Monday, April 30, 2007

CONVERSATION: Per Petterson and Marilynne Robinson

If anyone remembers or read my post on Housekeeping they know how I feel about Marilynne Robinson's writing. If you don't want to hear me waxing rhapsodic on that, this would be a good time to stop reading. Per Petterson I've never read and had never heard of. This reading was just after the Imaginary Geographies one and was a bit fuller. Probably partially because it was at 5 o'clock instead of 3 o'clock on a Friday and partially because it featured a Pulitzer Prize winner. Either way, there were still more seats empty then full. Probably because some people actually do work.

There were people eating popcorn which made it feel kind of like we were waiting for a movie to start. I was not eating popcorn but was listening in on people, because that's what you do when you go places alone (with a book open so it looks like you're not, of course). The woman who was sitting behind me is from the Phillipines but moved to the United States five years ago. Her children are in their forties and her husband is currently in North Korea, although she didn't say why. She was talking to the man sitting next to her who had white hair, a beard, and a liver spot on his forehead. He designs and manufactures jewelry, but the jewelry he was wearing was not his own work. His oldest son was born in 1958. One of his children refuses to have children and he thinks this is very selfish. Once, years ago, the US State Department told him not to travel to the Phillipines.

The talk was introduced by Philip Gourevitch and moderated by Radhika Jones. Robinson wore black and a red scarf with gold pinstripes. Petterson, jeans with an untucked blue shirt and dark gray jacket with a gold pin on the lapel. No, I don't know why I keep telling you what the authors were wearing. Yes, I realize it's boring because they're authors and fashion is not actually their forte. This was Petterson's first time in New York (he's from Norway, incidentally) although he had been to the US before. That always strikes me as odd because I'm so convinced that New York is, in fact, the center of the universe. An attitude that annoys me in other people, and yet I forgive it in myself.

They began by reading a bit of their most recent novels. Petterson's being Out Stealing Horses and Robinson's being Gilead. I think--and for some reason I didn't think of this during the first event) that it must be strange for Petterson to read words he both did and didn't write. He wrote his story, chose his words, and then it was translated into English by someone else, and their mark is on the story as well. There's a kind of shared ownership between him and the translator. I'm interested in the invisible chasm between the two. The novel he wrote and the novel he is reading, which are are same but also different. If I were to ask a question, that's what I would ask about.

Petterson said at some point--after Robinson said that, with Housekeeping she thought she was writing an unpublishable novel--that to write while thinking of your audience would destroy everything. I suppose, the fragility of the creative process. That sense of fragility carries over into my reading, I think.

Waiting to go into the theater between talks, a woman near me asked me if I'd read Gilead. I said I had and she said, "Isn't is just beautiful." It wasn't a question, but the answer, in case you're wondering, is yes, it is beautiful. Still, it seems like it's not sufficient to just say that it's beautiful. I recommended it to my mother once and she didn't love it nearly the way I loved it. Instead she kept arguing that certain plot points were unrealistic, and I didn't know what to do with the fact that she wasn't as dumbstruck by the novel as I was, so I never recommended it to anyone again. I did once give it to a friend as a gift but I never asked her if she read it or what she thought of it. Let me take a moment to note that I usually don't care overly much if people don't like the books I recommend. This is an exception not the rule.

Anyway, this pertains to the fragility I talked about above. I feel as though if I get too close to the writing, examine it too thoroughly, the sentences will some how break apart, shattering into all their component pieces. And the beauty would be gone because it's in the tensions between the words. Which is absurd, of course, because the writing is permanent insomuch as something can be permanent, printed in thousands upon thousands of books. The only thing that I could change (through overanalyzing, whatever) is my relationship to the book and the way I hold the words in my head. But that's not the way I perceive it.

Enough of that though. Petterson and Robinson also talked about the reasons they deal almost exclusively with families in their books. Robinson talked about how any human bonds have analogs in family bonds. How the human impulse toward loyalty is found at its most basic in family and this makes the severing of family interesting.

Robinson ended the talk by saying that when she writes she has to love and respect the character her writing is centered around. It's something that really shines through in her writing, which I talked about a bit in my post on Housekeeping. So many authors seem to have an antagonistic or critical approach to their characters unless they use said character as a stand in for themself or some kind of wish fulfillment, so it's always nice to see an author who obviously loves and connects to his/her characters while simultaneously being fundamentally separate from them.

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