A Conversation with Susan Choi and Laila Lalami – Amherst College LitFest 2020

A Conversation with Susan Choi and Laila Lalami – Amherst College LitFest 2020


– It’s wonderful to have you here tonight. This year we have a special
reason to celebrate LitFest, this is the fifth anniversary
of Amherst LitFest and it has been such a tremendous success. I think we can say at this point it’s not just a annual event but it’s actually a tradition,
a highly anticipated one. One that’s embraced by the students, staff, faculty, and community. And it’s really become a
tradition that we count it. I’m really excited to be here tonight. We’re gonna be treated to a conversation with 2019 National Book
Award winner Susan Choi and 2019 National Book
Award finalist Laila Lalami. The conversation will be hosted by our own Professor Judith
Frank, English and, yes, you’re allowed to cheer. English and creative writing and herself the author of two books, both of them nominated for
the Lambda Literary prize. This event is part of the National Book Awards
on Campus Program, which we cohost in partnership with the National Book Foundation. And we welcome Natalie Green, who will come up in just a second. Sorry, I mislead you there Natalie. I had just a, I have just, I know. I hear my name I leap. (audience laughing) We are one of only a handful
of colleges or universities in partnership with the
National Book Foundation and we’re extremely honored and
pleased by this partnership. Thank you, Natalie. The LitFest is the brain
child of Jen Acker. Jennifer Acker is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Common, which as many of you know
is a literary magazine based here at Amherst College. The Common publishes
two print issues a year and host a lively online platform. And if you haven’t
checked out their website I highly recommended it. Among other things you can hear
really wonderful recordings of contemporary poets reading their work. In addition to editing The Common, Jen directs the magazine’s
literary publishing internship, which gives our students an opportunity to prepare for careers
in writing and editing and also a chance to live
inside a literary culture. Jen is also the author of
a highly acclaimed novel of her own, “The Limits of the World”, which was published in 2019. A book called by our
own alum Lauren Groff, “Smart, compassionate, and elegant.” I think we’d all agree and more. In 2019 The Common was
awarded the Writing Award, a very prestigious recognition
for literary magazines. And the award citation praised The Common and now I quote, “For bringing
into being a new generation “of readers and thinkers “through its exemplary
resources for teachers “and its devotion to
elevating new writers.” I wanna congratulate
Jen Acker and her staff for this accolade, the latest of the accolades for The Common but also to thank her for this LitFest without her it would not have become the fabulous tradition that it is. Thank you, Jen. And congratulations. (audience clapping) Now in a moment, soon though, Natalie Green public programs manager at the National Book Foundation will introduce tonight’s guests. I just wanna end by thanking other people who did so much to help organize LitFest. First our amazing special events team in the communications
department led by Austin Hewitt. Austin I don’t know where you are. Oh, there you are. This is the best events
team I can possible imagine anywhere in the world. They’re just incredible. Thank you, Austin. Applause for Austin. (audience clapping) Jane Wald, the executive director of the Emily Dickinson Museum, who has worked on LitFest I
think since the first year. Is that right, Jen? Is that right, Jane? Where are you Jane? There you are. Thank you Jane. (audience clapping) The amazing Paul Gallegos, the Director of Student Activities. Paul are you here? No. Well he does an amazing job. (audience laughing) And Darryl Harper Professor of Music and Director of our Center
for Humanistic Inquiry. Darryl, where are you? (audience clapping) Darryl. And now I’m delighted to
introduce Natalie Green. (audience clapping) – That is the best three time introduction I’ve ever received. (audience laughing) I’m Natalie Green and I’m
the public programs manager at the National Book Foundation. I’m thrilled to welcome you
to this evening’s event. Our fifth year we’ve been doing all five along side Amherst
College for their LitFest to celebrate National
Book Award honored authors and their work. Many thanks to Jen, her LitFest team, Amherst
and the Croxton Lecture Fund for making tonight possible. To start off I’m just
gonna bore you a little bit and tell you about what the
National Book Foundation does and what we’re up to. Since 1950 we’ve presented
the National Book Awards to honor the best literature in America. And through the support of new founders from the Mellon Foundation
to Ford and Rockefeller, and more we’ve been massively able to expand our education
and public programing. Working year-round to
reach readers everywhere. Since 2018 we’ve met over
10,000 audience members, donated over one million books
to public housing authorities and visited 39 states across the country. And you can ask my amazing boss Lisa Lucas that we’re not stopping
until we reach all 50. We’re just so honored
to continue celebrating National Book Award honored authors and their work all nation wide. And if you’re interested in learning more about what we’re up to (mumbles) Victoria who’s amazing, who’s on the LitFest team and our email sign up is downstairs. This evening’s conversation features 2019 National Book
Award winner Susan Choi and finalist Laila Lalami on the power of fiction
and the point of view. I’ll introduce our authors and moderator for the evening Judith Frank. After the folks on stage chat we’ll open up to the
audience for a few questions. You all should have note cards. Any questions will be collected
during the conversation. Following the program the
authors will be signing books which are for sale in the back of the room thanks to Amherst Books. And now I’ll introduce our authors. Susan Choi’s first novel,
“The Foreign Student” won the Asian American
Literary Award for fiction. Her second novel, “American Woman” was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into a film. Her third novel, “A Person of Interest” was a finalist for the
2009 PEN/Faulkner Award. In 2010 she was named
the inaugural recipient of the PEN/W.G. Sebald Award. Her fourth novel “My Education” received a 2014 Lambda Literary Award. Her fifth novel, I’m gonna
keep going, “Trust Exercise” and her first book for
children, “Camp Tiger” came out in 2019. “Trust Exercise” won the
National Book Award for fiction. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim Foundation. Choi teaches fiction writing
at Yale and lives in Brooklyn. Laila Lalami was born in Rabat and educated in Morocco, Great Britain, and the United States. She’s the author of four novels including “The Moor’s Account”, which won the American Book Award, the Arab American Book Award, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and was a finalist for the
Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Her most recent novel,
“The Other Americans” was a Los Angeles Times bestseller and a finalist for the
National Book Award in fiction. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Los Angeles Times,
The Washington Post, The Nation, Harper’s,
and The New York Times. She’s received fellowships
from British Council, the Fulbright Program, and
the Guggenheim Foundation. And is currently a tenured
professor of creative writing at the University of
California at Riverside. She lives in Los Angeles. Her new book, a work of nonfiction, I can’t wait to celebrate
called “Conditional Citizens” will be published this spring. And our moderator, Judith
Frank is the author of a book of criticism, “Common Ground “Eighteenth-Century English
Satiric Fiction and the Poor” and two novels, “Crybaby Butch”, which one a 2004 Lambda Literary Award and “All I love and Know”. In 2008 Frank received a National Endowment
for the Arts fellowship. They’ve been a resident at
Yaddo and The MacDowell Colony and have published short fiction in the Massachusetts Review, Other Voices, and Best Lesbian Love Stories 2005. They teach English and creative
writing here at Amherst and our currently working on a novel about race, reproduction, and queerness. Give it up for our authors. (audience clapping) – So is this, it’s working, great. So we’re gonna start,
welcome to Amherst College, first of all we’re so happy to have you. We’re gonna start with a short reading from each of our authors and we decided that Susan is going first. We did. – Hi everyone. Thanks for being here. We decided I would go first and I’m going to try not to
over explain the short passage that I’ll read from “Trust Exercise”. So that it’s not completely
incomprehensible. We’re in a performing arts
high school in the 1980s with some theater students. Sarah and David are our
main focus right now. They’ve just had a disastrous breakup and just in time for
their catastrophic breakup they have to go to movement class, which is taught by a brand
new very enthusiastic teacher from France, whose accent I will try not to imitate while I read. (audience laughing) Although sometimes the ham
in me gets the better of me. The Black Box was just as it sounded, a black box of a room with
a large platform stage at the center, low enough
to require no stairs. During performances, black
drapery made the aisles behind the risers the backstage but today the drapery is furled, the box is open to its walls and its faraway ceiling criss-crossed by the lighting catwalks. Ms. Rozots says, “They
are to walk, walk, walk, “move, move, move “all through this marvelous space “they must make themselves
free to explore every inch.” Not the catwalks or ladders, no. Laughter. All right you are all very clever. You will explore all terrestrial inches. “In literature,” says Ms. Rozot, “there is an idea called
automatic writing.” “You write without resting your pen.” “The pen most keep moving and moving, “perhaps it is writing, “why do the fuck do I
have to keep writing?” More laughter. Shocked and charmed at her profanity. Her profanity tinged as
it is with her accent is more charming than shocking. Is it possible they could respect her? Well, this unbroken movement of the pen unlocks the secrets within and if the pen can do this than how much more the whole body? Let your body lead you,
your only order to it never stop moving. Otherwise it is in charge. I will help you with music. Oh, no. No, they can’t respect her. It’s perfectly ridiculous. And the music she’s playing Cat Steven, (audience laughing) The Moody Blues. Satirically then they walk, walk, walk making faces at each
other, swinging their arms, bouncing on the balls of their feet, speeding up comically so
they’re marching like robots. Whenever Norbert and Colin pass each other they make absurd faces. Then when they pass each other again they both make absurd
faces and leap into the air still without breaking stride. This behavior spreads, evolves. Most of the boys adore “Monty Python” and embarrass the girls at lunch with their flawlessly recalled and completely unfunny enactments of skits by which they, the performers
are slain with hilarity. In the Black Box the boys do silly walks and then pratfalls-in-motion to show they are slain with hilarity. By in large the girls
grow increasingly serious as they boys grows increasingly ludicrous. The girls no longer walk they glide, they skim, they slice. The music changes to
classical stuff without words. The girls begin taking on speed in additional layer is added now high speed without hitting one another. They’re weaving a mad
tapestry with their movements. Some unpredictably changed direction in the hope of collisions. No matter what they do, no, no matter how subversively they do it. Ms. Rozots cries from
the sidelines, “Good.” “Move, move, move.” “Ah, you are making something.” Indeed they are. Somehow silliness dies. All the theatrical forms of
movement, the silly walks, the pratfalls but also the
arm swinging, I am carefree, and the deliberate direction
changing, I am a rogue, leach out of the room,
unexpected collectivity has slowly emerged in its place. Perhaps most important
embarrassment has been given up. Without their having noticed it, they’re no longer embarrassed. Their speed has equalized
until they’re all traveling at about the same rate. Their winding paths, their clover leafs, and hairpins, and loops
knit some underling pattern as if they learned this maypole dance beside their parents as children. As if it binds them to something and makes of them something. Sarah’s face is streaming tears. At the point where she oughta
curve left or curve right she goes straight and plunges
out the Black Box doors and down the hall running, her speed snatching the
tears from her face. (audience clapping) Thanks. – So good evening. So I’ll be reading from
the “The Other Americans.” And this book is about a Moroccan family in the Mojave desert, in a small town in the
Mojave desert in California, if I can find my page there. And it’s about family
whose members have become sort of alienated from one another and they are brought together again by the death of the father. And it’s told from nine
different perspectives. And I’ll be reading a short section told from the perspective
of the dead man’s daughter. From the nest above the swamp cooler came the cooing of the turtledove. It had woken me up earlier that morning and now I lay in bed watching a spider climb the window screen. The sky behind it a brilliant blue. The spider moved with
elegance and without hurry, unconcerned about the past or the future, one as immaterial as the other. Time was passing, nine days now but I felt stuck as if I’d only just heard that my father had died. In the Muslim tradition the period of mourning lasts 40 days. Why 40? Moses spent 40 days without bread or water before receiving the
covenant on Mount Sinai. Between his baptism and
his return to Galilee Jesus was 40 days in the
wilderness resisting temptation. Mohammed was 40-years-old
when he secluded himself in the cave at Hira and
Gabriel appeared to him. 40 was a potent number, a promise that ease would
come after hardship. That good tidings would follow bad. But my grief would not end
in 40 days or 40 weeks, or ever it seemed. All I had left of my father were memories each as fragile as a wisp of smoke. I thought about his last visit
to me, the previous spring when he’d come to watch me perform at the Botanical Gardens. He’d worn a pinstriped
suit and a black tie and looking at his reflection
in the full length mirror in the hallway of my apartment he had said, “Nor-eini wait.” I was already at the door,
the folder with my music tucked under my arm, my hand
half way to the light switch. Wait, Nor-eini. My father took off his jacket
and sitting on my piano bench brushed his shoes until they shone. He wanted to look his
best for the performance. Come to think of it he always
wanted to look his best when he ventured out of his work clothes as if any trip into the
wider world, the whiter world was a test he might not pass some day if he wasn’t careful. At the Botanical Gardens
he’d asked a passer by for a photo of us standing by the marquee with my name on it. Where was that picture now? In a drawer under my bedroom window or somewhere on the desk
I shared with Margo. I’d have to look for it when I got back. I needed to get back to my new piece too. I wanted to finish it in time
for fall fellowship deadlines. Then the cabin phone ran startling me, it was an old-fashioned landline phone and its sound was urgent and bothersome. I dragged myself out of bed to pick it up, holding the receiver close with one hand and working with the other
to untangle the cord. The line crackled. “Can I speak to Mr.
Guerraoui?” a man asked. He’s voice was high pitched,
almost feminine in tone and he spoke with a European
accent I couldn’t place. “Guerraoui” I corrected,
my heart skipping a beat. “Sorry, it’s hard to
make out the handwriting “on this order.” “I only have the carbon
copy in front of me.” “Is Mr. Guerraoui home?” “No, he’s not here.” “He passed away.” There was a moment of shocked silence on the other end of the line. In that time I relieved my disbelief at the news of my father’s death. The sight of him in his burial shroud. How cold his skin had
been when I touched it. The grief and anger that
took turns inside my heart. “I’m , I’m sorry,” the man said. “I didn’t know.” “I called the cellphone number he left me “but it went to voicemail “and no one ever answered
this one until today.” “He didn’t give you the house number?” “No, just this one.” After a moment the man
drew his breath again. “Who should I talk to about
getting paid for the balance?” “What balance?” “I’m sorry, who did you say you were?” “The balance on the engagement
ring he ordered in April.” “This is Maurice from
Maurice and Dana’s Designs.” I had trouble parsing the
phrase engagement ring. It didn’t seem to belong to a language I could speak or understand. And that feeling persisted even after I wrote down the
address for the jewelry shop, drove to Palm Springs to find it and was buzzed inside by Maurice. I was clinging to the possibility that there was some kind
of misunderstanding. That my father had meant anniversary ring even though my mother
had developed an allergy to detergent some years ago and couldn’t wear rings of any kind. “I’m here about the ring,” I said, nearly out of breath as
I walked into the shop. Thank you. (audience clapping) – What were the enabling
insights or hunches whether life insights or craft insights that helped you launch
these novels into being? (laughing) – What if there were
no enabling instincts? – That’s totally. (laughing) Next question. – No. Well I know, I love your question but I just for my own,
for this particular novel it was actually the
disabling of my ability to finish the novel that I was actually
working on at the time. I had been trying, and trying, and trying to finish a novel that I
still haven’t finished. And one day I thought I just have to write
something totally different. And I decided to write a very short story about a pair of teenage lovers who neither of whom was licensed to drive and they live in a place
that has no mass transit so they can’t hook up. And this was the very
simple conflict of the story and I thought this will be easy. – I love the part where
you say this will be easy. I think these are very necessary lies that we have to tell ourselves in order to actually begin
the writing of a book. And it was certainly a lie I told myself when I started working on this book. The book before this one
was a historical novel that had taken five years
to research and write and I thought, I’m gonna
write something contemporary and it’ll be easy, no research. And I discovered very
quickly after I began writing that that wasn’t true. But what got me started with this book was actually, I suppose
it is a personal insight, which is that in the summer
of 2014 I was on vacation and I got a text in the middle of night from my sister telling me that our father had taken gravely ill so basically we had to scrabble and take a plane and go to
Morocco to visit with him. And he’s fine now. But when I came back to the
US I started to consider some of the sort of unintended
consequences of decisions that you make when you’re in your 20s. So I became immigrant
completely by chance. I came to this country
to go to graduate school and had no intention of staying here but I met someone, yada, yada, yada. (laughing) And then I became an immigrant. And so then I started to think about sort of these long-term
unforeseen consequences. And I thought it might be interesting to write a book or to write a story rather about a family that where
the parents are immigrants from Morocco and some of
the unintended consequences of their decision to come here. – So I should have said the
necessary self delusions. – Yes. – And laziness a little bit too, right. (mumbles). I wanted to, both of these
novels are interesting from a point of view standpoint and I know Laila that you started with only a few points of view, right and expanded over time. Was it always in first-person or it was also in third-person? So I was wondering if you could talk about those decisions a little bit? – I know it sounds a little insane. When I did the first draft of this book it was in the third-person and it focused on three characters. And so it had alternating
chapters from their perspectives but it was still in the
third-person limited. It was from the point
of view of the daughter, her love interest, and the detective, and I thought that was all I needed in order to get the story out because it was the three
main strands of the story. And at about the third draft I realized and after having a conversation
with my editor as well that it just wasn’t enough because I was having trouble
moving some parts of the story. And also because I had written very or what I thought were
very interesting characters and none of them were getting
a chance to tell their story. And the more I included of their voices the more complicated, and interesting, and juicy the story became. So I continued to expand until I hit on what I thought was the perfect number. And the other decision too
that I made at the same time was to try it in the first-person. Once I tried it in the first-person the book sort of opened up for me and I became much more invested in it and I wanted to work on it. I couldn’t wait to work on it every day. And so then after that
it happened very quickly another few years and then it was done. – And Susan I’m interested in, well there are a lot of point
of view things in this novel but the I that interweaves
with Karen’s narrative, right, with the third-person Karen, did that happen soon in the writing? Was it something that you wove in after making it in third-person
like the rest of the novel? How did that come to be? – Yeah, it came to be
really accidental again. Although I just wanna quickly say of your, I love all the voices in your book and one of the things
that I think is brilliant about the first-person is
that it feels like testimony. And the testimony starts
in certain ways conflicting and in certain ways like– – Reinforcing.
– Supplementing. – Yeah, yeah. – Yeah, and I loved the way
in which you would sort of cut away from a moment
and then we would pick up in a different characters
perspective on that same moment but discover how
differently they viewed it. And I think that was–
– Thank you. – How nice.
– The dead man. – Yeah.
– And the dead man also that decision to include
his point of view as well. – Yeah, which I loved.
– Thank you. – But I think the reason
I was so struck with it is it’s really similar to what
I was trying to do as well. So what had happened with “Trust Exercise” which is really a series of accidents. First the accident of trying
to write a short story and then it wasn’t easy and I never finished it. It never became a story but a book. Is that I wrote this first section that’s in the third-person,
I read from it, really up to the point at which
I was just sick of it myself and I just put it down. Because I was still trying
to write this other book. It was not what I was really doing. And so I put it down for so long that I had started it in, I don’t even know how many years ago but by the time it had been, you know it languished until
mid to late summer of 2016 it was still languishing. And around that time I had
become very preoccupied by other developments in the larger world. And the main sensation I
kept having at that time that we all remember so well because it’s still happening was why is this story
that’s the story of my life and my country, and my experience, why is the story being told by someone who is telling it in such, in way that’s so completely offensive and just hostile to my entire existence. I felt as if someone was telling my story but telling it all wrong. You know all sorts of different aspects of our national conversation
felt like a story that was suddenly being told… in a really damaging way. And it was interesting
because you know I had started ideally thinking
about this material that I had been writing and I thought, I wonder
if there are any people in that world, in the world of that story who also feel really
misused, and ill treated, and spoken for in the worst possible way. – Yeah.
– By that narration. And it sort of occurred
to me that you know maybe there were people,
characters in that world who are angry and disagreed. And as soon as I thought of it
I realized yes, Karen, Karen. I remember this very minor character and I thought Karen is mad. She’s just mad about what’s being said about her and her experience. She just doesn’t agree. – I like that you sent her to
therapy for many years also. The way that her mom who’s lovely at the end of the first part then becomes unlovely and
her narration is fantastic. What did you think was
offensive about the first, like where did you
locate the offensiveness in the first version? I was gonna ask, did you always know that this was somebody else’s,
that this was Sarah narrative but clearly you didn’t, right, when you were writing it? – Yeah. – What did you find offensive about it? – It wasn’t so much that
I thought it was offensive as I thought this is a story
that involves many, many people but is being told from one perspective and inevitably when one
perspective tells the story there is going to be someone who feels that the story isn’t be told correctly. And that was where Karen sort of bloomed. You know Karen had been
someone who was so minor and I think that that was the beginning where I thought you know
what if she’s siting around thinking I’m not minor, I’m not marginal. And so that was where her anger started. And then I thought well, why is she angry? – And so you wrote but
there’s also the I, right, that winds it way through. So it goes back and forth from Karen in third-person
to the I, right. – Yeah.
– Was that, did you do that initially,
did you start it that way or that weave its way in? – Yeah, you know it’s interesting because I really thought
of the Karen section as being much more like Laila’s characters who are testifying, who
are telling their own, you know their own angle
on this shared experience. And so I think of Karen as being someone giving sort of a monologue but part of her thing
is she’s like oh, yeah, you’re gonna tell Karen story. Well I can tell Karen
story ’cause I am Karen so actually I think I know
this story better than you. And so I think of that section as more a first-person section in which she goes into third to prove that she’s better at it than
the other storyteller was. – Interesting. I was thinking about the I today and about it points in two directions. It points to, it’s the Karen
I that you’re describing but there’s also then suddenly the specter of the authorial I as well that comes up. I don’t know if that was
part of your thinking. It starts to, it just
making memoir and fiction it’s blurring those, right,
intentionally I think. – Yeah, yeah, I mean yes and no. I mean I think that
really it’s more honest to say that the voice
to me was Karen’s voice and Karen’s voice
playing with storytelling and Karen’s voice playing
with the idea of Karen’s story and getting to tell it as opposed to having it told for her. – You had mentioned writing
in 2016 and I was wondering what is happening to
your artistic processes to your ideas about what you
wanna do in this America, right and also in this year that’s
leading up interminably to an election, right? What are you thinking about
what you wanna be doing? What are you thinking about old, you both write quite political works and writing to this moment, you are writing to this
moment politically, whether it’s Islamophobia or whether it’s sexual
predation, right you are, I’m wondering just what
your thought process is now as novelist about
writing fiction for yourselves not like what the goal
of the aim of fiction should be right now but what it’s like for you personally? – I think it’s interesting
how the word political is applied to fiction. I remember when my very
first book came out that I, so I wrote, so
my first book was called, “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits” and it’s about a group of immigrants who cross the Mediterranean on a lifeboat so it’s told from different perspectives. And I remember I gave it
to a friend of mine to read and she returned it and said,
“It’s a political book.” And I was really taken by surprise because I thought well, what
is politically about it? And then it took me a
bit of time to realize that anytime you write
where you have a character that’s an immigrant then it
becomes a political book. So the term political is
applied to pretty much any book in which the center of the
story is not a center of power. So anything that’s not
like about a white male, a rich white male doing I don’t know what. And so I’m not, you know
I’m kind of used to it now because it’s been applied to pretty much everything
that I’ve written. And with this book when it came out one of the very first
questions that I was asked is whether it was response to Trump. Can you imagine that I would
live my life as a writer like thinking about this
person and writing stories an answer to this person. And the answer of course is no. You know I think about him
enough on a daily basis. (laughing) I don’t need to think
about him in fiction. And in any case the book I started working on it long before the election. My goal was to write a
story about this family and in switching perspectives to sort of explore the
unreliability of our reality. I remember after the election
everybody was walking around or a certain number of people
were walking around in a daze wondering what had just happened and what had just happened
was that reality now was being presented from a
completely different perspective. It doesn’t mean that that
perspective wasn’t there. It was there all along it’s just that people weren’t aware of it or weren’t listening to it. And it’s interesting I only
realized after I heard you talk about the process of writing this book and the switching of
perspectives from Karen to, for bringing in Karen as a character that the switch from the
third-person to the first and opening it up and
bringing in more perspectives in this book happened in 2016 ’cause I had done two or three
drafts in the third-person. So it’s right about that time that I had then switched
to the first-person. And I did feel that by doing that then it really opened up the possibility of exploring different ways in which we interact with reality and how limited personal experience is. And this book gave me that opportunity. – Yeah, I’m not sure how much I can add. I think it’s really fascinating to think about this label of political
as it’s applied to fiction and I agree with you that the, I mean the label political as applied to literature has always fascinated me because I do think that it’s
deployed very, very frequently to label a minority a story of some kind. So whether it’s a story
about a person of color, whether it’s a story about a, you know any sort of
character who seems to occupy like a non-normative life position. It’ll turn into like a political story. And a lot of my work has
been called political almost of all my books
have been called political although I’ve never set out
to write a political story. And in fact the book that I refer to as having sort of given
birth to “Trust Exercise” because of it’s huge
failure, it’s ongoing failure is a book that I think is failing in part because it came out of
certain preoccupation of mine that I now recognize as having been kind of
consciously political which I think for a fiction writer can often be like death to the story. If you set out to tell a political story, a story that you conceive of in that way it often closes of the possibility of actual like bringing
your characters to life and telling a story successfully. If you can do that then
afterwards the reader often finds political meaning but I think it’s harder
for us to make meaning if we’re setting out to
be political in advance. – It’s interesting to hear you. I think it’s a particularly American thing to think about political
as a pejorative thing. When I say that I actually mean it. I think your work is deeply political both of your work in a great way. I mean that as a compliment. I do think that the
industry and the culture both are very worried about producing work that can be seen as political. It marginalizes it some way or thinks that it’s not artistic, right if it does that. – Absolutely. I mean no and I wanna say
like I’m very proud of my work being taken as being political. – It’s so political.
– I’m glad of it but I think the label is pejorative as it’s usually applied in
the marketplace of literature. And I’ve actually like written about this idea of the political novel. And I love this essay by, I think it’s Morris Dickstein who talks about “Middlemarch” being kind of like the
ultimate political novel because it’s about life. And actually like every novel is political if you can actually view
politics as being about the ways in which we live in the world. – About power in general in any kind of a relationship between different people that
involves a power imbalance is by definition gonna be political. I wonder if the reason
that it is viewed so in this pejorative way, there is a certain policing that happens in calling books political, which is a way to sort of undermine them and say well if they’re political than they can’t be
aesthetically accomplished. You know there’s a bit of– – They must be like pursuing
some sort of agenda. – Agenda.
– Yeah. – Yeah. Did your editors or agents for that matter but did your editors have
any suggestions or concerns that you addressed in revision and if so could you take us through that? – Sure so my editor at
Pantheon is Erroll McDonald and he read, so I guess
it was the draft after, I had basically conceived the entire story with all of the characters but everything was in the third-person and I remember he sent me an email and then we talked on the phone and he was very complementary. But he did ask one question
and that question was, “Have you considered all
of the other characters “that you’ve created “and what you might be missing
from those perspectives?” And he said, “You know
just think about it.” And it was very interesting
because he had been, you know he had sent
me this very nice email and we’re very proud to publish this book and so it was kind of like the choice between do I just leave it as is or do I actually consider
this question seriously. And I considered the
question very seriously. So seriously in fact that
I spent a week weeping because I realized that I
had to throw away the draft that I had finished and I started again. And started expanding it
to different perspectives and trying out a different
way of doing point of view. And then I felt so grateful because the fact that it was that question that led me to reconceive the book and to actually enjoy myself
even more in the writing of it so yeah it was a great, great experience. – Yeah. – [Judith] My editor would
write just a thought. – Yes. Yeah, I’m so grateful for real thoughts that either the agent or
the editor brings too. You know especially if it
challenges what you have even though, yeah
sometimes there’s weeping when you’re like oh no, that
was a really good question. I have a wonderful, wonderful editor but I think even before
my book found its way to the editor that I worked with, my agent had asked me a
really galvanizing question because this book originally
had a different ending. So my book is in three parts and the three parts grown
progressively shorter so that the third part
is the shortest part. And that was true of the
draft that my agent saw but the third part was a
completely different third part, completely different,
having nothing in common with part three as it’s in the book. – It’s really different.
– Really different. And my agent had said,
“You know do you think “that this is actually, that
this is the final section “of your book, do you think it’s possible “that there’s some other way
that this book needs to end?” And I wept with despair. But the other wonderful
thing that my agent said when I agreed that I didn’t
think the ending was right but what was the ending supposed to be. She said, “I think
there’s an upswept corner “in this book and that’s
where your ending is.” In other words the ending
was sort of already there. And this is something I tell
my students all the time mostly because I stole it from Jane Smiley who has this wonderful
essay about revision and about how–
– She’s great. – She’s amazing, right. So I teach this essay which is called, “What the story teaches its writer”. And it’s about the fact
that when you revise everything that you need to know about how to fix your
work is already there. – Is in your story.
– It’s already there but it’s a matter of
finding it and seeing it. And when my agent said, “I think
there’s an upswept corner.” This image was so beautiful to me and it also really took
the pressure off in a way because I thought I bet there’s
a lot of like unwept corners and maybe there’s not just one. – So it opened up a lot of possibilities. – Lots of different possibility and it thought if I can just
find one of the possibilities it will be okay, yeah. – In the case of that story because it wasn’t set in the 1980s then that was a definitely
upswept, you know corner that you could then revisit
and flash it forward. – Yeah.
– So interesting. – Yeah so I found that corner, which was. – Did you find it quickly? – No I wrote four endings. (laughing) Which did not happen quickly. But by the time I got to the fourth one I was like, “It’s this corner.” (audience laughing) – Because I’m done, I’m done now, right. (audience laughing) – It’s a very clean house by the end. (audience laughing) – If there are, this is your
opportunity to write a question if you’d had an opportunity to do that and if there, I don’t know if
they’re coming up in a basket or how they’re coming up but if you could find the
person who is collecting them and bring them up I will ask some. I will ask another question
or two in the meantime. Do we know who, Austin do
we know who’s collecting? There, there, okay, good, thanks. I have a question about the
awards circuit, about awards and about how being nominated
for or wining major awards affect you when you sit down to do the extremely solitary work that you know that you’re
gonna have to commit to and stay with for years probably and it’s gonna require
commitment and faith. Does it help to have like had a chance to do a victory lap from the last one? Does it create pressures that are, does it create pressures? I’m thinking about the relationship between yourselves sitting up here and the self that’s
sitting down at your desk and trying to get yourself
settled and in a place to write. (laughing) – (mumbles) perspective. (laughing) – You wanna take this one Susan? You won. – Not really. (laughing) I spoke last. – I mean I don’t know about you but I wish I could say that
you know winning this prize or being up for that prize or getting some kind of
like notice for a book, or it doing well made it
easier to write another book. I wish that that were true ’cause then you know, right,
like life would be easier. All you have to do is get to that and then and it just for me anyway it just, I don’t find that it changes anything. It doesn’t even change
your level of confidence because when, although
you have experience. Experience and confidence
are not the same thing and when I sit down to write another book, well first of all I always
try to write something that’s very different
from the previous book and each one sort of
teaches me how to write it. So it’s a new journey each time. So you know anything else
that’s happened outside of it is essentially noise and it’s not helping with the actual writing of the book, which has nothing to do with noise. It’s the opposite of that. You have to dwell in silence and you have to you know be focused and it’s just I don’t know. I don’t find that it
makes it easier at all. – Yeah, I agree completely. I think that there’s a
total disconnect in way between like the public work
of sort of being an author and the private work of
like sitting and home trying like not to have
another snack and like, (audience laughing) you know get to like
whatever the word count is for that day. And I think that the thing that
has been most helpful to me and you know maybe this
is the same for you because at this point we’re like that’s sort of cringey term mid-career Writers, always like uh. – And it happens in the
blink of an eye you’re like– – I know.
– You’re emergent and then suddenly you’re– – Yeah you go from emerging
to like mid-career, like almost instantly. Yeah and mid-career sounds like midlife and midlife never sounds good. It’s just not sexy. But I think what has been helpful about like this mid-career place is accumulating a lot of experience of being lost, and
frustrated, and rudderless and writing hundreds of
pages that never go anywhere, and having no ideas, and being in despair. And you know the great
thing about the mid-career is that you can go, oh, all of these bad things
have happened before. Like all of the really fallow moments start to form a pattern. Where you’re like all right this is like a large scale pattern and the pattern also seems to consist of like every once in a
while finishing something. So that’s reassuring. – Great. (audience laughing) – That was suppose to be cheering. – I suspected it was not
going to be cheering and so, which is partly why I wanted to ask. Should I say the names of the people? You wrote your names. No. Maybe I won’t. This is for Susan, how did anger or rage
influence “Trust Exercise”? Can you elaborate on how anger affects your writing practice? Is it enabling? – That’s a great question. – [Judith] That’s actually
from Gina Rodriguez (mumbles). – Thank you for that question. I would say that in general anger is not helpful to my writing practice but in this specific
instance it was very helpful. I think the other interesting
thing about the mid-career is realizing that there is no
one way that you do things. Like I think earlier in my career I thought I figured out
the way to do things. And now I’ve realized
no, there’s no one way. This book was really different for me and one thing that was really different was at that some point in
the middle of this book when I wasn’t even really
taking it seriously as a project I became incredibly angry. I was in a state of like
almost constant rage just walking around with
you know a voice of rage in my head that actually made it almost impossible to hear anything else. It’s not a fun way to feel. But it was really, really productive for a brief period of time I sat down and I wrote Karen’s
section really more rapidly than I’ve ever written anything. And I changed it very
little for publication, which is also very rare for me. So I did just have kind
of like a rage fit. – Wow, that sort of makes
sense for that section too. Yeah, wow. – More than one person wants to know what the original third part was. If you’d like tell us about it. – There were, as I said
there were four parts three. And the first of the parts three was, it was centered on David and. (audience laughing) And then the second one might
of also been about David and then the third one was
about Liam, strangely enough if anybody can remember who that is. And then– – [Judith] Ew. – And then, harsh. (audience laughing) And my agent didn’t say this although she might have
been trying to say this with the upswept corner comment but my best friend who’s also
one of my most trusted readers said, “I’m not sure if we
want to hear a man’s voice “at the end of the book.” And I said, “Oh, that’s a thought.” – Yeah. (audience laughing) – This is for Laila, can
you talk about the research or personal experience behind
Jeremy’s experience of Iraq and how he interacted with
people on his return from war, specifically with Nora? – Sure, thank you for that question. Remember when I said earlier
that you sort of have to lie to yourself in order to begin a book and I thought very naively this is a book that start with a hit and run, a car comes out of nowhere kills this guy that happens on the first page and then everything else
is set in the here and now. I know that area well it’s gonna be easy. Boy, oh boy, so I had
to do a ton of research about for example hit and runs but one of the, not as
simple as it sounds. – [Judith] And white paint. – Yes, I mean anyway but with
respect to this character the way that he started out for me is that I suffer from insomnia. I don’t know if any of you have that. And I thought why should I suffer alone so I’m gonna saddle one
of my characters with it. And then I started to think well why does he stay up at night? And then I thought oh, well
maybe he keeps thinking about something and then
I was like, oh, well you know and so then that’s the idea of the sort of veteran character. And I realized with writing something like or somebody like that I had
to do a lot of research. So I read, well first of all I was, at the time that the Iraq
War was unfolding I became, and I don’t use this word
lightly obsessed with it. And I was, as it was unfolding
reading about it constantly and writing about it also. But in order to write from
that particular perspective I read a number of novels that were written by
veterans of the Iraq War. I read books about, non fiction books about the Iraq War also by veterans. I read, let’s see, I
just basically ended up doing a lot of reading. I watched training videos for the Marines. The book is set in Joshua
Tree, which is near 29 Palms. which is the largest
Marine base in the world. It’s 937 square miles. And when you spend some
time in Joshua Tree sometimes you can hear the Marines when they’re doing live fire exercises so just being in town you see
a lot of that Marine presence. So I had plenty of opportunity to interact with people there. I’ve had students who are veterans. So I basically just
started to pay attention, and to notice, and to research. Now having done all of that it equipped me with some of the language,
some of the jargon that Marines use or veterans use anyway and all of that was helpful. At the same time I had to
in a sense let go of it because I was trying
to create the character and so all of that was helpful in sort of creating the
miniature of his world. But the heart of it,
the person was somebody that I had to relate to
as another human being. As though I might relate to myself. And so that’s a different
part of the work I think. – Yeah, I feel as though the
research is partly there. It turns out to give you
confidence in authority. It’s not to take from it. – Yeah.
– You gain it and then you let it go,
right, for a while, yeah. Somebody wrote, when I get asked about the sort of
fiction I’m interested in I usually say, “I like
work about the world “rather than work about the self.” Might this be a way to reinscribe so-called political writing
in a non-pejorative way? Yes. (laughing) Yes. Is there anything else you
wanna add about that or? We’re very concerned
here with elevating the, with resuscitating the political. That’s (mumbles). (laughing) As not, it’s market avatar, right. It’s avatar as a market entity. – I mean everything’s political so. – That’s the thing. Okay, moving on. I think I’ll read just one more. Are we good for time? I can keep going. Basically I’m reading the ones that are the most legible at this point. (audience laughing) In the trust exercise what do
you consider are exercised? Do you think society today
needs to undergo such exercise? So maybe just talk about trust exercises. – Wait, can I hear that again? – Yeah, in the trust exercise what do you consider are exercised? Do you think or what kind
of trust maybe is exercised? Do you think society today
needs to undergo such exercise? – That’s a really interesting question. I’m not sure if I understand exactly. I’m gonna just riff here because the book actually has these literal trust exercises in it that are exercises that
the acting students do under the direction of their teacher. And the trust exercises in this book are actually from Sanford
Meisner sort of technique of teaching acting or they’re adapted. And Sanford Meisner was you know and enormously
influential teacher of acting and performance and so many of his exercises
involved repetition. Two people facing each other
repeating back and forth and the exercises were designed to essentially break
down their participants and to, I may be getting this wrong because I was very, very young when I exposed to Meisner technique so I might not have gotten it. But it’s about as I experienced
it breaking people down and sort of eliciting emotion. And something that was
every interesting to me about Meisner technique was that you know there was a period during
which I was researching a novel on Scientology, which I never wrote either and never will write. But I was really obsessed with Scientology and I read a lot about it. And while I was reading about Scientology and about various practices
in the church of Scientology specifically practices that
are used on new members to kind of draw them into Scientology and to turn them into
Scientologist, one of the, there were all of these
techniques that I recognized. And I realized that they
were Meisner technique. They’re actually the same thing but Scientology gives
them different names. And you can google this and you can find sort of Church of Scientology like videos in which people like
do repetition exercises until one of them like has a breakdown. And the purpose of these
exercises in Scientology is explicitly to break people down and kind of subsume them
into a conformist structure in which their selfhood
is voided in favor of this what I would call a cult. But you know that’s a
controversial position. And so I think it’s interesting that, and so no, I don’t think
that these trust exercises are sort of, have like
a wider social utility because I think that what
they prove to be useful for is creating conformity
and quashing individuality in a very powerful and
kind of disturbing way. – Well very interesting. It’s making me thinking
about training for the Army what you’re saying. – Yeah, which is a similar process. – Yeah, it’s breaking of the individual where they can’t even use, and this goes back to
the research question but they can’t even use I. So when they are in bootcamp
they say things like this recruit like you talk about so it’s, and everything is yes or no sir and so it’s very interesting. It goes to what you were saying about how the exercises are
designed to create conformity and to, it’s very interesting. – I’ll ask one more question, a little bit about trust exercises. It’s about readership because it’s also in someways a trust
exercise with us, right. It’s a challenging book. And make certain kind of
demands of the reader. So what I wanna ask you both is, is there a reader, or an
ideal reader, or a reader that you have in mind when you are writing that sometime you’re
just checking against? – You’re still thinking. – I am still thinking. – I think probably the answer and this is gonna sound very self-centered but I think the answer is it’s me. I don’t really think about a reader, an abstract sort of reader out there. I don’t even think like, I mean with “Trust Exercise” it’s a book that involves teenage
characters for many of its pages and I didn’t certainly think
about it as like YA novel versus an adult novel. I mean it’s not YA novel but I don’t really, no, I don’t
really think about a reader. I think that I’m always the reader that I’m trying to please. I’m hard to please. (laughing) – One of the interesting
things about this book is that it implicates the reader in the sense that the
reader knows everything about all the perspectives
that are presented in the book but each of the characters
obviously only knows their own perspective. So in a way the reader gets the sort of more complete picture and all of the different biases and misinterpretations that
each of them is having. And so it’s kind of interesting when you think about a reader
for something like that. I would say that I write
for a reader like myself, which is maybe a little bit different than reader who is myself. And that means yes, kind of checking and like oh, this was funny or this wasn’t funny, or you know. And trying not to talk
down to that reader. Talking to that reader as
if I would talk to myself if that makes any sense, yeah. I think also thinking about readers is a more dangerous thing in writing as opposed to just reader
who is like myself. I think that it is a very
short step between thinking about readers and wanting
to please readers. And I think that wanting to please readers can be very dangerous
for the active creation. Because then it makes it about approval as opposed to about exploration. And so that’s why it’s much more fun when you think about yourself or at least you’re only pleasing yourself and not trying to please other people. – Well thank you both very much. It was pleasure talking to you. (audience clapping) – Thank you. Thanks.