(This week I’m covering the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. This event is On Hearing Voices and Seeing Places You’ve Never Been, featuring Nicholson Baker, Iain Pears, Adam Thorpe, David Wroblewski, and host Charles Foran .)
At this event, the very first thing I noted was that it was not nearly full. I’m sure in many U.S. cities it would not be hard at all to get a capacity crowd for Nicholson Baker, but not here. This was a fairly well-attended event, but certainly not what one would think of for a name like Baker. (This is part of a theme I’m noticing this week, of the odd lack of cross-fertilization between Canadian and U.S. audiences.)
The panel was all about where the stories, characters, etc. come from for writers. It started with host Charles Foran asking Baker if after finishing a novel he ever has difficulty getting rid of his characters. Unsurprisingly, Baker noted that for most of his career his protagonists have been so much like himself that this hasn’t really been an issue.
This occasioned a follow-up about The Anthologist, which Baker said was actually one of the characters most unlike himself that he has written. He said he wanted a way to put all his crank theories about poetry into a book, so he started trying to find a voice that could contain all of these ideas. Thus, Baker said, the anthologist, in his opinion, is among his most human characters since it has been one of the biggest stretches for him to write.
As to that, Baker went to some lengths. Baker claimed he wired himself up with two microphones (to be in stereo) and, for three months, wandered through his apartment explaining these theories over and over to help find the character’s voice. (He would then transcribe the recordings.) Baker then summed up with what I feel is, for him, a very characteristic statement: he said that writing was a process of “re-engaging our own excitement in the world around us by going out on a long journey” that he likened to the path of a boomerang, in that you come back to where you started, but different. I say this is characteristic of him, since this completely reminds me of the path of the narrator’s thoughts in The Mezzanine.
From here, the panel moved on to issues of how a writer’s relationship to language shapes the final form of the novel. Adam Thorpe, poet and author of historical novels (most recently Hodd), said that he defined a novel as (in part) an obsession with language. He spoke largely in terms of struggling with language, of being preoccupied by it, and noted that for one of his previous novels, which takes place in the Middle Ages, he confronted the problem of how to write it since he knew he could not write a novel in Middle English. Thorpe came up with the idea of making it a text transcribed from Latin in to contemporary English, which he said created other challenges–for instance, what a text originally in Latin would sound like–but these were more easily met than the challenge of writing in Middle English. He summed up his remarks with the statement, “once you give yourself that frame, you can dance within it.”
David Wroblewski, fairly well known in the U.S. as the author of the recent bestseller The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, picked up this theme: “To me, every problem is one of language.” He likened it to a software programmer, whom he said must search for a way of putting things in computer language so that “the statement of the solution is beautiful.” He also discussed his interest in how humans can have such close relationships with dogs, yet never have that relationship be mediated by language. He thought the relationship between dogs and humans could be as strong as it tends to be because words weren’t there to get in the way. (For those who haven’t read Edgar Sawtelle, there is an extended section told from the perspective of a dog, although not through a stream of consciousness of otherwise first-person narration.)
Novelist and art historian Iain Pears (author most recently of Stone’s Fall), contradicted Wroblewski by saying that he likes that the English language differs from a computer language in that it isn’t precise–he prefers that it makes way for unintended meanings and interpretation. He characterized his take on writing as like “leaving holes for the reader to fill in.” But then, on the subject of interpretation, he claimed that “reading a thesis on oneself is like reading your own obituary.”
A few other questions: the panelists agreed that characters tend to take a novel in directions that surprise them, as authors. There was disagreement about the first draft of a book: some liked the freedom they had when composing it (feeling the more craft-laden revisions to be cumbersome), and others found just the opposite. They were all taken with the question of how to render the non-linguistic linguistic. And Baker closed the session with a great remark on place: after realizing he couldn’t write about Berkeley, CA, since so many other writers were already doing that so well, he discovered that: “The key to being a writer is to find a place where you have the illusion that you live in a desert.”