Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A.S. Byatt in Philadelphia

Last night, my friend Lisa and I went to the Free Library in Philadelphia for a major author event: A.S. Byatt was there to talk about her writing, including Possession (one of the best and best-crafted books I've ever read EVER) and The Children's Book. The format worked well - she was interviewed by Paula Marantz Cohen, who is, like Byatt, both an academic and an author.

A.S. Byatt was interesting, opinionated, charming and intelligent, but not at all full of herself. She shared interesting personal information about herself without getting too intimate, and she was entirely likable. In fact, my author crush deepened into true author love, I must say.

She had interesting things to say about the differences between American and British literature, including her opinion that women authors in England were never actually at a disadvantage until the past 30-40 years, when gender studies really kicked up and they started claiming there was a bias; she does think that America has relatively few great female authors (she named Harriet Beecher-Stowe, Willa Cather, and Toni Morrison), although she says American has gobs of outstanding female poets - she credits Emily Dickinson for having demolished any barrier for women poets in this country.

She said that one of the things she learned from writing Possession is that it's more interesting if you write novels from many characters' perspectives, rather than just from one authorial voice. She said that she based Cristobel La Motte's character a bit on Christina Rossetti, but Rossetti was too Christian for Byatt's liking. She said that the poems she wrote as La Motte were a tribute to Emily Dickinson. Randolph Ashe was an amalgam of Robert Browning and Tennyson, with the love letters being based on Browning's correspondence with his wife. That said, his poetry was a bit of early Ezra Pound (which is precisely how it reads, to be honest). True fact: Byatt hadn't written poetry before she wrote the book, and she didn't initially intend for the poems to be in the book, but realized that they were integral, since part of the point of the book is that the individual artist may die, leaving lots of unknowns, but their work lives on without needing to know that. This is true even though if you read the book, you conclude that knowing about the poets' lives brings new meaning to their work (which she acknowledged was a takeaway of the book, even though it was the opposite of her intention - she said the questioner (open Q&A at the end) had "caught her out" on that point and identified where she'd failed!).

She never bases a character on a single person, because then she feels too constrained in writing about them. She said that her books always begin with a small idea, then somehow snowball into larger things. The Children's Book started with an idea about the children of writers who write for children, and some article or statistic she'd seen that said the children of children's writers have a higher suicide rate than those of other sorts of stories. (EEP! I hope this is not true!) She started with an idea of Kenneth Grahame, whose son killed himself, and E. Nesbitt, who wrote hundreds of books and had lots of children, some of whom were not her own, and the idea of Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. She was surprised to discover that E. Nesbitt was a founding member of the Fabian Society, and wondered how those politics squared with her being a children's writer. Byatt then decided to add in some Grimm fairy tales - being German, she decided there would be Germans, and eventually, she decided there would be German puppets. It all moved somewhat organically, at least based on her story, and she was surprised to find that her story's timeline ended up with World War I, saying that since WWI was a surprise to so many people, it worked well that it was a surprise in her writing.

If you get a chance to hear her speak, by all means, take it. She was brilliant and funny and inspiring and realistic all at the same time, even when she says things about how she believes life is ultimately tragic, and utopia is impossible, and therefore she believes that if you hit a good patch, you ought to be grateful, but you shouldn't expect it to last.

I'm looking forward to finishing the stories in Little Black Book of Stories*, and to reading The Children's Book. She signed both of them as well as my copy of Possession. *The first story in the Little Black Book is called "The Thing in the Forest" and it's horrifying and perfect and perfectly horrifying all at once. I told her I thought it was a piece of "creepy perfection" as she was signing my book, and she said that it was actually really disturbing to write, but that the more scary it got, the more fun she had. I know several of you who will understand that sort of author glee extremely well!

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