killed in Iraq, or you don’t.”
This story first appeared in the August 31, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
By his own admission, Just is less concerned with the plot’s dramatic arc than he is with atmosphere, character and life’s larger questions. “The plot is always kind of an excuse for me to talk about other things,” he says.
“The way I work, I don’t map things out, I don’t have an outline,” he explains, joking that he blames any darkness in his work on the Mahler, Brahms and Wagner he listens to while writing. “When I start the beginning, I don’t know the ending. And these things come flying in from God knows where and so they get themselves on the page.”
His very visceral style is also uniquely devoid of quotation marks. “I want the reader to visualize or internalize the dialogue,” he says. “If you think of spoken dialogue as sort of a shadow of a thought on a wall, then this is the thought itself.”
Despite the breadth of his experiences, Just, who’s currently working on his 16th book, remains gruffly self-deprecating.
“I cannot tell you how tedious and boring the life of a professional writer is,” he laughs. “What do you do? You pour a cup of coffee and walk into your office and play a couple of games of Klondike [solitaire] and then sit down and write all day long. And then you muck up and find your wife, and you say, ‘Gosh, I got two pages, isn’t that wonderful?’ Dramatic, it isn’t.”