Sunday, February 19, 2012

notes on a reading by a real author

The trouble with having an actual life, offline, is that it interferes with blogging. Thus I am over a week late posting about the one interesting event of Alumni Week at the university where I work (and of which I am an alumna).
There may have been other events that would have been interesting to other people, but consider whose blog this is, mm? So, yes, it was the reading by Robert Wiersema that I wanted to attend. Conveniently it was in the library, so I just had to shift my lunch hour around that day.
Mr. Wiersema is UVic's first Distinguished Alumnus, which he can add to 'bestselling Canadian novelist', 'distinguished book reviewer', and 'event coordinator for Bolen Books'. And teaching a Fiction Writing workshop at Camosun College. He's also a regular poster on Absolute Write.

The room for the reading is on the main floor of the library, one of the newer installations, with glass walls and one whiteboard wall. A multi-purpose room, without much in the way of built-in furniture. A good many rolling chairs had been wheeled in, and a desk and podium in front of the whiteboard wall. People strolled in, several of them library employees (more staff than librarians to my eye). The very tall new head librarian was of course present, chatting with the distinguished alum. Photos were taken with Mr. Wiersema posed signing his books (to go in Special Collections) and with the head librarian and an cheerful older couple whom I guessed to be the elder Wiersemas (yeah, I'm sharp that way).

Prefatory remarks by J. Bengtson in the usual vein of pref remarks, puffing Alumni Week, check out displays in Special Collections etc., anecdote about family connection to architect who designed circular campus, keeping it fairly short and on to honour to announce first official Distinguished Alumnus, Robert Wiersema, credits as above.

Wiersema is bearded, short and tending towards burly, with a contained energy that seems to fizz a little in the air around him. I imagine he'd be pretty effective in a rugby scrum. He begins by observing the changes in the McPherson library since he was a student 10 years ago (Hearing this, I wonder whether I should feel old.) The changes are both wonderful and alarming, he notes.
Then he gets down to it. He came to UVic because he wanted to write. As a child he wanted to write and draw, but by grade two he knew he was a failed artist, so he had to be a writer.
Embarrassing Disclosure # 1: as a child he devoured books--literally--he ate page corners.

First reading, from Bedtime Story, related to discovering the love of books:  protagonist's memory of post-bereavement childhood stay at grandparents' farm, his boredom relieved by finding box of papers and books belonging to his father, his entrancement by the sf/f paperbacks by an invented author.

He follows up by describing the passage as an interweaving of fiction with fact:  don't trust a fiction writer.
In the 1980s, the study options for writers were UVic or UBC. UVic's program was better regarded, and perhaps more important, it was further from home. He wanted distance from Agassiz, to be removed from the temptation to go home every weekend and never really leave. His parents smile.

Second reading, from Walk Like a Man, memoir of growing up with Bruce Springsteen's music. A passage about arriving at university, how strange to not know anyone after small town environment (however glad one was to escape it), being unsure how to begin making friends or even open conversation with strangers, and the influence of music.
Embarrassing anecdote about 14 identical pairs of robin's egg-blue underwear packed by his mother. His mother smiles and blushes.

 He began with a double major, History and Creative Writing. After finding how much study and work was involved in a history major, he dropped that. In second year he dropped Creative Writing because he realised he was not progressing in fiction writing, only in poetry. He shifted to English and took honours. He was also working at a downtown bookstore (not named--Munro's?) which made for a useful combination of studying the classics of literature and awareness of what was actually being read.
On to theory. The Newtonian physics of storytelling:  characters in stories are in stasis just before the story opens; they are acted on by an outside force which begins the story:  the inciting incident. In his Before I Wake, he puts the incident on the first page.

Third reading, the opening of Before I Wake. Though the accident is on the first page, the passage is not a description of the car accident, but the shock and self-recriminations of the parent thinking about it, how bereaved parents always say 'I only looked away for a moment', but this narrator never looked away, and yet still the child was hurt, perhaps killed.

Annoyingly, the inside flap of the jacket gives away what happens to the little girl, so the off-balance anxiety of the actual opening is undercut. A brief digression on book jackets, and how much he likes the front cover of Walk Like a Man, a Springsteen photo he had not seen before. A photo exists of himself in a similar leather jacket and similar pose. Generally he has been pleased with his cover art.
The passage is about how lives change in a moment / an impact, that is the key to fiction. Too many young writers fall into the trap of 'write what you know', taking it literally. His first stories were about young men leaving small towns and feeling dislocated, but without an impact that changed their lives and caused them to act.
He writes best out of fear. In December of 1998 he learned his wife was pregnant, and after the initial happiness he hit the what-ifs. What would be the worst thing that could happen? Your child being injured or killed. He remembered a Vancouver Sun story about a family whose young daughter was in a coma and who had reported mysterious and miraculous things happening around her. Putting that together with an idea of a family falling apart (I note here that a child's illness more often breaks up a family than brings it together.) he wrote the first draft of Before I Wake in a white heat over 3 months.
Then he put it into a drawer.
Eventually he took it out again. Before I Wake became a national bestseller, and has been translated into various languages.
He has come to realise that his fiction is consistently about an awful thing happening to a child about three years older than his own child. See above about writing out of fear. About what people do after the worst has happened?

Fourth reading, again from Before I Wake, from the storyline of the driver who hit the little girl, his shock, fear, horror and dislocation. The image of the child flying into the air haunts him, and he can't re-connect himself enough to do anything rational like turn himself in. He drives around, goes to the hospital and secretly observes the parents, then drives to a cliff overlooking the ocean (yeah, this is where you should go read the book).

In his fiction things often take a turn for the weird, but the stories are grounded in the realities of Victoria. Bedtime Story has a science fiction story buried inside it, but his writing is closer to magic realism, tied to the Island surroundings and fed by his own obsessions.

Question time
As a book reviewer, does he read or avoid dust jacket blurbs and inside flaps?
He often doesn't see them, as reviewing is done from galleys and proof copies.

Was fear part of his Springsteen memoir?
Yes, but it was a different fear, not of fear for the future or for his family.

What would be in the real-life equivalent of the box of books in Bedtime Story? (this was my question)
Pause for thought. Madeleine L'Engle's books; the Alfred Hitchcock's Three Investigators series; John Bellairs's The House With a Clock in its Walls and the sequels. He learned recently that Bellairs wrote the book for adults, but couldn't find a publisher, so simplified the prose somewhat for younger readers, but didn't diminish the creepiness. With Edward Gorey illustrations, it became first in a series, later continued by another writer. (It shows up fairly often as a Book Stumper as well--a book that makes a deep impression on young readers.)

J. Bengtson does thanks and acknowledgements, people stand up and wander about, straggle out. I trot up to the front, waiting my turn after a few notables. Wiersema says 'you were taking notes', and I say I'll probably be blogging (this is finally made true). Then I get to say 'I'm batgirl on Absolute Write', which is, after all, not something one can say every day and have the other person understand, so I must seize my chances. Brief chat, I confess real name, and promise to actually buy his books instead of just reading the library copy. (as soon as I get my Kobo back, sigh, whinge, sigh)

Then back upstairs for the afternoon's work, where I am unsurprised to see a request to add a copy of his Chizine title, A World More Full of Weeping, to the Main stacks, there being already a signed copy in Special Collections.

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