The Public Author

By Cathy Marie Buchanan

I’ve given numerous author talks, participated in dozens of panels and joined several hundred book clubs, either in person or via Skype. Much as expected, there are questions about inspiration, character and plot, and a great deal of curiosity about how I write a book: Do you write longhand? Every day? When you began, did you know how the story would end? What’s been a surprise are the questions about me: Do you have sisters? What’s your experience with suicide? Alcoholism? Do you believe in God? I answer honestly and haven’t minded (except perhaps once, when a reader, asking why I chose to pollute my novel The Painted Girls with so much vulgarity, preceded the question with a lecture worthy of an evangelist). I sometimes wonder, though, if there is anything to the argument that books ought to stand on their own merit, that authors ought not to exist beyond the printed page.It would be a notion I pondered as I lapped up the International Festival of Authors this year.

The reclusive author—one who would almost certainly decline an invitation to the IFOA—is nothing new. In the case of American poet Emily Dickinson, it was likely some form of agoraphobia, rather than a decision not to meet her reading public, that kept her housebound for 20 years. For J.D. Salinger, it was an intense desire for privacy that drove him to request his photo be removed from the dust jacket of The Catcher in the Rye soon after publication, and then two years later, to move from midtown Manhattan to rural New Hampshire to take up the life of a recluse in earnest. For Cormac McCarthy, his near absence from public life seems to be linked to a dislike for the literary world. In the only interview he would grant in 15 years, he explained to Oprah his preference for the company of scientists over writers.

Italian writer Elena Ferrante famously keeps her identity private and does not tour to promote her books. The decision appears not to have arisen so much from the practical considerations of Salinger and McCarthy as from the idea that to know an author as a living, breathing entity dilutes the experience of reading her work. She told Vanity Fair “For those who love literature, the books are enough” and further explained herself in The Paris Review: “If the author doesn’t exist outside the text, inside the text she offers herself, consciously adds herself to the story, exerting herself to be truer than she could be in the photos of a Sunday supplement, at a book launch, at a literary festival, in some television broadcast, receiving a literary prize.”

Hmm. Has my extensive public blathering about, say, the profound love I have for my three sisters, despite some pretty alarming teenage rows, negatively impacted the experience of readingThe Painted Girls?

Caryl Phillips, Zadie Smith, Aleksandar Hemon and Eleanor Wachtel at IFOA 2015 © / Tom Bilenkey

Caryl Phillips, Zadie Smith, Aleksandar Hemon and Eleanor Wachtel at IFOA 2015 © / Tom Bilenkey

At this year’s Festival I listened with rapt attention as Miriam Toews mentioned tracing a thought she didn’t want to lose into the dusty surface of her car at a stoplight and as Anne Michaels described how indispensable self-doubt is to writing, how she always feels she is striving, and was moved by the absolute care and persistenceof such seasoned, accomplished writers in creating their art. Guy Vanderhaeghe spoke (comfortingly for me and, I expect, any writer) about knowing the imperfections, the places where he failed to do what he set out to do in Daddy Lenin and Other Stories, a book that had just won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. Meg Wolitzer said every novel that works has an imperative, a reason to be, and I found myself contemplating that imperative for my novel in progress and know I will go on to consider it for the books I read. While this is only a smattering of all I’ve gleaned at this year’s Festival, I can’t quite imagine how any of it can lessen the experience of reading the contributing writer’s work. In fact, how could it be anything but enriching to me as both a reader and a writer?

On Wednesday night, I attended the 25th anniversary of CBC Radio’s Writers & Company at the Festival, and as though on cue, Zadie Smith settled any lingering doubt. She told the audience how she loved meeting writers through reading their work, how she felt she was experiencing their way of being in the world. Then she went on to describe how, when she was on tour with White Teeth, she made a point of seeking out a writer in each place she visited. In Chicago that writer was Aleksandar Hemon, who was also part of the evening’s anniversary panel. She turned to him and described how his knee bounced up and down as he spoke at their initial meeting, how very struck she was by his kinetic energy. “It brought so much to reading your work,” she said.

Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls is a #1 National Bestseller in Canada, a New York Times bestseller and has garnered rave reviews and been showered with special attention. Her debut novel, The Day the Falls Stood Still, is a New York Times bestseller and a Barnes & Noble Recommends selection. Her stories have appeared in many of Canada’s most respected literary journals, and she has received awards from both the Toronto Arts Council and the Ontario Arts Council. She holds a BSc (Honours Biochemistry) and an MBA from Western University. Born and raised in Niagara Falls, she now resides in Toronto.

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Trusting the Muse

By Janet Somerville

Each of the panelists, Cynthia FloodHelen Humphreys and Meg Wolitzer, began with a short reading from their recent books. Wolitzer read from an 1981 section of The Interestings, when New York City “looked like an episode of Kojak.” Flood read from “To Be Queen,” one of her stories in Red Girl Rat Boy, in which the 40-year-old narrator looks back to his childhood. Humphreys read from the beginning of Nocturne, a memoir in the form of a letter to her pianist brother, Martin, who died of pancreatic cancer, noting that “stopping a life is harder than it seems” and “we are lucky if what we devote ourselves to can give us some comfort in the end.”SONY DSC

Host and moderator Susan G. Cole opened up the conversation by asking what drew each to their form. Humphreys explained, “I actually was writing a letter to my brother after he died. I was being driven by grief. There was no room for the writer mind to take over. The only change I made to the manuscript was to structure it in 45 segments, one for every year Martin was alive.”

Flood, whose book is short fiction, noted, “I like being in a space that has a margin to it. My ideal process is to write two or three stories at a time.” And, Wolitzer admitted, “I love the fact that novels let you know what happens to characters. I’m affected by the sweep of time as in Michael Apted’s compelling Up Series of docs.”

Wolitzer continued that she likes to write from an idea. In the case of The Interestings, what happens to talent over time? Do people’s lives become diminished? “If I’m just writing about character, it feels small to me.”  On writing so convincingly about adolescence, she said, “When you come of age, you remember everything. It’s a time of firsts that remains vivid.”

Humphreys, a veteran novelist and dedicated researcher, could not read or write fiction for a year after her brother died. She began writing her way through her grief because “if writing can’t speak to the hardest things, then what’s it for?”

Considering the role of envy in her novel, Wolitzer said, “There’s this other kind of envy you feel for people you love. The ego is a moose head that juts out into the room. [My character] Jules, for example, can’t let go of her need to feel special and negotiate her place in the world.” Flood noted, “I like the process of embedding information, but it may not be unpacked the first time around.”

All three offered advice on the craft. Humphreys writes the entire first draft as quickly as she can; Flood writes as continually as possible; Wolitzer warns against self-censorship in early drafting and suggests, “Write the first 80 pages, even though they will be very different from the fantasy of what you intend.”

Do, as Freud said, “listen with evenly hovering attention” and, as Updike insisted, “submit to the spell of the story.” Sage, practiced advice from writers dedicated to entrancing their readers.

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.