Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Asia Society

Last Friday, Ellis Avery read an excerpt from her lovely novel, The Teahouse Fire, at Asia Society.

We then had a good discussion about her work and her work habits and this was in turn followed by a tea ceremony performed by Noriko-san of Cha'an.

Two lucky winners from the audience were selected to drink the tea. Despite the poor weather, we had a very nice turnout to enjoy the gorgeous space on the 8th floor of the Asia Society. I met some smart and interesting folks, and it was good to share a fine reading experience with them!

I had spent some time beforehand thinking of the questions I wanted to ask. I wanted the discussion to be interesting to the audience, and also for Ellis, who I figured had had many of the same questions by now (What is a teahouse? What is an obi? What is a tea ceremony? What is tea?)

I asked her how she had managed to capture Japan in such a 3-dimensional way, and I found her answer really compelling. Essentially, she told me that she had learned Japan "through her body." She talked about the mosquitoes in the summer, about the long walk to the bathroom, the discomfort with sitting on the floor, the process of learning just the correct way to place and hold everything in the tea ceremony. All this had given her a visceral and physical sensation of the culture.

It seems like such an obvious answer--but I've actually never heard anyone say this. Most writers when speaking of craft emphasize the process as it happens in the mind. You must research a place, you must visualize characters, you may draw out a dramatic arc within your story. But of course it makes sense that the body is another instrument you can use for anything you create. The stereotype of the writer is a of a person sitting in a corner, observing. It's helpful to feel too if you want to impart an impression of a place. Ellis has a background in the performing arts (check out her posture) and perhaps this came into play in her work.

At any rate, I had a lovely time that evening and was reminded again of just how much I enjoyed The Teahouse Fire.

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