I’ve been taking advantage of various free and inexpensive literary events – a bonus of our temporarily virtual-only world. I have five of them stored up to write about, but to keep this post from getting absurdly long I’ll focus on two for now and feature the rest another time.
George Saunders in Conversation with Max Porter
Saunders’s latest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is a written version of the graduate-level masterclass in the Russian short story that he offers at Syracuse University, where he has taught in the Creative Writing Program since 1997. His aim here was to “elevate the short story form,” he said. While the book reprints and discusses just seven stories (three by Anton Chekhov, two by Leo Tolstoy, and one each by Nikolai Gogol and Ivan Turgenev), in the class he and his students tackle more like 40. He wants people to read a story, react to the story, and trust that reaction – even if it’s annoyance. “Work with it,” he suggested. “I am bringing you an object to consider” on the route to becoming the author you are meant to be – such is how he described his offer to his students, who have already overcome 1 in 100 odds to be on the elite Syracuse program but might still need to have their academic egos tweaked.
The book is, thus, not just a set of essays on the Russian masters but also a guide to how to write well. It was clear there was mutual admiration between Saunders and Max Porter, who interviewed him. They discussed the revision process as an accumulation of micro-decisions that make the work better. For instance, Saunders compared two Tolstoy stories, “The Snowstorm” and “Master and Man” (written 20 years later), and noted that, though they are thematically similar, the later one is more organized.
Saunders spoke about writing as a dual process of intuition and iteration; a bunch of different “yous” have acted on a text by the time it’s done. Early on in his career, he thought that he had to choose which writer he wanted to be (e.g., Hemingway or Kerouac), but as he aged he realized that the mind is never fixed. He went surprisingly deep into Buddhism at this point, likening writing to meditation – both are practices pursued with intensity. To his younger self, he would say to keep going: improving is simply a matter of time (i.e., that 10,000 hours figure that’s bandied about as necessary for developing expertise).
The only drawback to this event was that Saunders was speaking from his snow-encased upstate New York basement and had a horrible Internet connection; often his voice was faint and delayed, while his image stayed static. We and Porter could only stare gormlessly and wait for his face to move to match his words! I think the book would be too niche for me – I’ve hardly read anything by the Russians, and since I don’t write fiction I’m not in need of a guide to those kinds of writing decisions – but it was nice to ‘meet’ Saunders ‘in person’.
An Evening with Kazuo Ishiguro
(Faber Members / Guardian Live event)
Ishiguro’s new novel, Klara and the Sun, was published by Faber yesterday. This conversation with Alex Clark also functioned as its launch event. It’s one of my most anticipated books of the year, so I pre-ordered a signed copy along with my ticket and look forward to it arriving soon. Klara is an Artificial Intelligence “friend” purchased to combat teenage loneliness. A childlike figure, she is cheerful and treats the sun like a god. Ishiguro said that the book developed from a story he wrote for children aged five to six, about a little girl who takes a doll home – except his daughter, author Naomi Ishiguro, told him no way was it suitable for young children, being far too dark. He likes “displaced or alien narrators, fish out of water,” he said, because the limited perspective allows him to focus on oddness.
In addition to Clark’s questions, a few pre-recorded questions from literary celebs (Daisy Johnson, Bernardine Evaristo, and David Mitchell) encouraged Ishiguro to create a tripartite schema for his novels, reflect on his writing about Japan, and look back at the devices he has used. Asked by Johnson about the connections between his novels, he admitted that his first three novels all retread the same ground: a man who has made a mess of his life or career picks over the past. Then his mid period is set in dreamscapes, while his most recent three novels are dystopian fantasies (though he does not see Klara as set in a dystopian world).
In response to Evaristo’s question about whether he felt an obligation to write about Japan, he said that with his early work he was conscious of needing to represent a group of people who even then (due to World War II) were viewed with suspicion or antipathy. He left Japan at age five so the country didn’t seem entirely real to him. What he knew was based on very early memories, what his mother told him, comic books sent by his grandparents, etc. As he stated in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, writing about Japan in his twenties therefore felt like “an act of preservation.” Still, he wants his characters and situations to be universal.
Replying to Mitchell’s three questions (cheeky!), he explained that his first ambition was to be a singer/songwriter, and he wrote 100+ songs. Songwriting taught him minimalism. “You can say a huge amount by what you don’t say,” he noted. He hopes to create spaces, or rather vacuums that suck in the reader’s attention. Unlike Mitchell, he always knows the ending of a book before he begins, and his decisions are all about wanting to lodge in the reader’s brain. Thus, memorable endings are a priority for him, whereas they might not be for other writers. I was struck by his characterization of his own life: when he looks back, he doesn’t see a clear path that arose from his choices; instead, he sees a “weird, incoherent mess.” For this reason, he’s turned against the reflective device of his first three books. If he can come up with a theme, he’s hankering to write a book about hitchhikers in the north of England.
Towards the end of the (overlong) discussion, he mentioned that he has been questioning the novelist’s role due to the events of the past year: wondering about the meaning of fiction when so many have died and so many believe fake news. It was a melancholy but realistic point to end on. While I’m not an Ishiguro completist (The Unconsoled doesn’t appeal to me at all and I’m not sure I can be bothered with When We Were Orphans, but I will try The Buried Giant; I’ve read the rest), the event whetted my appetite to read his new book. (See also this Goodreads interview. I loved the anecdotes about learning he’d won the Nobel!)
Bookish online events coming up soon: The Rathbones Folio Prize announcement on the 24th and Claire Fuller’s book launch for Unsettled Ground on the 25th.
Have you attended any online literary events recently?
A few years back I read a rare interview with Anne Tyler in which she described getting together with her lady friends of a certain age to watch The Wire and experience how some other Baltimore residents live. The gangs-and-drugs world of The Wire, of course, could hardly be more different from the safe semi-suburban spaces Tyler’s characters inhabit.
However, if you’ve heard one thing about Tyler’s new novel, Clock Dance, her twenty-second, I expect it’s that a character gets shot. Finally, a realistic look at the condition of Baltimore, I thought! To my frustration, though, Tyler does just what she did in her previous novel, the Booker-shortlisted A Spool of Blue Thread, and immediately defuses what could have been a hot-button issue. Sure, her characters have dysfunctional family problems aplenty, but nothing ever gets too out of hand. So in Spool son Denny’s confession that he thinks he’s gay is never given serious consideration, and in Clock Dance the Chekhovian gun we (perhaps) encounter early on in the novel does indeed return to be used in the contemporary-set section, but – and I’m sorry if this strikes you as a spoiler – it’s only a shot in the leg, the result of some kids playing around with a gun, and the unwitting victim is fine.
Essentially Clock Dance is three stories followed by a short novel: glimpses into four periods of Willa Drake’s life. In 1967 she’s 11 and her angry mother Alice, who’s reminiscent of Pearl Tull from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, gets fed up and leaves – but soon comes back. (You see what I mean about dangling life-changing traumas in front of us but then instantly neutralizing them?) In 1977 Willa is a college junior and flies home over spring break to introduce her boyfriend to her parents. He wants her to give up her linguistic studies and join him in California, where he has a job. On to 1997, when Willa suddenly becomes a widow and has to learn to survive one day at a time. Fast forward to 2017, when the remarried Willa, now based in Arizona, gets a call informing her that her son’s ex-girlfriend has been shot and she needs to come look after her and her daughter and dog in Baltimore.
It’s somewhat ironic that I just read Breathing Lessons earlier in the summer: Clock Dance is awfully similar to Tyler’s 1988 Pulitzer winner in that both protagonists are trying to make things right with their daughter-in-law and granddaughter figures. In Willa’s case, her son never married Denise and isn’t the father of nine-year-old Cheryl, but Willa still feels a grandmotherly concern and, as she seems to be the only person the neighbor knew to call in an emergency, she agrees to fly out with her second husband, a humourless retired lawyer and golfer named Peter. They will stay in Denise’s home on Dorcas Road in Baltimore for as long as she is in the hospital. Peter is impatient with the situation, but Willa feels purposeful for the first time in years, and before long she’s starting to think about Dorcas Road, with its lovably quirky set of neighbors, as home. Could she make her own useful life here?
Tyler is surprisingly good on modern children and technology, and there are some terrific individual scenes, like the fairly awkward dinner Willa has with her elder son, Sean, and Elissa, the woman he left Denise for. But at times the dialogue didn’t ring true for me, with some 1950s vocabulary like darn, gosh, pussyfoot, hoodlum, and jeepers, plus (I checked this in the Kindle book) a whopping 188 sentences start with some variation on “Well, …” That works out to more than once every other page, a tic Tyler’s editor should have ironed out.
The U.S. edition of Clock Dance, which features a cactus on the cover, tries to make more of the partial Arizona setting, though most of the book is set in Tyler’s familiar small-town Pennsylvania and Baltimore. Willa admires saguaro cacti – “She loved their dignity, their endurance” – and Peter also buys one from the hospital gift shop, as a sort of symbol of resilience and adaptation to one’s surroundings. The U.K. cover, by contrast, goes for nostalgic Americana and reminded me of this passage from Breathing Lessons:
(An early Tyler novel is called The Clock Winder, but I imagine the similarity in the titles is just incidental.)
The story behind the title: Cheryl and friends perform what they call a “clock dance,” wherein two girls stand behind a third and they all move their arms in rhythmic jerks like a clock face. Willa imagines her own ‘clock dance’ would be a mad whirl from stage left to right: a race against time. Her efforts to redirect her life before it’s too late are heartening, but overall I didn’t sense strong enough themes in this novel; in particular, I would have preferred if Tyler had been consistent in checking in with Willa every decade and making each vignette truly count.
Of the eight Tyler novels I’ve read so far, here’s how I’d rank them (from best to least good). You’ll see that this latest one falls somewhere in the middle.
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
The Accidental Tourist
Back When We Were Grown-ups
A Blue Spool of Thread
The Beginner’s Goodbye
Clock Dance is released in the UK today, July 12th, by Chatto & Windus and came out on the 10th from Knopf Doubleday in the USA. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
Ruth Padel is one of my favorite poets, so I jumped at the chance to read her new book-length holiday poem, Tidings: A Christmas Journey. Set across one Christmas Eve and Christmas day and narrated by Charoum, the Angel of Silence, the poem switches between Holly, a seven-year-old girl excited for Christmas, and Robin, a forty-four-year-old homeless man who follows a fox to a Crisis Centre. Here he gets a hot meal and some human kindness to make up for the usual bleakness of the holidays:
Christmas is the salt mine.
Salt in the wound, a nothing-time.
I was loved once. Who by? Can’t remember.
I especially liked the fragments that juxtapose this contemporary London story with centuries of history:
Up here the evening glides over golden moss
on the flat-top tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft
Pagan Christmas fizzes and teems with ghosts,
midwinter fires, mummers and waites, Yule
logs and mistletoe.
The poem also journeys to Jerusalem and Rome to survey a whole world of Christmas traditions, then and now.
It’s a lovely little volume, with the red, black and white theme offset by touches of gold. The illustrations are gorgeous, but the story line disappointed me: starting with the character names, it all felt rather clichéd. Padel has treated urban foxes much more successfully in her collection The Soho Leopard, and apart from a very few instances – like the above quotes – the verse struck me as largely undistinguished, even awkward (like the out-of-place clinical vocabulary in “Love, / and the lack of it, can change the limbic brain”). This means that, for me, this book fails to earn a place as a Christmas classic I’ll reread year after year.
Tidings was published in the UK by Chatto & Windus on November 3rd. My thanks to Cat Mitchell of Random House for the free review copy.
Other Christmassy Reading
This year I’m resuming my place in Waiting on the Word, Malcolm Guite’s selection of religious-slanted poems to read from the start of Advent through Epiphany. For those who want to explore the history and interpretation of Christmas, I can recommend The First Christmas by the late Marcus Borg, one of my favorite progressive theologians.
As I have for the past several years, I’ll dip into The Ecco Book of Christmas Stories, edited by Alberto Manguel. My favorites are by Truman Capote, John Cheever, Jane Gardam and Jeanette Winterson (who has a brand-new, full-length Christmas story collection out this year). I’ll also sample some Russian classics via A Very Russian Christmas, which has short stories from Tolstoy, Chekhov and more.
In addition, I have Cleveland Amory’s The Cat Who Came for Christmas and The Cat Who Stayed for Christmas out from the library, which should make for some very cozy reading under the cat. I’ll browse the numerous Christmas-themed poems in U.A. Fanthorpe’s Collected Poems, another library book. And I may even deign to try Hogfather, one from my husband’s beloved Discworld series by the late Terry Pratchett.
[See also this wonderful list of Christmas reading suggestions from Heaven Ali.]