The Writer's Writer in Our Midst
AT THE NEW YORKER FESTIVAL WITH JHUMPA LAHIRI, JEFFREY EUGENIDES AND NICOLE KRAUSS
[This piece was originally published on Indigo's fiction blog]
There was a genuine buzz in the dimmed venue, full to its 500 seat capacity, plus the handful of people sitting or milling about the back of the theatre on or near the white leather sofa benches that Acura had placed carefully in front of the free coffee bar they’d set up next to their display car. It wasn’t just the caffeine, though; three of the English world’s biggest names in literature today were about to take the stage for an event entitled “The Writer’s Writer.”
Everyone had come for their favourite and the hope was to learn something about books and writing and perhaps even a little biographical tidbit beyond the Wikipedia widely available.
Belying the unhappy expression that at times looked downright angry, Jhumpa Lahiri, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies, was dressed in a muted brown jacket that had rows of sparkly little objects, like small shimmery earrings, hanging from it. Her hair wasn’t tied back severely, but its being tied back did seem to more closely approximate her mood. Jeffrey Eugenides, another Pulitzer winner, for his second novel, Middlesex, didn’t seem unhappy in the least to be up there on the raised stage. He had a professor’s public speaking confidence, sitting comfortably, almost glowingly in front of the large, eager crowd. The third and final panelist, Nicole Krauss, sometimes mistakenly known only as the wife of Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything is Illuminated), has written three novels, the second of which, The History of Love, not only sold in the kind of numbers most writers of literature would dream of, but was a finalist for the Orange Prize.
A writer’s writer does things that only another writer would admire. - Eugenides
A writer’s writer is either largely unread or one who has something “instructive/contagious” for fellow scribes. -Krauss
A writer’s writer doesn’t care if their work sells well; what they do care about is maintaining a consistency of excellence in their body of work. -Lahiri
Thankfully one of thee three best-selling authors admitted that a writer’s writer didn’t have to necessarily die in obscurity. Eugenides said you could fit the writerly description and still “be the toast of the town.” Since a writer of Eugenides caliber is likely keen to be admired by his fellow writers, and considering his already enormous successes, not to mention the forthcoming town-toasting release of his latest novel, The Marriage Plot (coming out next week), why not believe in having your literary cake and eating it too? Shakespeare didn’t seem to have trouble in that regard.
Each of the evening’s panelists read from a favourite writer’s writer. Although these readings were interspersed with a good 10 or 15 minutes of discussion, Jhumpa Lahiri had yet to utter even a word, or a smile for that matter, by the time Krauss read from her selection, a work by Bruno Schultz, a writer who has long attained legendary status in his native Poland, but is probably not familiar to many English readers. Krauss read from "The Street of Crocodiles" and rightly admitted that reading aloud from a writer who’s every sentence “you want to stop and re-read” doesn’t make for easy listening, but she went on to say she loved Schulz for his ability to describe the “deep metaphysical core of things.”
The mute and angry energy of Jhumpa Lahiri, like the dog on a stage in a play that robs attention almost entirely from what is supposed to be the focus at hand, was still very much in sullen evidence even after Jeffrey Eugenides had read from his first selection, a passage from Nabakov’s "Pnin" (a novel first written as separate stories submitted to theNew Yorker to help pay Nabakov’s bills while he struggled to get "Lolita" published). His second selection was a piece by Denis Johnson, who’s story collection, "Jesus' Son," has an indisputable cult status. What was fascinating, however, was when Eugenides started to describe Johnson’s reclusive tendencies (likely another writer’s writer characteristic). Eugenides told of once interviewing the writer and how he found Johnson so reticent to share of his personal life. He said Johnson maintained his mystique; he didn’t seem to imply this was calculated. Like a discussion of so many hermetic authors, this could be considered fairly pedestrian writerly writer information were it not for the fact of Jhumpa Lahiri sitting two seats away from Eugenides as he said this. To this point in the night, she had yet to answer a question, join in the conversation, provide the hint of a hint of a smile or even barely look at her fellow panelists let alone the moderator or the audience. Reticent indeed.
It’s worth noting that the talk that evening would run 90 minutes. It took about 26 of them (I timed it) before Jhumpa Lahiri said her first word. She would eventually read from Gina Berriault’s "The Infinite Passion of Expectation." Much like Krauss, her love of the work was explained on the sentence level – that each one made her stop. She did not elaborate further on her choice.
Perhaps the highlight of the night for many fans of these writers, was not in hearing them throw out mentors (and readerly suggestions) from Saul Bellow to Thomas Bernhardt, from Chekov and Flannery O’Connor, to William Trevor and Colm Toibin, but rather in hearing them tell their own stories. The joy, in truth, being when Jhumpa Lahiri really finally spoke up and, to many in the audience’s surprise, spoke of her writerly beginnings, of the experience of writing the "Interpreter of Maladies."
When starting out as a writer, long before her most recent collection "Unaccustomed Earth" debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, Lahiri couldn’t afford new books so would wonder used book stores with maybe $10, and come home with piles of old books. This was how she discovered so many of the short story masters. Of her best-selling story collection she said, “Two people knew I’d written these stories and I’d been working on them for seven years.” She went on to say that the isolation is required. “We start in darkness.” A first book, Lahiri explained, is written with purity, with integrity, with innocence. “I think a writer’s writer maintains that vision of purity” When asked who she was turning to at the time, she said there wasn’t anyone. Just other writers. “[Mavis] Gallant, [Andres] Dubus: I remember studying those stories so intensely.”
This woman who seemed so determined not to hold forth would then give a truly marvelous definition of a writer: “a reader who can’t control himself,” and went on to say that writing was the “the most extreme way I could read.” In other words, it was the natural extension of an adoring book lover.
This was not only a Jhumpa Lahiri love-in, however. It was just as illuminating and revealing to learn of Eugenides' process in figuring out how to write his debut, "The Virgin Suicides." It seemed he was going off on a rather misguided tangent when he told the audience of something he’d heard on the news recently. The Chinese have supposedly acquired an American Blackhawk helicopter that had been shot down in Afghanistan and have taken it back to China to take it apart and learn how something like that was made, for the obvious benefit of learning how to make their own state-of-the-art weapon of war. This, Eugenides, explained, is how he approached his writing, taking apart stories he found masterful, be they by Nabakov, Johnson or Saul Bellow.
Ironically enough, it was Krauss who didn’t share her experience writing her first book, "Man Walks Into a Room." She did, however, get the last word. She said we live in a culture that wants everything to be entertaining. A writer’s writer, she said giving the final definition of the night, isn’t that entertaining; they are, instead, incredibly demanding. “But of course the reward to that can last a lifetime.”