Wednesday night, January 13. 82nd Street branch of Barnes and Noble Booksellers, NYC:
After a full morning of delivering professional development to the K-12 grade literacy team combined with an afternoon working with 6th grade teachers, I was getting my literary reward. I was sitting in the second row at an author event, listening to the writer Colum McCann (Thirteen Ways of Looking, Let the Great World Spin) interview the writer Elizabeth Strout (Abide with Me, Amy and Isabelle).
McCann was interviewing Strout about her latest novel I am Lucy Barton and it was obvious that they both were happy to be having this intimate conversation in a room packed with their fan base.
I slid into a seat saved by my loyal friend Catherine-traveling 2 hours and 40 minutes after the aforementioned teacher PD- to hear McCann begin the interview with the question:
“Elizabeth, are you happy?”
“Yes,” replied Strout, and for a brief and worrisome moment it seemed as if the interview would end with that response, but McCann pushed a little more on the relationship writers have with their readers….and proved to be charmingly deft at teasing out ideas:
On writing a narrative: (McCann)“There is a agreement that the writer will tell you some thing you sort of knew… you knew that you sort of knew, but now you know it.”
On telling secrets:( McCann) “Any good story teller is saying to the reader come with me, and I’ll tell you something….an intimacy.”
On writing about a writer: (Strout) “I don’t know how I do what I do, that’s why writers are boring…”
On the process of writing: (Strout) “We just don’t know what we are doing…but I know who is charge.”
On how we know we are writers: (McCann) “I don’t think what we know what we are going to do…until we do it it’s only when people tell us what we’ve done that we know what we have done.”
As I listened, I thought of how all the effort I had expended that afternoon (from train, to shuttle, to subway, and run) had been worth it. So many of these statements by contemporary authors might seem oddly disconcerting for middle and high school students, and I began to wonder what was the best way to share what they were saying.
Teachers know that many students are convinced that novels spring, “Athena-like”, fully-formed from the mind of the author.
There is little regard for craft. The idea that authors say that they “don’t know,”and are waiting to hear from readers to know what their writing means strains credulity.
Paradoxically, many of these same students also believe that some readers -or at least all English teachers-make too much of what the author meant: too much of the symbols and motifs and themes in literature. They are quick to contend that maybe the author “did not know” and just wrote without a plan. They reject the notion of craft.
The conversation I was hearing suggested that that the relationship between a writer and the student does not need the English Teacher filter…and that teachers need to get out of the way. Whether or not students will find it…author’s craft is there.
But, I digress…and so did they.
Strout spoke of the experience of having her book Olive Kitteridge turned into a film:
McCann: “Directors come and actors come….and they put a language on what you have done…is that odd…? Do you think, Like T.S. Eliot That’s not what I meant at all?”
Strout: “No…they did a wonderful job. When I saw the character Henry, I thought,’I know that Henry…I made that Henry…'”
McCann: “And are there Lucy Barton’s walking about?”
Strout: “Sweetie…She’s fictional.”
Fiction aside, Strout commented on how she intentionally writes about people struggling with an real obstacle…and one real obstacle she includes is class.
“How do people fit into the world?” she asked. “I like to write about class…The poverty that does not let people belong to a community. They exist more now; They are hungry. So much of our literature does not want to talk about poverty.”
Her sentiment, I suspect, is what initially frustrates students when they complain about the steady diet of what they consider “depressing literature.”
Both Strout and Mcann saw the issue of class differently, and spoke about the power of literature in developing empathy.
“We know what it like in a world without it,” Strout responded to an audience member’s question, “Literature can make us understand briefly for a moment what it is like to be another…. than that would be a wonderful wonderful thing.”
The audience murmured their agreement, and Mccann echoed his opening question:
“So, Elizabeth, are you happy?”
“I am,” she responded.
We all were.