Firstly, what’s the collective noun for a bunch of author talks? A glee? A yay? A make-Kate-very-happy? Anyway, in the past week, I’ve been to three – that deserves a collective noun.
Secondly, I have a half-a-dozen posts in my drafts folder about author talks I have attended. I never get to the ‘publish’ stage. Can’t really say why – I suspect that I leave it a week or so and then feel unsure about the fine detail of what was said – I wouldn’t want to misquote someone.
So, three author talks in one post – my favourite bits of what Rosalie Ham, Hanya Yanagihara and Jonathan Franzen had to say.
I met up with book group friends for lunch last week. We don’t normally meet in the middle of a Wednesday but it was a special occasion – Rosalie Ham, author of The Dressmaker, was giving a Rural Press Club address. The focus of her presentation was on creating ‘authentic’ rural stories because “We need more accurate representation of the bush in the city.”
She spoke at length about The Dressmaker –
“It occurred to me that I’d have to defend that book forever. Because The Dressmaker is set in rural Australia there are a whole lot of assumptions made about rural people in general… Country people aren’t like that, there are people like that everywhere. You need stock standard characters to create the empathy but the weird makes it interesting. The weird bit is everywhere, it’s not just rural.”
She also noted that if you make it big in the country, you ‘need’ to go to the city for validation – “There’s something derogatory about saying ‘She’s big in Shepparton’ – it shouldn’t be this way. Whether Toorak or Shepparton, we all enjoy reading and art.”
Ham’s next novel is about irrigation water. She said that she had to house it “…in love and death and the gothic landscape, otherwise it won’t sell.” And she suspects she will have similar discussions with people over the next book as she has with The Dressmaker, although this time she’ll have to defend it to every farmer she ever meets for misrepresenting the issues around water allocations.
Have I mentioned that I spent many years working in the water industry? Needless to say, I can’t wait for her novel about irrigation.
Yanagihara is in Australia for the Sydney Writers Festival but she graciously made time to visit Melbourne. My immediate impression of her was that she was polite, humble and very honest (not necessarily open, but honest – an important distinction given that we know little about her). I draw attention to that fact because like anyone who’s read A Little Life, you do have to wonder where such a book comes from. In particular, there’s a certain passage about losing a child which is probably one of the most confronting, unforgettable and powerful things I’ve ever read.
The conversation was hosted by Jason Steger, who opened the discussion by noting that A Little Life has been criticised for being too melodramatic, too improbable, too over-the-top. Yanagihara replied quite simply that “Art is excessive….”, and that she wanted her book to be operatic in structure, proportion and plot. She added that the book is “…deliberately out-of-step…” with what is currently fashionable in literature (the cool, sophisticated, clever book). She wanted something ‘hot’, immense and excessive.
Yanagihara said that an important part of creating the fairy tale feel to her novel was taking out the element of time (many critics have noted that it is difficult to time-stamp this book) –
“You can leave the reader feeling untethered by taking out time. It should feel immersive and also slightly restrictive.”
Which is exactly how I felt for 720 pages.
Also here for the Sydney gig, I went along to see Franzen out of curiosity, not love. I won’t pretend, I liked him far more ‘in person’ than I ever have when reading his interviews.
He opened by stating that he was not Ferrante (or the Pope). Within context, this was funny and he won the crowd from the outset.
There was very little discussion about his latest book, Purity. Instead, he talked about his love of bird-watching (apparently bird-watching and book tours are quite compatible); the process of writing; and a fair bit about how he came to write The Corrections (my favourite of all his books).
There was a brief mention of the fact that The Corrections was being made into a television series (that may or may not involve Daniel Craig). Despite his involvement with this project, Franzen said “It was always a point of pride to write unfilmable books. I want fiction to rule and other genres to come and pay tribute, pay homage to the form of the novel.”
It’s no secret that Franzen has had an ‘interesting’ history with the media. In the lightest of tones, he said, “I don’t enjoy being a social critic…” *pause* Oh yes you do, Jonathan.
He went on to say, “It has been very difficult to opt out of a relationship with digital media.” *I tweeted that*
Franzen has a dry sense of humour and was a good sport during question time, when some questions strayed into what I suspect were no-go-zones. But it was during this part of the evening that we learnt the most about him –
“I became damaged in the same way that anyone who likes reading books is damaged…” But there’s a happy ending to the damage bit – “I found a community that welcomed me, in books.”
He finished with this -“The teachers who made me a writer were the ones who taught me to read.”