So it’s going on a month since I last posted and since this year’s PEN festival. You’ve all been desolate without me, I’m sure. But what can I say? Things have been busy. However, I do really want to share some wonderful stories from a few of the PEN panels I was able to attend in April. I went to four events: “That’s Not What I Meant!” with Peter Stamm, “A Gathering of Voices,” with four noted young adult/children’s authors, a conversation between Quim Monzo and Robert Coover, and a conversation between Sofi Oksanen and David Almond. All were very interesting, but some were certainly more remarkable than others. Some general impressions and disorganized anecdotes from the first two panels are below. (I’ll recap the last two in a second post.)
That’s Not What I Meant! (Swiss Author Peter Stamm with his translator, the poet Michael Hoffman)
- Sadly, I arrived at this panel about fifteen minutes late, so I missed a fair part of the beginning conversation. I was, however, so taken with descriptions of Stamm’s book Unformed Landscape that I picked up a copy. I’ve yet to read it, but it sounds–in terms of story and prose–like a wonderful book.
- Peter Stamm on the translation process: “It’s not my words any more; it’s not my book. Or well, it’s our book.” Murmurs of resounding approval from translators sprinkled throughout the audience, as well as panel moderator, German translator Susan Bernofsky.
A Gathering of Voices (w/ Janne Teller, David Almond, Francisco X. Stork, and Ed Young)
This was, by far, my favorite panel. Not only was it moderated by children’s librarian extraordinaire, Elizabeth Bird, but nearly all of the panelists were engaging and funny, with all sorts of delightful and perceptive anecdotes. I’ll recap interesting moments, by author:
Ms. Teller is Danish by nationality, but she was born to an Austrian mother and her father is half-German. She’s lived in Brussels, Milan, Paris, and several African countries. She spoke a great deal about straddling these various cultures, and the freedom that drawing from so many traditions lends her. She was a fantastic panelist, and I could hardly scribble down all of the interesting things she was saying fast enough.
On Danish culture/language and its influence on her writing:
- “There’s no subject you can’t write about in Denmark,” she said, but it’s also hard to get people to take things seriously. Or, more to the point, “You can’t write ‘I love you,’ in Danish and not expect people to laugh.”
- “In Denmark, everything has to be ironic…Think about our greatest philosophers–Kierkegaard and Holberg. I don’t think any other culture has based its entire philosophy in irony.”
- Teller noted that when she wants to write something more romantic, more poetic, she goes back to her Austrian roots and writes in German (this says an awful lot about the Danish language, I think–it makes German look romantic). She said that if one wants to write dramatic things in Danish, “you have to violate the language.” Drawing a wider parallel, she explained that, “Denmark is a flat, small country, that hasn’t really been touched by war or natural catastrophe–that’s reflected in the language.”
David Almond was also a delightful speaker. He’s very interested in class issues, particularly in England (as you might expect, his being English). He talked about the fact that when he was a kid and told people that he wanted to be a “rright-ah” (imagine a Northern England accent, which he pointedly stressed while saying this), that they would often ask him what exactly he thought he would have to write about, him being a normal, working class kid and all. An interesting point that he made about this was that he often feels like he’s writing in a foreign language for his English speaking audience: “My English feels like something other than standard English.”
- Almond sees children’s literature as a truly experimental field, where “you can strip away excesses,” as one might when writing poetry. He says that in a children’s book, one has an opportunity to be more profound than might be possible in the jaded world of adult literature. He referred to Where the Wild Things Are as “one of the greatest achievements of world literature,” at which point almost the whole room burst into spontaneous, delighted applause.
- Almond is also very interested in locality in his writing, saying that “the local is universal.” He said that he learned to write about Northern England by reading Texan Westerns, by reading Flannery O’Connor, who he says “exemplifies what it means to be a regional writer.” (Mystery and Manners is one of his favorite books.) He says that there are so many wonderful writers who we don’t think of as being regional, but who really are, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. After reading Marquez, he said, “I tried to be exotic like him. And then I realized that his Auntie Doris would have recognized what he was writing about immediately.
Francisco X. Stork
Mr. Stork had fewer anecdotes than many of the other panelists, but talk a fair amount about his childhood and cultural influences.
- He was raised by a single mother in Tampico, Mexico. There was no TV, and people would sit around telling stories to pass the time. He remembers a night when he told his grandfather “a yarn that amused him” as perhaps a root of his love of telling stories now.
- Mr. Stork moved to America–El Paso–when he was 9 years old, after his mother married an American man who adopted him. He hadn’t ever spoken English before and started learning it in school. His adopted father died a year after they moved to the US, but they decided to stay. So the influence of Mexican culture on his writing he says, is “deep in the gut,” and mostly subconscious at this point.
I saved Mr. Young for last because he was the most pleasant surprise of the evening. Going into the panel, I hadn’t associated his name with any particular books, and hadn’t thought to look him up. As it turns out, he’s the author and illustrator of one of my all time favorite children’s books, a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” called Lon Po Po. Sitting on a colorful seat cushion that he brought himself, he was unassuming and self-effacing and completely charming.
- Young started his career in an advertising agency in the US, but left after realizing that he’d really rather do something else. He had always loved to draw and paint, and so one day, took it upon himself to go to the Harper Collins offices and try to speak to someone in person. He showed up carrying a paper bag, in which he was carrying all of his drawings on napkins and scraps of paper. The doorman thought he was delivering lunch, and told him to go up by the freight elevator. Young went up and ran into a famous publisher (who everyone in the room recognized, but whose name I can’t remember) and showed her his drawings. He was hired as an illustrator on the spot.
- Young always loved to tell stories, but didn’t (and still doesn’t) consider himself a writer. His publisher encouraged him to give writing a try, and when he demurred, suggested that he just sit down with a tape recorder and tell some stories, which they would later try and transcribe as a book. He did, and the first book to come out of this was Lon Po Po.