Rebecca Lee, Ben Lerner, Jess Walter: considering language and lost in translation

By Janet Somerville

Canadian poet Jacob McArthur Mooney was a gracious and thoughtful host of the reading/interview featuring Rebecca Lee (Bobcat and Other Stories), Ben Lerner (Leaving the Atocha Station) and Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruins). My table companion in the Brigantine Room, David Kent (President of HarperCollins Canada), may have revealed himself to be an equal Lit Nerd to me, as ebullient and supportive as he was about all of the participants and their intelligent comments throughout the afternoon.

The event began with each reading from their work. Lee picked a story about plagiarism, set circa 1985, pre-Internet, when students “had to be bullied into admitting it” in which the accuser asked, “who helped you? A book or a person?” Lerner read an excerpt grounded in misunderstanding because of his poet protagonist’s assumed inability to communicate in Spanish as he tried to establish a life for himself in Madrid, where he “looked at the water and was sober,” comprehending only “in chords.” Walter introduced his Hollywood producer, Michael Deane, “a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed,” one who was seventy-two “with the face of a nine-year-old Filipina girl.” George Hamilton, anyone?

Jess Walter reading at IFOA 2012 (c) readings.org

Jess Walter reading at IFOA 2012 (c) readings.org

Prompted to consider lost in translation as a motif in each of their pieces, Lee suggested it was like falling in love, while Lerner said he found it interesting that “ambiguity is celebrated in poetry–it’s not a problem.” And, in Leaving the Atocha Station, his protagonist “believes people only find him interesting when he speaks in enigmatic fragments. He’s trying to keep fluency at bay.” For Walter, “miscommunication creates interesting distances.” When two of his characters “find each other and fall in love, but don’t speak each other’s language” it seems a “perfect metaphor for stumbling along in any of our lives.”

On writing itself as a process Lee said, “the essential struggle for me is moving ahead in the story and writing it beautifully. I have to write the first sentence and care about it.” For Lerner, “language is what I am most sensitive to, in love with, and annoyed by.” Walter admitted, “the lines drive me in the writing. I have to like the sound of them.” All of that is true for me as a reader, too. What matters is the phrasing, the rhythm, the pacing of each mindfully selected word. How many bars of Ella Fitzgerald do you need to listen to in order to know she’s great? It’s the same with finely crafted writing. You know in a moment or two.

Visit readings.org for more event listings. Follow Janet Somerville on twitter at @janetsomerville or on her blog Reading for the Joy of It.
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Miéville & Doctorow: from Dungeons and Dragons to politics and writing

By Corina Milic

The night started with a few bad jokes and ended with a debate on human nature (consensus: good, though invariably more time was spent talking about the evil).

The Lakeside Terrace was packed for a joint reading and interview with Cory Doctorow (The Rapture of the Nerds) and China Miéville (Embassytown). The SPACE channel’s Mark Askwith hosted.

The authors are similar in some essential ways: both live in London, and both approach science fiction quite politically.

Doctorow read from his new novel Pirate Cinema and reminisced about growing up in Toronto: “I played Dungeons and Dragons here [Harbourfront Centre] on alternating Saturdays for most of the 1980s.” He credits the city, with sci-fi institutions like Bakka Phoenix book store and the Judith Merril Library, for his pursuit of genre fiction.

Cory Doctorow and China Miéville in conversation with Mark Askwith at IFOA 2012 (c) readings.org

Cory Doctorow and China Miéville in conversation with Mark Askwith at IFOA 2012 (c) readings.org

Miéville, who treated fans to an unpublished short story reading, said that he simply never grew out of his fantastical childhood imagination. “As a writer I can sustain almost nothing that doesn’t have a fantastic element.”

To say the conversation was far reaching is an understatement. The authors talked about everything from copyright laws (Doctorow’s activism centres largely around the issue) to blog anxiety to waterboarding to Hurrican Katrina and Cormac McCarthy. They even threw in a requisite trekkie reference.

It is impossible to synthesize Doctorow’s jaw-dropping on-the-spot metaphors or Miéville’s eloquent arguments (both full of rather large words this blogger was ill-equipped to successfully transcribe). Instead, here are some of the highlights:

Miéville, on structuring his novels: “My books are very planned, in part because I’m very neurotic. The idea of starting a book without knowing where you’re going, oooo, hives!”

Doctorow, on good writing advice: “’Write everyday’ crops up as writing advice all the time. What was revelatory to me was that when I did this, writing every day, I saw in hindsight that the days I felt the words were good and the days I thought they were bad were actually indistinguishable.”

Doctorow, on why he blogs his daily writing: “If I don’t put [the words] out for public consumption, I cheat myself. I won’t do it.”

Miéville, on the relationship between his politics and his writing: “I have been an active socialist since I was 18. I see the world politically, but I also see the world as a D and D* geek. Anything I write involves political issues. It’s not like separate boxes in my head.”

Miéville, on the idea of crisis: “In a very banal way crisis is aesthetically interesting, but it’s not an aesthetic indulgence. Things really are fucked. I’m not a pessimist. One of the great blunders is [believing] that people are horrible.”

Doctorow, on writing young adult novels: “YA protagonists do a very brave thing all the time. They do a lot of things for the first time without knowing how these things will change them. It makes them really exciting to write about.”

Miéville, on writing young adult novels: “What he said.”

*Dungeons and Dragons

Learn more about Milic’s attempts to read every book in her home on her blog. Visit readings.org for more IFOA events.

Five Questions with… Jane Johnson

© The Fisher Agenc

Jane Johnson, author of The Sultan’s Wife, will participate in IFOA events on October 23 and October 27. She will also travel to Uxbridge for IFOA Ontario.

IFOA: Who are you most excited to see at the Festival?

Johnson: I’m really looking forward to meeting Annabel Lyon, whose Golden Mean is one of my favourite novels of all time. I also love her continuation of the story, The Sweet Girl. I hope to get a chance to tell her how much.

IFOA: You wear two literary hats: a writer’s and an editor’s. How has been an editor improved your writing? Has it ever hindered it?

Johnson: Being an editor enables me to view writing as a flexible process, or like engineering, rather than as some mystical gift. There will always be times when it gets away from me and times when it scares and surprises me (that’s the wonder of creativity, which should always be a bit wild) but crafting the writing is how an author gets their material back under some semblance of control, and knowing it’s not all going to fall apart at the seams if you start cutting and restructuring is very reassuring.

But yes, sometimes that very knowledge can be a hindrance: it can feel infinitely mutable and if you over-edit you can edit the life out of something. And being a writer makes me a better editor, too: more empathetic with the authors I work with, more practical and constructive in my comments. It’s a two-way learning process that never ends.

IFOA: You spend part of the year working from a rural village in Morocco. How do you stay connected to the publishing world?

Johnson: Ah, the wonders of the internet. Whatever did we do before email and Skype? If you saw my village, in the foothills of the mountains just north of the Sahara, you’d be amazed we have broadband at all, but in fact we were connected in Tafraout before I was connected in my home in Cornwall! It really doesn’t matter where I am in the world, and the beauty about the flexibility of my working conditions means that (without having to constantly be stuck in meetings) I can be in much better and quicker contact with my authors than most office-bound publishers.

IFOA: If you could have lunch with any author, alive or dead, who would you choose?

Johnson: That’s a tough question! I am lucky in being able to have lunches with the wonderful writers I work with—writers like George RR Martin, Dean Koontz, Robin Hobb, Raymond Feist—so I’d better choose a dead author. Even then all I can do is to narrow it down to three: Robert Graves, Daphne du Maurier or Mary Renault.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I write best when…

Johnson: I am sitting on a remote bit of rock by the Cornish sea with my head full of story and no interruptions or duties for the day. Oh, how I wish that happened a lot more than it does now: that’s a real blue-moon scenario!

IFOA: Bonus question: International Festival of Authors in one word:

Johnson: Cornucopia.

For more about Johnson’s appearance at IFOA, click here.

Five Questions with… Marjorie Celona

© Sherri Barber

Marjorie Celona will read from her debut novel, Y, and participate in an IFOA round table discussion called Basic Instinct: Style vs. Content.

IFOA: What was your favourite book as a child?

Celona: The Ant and Bee books by Angela Banner, particularly the ones featuring ‘Kind Dog.’

IFOA: You grew up in Victoria, where Y is set, but you wrote the book while living in upstate New York. Does putting distance between you and the place you’re writing about make things easier, or more difficult?

Celona: People sometimes ask whether I write at home, or in a coffee shop, or at the beach. And whether my surroundings matter—and whether I need to be in a beautiful space. I have to say that none of these things matter when I write. There was a certain similarity to the landscape, believe it or not, in the woods of central New York State and Vancouver Island, and this was at times helpful, but, really, I’d be lying if I said that where I am has any kind of bearing on what I write.  

IFOA: What time of day do you usually write, and why?

Celona: For the most part, it doesn’t matter—if I’m working on something, I can work on it any time. When I wrote Y, I wrote every other day, sometimes all day.

IFOA: Who are you most excited to see at the Festival?

Celona: Alice Munro.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: If I could change one thing…

Celona: . . . about what? If it were up to me, I’d change something about everything.

For more about Celona and her appearance at IFOA, visit readings.org.

Five Questions with… Kristel Thornell

Kristel Thornell will share her debut novel, Night Street, in a reading October 23 and a round table discussion October 27.

© Joi Ong

IFOA: You used to live in Canada. What’s your favourite Canadian pastime?

Thornell: I lived in Fredericton, New Brunswick, in an apartment overlooking the St. John River. Back then it was watching the river from my windows and long walks, especially in the fall. These days I most often visit Toronto and Montreal, where I love to wander aimlessly and to eat my way through the tantalizing mix of cultures.

IFOA: Night Street is about an Australian landscape painter, Clarice Beckett. What do painters and writers have in common?

Thornell: A lot, I think. In my experience, they seem to share a compulsion to observe, to catch resonant impressions and preserve, shape, communicate and revere them. Perhaps, too, an attraction to intense, transporting experiences.

IFOA: Writers of historical fiction take fact and render it fictional. How do you fictionalize history while maintaining a sense of historical accuracy?

Thornell: It’s tricky. I try to develop a guiding sense of a period, any and every way I can – through fiction and non-fiction, archival material, art, music, food, clothing, and my own experiments with making a voice that seems to belong to it. I aim to see and feel that time as fully as possible, as a vivid three-dimensional space, and then to let my characters move freely there.

IFOA: If you could have lunch with any author, dead or alive, who would you choose and why?

Thornell: Virginia Woolf. I’m a fan. And I imagine it would have been interesting – entertaining or unsettling or both – to be in the company of a mind so sharp and curious.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: One day I will…

Thornell: Write a novel (some sort of mystery involving a translator?) set on a Scottish island. This will require a lengthy stay on such an island, a lot of walking, fireside reading, pots of tea and oatcakes. For research.

IFOA: Bonus question: This year’s International Festival of Authors in one word..

Thornell: Alluring.

For more about Kristel Thornell and her appearance at IFOA, click here.