By GAIL FINEBERG and HELEN DALRYMPLE
Three 2003 National Book Festival pavilions featured stories spun into printed words told in the manner of those who carry on the oral traditions of their people in words, songs and dance.
The Fiction & Imagination Pavilion featured 10 popular writers whose novels have topped weekly best-seller charts. Sponsored by Workplace USA, the Mysteries & Thrillers Pavilion featured 10 other writers whose mastery of suspense keeps readers turning pages and buying and devouring their creations. And the American Folklife Center of the Library coordinated the Storytelling Pavilion appearance of 12 storytellers.
Author Julia Glass Gets Away With Breaking Rules for Writing
Julia Glass, whom Washington Post book editor Marie Arana introduced as a "self-described ‘unrepentant late-bloomer'" and an artist who draws her characters "with a very fine pencil," did not set out to be a writer.
First she was a painter who supported that ambition with jobs as an editor and freelance journalist. "But I had an overpowering itch to write stories of my own," Glass said.
Although many of her short stories did win prizes, others were too long to be published as short stories. "So, I decided to turn one of my oversized stories into a novel, ‘Three Junes,' which, much to her amazement, won the 2002 National Book Award for Literature.
Glass said she had worried about not following the rules she had heard and read about for successful creative writers but then found her own way. She listed eight rules to break:
1. Get a degree in creative writing. The advantage might be to gain a mentor or two and some writerly comrades, "but you might meet your teachers' expectations too well and write just like them," she said.
2. Have a room of your own. "All you really need is an imagination of your own," said Glass, who described her worktable as the family center for dining, bill-paying, homework and game-playing. She tries to remember to close her laptop between writing stints to keep her 2-year-old from smearing the keyboard with pudding.
3. Outline. She found the creative writing process was more like growing a tree: "You plant the seed, watch it grow, prune it and harvest the fruit," she said. She wrote from character to character rather than from one chronological event to another, she said.
4. First-time novelists should avoid writing in the first person. She told half the story of "Three Junes" from the perspective of, and in the voice of, Fenno, a gay man. "I was haunted by the fear I would make a fool of myself by writing inside this character's head," she said.
5. Write about what you know. This rule "stunts the growth of too many fledgling writers," she said. "Write about what you want to know about … start by pretending you know more than you know, and then verify the facts." "Write from the heart, not from the head," she said.
6. Keep a journal. Her dilemma was audience. "Who are you addressing?" she asked. "I prefer writing a letter, an e-mail, or even a shopping list, addressing my refrigerator."
7. Write every day—or else. "That is pure propaganda," she said. "The lion's share of writing is thinking." She thinks wherever she has a quiet moment to herself—in the shower, sitting in traffic, standing in a line to check out groceries, even waiting in a church for a wedding to start. "Then I carry it safely in my head until I can write it down."
8. Establish a daily routine with blocks of time to write; set deadlines and goals. "Writing is not about a time schedule," she said. "You have to be mindful in a writerly way. … Hoover up the details and deal with what you see and hear." Some days she writes brilliantly, Glass said, and others she "plays mental hooky."
Glass said she does not believe in writer's block. "Did you ever hear of mechanic's block, or teacher's block or mother's block? When you feel you can't write, it's because you'd rather not."
All of everyday life is a source of material for fiction, she said. "Notice. We'd [all] be better spouses, parents and friends if we would notice more."
Family Source of Material For Stories By Pat Conroy
Pat Conroy shared the podium at the book festival with his wife, Cassandra King, author of "The Sunday Wife," who spoke about the difficulty in drawing on some of her own painful experiences to write her book. She said that Conroy helped her to get past some of her fears about writing about personal events.
"You have to get over the fear of hurting your family," Conroy said. "I enjoyed hurting my family!" He recalled that his mother, appearing at a court hearing on the matter of her divorce from Conroy's father, handed the judge Conroy's book, "The Great Santini," which he had based on his father, and said: "It's all here."
"I had the worst father on the face of the earth," Conroy told the audience. "Our household was so full of hatred it was stunning."
"But my father hated the image of himself that he saw in ‘The Great Santini'," Conroy said, "and by the time he died, my father had changed; he had become a good man and a good father."
Conroy said that he fell in love with stories as a child. "Stories are the substance of my life; I'm passionate about stories. I tell stories by unraveling layer after layer until I find the secret at the core." Asked if he planned to write any short stories, he quickly responded, "Conroy don't do nothin' short!"
He made it clear that his books have all been derived from experiences (many of them bad) in his own life ("I tell people I feel sad if they've had functional families"). They often resulted from his desire to answer a question, to get to the bottom of why things happened the way they did.
"Why did I get fired for teaching?" The result was the book "The Water is Wide."
"Why did I hate my father?" The answer was "The Great Santini."
Why did he have such a hard time as an undergraduate at The Citadel? That answer came in two books: "The Lords of Discipline" and his most recent book, recounting his athletic career there, "My Losing Season."
"Why did my sister try to kill herself?" "The Prince of Tides" was his effort to understand that. "With this family I was born into," Conroy added, "I will never go hungry."
Place Figures in Sue Monk Kidd's "Secret Life of Bees"
The job of a novelist is to take a bad situation and make it worse. That was Sue Monk Kidd's summation of her role as the author of her first published novel, "The Secret Life of Bees" (2002), which she described as "a wounded girl's search for her mother."
Lily's quest to learn about the mother she believes she killed leads unexpectedly to three black bee-keeping sisters, May, June and August. At their center is a black Madonna, who is emblematic of the divine mother and queen bee from whom all others in the "dark hive" draw strength and sustenance.
"This sanctuary of women teaches Lily forgiveness and acceptance," Kidd said. "I wanted to create a place that Lily could heal." Kidd explained that she had wanted to write about a sanctuary of warm, wise, hilarious women like the black women with whom she had grown up in South Carolina.
Kidd discussed the importance of place in her novel. "It is important not to romanticize a place, but to tell the truth," she said. The South Carolina in which she grew up and set her story is "richly textured," a place of "great soul, beauty, humor, cruelty, tragedy and violence," she said. "Humor is tightly woven with tragedy."
She said she could not write a novel without addressing race, "the wound of my geography."
Savoring the satisfaction of having touched a reader, she told a story of a 49-year-old CEO having approached her. "I did not want to read your book," the man said. "Your book is about a 14-year-old girl in South Carolina, and I'm a John Grisham kind of guy. But I made a connection to Lily. I made a connection to black women and a little white girl who needs her mother."
"Writing fiction creates empathy," Kidd said. "We humans tend to preserve difference. When we read fiction, the boundaries of separation become permeable."
Catherine Coulter Specializes In Romance and FBI Thrillers
Catherine Coulter has written 54 novels, including 47 New York Times best-sellers. She now alternates between historical romances, which is the genre in which she built her reputation, and contemporary FBI thrillers.
Coulter says she starts her books with a "what if" idea; she doesn't draw up a comprehensive outline before she begins to write. But she is very disciplined and keeps to a regular schedule of writing in the morning. With regard to her characters, she said that they "evolve; they blossom and grow."
"I don't believe in writer's block; I only believe in bad ideas," Coulter said, in describing the one time that she did run into a stone wall as she was working on a novel. She said she got as far as page 85 and then couldn't go any further. "I just threw it out and started over. … You have to trust yourself," she said.
In describing her two very different kinds of books, she said that the core of the romantic suspense novel is the relationship between a man and a woman; but the core of the suspense thriller is the conundrum, a problem that needs to be solved. And, with a suspense novel, she said, the author needs to keep it tightly paced to keep the reader turning the pages. Historical romance novels are "more relaxed."
Writing in these two very different genres, Coulter noted, "means I'll never get bored." She said she would keep on writing "until I have the brain to stop."
Law Professor Stephen L. Carter Discovers Fiction
Publishing and promoting fiction is a "peculiar experience" for Stephen L. Carter, whose first novel is "The Emperor of Ocean Park" (2002).
Carter, the William Nelson Cromwell professor of law at Yale University, where he has taught since 1982, said he was used to tours to promote his seven critically acclaimed nonfiction books, "what my brother-in-law calls my everybody-is-entitled-to-my-opinion books."
Typically, the audiences attracted to the small bookstores that stocked his nonfiction were smaller than the bookstore staffs, and they were usually angry, he said, "not at me, but they wanted to argue with each other. My role usually was that of mediator."
People often ask him why, "after all these years of writing books nobody reads," did he decide to write fiction.
"I always wanted to write," he said. As a youngster, he filled small notebooks with stories written in one long paragraph, ending only when he ran out of paper. In one, dinosaurs conquer the earth, "which is saved by a plucky little boy in Washington, D.C." In another, aliens take over the earth, "saved by a plucky little boy in Washington."
"Stephen Spielberg stole my ideas," he said.
The characters in "Emperor" grew out of the milieu of the black upper crust in Washington, where he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. "The judge [character Oliver Garland] came to me almost 20 years ago—he was socially conservative and ambitious—and the other characters assembled, bit by bit," he said.
In response to a reader's question, Carter said he is not like his protagonist, also a law professor. "One, the character is skeptical of others' motives; he thinks he is not invited someplace because he is black. Second, he has a way of dithering about the world. I want to tell him to get a move on, but I can't do that. Third, he is very jealous of his wife. Why is she so awful? I don't know … she is one of my favorite characters, but everybody hates her."
Carter said that once he set to work seriously on the book, he was still putting in a full day of teaching and writing for Yale. "I was staying up to 1 and 2 a.m., writing."
Finally, his wife said, "Finish it. I'm taking the kids and going away after Christmas and we're not coming back until you are finished." She kept her word, staying away, he said, "until one week I lied and she came home."
He finally had a manuscript for "Emperor" to show his agent. "I have a few suggestions," she said one Friday, handing him 19 pages of notes on yellow legal-size paper. "I need it back by Wednesday."
He finished his rewriting assignment on time, but he heard nothing more until his agent told him she had an offer for the movie rights. "But you don't have a publisher yet," he said. "I know," she said. "I'm working on that."
Some of the characters in "Emperor" may find new lives in other novels. Carter said he is "fiddling" with two manuscripts. "It is hard to write a second novel," he said. "I keep worrying whether anybody will like it," said the writer of whom The New York Times Book Review wrote: "It's not much of an exaggeration to think that in Stephen Carter the black upper class has found its Dreiser."
Gail Fineberg is the editor of the Library's staff newsletter, The Gazette.