Authors talk about process, passion at Literary Sojourn
October 11, 2009
Steamboat Springs — Diane Edelstein offered a succinct summary of Saturday’s Literary Sojourn: “It’s a king-size book group,” she said.
Edelstein, who splits her life between Granby and Florida, was attending her fifth Literary Sojourn. She said she loves listening to authors talk about their inspiration, their passions and the writing process. The grand ballroom at the Steamboat Sheraton Resort was full of people just like her.
Nearly every seat at every table was full. The audience members, mostly women, leaned raptly over pairs of reading glasses, occasionally taking notes on pads or sneaking sips of water. Before them stood the authors, on a stage, behind a lectern and between paintings of trees and snow.
The sold-out 17th annual Literary Sojourn featured five authors. Each had 40 minutes to talk and answer questions. This year’s authors were Richard Bausch, John Darnton, Amitav Ghosh, Linda Hogan and Jayne Anne Phillips. Erin McKean, a dictionary editor and author, served as master of ceremonies.
Darnton, a New York Times foreign correspondent turned novelist, spoke about his move from fact to fiction.
An article about Neanderthals pushed Darnton into the world of make believe. He read about how Neanderthals co-existed with early man, and his novel “Neanderthal” followed.
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“The first thing it took was the desire to write something totally different,” he said.
With creative writing, Darnton found he enjoyed pulling tales from his imagination. Journalists often have to wait for a compelling news event to generate a compelling story, he said.
“It’s not difficult to do,” Darnton said about the change to fiction. “It’s not a question of shifting gears, as some have said. It’s just getting out of one vehicle and getting into another vehicle.”
He has wrapped some truth into his fiction. In his new book, “Black and White and Dead All Over,” Darnton features a character modeled after a Times editor. He sent the editor a copy of the book galleys before publication, and Darnton said the editor got a chuckle out of it. For those who read the novel – look for the character wielding the purple pen (in real life, it was green).
Darnton doesn’t have much love for people who market as truth tales that are false.
“It’s a kind of theft,” he said. “It’s grand larceny. He’s basically reaching in and stealing the heart of nonfiction, which is that sense you get when you read something you’re told is true.”
But definitions and truths aren’t always simple, McKean said after Darnton spoke. She introduced Phillips with a brief talk about how dictionaries define words. Writers create and determine the usage of words, McKean said.
Sometimes it’s better to define a word by using it in a sentence rather than giving a dry description, she said.
“The definitions, they’re like orange juice concentrate,” McKean said. “They boil down all the sentences into something that doesn’t taste as good as the original stuff.”
She pulled an example from Phillips’ new novel, “Lark and Termite.”
“It’s ‘the ocean is a flood that stays in place,'” McKean said. “And I thought, wow, the ocean is a flood that stays in place. That’s one of the best definitions of ocean I’ve ever heard.”
Phillips spoke at length about the nine-year process that led to her new novel. It includes two stories, one that takes place in Korea during the Korean War and another that takes place in West Virginia. The characters and their stories are linked.
Termite is a child, a character in the book partly modeled on a boy Phillips caught a glimpse of three decades ago. He doesn’t speak.
“The secret of the book itself is really inside his perceptions, that the reader in fact knows more about what happened than the characters ever know or ever communicate to each other,” Phillips said. “So he becomes kind of a living secret.”
In a way, she said, writers learn the story as they write it. A reader’s relationship with language determines how he or she perceives the story.
“I think the reader brings a whole set of unconscious associations to the book,” Phillips said. “I think the book teaches the writer to write it as it teaches the reader to read it. Every book should do that, should create its own world. : And there should be surprises.”
Among the crowd of listeners were writers, readers and observers. Heidi Berend, of Steamboat, was attending her fifth Sojourn.
“I just think it’s incredible that we get to have all these authors in Steamboat,” Berend said. “I think it’s one of my favorite functions Steamboat provides.”
Participants and authors, it was clear, shared a passion.
“I have a friend who says, ‘My religion is film,'” Phillips said. “And I think it’s clear that my religion is writing.”
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