The Three Rs: Anjali Joseph

December 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

Anjali Joseph was born in Bombay in 1978. She read English at Trinity College, Cambridge, and has taught English at the Sorbonne. More recently she wrote for the Times of India in Bombay and was Commissioning Editor for ELLE (India). She graduated from the MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in 2008. Her first novel, Saraswati Park, was published by 4th Estate in 2010; it won the Betty Trask Prize, Desmond Elliott Prize, and Vodafone Crossword Book Award for Fiction in India. Another Country, her second novel, was published in June 2012 and has recently been longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

Pretty much from before I could read. I remember being impatient to learn because everyone around – my parents, grandparents and older brother – read almost religiously, tuned into a book and lost themselves.

What does your day look like while you’re writing a book?

It depends on which stage it’s at. Early on, I don’t write for that long per day, maybe an hour or two. Later in the redrafting process, it might be several hours a day.

Do you type or write?

I type but tend to retype the whole of each of many redrafts after scribbling all over a printout.

What do you read while you’re writing?

It’s varied from book to book. For each there have been books I read and re-read. For my first novel, those included Madame Bovary, Amit Chaudhuri’s A Strange and Sublime Address, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August, R K Narayan’s The Bachelor of Arts, Bibhutibhushan Bannerjee’s Pather Panchali, and Samuel Beckett’s Murphy.  For the second, they included Flaubert’s Education Sentimentale, Françoise Sagan’s La Chamade, and Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. And also things like Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Darkness, Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, Damon Galgut’s In A Strange Room and Jean Rhys’s first four novels, Quartet, Voyage in the Dark, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, and Good Morning, Midnight. Recently I’ve been reading Peter Hobbs’s The Short Day Dying, and Tagore’s novel The Home and the World. The right books have a way of coming along. I’ve found myself wanting to read more verse lately.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

I loved The Short Day Dying. And a novel called Well by Matthew McIntosh. Also James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late, which I haven’t yet finished.

What are your all-time favourites?

I find myself going back to different Beckett texts and stories, recently the three Nouvelles – ‘L’Expulsé’, ‘Le Calmant’ and ‘La Fin’ for the way they use the first person to create something quite strange and wholly unconfessional. Also the Texts for Nothing.

You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?

Maybe I would just read and daydream.

What’s your third R, and why

Rumination. Not necessarily while actually chewing. Rolled-up cigarettes are also a good R.

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The Three Rs: Erin McGraw

December 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Erin McGraw’s the author of five books of fiction. A new novel, Better Food for a Better World, will be coming out in March from Slant Books. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Allure, STORY, One Story, The Kenyon Review, Good Housekeeping, and many other journals and magazines. She teaches fiction writing at The Ohio State University, and with her husband, the poet Andrew Hudgins, divides her time between Ohio and Tennessee.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

For a long time I didn’t want to write books. I was the kind of kid who read a lot, but I didn’t feel the impulse to pick up a pen myself. Writing looked like work, and I was opposed to work. I managed to coast through my undergraduate degree, even though it had a specialized focus in writing, without writing any more than I had to, and then I found myself working as a secretary at a financial-investment firm, using my B.A. in English to proofread prospectuses about mining companies. It was then, when I was maybe 23 years old, that I woke up to the fact that if I didn’t change my life, no one else was going to do it for me. That meant I had to get serious about writing. Even so, more years had to pass before I actually wanted to write books, mostly because it took me a long time to figure out which were the books I wanted to write.

What does your day look like while you’re writing a book?

These days I’m always writing a book, so all of my days look alike. I get up early – 5 AM – to feed the dogs, exercise, and clear the decks for action. I try to start writing by 8 o’clock, and I’m usually done with the fiction part of my day by lunchtime. I can put in longer hours, but the law of diminishing returns sets in. As I get more tired, my brain gets sludgier, and my prose, too. So in the afternoon and early evening I answer email, deal with my students’ work, talk to my mother, and generally put out fires. My husband and I convene in the evenings for TV and talk and gin.

Do you type or write?

I type. Always. No one wants to see my handwriting.

What do you read while you’re writing?

This is a great question, because it’s a hard one to answer. I don’t like to read fiction if I’m writing fiction – which is most of the time – but my teaching job requires that I read a lot of fiction, not only from my students, but also new work from writers I admire. Just in order to stay in conversation, it’s necessary to stay current. So while I’m trying to hang onto my own characters’ voices, I’m reading but also walling off the voices from other fictional worlds. Nonfiction works for me much better, and I’m constantly on the lookout for books that introduce me to strange corners of American culture that I wouldn’t be able to find otherwise. One great example of this is Daniel Bergner’s God of the Rodeo, about the annual prison rodeo in Angola, Louisiana. It’s a fascinating book, beautifully written, and full of action and detail I could never have imagined for myself. And it had nothing to do with what I was writing, so reading it felt like a daily vacation from my work. I was terribly sorry to reach the last page.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels, both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. These books are astonishing examples of imaginative immersion; Mantel knows Tudor England better than I know my own house. Her range is remarkable and her language devastatingly beautiful. She didn’t just re-set the bar for historical fiction. She completely changed expectations about what a novelist can do. She also, I think, changed a lot of people’s ideas about Cromwell, and that was probably overdue.

What are your all-time favourites?

Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory is always at the front of my bookcase, even though more than once I’ve had to take to my couch after reading it, overcome with depression because the perfect book has been written, and I didn’t write it. No matter how many times I read that book, it undoes me. I also love Eliot’s The Four Quartets; the attempt to corral spiritual experience into language is very moving. For the same reason, I love the poetry of Rumi. And I reread Madame Bovary at least once a year, and every single time find something spectacular that I’d missed before.

You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?

Reading, no question. Writing is work. And so many books are backed up on my Must-Get-To-This list that I’ll need the rest of my life to get through half of them.

What’s your third R, and why?

I’m tempted to say dRinking, but I don’t want to play into stereotypes. Instead, I’ll choose something closely related: Rest. Most of us don’t get enough of it, for a lot of very good reasons. But fiction writing, or the creation of art more generally, works best if we’ve got a little bit of white space in our brains. That’s the room that art needs to expand and surprise us, finding its way to comprehension that we had never guessed at. This description sounds mystical, but the activity isn’t mystical. It’s thinking, of a very specific and focused sort. And like all thought, it requires a well-rested brain.

The Three Rs: Farzana Doctor

December 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

Farzana Doctor is a novelist and psychotherapist. Her most recent novel, Six Metres of Pavement, was named one of Now Magazine’s Top Ten Books of 2011. It also won the Lambda Literary and was short-listed for the Toronto Book Award. Farzana was named as one of CBC Books’ “Ten Canadian Women Writers You Need to Read Now”. She is the autumn 2012 Writer in Residence at the Toronto Public Library and co-curates the Brockton Writers Series.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

When I was halfway through writing the first draft of my first novel, Stealing Nasreen, I realized I was writing a novel. Before that, I hadn’t really imagined writing a book.

What does your day look like while you’re writing a book?

It varies, because I have other paid work (as a psychotherapist and recently as the Writer-In-Residence at the Toronto Public Library). However, on a typical writing day, I spend about 2 hours writing in the morning. Then I walk my dog, which is a good time to daydream about my work. Sometimes I get ideas which I note in my iphone. Then I come back to the writing for a few more hours. Interspersed are short social media breaks (these days, writers have to maintain their online presence as a self-promotion strategy). On more distracted days, the breaks also include vacuuming, laundry and multiple cups of tea.

Six Metres of Pavement by Farzana Doctor

Do you type or write?

I nearly always type. Once in a while, I scribble notes on paper.

Do you read while you’re writing?

Yes. I feel like reading keeps a writer’s mind working. Everything I know about literary fiction has come from reading literary fiction.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

I just finished Emma Donoghue’s book of short stories, Astray. I’m a huge fan of her writing.

What are your all-time favourites?

Everything written by Zadie Smith, MG Vassanji, Barbara Gowdy.

You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?

What a horrible proposition! If I had to choose, I’d write.

What’s your third R, and why?

Romancing! I like dating. I take my love life very seriously.

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

December 4, 2012 § 3 Comments

What to make of a writer critically acclaimed for her literary fiction that delves into dark subjects—whose earlier novels were more likely to show a trajectory from the idyll of the suburban American dream to emotional devastation and mental breakdown rather than the other way around—whose new novel seems wholly sincere, if not sentimental? Once I’d finished reading A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven, I did something unusual for me and turned to other reviews to see if readers were taking the sweetly earnest celebration of domestic contentment at face value.

The day after I’d finished May We Be Forgiven, John Self published a review on the Asylum blog that brought up many of the same questions that had been bothering me. Self really interrogates novels in his reviews, making them justify themselves. Beauty isn’t enough; they must be intellectually solid. The quotation below, in particular, summed up some of my lingering uncertainties about the novel:

Perhaps my experience of the book as pleasingly balanced in its sharpness/softness, was determined by my expectations, my knowledge that Homes was an author not known for niceness, and whose most famous book for a time was about a paedophile’s plot to seduce a child. Perhaps the darkness I saw under the happiness was just my own shadow.

A brief plot summary is in order at this point. May We Be Forgiven is bookended by two Thanksgiving holidays a year apart. The first celebration gives us the depressingly familiar portrait of disenchantment and disconnection our affluent lives have created. Harry Silver is at the house of his brother, George, an obnoxious television executive, George’s wife Jane, who inexplicably kisses Harry in the kitchen, and their two children, hunched over electronics and utterly disengaged from family and the present moment. The opening is fantastic, a bravura skewering of the comforts that render us existentially miserable, yet which we continue to hold most dear.

Back in the city with his cold-fish wife Claire, Harry receives a call from Jane. He thinks briefly that she wants to meet up, but she’s calling him because George has been arrested following a car accident that leaves a man and a woman dead and their son in hospital. Harry stays with Jane while George is in a psychiatric ward, and they begin, incongruously and inevitably, an affair. When George creeps into the house one night and bashes Jane in the head with a lamp, a whole series of events begin.

The novel, in fact, is comprised entirely of events. One of Homes’ skills is making literary fiction—a genre in which authors can find it difficult to make a character get out of bed in less than five pages—so burstingly full of action. Veering between the sublime and the ridiculous and crashing through all points in between, the novel is a fast-paced mash-up of scenes involving lunatic mental health doctors, a radical prison that is more like an endless episode of Survivor, a massive bar mitzvah jaunt to Nateville, a village built and sponsored by Harry’s nephew Nathan, and lunchtime sexual encounters with highly strung women.

By the end of the novel, Harry has moved into his brother’s old house and is looking after not only his brother’s children (who are by turns plausibly and implausibly dealing with their grief and shock) but also the child of the people George killed in the car accident. In addition, he’s acquired several hangers-on of the wise chorus variety, albeit in unexpected costumes.

Throughout, the experience of reading May We Be Forgiven is a delight. Homes is extremely talented as a writer of sentences, particularly, and also as a creator of characters and comic chaos. But underneath there’s a nagging feeling that this is all going somewhere Homes’ typical readers might not want it to go: straight back to domestic happiness and suburban bliss. Can Homes really be trading in her earlier satire for this? Theo Tait, always a perceptive reader, concluded his review in the Guardian like this:

This movement from irony to sincerity is a very characteristic one in young-ish American writers. You also see it in The Simpsons, and in indie films such as Little Miss Sunshine, where satire gives way to a warm alternative community. It’s difficult to do well: darkness and despair often present themselves in more aesthetically pleasing forms than kindness and optimism. […] Its recipe for redemption, as in This Book Will Save Your Life, involves an uneasy mixture of truism (be nice to children, animals, strangers) and kitsch (form friendships with immigrants who work at fast food outlets, listen to the wise medicine man). It is, however, often very funny, in a bad-taste way. […] May We Be Forgiven is a semi-serious, semi-effective, semi-brilliant novel which could not be called, overall, an artistic success. But you’d have to have no sense of the absurd, and no sense of humour, not to be pretty impressed.

He’s absolutely right. But it’s hard not to find your admiration tempered with disappointment at the tweeness of the new life Harry has carved for himself and “his” three children out of a series of appalling tragedies, a trajectory that even Harry’s circuitous tragicomic detours through internet sex, career collapse and personal injury could not derail. At the same time it’s impossible not to appreciate Homes’ writing, her ability to mine these extremely privileged suburban lives for nuggets of humour and disgust.

And this is where my suspicion surfaces again. Harry’s new life, and the Silvers’ ostentatious magnanimity that has created their cosy little community, is only possible because Georgewas so financially shrewd. We hear again and again how Harry will have no money worries; how everything he could ever want to do is within his reach. The message is repeated so insistently that we half-expect it all to come crashing down as an important plot pivot: a call from the accountant to say, actually, sorry, there’s been some mistake. So perhaps Homes hasn’t gone over to the light side after all: perhaps what she’s really trying to get across is exactly how much of a fantasy the American dream really is: it requires oodles of money, money beyond counting.

Is it right, then, to read May We Be Forgiven and This Book Will Save Your Life as a swerve away from Homes’ earlier concerns? Is Homes playing with the intersection of critical praise for writing that shows us, like some horror version of The Feminine Mystique, the unpalatable side of the American dream and the reality that many people, including her readers, still yearn for something like it? Middle-class comforts (which frankly are nothing compared to the wealth and luxuries the Silvers can afford), however urban, tasteful or critical they are, are still just another aspect of late capitalism. Does reading A.M. Homes instead of E.L. James really make us superior? We’ve still plumped for a life in which the daily existential questions are already largely settled and demand no energy. Maybe, just maybe, Homes is telling us that we’re all to blame, and that nobody will be forgiven.

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