Panelists: Marlon Jones, Laila Lalami, Adrienne Sharp, Lisa Fugard, Mark Rozzo – Moderator
I arrived late, scrambled for my seat and missed some of the opening remarks – Laila shook her head in bemusement at my perpetual disarray. Herewith, the notes from the discussion, which was considerably more interesting than yesterday’s First Fiction panel.
Panelists begin by describing the earliest works that inspired them to write. James references Salman Rushdie. Laila discusses the question of language, of the baggage that comes with a colonial education as she sought her voice. Sharp thinks that material helps define voice. Sharp tells anecdote about Ann Beattie, in which she was rejected from her class for essentially writing Ann Beattie imitations. Fugard references growing up “in a house of writers … language was a part of my experience … words were delicious things in my house.” Found her voice by writing was difficult, the things she was scared to write about.
Rozzo is an intelligent moderator who displays familiarity with the works at hand.
Fugard tells anecdote about cracking a problem character, turning her from Eva to Evan and then breaking through.
Rozzo asks the dreaded – is an MFA necessary – question.
MJ: I’m working backwards … wrote the book then went to get the MFA … many criticisms are valid … Schools which shall remain nameless produce fiction all of the same kind … on the other hand, at my program, guys said Mailer and Hemingway didn’t get an MFA. Teacher responded Hemingway went to the school of Stein and Mailer went to the school of Perkins. All of which was a creative writing class. I’ve met a couple of editors and they’re not quite bookish … That kind of nurturing environment is not going to exist in the industry. Solid critical thinking that will make a difference can be found in MFA world.
LL: I don’t have an MFA, I don’t plan on getting one … limited use … can teach how to write but can’t teach you how to have something interesting to say … not going to help you write a book that will be worthwhile. That has to come from you, from the practice, from the habit of fiction.
AS: Benefit is friends who become readers for the rest of your life.
LF: Don’t have an MFA, sometimes intimidated by people who do but went to a lot of writing conferences. They were stunning for me, two weeks being immersed, a couple of writers who worked with me who were so encouraging and supporting, I really recommend the writing conferences.
LL: Underscores problem of a workshop where people are writing wildly varying kinds of work but are in a position to provide criticism.
MJ: Sometimes can be a bunch of people who are not quite there yet trying to give advice … a slight cluelessness. Points out the tendency of much criticism to take the form of “here’s the way I would have written it” …
MR: Worst advice any of you got?
LL: I was asked to move my story to Miami and put Cuban immigrants instead of Morrocan immigrants.
AS: There’s always the mean person, the nasty one who makes you go home and cry.
LF: Need for a discerning eye, the capacity to reject certain criticism when you know what you’re doing.
AS: Anything you hear from your friends, you’ll hear from editors, so it’s a valuable preview.
MJ: Best advice. Third draft, friend in a workshop told him “You don’t have a clue about women.” Advice was go and read Sula and go and read Song of Solomon afterwards. I was given Toni Morrison as medicine. Any writing problem can be solved by reading.
MR: First novels tend to be autobiographical, coming of age. Each novel feels very personal and intimate but they’re filled with reporting, history, knowledge, politics.
LL: Was really trying not to write about me, such a cliché for the first book to be roman a clef, and this next book is actually a lot more personal. As I was working I saw so many parallels between characters and myself, it’s not a coincidence – the book is about immigration and I am an immigrant.
AS: First book published is not necessarily the first book written. Many dreadful books sitting under a bed.
LF: Posits that stuttering father character in the book might be revenge on her eloquent father. Was so sad that she missed South Africa in the 1980s, and so book was set in that time period so that she could experience the journey that she missed.
MR: Actual first book written?
LF: Yes. Was a bull about getting it published.
LL: A partial about a Moroccan grad student – got bored with it after page 100.
MR: How does it feel going into real book two?
LL: It does not get easier … very sobering realization … gets harder. New book is joyful experience but it’s excruciating to write it. But rewarding moments, the highs are so high.
MJ: If you write with too many expectations, you’re going to write a book about expectations. Forever sequels.
AS: Has shifted time frame to pre-revolution Russia for her second book, and although it involves dancers, history aspect is more compelling than the day-to-day lives of dancers.
LF: Sort of bumbling around with another novel … Thought I was writing the first one all over again … Writing about South Africa again, interested in the border war at Angola/Namibia border. First drafts are just awful – I write at the top of the page “Permission to write badly” and then it all starts to fall into place.
Advantage of parentage … I never once doubted the value of sitting at a desk. Was an albatross while acting but not while writing.
MR: Asks how blogging and Moorishgirl connects to finding an audience.
LL: It’s such a different kind of writing … I wouldn’t say it’s helped at all in terms of finding a literary voice. Helps me find the kind of books I want to find and to connect with other readers, and to connect with other bloggers who enjoy reading. It’s been really great to discover writers I might not have come across otherwise. It’s essentially procrastination – few posts means I’m getting good writing done, many posts means I’m at a block.
And yes, in the questions section, someone did ask "How did you get your agents?"