Saturday, November 28, 2009


Conversation with Harold Augenbraum

Last year I participated in CLMP's Literary Writer's Conference by moderating a panel on blogging. It was a good conversation, which in the end yielded some nice friendships--and an ongoing discussion about the place of the internet in book publishing.

This year, I was asked to discuss the publication of my first novel, Picking Bones from Ash. I originally thought I'd be delivering the workshop I gave in Portland on the "True Business of Writing." But instead, I ended up with the unique opportunity to have a conversation with Harold Augenbraum. I didn't actually expect that he would come having read my novel, but he had. And we ended up really discussing the book in depth.

The exciting thing for me as a writer was just how much Harold had perceived about my work. This isn't going to happen with every critic--let alone every reader. And his questions were so smart and perceptive, I found myself slightly unnerved. He started off asking me, for example, if I'd written a "proto-feminist" book. And I, so uncomfortable with labels, gave that writerly answer about how I'd written a book about characters and how I hadn't had a particular political stance in mind. And yet, it's difficult for me to ignore the fact that many of the earliest reads have been from feminists.

Some readers have felt that the novel became confusing as it developed. I have some thoughts on this. I think that readers have often been lulled into a sense that a novel set in Asia is going to be something of a scenic ride--a trip through a pretty place, with pretty and struggling people, who often end up finding solace in the west. This is not the novel I wanted to write. It isn't a world view I uphold. I think that those with access to travel--to true cultural exposure--are going to be conflicted at times about where is the "best place to live." Most of my international friends feel this way--they see what's great about one country, but also about another. Many of them live in between worlds, so to speak. And this is all made much more complex when you consider that the US isn't the only truly wealthy and modernized country anymore--there are others. We fool ourselves into a sense of false security when we end novels in America--as though living here is the natural end to a story. I see a much more complicated world than this.

Harold also asked me if it had been my intention to start with a simple theme--which I then made much, much more complex. And of course, there is a serious side to me which was exploring a number of different themes. Most reviews have emphasized the mother-daughter themes in the book. And, yes, the novel has mothers and daughters, but it really was supposed to be about a great deal more than that. The funny thing is that as Harold got closer and closer to the things I believe in and what I wanted to write about-the more I found myself feeling guarded. I suppose this is because all writers--real fiction writers--want to express themselves through their work, and not through a public monologue. I think of myself as an open person, but I struggled a bit with being quite so open in public. It was an unexpected reaction.

I've since gone over the conversation in my head, and wished I had answered many of the questions differently. We touched briefly on animism, for example--something about which I have a great many opinions. I think, for example, that materialism is a kind of animism; objects have great power over us and they do because we can't help but imbue them with meaning, even in this so-called godless society we inhabit. Why didn't I say that outloud?

But I think our talk also made me more prepared to talk about the book more fully, should the opportunity arise again. And ultimately, it was fun to talk to someone who had perceived all this--an extremely unusual treat. And I greatly enjoyed the people in the audience who had questions for me, and came up to speak to me afterward.

More than anything, I wanted them to understand that I'm just a person who really wanted to be a writer and worked at it--it was not some magical thing that happened to me, like the hand of God reaching down and making it so. It is possible for people to work and work and work -- and accomplish and fulfill a dream.

PS--That's Robert Polito on the left.

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