Bo Kearns is the author of the new novel Ashes in a Coconut, which is set in Indonesia. He worked in international banking and finance, and is a feature writer for NorthBay Biz magazine and the Sonoma Index-Tribune. He lives in Sonoma, California.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Ashes in a Coconut and for your characters Laura and Jack?
A: As an international banker, I lived in Indonesia. It was 1983, a time when the man’s career took precedent; and wives followed. The wives had to set aside their own interests to relocate to a place where they could not work, didn’t speak the language, and didn’t know anyone. Some adapted; others returned home, had affairs or succumbed to alcohol. Laura is representative of these women. Despite the obstacles, she’s determined to succeed there.
Jack is confronted with his own set of problems. As an ambitious naïve American, he finds himself in a third-world country where his values are tested by local corruption.
As Jack and Laura struggle, their marriage suffers. The story is partly based on fact, with much creativity tossed in.
Q: Can you say more about why you decided to set the novel in Indonesia, and how important setting is to you in your writing?
A: The Indonesian culture is grounded in superstition, mysticism and magic. Weird things happen there. Graham Greene is one of my favorite authors. Many of his works are set in exotic locales that add much to the story. He weaves elements of intrigue and suspense around an expat’s attempts to adjust. In my novel, the unique tropical setting plays an important role. It’s like another character.
I also lived in Europe and the Middle East. And I’ve traveled to many off-beat places. I tend to migrate to those types of settings in my writing. I think readers enjoy learning about places they’ve never been. And it saves them the hassle of standing in the security line at the airport.
Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: Several years ago, I returned to Bali to do research for the book. There I witnessed an elaborate cremation ceremony. A procession of villagers carried a body wrapped in a shroud to a makeshift pyre on the beach. Following the cremation, the family returned late in the day to collect the ashes.
A boy climbed a palm tree to retrieve a coconut. He slashed it open with a machete and placed the ashes inside. At sunset the family put the coconut in the ocean and sat in the sand to watch it drift away. That special moment became the title of my novel.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: When I started writing the novel, Jack was the intended protagonist. I knew where he was headed. But as I wrote, Laura’s character took over. She had the greater challenge. And she challenged me as a writer. Her resolve and determination drove the plot. As she changed, so did the story. She took me on a journey I hadn’t anticipated.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve written a number of short stories about a retired, hapless character named Norman. He’s an older Holden Caulfield. He’s still enjoys life. And he attracts the off-beat. His escapades are humorous, his character complex. Some of those Norman stories have won awards and been published. I’m thinking of a Norman collection.
And I’m mulling another novel, one set in the Deep South along the Gulf Coast, where I grew up. It’s somewhat like a foreign country, a place with a unique culture and an interesting setting.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’m a beekeeper, avid hiker and supporter of conservation causes. Several years ago, I climbed Kilimanjaro to stand in Hemingway’s melting snows.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb