Archive for the ‘Authors and Readings’ Category

Poet: Mary Oliver

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

When I sent my sister an e-mail letting her know that Mary Oliver would be reading in Brookline, she sent me back a single word: YES. She then stole a friend’s truck to drive 70 miles on a weeknight to join me in the Coolidge Corner theater in which every red velvet seat was filled, and people spilled out into the aisles.

The young woman who introduced Ms. Oliver in a manner that was both gushing with admiration and knowingly self-deprecating, described the poet as writing from a sincere and “humble” place, despite her extensive awards and accolades. I wish I could remember her words precisely, as they resonated with me even before I had her Mary Oliver speak. I had read some of her poems before but not to any great extend. That is about to change.

“Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches of other lives…?” she askes us, and “Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” These are among the many soul-stirring questions she poses to her readers. Her poems stem from a passionate, but as said “humble” devotion and involvement with nature. There is a tenderness as well as a fierceness to her writing, a simplicity as well as an insistent sincerity. She uncovers life’s questions and answers in the woods and the nature around her. She also has a sweet sense of humor. She was a pleasure to listen to.

As we sat in the theater listening to Mary Oliver read poems from a smattering of the twenty-five or so books of poetry she’s published, I was caught up in the reaction of the audience, the murmurs and sighs, the tiny groans of contentment. The woman sitting to my right, uttering a soft “wow” after a particularly moving phrase. There was a feeling that each poem literally struck a chord in each person in the room, sending out a ripple of sound and movement. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed that kind of audience reaction to a reader before. Laughter, yes, applause, certainly. But this kind of physical and unwittingly vocal response… it was a wonderful experience.

I haven’t been to a poetry reading in a long time. I enjoy poetry but for some reason I think I would be more likely to go hear an unknown author than an unknown poet. Why is that? Maybe because I don’t read that much poetry, maybe because of the extremely personal nature of poetry. The idea that for a moment, while listening to a poet read, you are sitting in the living room of their mind or heart. I guess for me I’d rather that living room be a familiar space. However, I am on a d-list or two for local poetry readings, which I always skim for readings such as this. Maybe in the new year I’ll take the plunge and check out some new poets.

Mary Oliver on Wikipedia

Mary Oliver’s books on Indie Bound


Author: John Irving

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

Last week I went with some friends and co-workers to hear John Irving speak at the Coolidge Corner Theater. I’ll be honest: I have never read anything by John Irving and when I told Greg I was going he said “Ugh! Didn’t he write Owen Meeny?” So I didn’t know quite what to expect. But my friends were all very excited to hear him, so I was looking forward to it as well.

I was not disappointed. He read the opening pages from his new novel Last Night in Twisted River, which take place at a logging camp (my fellow bookclubers and I looked at each other and smiled—we had just finished Louise Dickinson Rich’s We Took to the Woods which talks about logging camps at length). Then he went into a discussion of his process for writing books.

“I can’t start writing a book,” he said, “until I’ve figured out the last sentence.” For each of his twelve novels, this has been the case. Once the final sentence springs into being, he is able to map his way back to the beginning of the book and begin writing. He was the first to acknowledge that this “method” was very unorthodox and that as a young man he had tried to resist it, but apparently it was the method that worked for him. Twisted River he said, had been in the back of his mind for more than 20 years. He had many of the details in mind, but one of the main characters and that final sentence eluded him.

He spoke about wrestling and how writing is, more than anything, being willing to do something boring over and over, like any other form of exercise (reworking sentences, revising, learning how to structure a narrative). About his inspiration, the 19th century novel, and of his greatest teachers, Dickens and Hardy. About his favorite characters, the ones he found most challenging. About why his novels are so macabre and dark—that he writes about what frightens him. He took a fierce pride in his dedication to language and punctuation. The reading was only an hour, but he covered quite a bit of ground.

Doing the same boring thing over and over… it’s true. Though I love (ok, love and hate and love again) writing, it can be very repetitive. I was recently working on a revision (gasp, I KNOW, miracles are at work) and sitting there reworking the same sentence over and over… it gets tedious and frustrating. It is an exercise in creative will power. I’ve used the metaphor of exercise in the past to explain various attempts at writing regimens to non-writers: creativity is as much a muscle as your heart or your legs and without constant effort and exercise, it’s easy to be out-of-shape, making the next run that much harder. It’s hard, if not impossible, to run a marathon (aka write a novel) without consistent training (writing everyday). I still believe this is true.

Irving is a somewhat dashing older man, with silvery grey hair and his tan shirt unbuttoned at the collar. He seemed to epitomize the idea of the male writer. I couldn’t quite decide if there was an air of arrogance about him or not—though I suppose after twelve novels and an admirable amount of fame, a bit of arrogance is completely warranted.

John Irving on Wikipedia

John Irving’s books on Indie Bound


Author: Margaret Atwood

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

I heard Margaret Atwood speak at the First Parish Church in Harvard. My friend E went with me, which I was grateful for, as readings are always more interesting to attend with other people. Atwood is a petite woman with a wonderful halo of frizzy white hair. She looked older than I had imagined, but at the same time her face had a smooth, almost ageless complexion, as she bent over slightly to autograph my copy of her newest book The Year of the Flood. She spoke in an odd sort of cadence—slow at times, loud and insistent at others. You could tell by her response to readers’ questions which topics truly engaged her: questions about the environment and social justice, about science fiction and it’s history, about craft. She read a couple of pages from Flood (which I have since read—yes, in two days) and also played us several of the hymns from the book which a friend had put to music. The book itself centers around a religious group that is both laughable in it’s extremism and sobering in it’s predictions and believable ideology. The hymns reflected this; Atwood even sang us one herself, a children’s him about the humble mole.

Atwood is one of my favorite writers. Her book, The Blind Assassin, is probably my favorite novel. The Year of the Flood is a “simultaneal” companion book to her recent Oryx and Crake. I wish I had been more patient and re-read O&C before starting Flood. I had forgotten character’s names and certain plot points. Flood can stand on it’s own, but as with other simultaneals I’ve read (e.g. Ender’s Shadow), you can feel that you don’t know the whole story in a more profound way than when a novel stands on it’s own. Regardless, I enjoyed the book—it’s heart-wrenching, tragic, comic, and disturbing. The ending of this book felt more positive than that of Oryx and Crake, if you can say a book about the end of civilization could be in any way uplifting. Tragic, but with a bit more sense of closure.

Atwood was asked a question about her process, specifically about The Blind Assassin and she explained that she had to approach the book three times before she got a handle on it. The first time she tried telling it from the perspective of someone who had died, and someone had discovered a hat box of her letters. That didn’t work. Next she tried involving two characters who mutually discovered a box of journals by a woman who’s story the book was to tell. However, Atwood said, the two characters began having an affair and soon she had to put them in a drawer and start over. Finally, when she let the character speak for herself (and the hatbox by then had turned into a steamer trunk) the story began to unfold more organically.

I explained this process to my husband and his response that it was interesting how most writers and artists speak of their creations as if they have a life of their own. Obviously Atwood made the conscious choice to have the two characters she’d created have an affair, which caused the story to go in another direction… but if so, why? In my mind, I explained, a writer creates characters in a very interdependent way. So if the character you’ve created doesn’t line up with the way another character is acting or a plot point you’ve decided on or a direction you want to go in, you either have to change the character or the story. I think often the character will dictate that decision—creating rich characters that have that sort of decision-making power are worth hanging onto. Unless of course they change the story entirely. In which case you either decide to write that story or you put them in a drawer and start again.

It was a pleasure to hear Atwood speak (and sing!). She discussed everything from superheroes (she preferred Batman to Superman) to the books and magazines she had recently read to the fate of mankind (“Do you think we are doing better now than we were in the past?” someone asked. “That depends,” Atwood said, “on the ‘we.’”) At the end she made everyone vow to only drink fair-trade shade-grown coffee as commercially grown coffee is killing songbirds. Not being a coffee drinker, that’s a vow I can happily keep.

Margaret Atwood’s website

The Year of the Flood website

Margaret Atwood’s books on Indie Bound


Cultural Exploits: September/October

Monday, October 26th, 2009


  • Carmen, Boston Lyric Opera
  • A play or two (TBD)

Author: China Miéville

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently went to hear a writer, China Miéville, read and discuss his writing. I went with a friend even though I had never heard of Miéville before, but soon realized that I had in fact heard about his book Perdido Street Station which I believe is his most famous. So it was a pleasure to discover a new writer (at least to me) that is writing exactly the kind of books I’m digging right now–speculative fiction. I mean, really, I’m digging all sorts of books right now—in addition to completing Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series, I’ve also checked out My Life in France by Julia Child—but “speculative fiction” has a special place in my heart because of it’s wriggling, undefinability.

Miéville read from his new book The City & The City (which I purchased and am reading now). The book intrigued me in part because the title is very similar to a story/book idea that I started probably, oh, when I was twelve, entitled Utopia and the City for no better reason that that is about a place called Utopia and a place called The City. Despite the fact that I wrote probably about six chapters (of varying lengths and quality) and designed a book cover, U&C hasn’t gotten very far (though the concept has gotten a few make-overs in the intervening years). The City & The City isn’t really about what my city story was about, though maybe there are echoes of similar themes, we’ll have to see. I’m only a few chapters in, but I love the atmosphere of the book so far and what Miéville had to say about it really intrigued me. I hope that it continues to engage.

Miéville was a great and interactive speaker. One particularly interesting thing he discussed was how he starts each story idea with a place, these individual urban settings that define each of his novels, and then adds layers of characters, story, plot, on top of this rich setting. He also said that he will map out a character’s backstory but leave gaps—that our own life stories are full of gaps and that really, it isn’t necessary to have an entire history planned out. This method certainly seems more organic (and a bit of a relief) to me. While I can understand building up a rich and carefully thought-out world,  it has always seemed daunting to have every single detail already figured out before you even get started. He said leaving gaps also prevents against the typical “Well, as you know Frodo…” history-in-exposition tactics that are fairly prevalent in the genre. We create these worlds and we want people to know how much work we’ve put into them! But I also find the most rewarding worlds to be the ones that I don’t know everything about, that leave me to fill in gaps myself,  with histories that seem organic to the story and characters involved, but perhaps strange and alien to me as the reader. Take for example The Golden Compass: I LOVE how Pullman drops you straight into Lyra’s world which is completely enchanting and wonderful and you discover things as she does. There isn’t too much “here is the history of this world” and what there is feels natural to the story. Books two and three are horses of another color (and much weaker in my mind) because they aren’t supported by this wonderful new world in the same way and take another direction entirely. Anyway, off topic again Allison, back on track.

Miéville spoke of many things great and small and with much interest. He also has an entrancing British accent and an ear full of piercings. I would encourage you to go hear him if he comes to town. Perdido Street Station has been on my list to read for a while and I’ll have to seek it out (along with his children’s book Un Lun Dun) once I’m done with his latest (and with Julia Child, of course).

China Miéville on Wikipedia

China Miéville’s books on Indie Bound

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