Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Writing: "It's sort of like a mental illness and then there's a party!"

Anchee Min, Emma Donoghue, Alexander MacLeod and moderator Michael Blouin

The above statement was made by Alexander MacLeod (I think? Or was it Emma Donoghue? Argh... damn notes!) last night at Writers' Fest, during an interesting panel discussion with the theme of "Outsiders." The panel featured Chinese-American memorist and novelist Anchee Min, Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue, and Cape Bretoner Alexander MacLeod, and was moderated by Canadian poet and novelist Michael Blouin. The idea was to bring together three authors "whose characters inhabit the fringes of their respective cultures, spotlighting the isolation, fear, and love that define their lives." Min's latest novel, Pearl in China, is based on the life of Pearl S. Buck, who grew up in China with her missionary parents, and later taught (along with her husband) at Nanjing University, publishing her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Good Earth, about life in a small Chinese village. Donoghue's latest, Room , has received a great deal of press (and was up for the Booker, the Writers' Trust, and the GG); it describes the life of a young woman and her five-year-old son in a one-room prison. MacLeod's first collection of short stories, Light lifting, described in a National Post review as "cerebral," "emotionally intense," with a "diversity of characters" and a "variety of tones" is up for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Each author read excerpts from their work, in turn, and then they sat together with Blouin and discussed their work, and answered questions.

I was thrilled to hear Emma Donoghue read from Room (although, you know, I haven't quite forgiven her for killing off that lovely Italian greyhound in Life mask, my favourite of her novels). Donoghue read from a scene in the first part of the book, when Ma has explained a bit more about the outside world to Jack, who is looking out the room's skylight. Anchee Min read three sections (beginning, middle, and end) from Pearl in China, and Alexander MacLeod read from the darkly funny story, "Adult Beginner I." In fact, I remarked to the husband, interestingly, that all three of the writers present had wickedly irreverent senses of humour... It made for a lively evening!

I know far more about Donoghue than the other two writers; when Michael Blouin introduced Anchee Min, he touched on her background, and I was deeply moved by her story. When she came up to read, she admitted this was her first time at a Canadian event, a statement which garnered much applause from the audience. She read several excerpts from her latest novel, Pearl in China, and then told us a bit more about her life, opening with the statement "I denounced Pearl S. Buck when I was 18. It was 1971...." She went on to describe the jealousy, essentially, that Madame Mao had for Buck, who was invited to stand between Nixon and Mao during their 1972 meeting, and interpret during their conversations. "The next time [Buck's] name came up," Min continued, it was 1996, and Min was in a Chicago bookstore for a reading. A women attending the reading presented Min with a copy of The Good Earth, saying "Pearl Buck taught me to love the Chinese people." Min read it on the plane returning home, and, as she says in an interview for NPR, "I broke down and sobbed because I have never seen anyone, including our Chinese authors, who wrote our peasants the way Pearl Buck did, with such love, affection and humanity. And it was at that very moment Pearl of China was conceived."

Min also talked about her own experience arriving in America: terrified she wouldn't get a visa because she didn't speak English, she was given six months upon arrival to take an English test. She studied by watching Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers; the latter taught her that "the best gift you can give is to be your honest self," a statement that she found especially emotional, having been raised in a society that dehumanised its populace and was founded on deceptions.

During the discussion, some interesting points were touched upon: Donoghue confessed that she, identified a bit with Old Nick, the kidnapper and abuser in Room, in that she controlled the fates of Jack and Ma, as an author. She described how the questions she contemplated while planning the novel ("will I give them vitamin pills?" "will I give them a TV?") were very reminiscent of Old Nick to her. This observation led to a discussion about planning novels generally, which was rather interesting, actually (often, I find this type of debate: how do you write? Do you like a window to look out on? What kind of pen do you use? - facile). Donoghue feels she is stronger at dialogue and character than plot, and plans out each chapter in notes, deciding how many "reveals" there will be in each section, and re-arranging as needed. MacLeod, whom Donoghue teased for being "Proustian," struggles over each sentence and emerges with a story that is "90% finished" from its first draft (however, he also talks to himself); Min says her books are "90% garbage" on the first draft.

A lively discussion about e-books, and reading in the 21st century, ensued. None of the three authors seemed particularly disturbed by the rise of e-books in general, or seemed to want to comment on the implications for publishers and authors' rights; both Donoghue and MacLeod, however, had some great words about the book-as-object and the decline of thoughtful, in-depth reading. Donoghue worried that time spent online was time not spent engrossed entirely in a book. She compared Facebook to a Victorian lady's social life; observing students multi-tasking in class, commenting on photos on FB while taking notes on lectures, she realised that FB was elaborately Victorian: "you drive around and leave your calling card," she explained, "but it's not exactly reading."MacLeod was reminded of his love of the physical book when reading with his children: the gesture of taking hold of a book with each hand to read aloud, with a child sitting beside you, forms a reading "circle".

An evening filled with entertaining reading, compelling personal stories, and spirited debate!

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