First Fiction Panel consists of Kirsten Allio (Garner), Uzodinma Iweala (Beasts of No Nation), Olga Grushin (The Dream Life of Sukhanov) and moderator Susan Salter Reynolds. There’s an overflow crowd lined up way past the entrance to the Fowler Museum
The volunteers are a bit overzealous here, herding the audience into specific seats. We’re cowering quietly in the background, hoping the matrons won’t break our kneecaps.
While we’re waiting for them to settle, a few words about this morning’s Building a Creative Community panel. The panelists were Carolyn See, John Baxter and Michael Walker. Richard Rayner moderated. And although the panelists were charming – Baxter is a born raconteur – time was wasted reading excerpts, which essentially left time for precisely one question before the audience questions kicked in. They also failed to address the stated theme of the proceedings – Building a Community. But, as a reflection on what community means to each, it was illuminating, and it’s interesting to note that the men saw the supportive creative community in terms of cities (Paris) and neighborhoods (Laurel Canyon), where as the panel’s lone woman spoke in terms of family.
The panel is starting up. Here we go:
SSR – These are huge … risky books … have not seen anything like them in 15 years of reviewing … Writers are invited to read excerpts. Excerpts are all too long, and too much panel time is taken up with them. Now, she asks them how they became writers, who their mentors were, the moment they gained confidence to write.
UI: With each new thing you start, you search for the confidence to go on because each thing is different … Wrote book in his last year of college and worked with Jamaica Kinkcaid for a year … Very harsh feedback sometimes but it allows you to hone your skills. … I don’t really know if I am a writer yet … you have to write more than one book.
KA: (sighs heavily) Becoming a writer? (sighs) From childhood I wanted to be something in the arts, translating reality into something less real. Was cellist, dancer, had that one special professor in college who helped her along. Feels it’s a funny juncture after the first book as it was all poured into it. Having children forces her to economize and she works much better.
OG: Always known, started at four. Never thought of it as a profession, tried other things, too. Hardest transition was trying to get her writing published, which only happened seven years ago … no mentors, no writing classes, nothing, just one ten-dollar book on getting published which told you to double-space your manuscript.
SSR: So none of you are in it for the money?
ALL: Laughs …
SSR: Asks about experience in publishing, shopping the book, the editing process, how were first novelists treated? Pressure to compromise?
UI: Process was very streamlined. Wrote book as senior thesis, had to be in pretty good shape or I wasn’t go to graduate. Kinkcaid passed it to her agent, who took it on. Little editing required by the end. Difference between thesis and book is about a paragraph.
KA: Oh … you lucky … Got an MFA at Brown and got an agent that way, did not work out, fired him, started all over again … Coffee House Press actually does read the slush pile and that’s how Garner got published. Editing process did not change much at all. Agents were interested in making it more mainstream, taking out all the questions, putting in only answers … not at all palatable.
OG: Did everything by the book, finished the novel, bought another book on how to find an agent, made a list of agents based on their client list, expected to go indie press route. Some agents wanted rewrites, too experimental. Refused to make changes. Agent ultimately signed her quickly, Puttnam required very little editing. British editor had more edits for the UK market – trouser for pants – but basically pretty easy.
SSR: They used to tell us write what you know. How much did each of you follow that advice?
UI: I think it should be write about what you want to know. I grew up in Washington DC. So it’s not a book about anything that happened to me. It does contain elements of people and places I know, and I elements I knew nothing about until I did my research … tried to understand how people deal with violence.
KA: For me, it’s really important to write about what I know… to try to translate this known and felt world … it just feels to me like a translation process. What was most fun was the surprise that it became a historical novel … it started out contemporary. Wanted to find a more universal and mythical voice that could hold its own next to all the nature writing in the book. I like to write more than I like to read, so research is hard.
OG: I can imagine myself writing about something I know nothing about. It’s not autobiographical but I wanted to get the Russia of my childhood out of the way first. I had to do some research … story goes back 50 years to the 1930s … some things that I had to research. Was important to me to recreate the atmosphere of what I remembered and what I loved for the first book.
SSR: Relationships with your readers. Suddenly, there are people who think they know you Have you thought about how to deal with your readers?
UI: Thank you guys for reading. Once you finish the work you can’t expect someone reading it to think what you were thinking. Think about reading Faulker, you have no connection with the time and place but there’s something in the work that affects the reader. That’s something special to be able to offer. Have had some interesting experiences with readers – moments that make it completely worth it, your back changed the way I thought, or moments when people come up and say, Wow, I really didn’t like that.
KA: I would echo that once it’s out of my hands it’s yours. I’ve had lots of frustrated readers who wanted the answers or the solutions and I steadfastly refused to give it because I like the sense of asking questions instead of providing answers. It’s also very stark and severe and withholding and I’ve taken some refuge in that. I love to hear what people think about it, though.
OG: I basically wrote the sort of thing I would like to read. My first reader was my husband who doesn’t like what I like to read, so that was a sobering experience. Various ways of interpreting the ending and I like that, I like that people have different opinions. For the second book, the abstract ideal reader becomes more concrete. Nothing better than hearing from a person who read it, not even reviews.
SSR: Second book?
UI: Kinkcaid advised him upon finishing to sit back and relax and not try to get something else finished right away. Has been working on and off for two years but largely writing to write, in order to know what one wants to write about before writing.
KA: Deep into a second novel about homesickness, trying to be contemporary. Also have about 10 or 12 short stories going. But I’m not in a rush.
OG: Also working on a second novel. It’s coming along, not as quickly as hoped but no rush.