A fawning iChat conversation about Canadian story story writer Alice Munro, who spoke about her work with Deborah Treisman at the New Yorker Festival at the Directors Guild of America this past Friday. Note: she pulls off the Arden Wohl headband better than Arden Wohl! Loves her.
Mark: my favorite part was when she was talking about not always writing men that fully, and male authors not always writing women that fully, and saying it’s hard to get that far outside your self, unless you’re a really good writer. emphasis added, because i love that really definitive merging of the craft of writing and knowledge of life. this one time i was in a salvation army… no, a goodwill, looking at a paperback copy of Madame Bovary, and it had this guy’s address in the front and notes and underlines — which is itself fascinating to me — and at the front was something, i couldn’t tell if it was the book’s owner or copied from a lecture, something like “a psychologist before psychology… [something something]… He knew life superbly.” of course, about halfway through the book in the margins he had written out the number of pages in the book and the page he was writing on to see how much more he had to read, but i’ve always thought “s/he knew life superbly” is a good description for what’s often a really subjective and intuitive discipline
Sharon: yes, like when she was talking about making sure her stories gave readers that “thrill” even if they were terribly sad
Mark: and starting from an image or an incident, and figuring out who’s involved and what else must then follow from that. a thought experiment, is a phrase i’ve found myself using a lot lately
Sharon: i was so shocked to learn she could write from start to finish, but play with time simultaneously. that’s one of the hardest things to do — although it’s funny how she thinks novelists have it tougher.
Sharon: she was so charming.
Mark: she was. and very well-dressed, cut like your mom’s younger sister but made of your stay-at-home grandma’s fabrics
Sharon: yes! and heels. can i tell you two of my favorite things she said? i typed them up.
Sharon: On writing: "I write for myself. I write the story to make it exist in the world."
Sharon: On relationships: "I don’t have an opinion on love. I just know
that sometimes people throw away good, loving relationships. And
sometimes they should have."
Mark: yeah, those’re great
Sharon: i could NOT STOP STARING AT DEBORAH TREISMAN’S GLITTERING WEDDING RING. it blinded me, mark. but i thought she was an incredibly good
interviewer and very sensitive about her follow-up q’s… it flowed so
Mark: huh. she’s hella married, apparently. i bet she has a flower behind
the “taken” ear most times… treisman did a good job, i thought,
starting with her biography, it informs a lot of stuff. especially the
being a creative person in a practical place, which tends to be the
case with a lot of artist/observers, it seems. (a phrase that shows up
in both “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” and in one of the memoir-y
bits in Castle Rock is a white-collar literary person thinking that a
tacky, hardscrabble woman is intimidating because she must be “good in
a crisis”… which seems a pretty fair way of thinking about how both
the small-town people and the Girl Who Got Out can be both
condescending and condescended to)
Sharon: it’s nice to know that alice is juliet, basically
Mark: yes, it is. did you go up to her with your copy of Runaway, speaking of?
Sharon: no, i did not. i didn’t see her afterwards…
Sharon: but after malcolm gladwell…well let’s just say he was mobbed by girls my age attacking him with pens and their free copies of Blink
Sharon: i hovered on the fringes and scurried away
Mark: i am so the opposite of surprised to hear that. what did you think of the questions put by the audience to our alice?
Sharon: i thought they were very thoughtful, and there was a point where i
will presume to think deborah treisman and i were smiling over the same
thing, which was that the lines to the mic were all girls in their 20s.
we are alice’s posse, yo
Mark: i know, it was fascinating.
Sharon: what did you think about what she said re not being able to build up a thick skin, even after all these years?
Mark: i was thinking i wish people would occasionally, just occasionally, ask writers if they pay much attention to good press. especially given as alice chalks so much of her process up to
intuition, i wonder what she thinks of close readers of the meaning and
implications of individual storytelling choices — does she put much stock in that, et cetera. but i do think that makes
sense, to take criticism too seriously, given that she’s still in awe
of those Serious Novel Writers
Sharon: definitely… there’s just something about that, the fact that it still
bothers her, and yet she attempted to give up writing and be “normal”
but wasn’t capable. that and the fact that she revises and revises — the anecdote about how she’ll somehow know herself what isn’t working, and rework the page without being told and pages back to Treisman…
Mark: yeah, i was interested in the revision, and also in her statement that
she doesn’t go back and read old stuff very much — the implication
being that it’d occur to her how she could have done it better (I’m
generally embarrassed by the apparent naivete and infelicitous style of
anything i’ve written not within the last six months, so i can only
imagine what somebody with her lifelong project of knowing people
thinks of the silly young woman she must have been to write such and
such a thing all those decades and experiences ago)
Sharon: i feel the same way about my writing
Mark: yeah. which is sort of the point of the whole thing, innit? (feeling the same way, i mean)