MLA Conference, Day Two (Thursday), Part Two

Michael Colford, Director of Library Services at the Boston Public Library, moderated the panel, “Authors, Authors, Authors!: Three Local Authors Strut Their Stuff!” The local authors featured were Claire Messud, Christopher Castellani, and Laura Harrington. Each author had a different writing background, and all three were fascinating, refreshing, entertaining, and articulate as they spoke about their work, the book world, and culture in general. It was a wonderful panel, and the fact that it was held in the tent with fresh air and natural light didn’t hurt either.

Laura Harrington, author of Alice Blissimmediately earned cheers by saying, “Librarians are some of my favorite people….Librarians and teachers are my heroes.” Alice Bliss is Harrington’s first novel, but she is an experienced writer, having spent the last 25 years writing for the theater: operas, radio plays, screenplays, librettos, lyrics, and more. With her novel, she said, “I wanted to reconnect to the creative process by becoming a beginner again.”

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Christopher Castellani, author of A Kiss From MaddalenaThe Saint of Lost Things, and All This Talk of Lovestarted with an overview of his books so far. His three novels deal with the same family, but each book can also stand alone; each covers a two-to-three year time span, from Italy in WWII, to immigrant life in the U.S. in the 1950s, to tension between the first and second generations of the family. He originally imagined the work as one “epic, sprawling saga” – “I wanted to write something like One Hundred Years of Solitude but for Italians” – but the story found form across three books instead. Rather than one main character, the books feature an ensemble cast.

Claire Messud, author of (most recently) The Woman Upstairs, as well as The Emperor’s Children and several other novels, spoke generally about writing (“Writers are like magpies”), rants, and angry women. Nora, the main character in The Woman Upstairs, has been perceived by critics as angry, and Messud observed, “Women’s anger is uncomfortable….If a woman is angry, she’s ‘unhinged.'” Readers confront this right away: the beginning of The Woman Upstairs is “the rantiest bit.”

“I’ve been a delighted reader of rants,” Messud said, “but all the ranters are men.” Maybe, she indicated to the mostly female audience, it’s our turn. She mentioned the Chekhov story “The Lady With the Dog” and expressed her admiration for the way the author wrote the character’s internal life. “All her torment is invisible….I wanted to write about what’s below the surface for people.” When the question of Nora’s anger came up again during the Q&A, Messud stated: “Nobody eviscerated on the table is gonna look pretty.” If Nora was real and walked into a room, you’d think she was perfectly pleasant; you’d like her. But as the reader, you see everything under the surface, not just her public face. Nora’s complexity might make her hard to like, but “Giv[ing] voice to true human experiences, that’s our job [as authors].”

While readers’ and critics’ reactions to the book are worth discussing, The Woman Upstairs also examines the questions, “What is the cost of making art? What do you have to sacrifice?”

Q&A

The issue of women and anger arose from Alice Bliss as well; Harrington said that readers have been judgmental and unforgiving of Angie, Alice’s mom, who falls apart a bit when her husband, Alice’s dad, goes to war. All This Talk of Love is not without an angry woman, either: one of the characters finally speaks for herself after a lifetime of others speaking for her, and giving up things she doesn’t want to give up, creating conflict within the family. In fiction as in real life, rage, Messud noted, “comes from helplessness, a lack of agency, struggling for control.” (She also mentioned Blood Wedding (Bodas de Sangre), a play by Federico Garcia Lorca, full of angry female characters. I read this play when I studied abroad in Spain, but hadn’t heard anyone mention it since.)

The next question from Colford had to do with families. All three writers acknowledged that, as Messud put it, “For anybody writing anything, our own experience of family informs the fiction that we write.” Castellani spoke about the “inescapability of each other and the narratives we have constructed for each other….When we change, it sends shockwaves through our family.” Harrington illuminated the fine line of using pieces of real people in one’s fictional characters: “How do you do this in a way that is inspired by real people but not slavish to them?”

Colford particularly complimented Harrington’s supporting characters (“I love supporting characters in novels”), and she credited an inspiring work (Our Town by Thornton Wilder) and her past work as a playwright: “A playwright’s job is to write great characters for actors to play.” At the same time, a playwright must be “very economical with ‘brushstrokes,'” using few words to describe each character.

An audience member asked Harrington about transitioning from a collaborative medium to a solitary one. She answered, “Collaborating is either heaven or hell. You often find yourself married to someone before you’ve had a first date.” In theater, however, “All those moving pieces [can] fall to pieces,” and with novel writing, it was “a relief to be in control.” Writing for theater and opera involves compression; novel writing allows for expansion.

On the question of character likability, Harrington said, “Likability is a slippery slope….If we’re focused on likability we’re going to forget the possibility of transformation.” While Messud acknowledged that “Readers desire to identify with the character [and] feel that she is admirable,” she pointed out that this is a gendered point of view: “Let’s try to make a list of the male protagonists we want to be friends with.” (It reminded me of when voters elected Bush because he was someone they’d like to have a beer with; great, have a drink with him, but let someone serious run the country.)

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Gender makes a difference when it comes to the author, too – or at least, how publishers package authors’ books and how critics review them. “Character-driven family novels” are one example of this: think Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections vs. Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings (or J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine). Castellani, who studied with Jonathan Franzen in college, said that he (Franzen) said, “It’s not as if I invented the family novel,” though The Corrections is often held up as an example of this type of book. Harrington pointed out that the same dichotomy applies to novels about war; reviewers write about male authors’ war novels as a group (not to pick on Slate, but here’s an example), and don’t mention novels about war written by women.

Despite this obvious unequal treatment, the panel ended on a positive note. An audience member asked Messud whether she’d seen Ron Charles’ book review of The Woman Upstairs (YouTube video), and she said yes – she thought it was very funny. (It is.) Overall, the “Authors, Authors, Authors!” panel was one of the most pleasurable parts of the conference. I wouldn’t have thought to group these three authors (or their books) together, but it worked just beautifully, thanks to the moderator and the panelists themselves.

Two more Thursday sessions to write about, coming soon!

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2 thoughts on “MLA Conference, Day Two (Thursday), Part Two

  1. Pingback: Characters, Gender, and Likability | Jenny Arch

  2. Pingback: MLA Conference 2014, Day One (Wednesday), Part One | Jenny Arch

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