I spent a portion of Friday night and much of Saturday at the sixth annual Boston Book Festival with about 30,000 other people, according to the organizers. I was a bit shocked by the crowds as this was my first book festival ever, but it is also nice to know I now live in a place where so many people value books and reading. One of the recurring topics at the event was research and the fictional novel.
The fiction keynote on Friday night featured Susan Minot discussing her latest novel, Thirty Girls, which concerns the kidnapping of young girls from a school in Uganda by the Lord’s Resistance Army and a young American journalist sent to Africa to report on the abduction. The novel was born out a nonfiction article Minot wrote and hoped would lead to a public outcry. According to Minot, she never heard a peep following the article’s publication and decided to fictionalize the event in the hopes it would finally lead to that public outcry.
The conversation quickly dissolved into one audience member asking Minot how she was being a public activist, which she emphatically stated was not her role. But I was more intrigued by her explanation of how she wrote a novel about a place or a culture she is not that familiar with. (As I said, I have yet to read the novel but her explanation of how she came to write the novel makes me think the American journalist is a mirror of herself.) According to Minot, she had to find what she and the girls she was writing about had in common — empathy.
“The stakes [for these girls] were much higher. But the more I wrote the book, the more I realized suffering is relative.”
She also touched on how difficult it is place a book into someone’s hands and ask them to read about the horrible things these thirty girls have gone through. But, like me, she thinks is important that these stories get out there and explained how empathy and being able to imagine factional events help bind humans together.
During “Fiction with a Twist”, the panelists — William Giraldi, Ben Mezrich, and Lauren Oliver — explained their decision to write for a genre outside of the one they are known for. I have not read books by any of these authors, although I have seen movies based on Mezrich’s nonfiction books, but I have since added their most recent novels to my to-read list based on the rather humorous conversation with these authors.
“When I sit at my desk and can’t write a word, I look out at the UPS guy and think, ‘You wanna switch jobs?” — William Giraldi
One of the topics addressed during the conversation was the recent controversy surrendering Giraldi’s review of a recently published novel, which I had not heard of before the event. Giraldi stated he believes you empirically compare one novel to another based on the sentences, and I would have loved for the moderator to follow up on this statement because I am not entirely convinced every topic, every genre requires the kind of sentences Giraldi holds up as a standard of good writing. (Giraldi did give his opinion on the word “genre”, which he said had to get comfortable with because it’s kind of a bastardized word.)
A woman I know from book club joined me for the next session, “South Asian Authors”. We decided to attend this particular session because Vikas Swarup, whose novel Q&A became “Slumdog Millionaire”, was supposed to be on the panel. Unfortunately, he could not attended but we were treated to a very interesting conversation about the state of literature in Indian. Vikram Chandra explained how British colonialism destroyed the literary culture of the country because it marginalized or silenced voices yet the United Kingdom, as of late, has become a huge consumer of Indian novels.
Yet the only novels making their way from the publishing houses of Indian to readers in the UK or the United States are those written in English so other Indian voices are still marginalized. At the same time, non-English newspapers in India have a much larger circulation, reach more people, and are more aggressive in their journalist pursuits, according to Geeta Ananad, a nonfiction writer and a journalist. It was an interesting contradiction I did not expect to explore in the session, but quickly made up for the disappointment of missing Swarup.
We had hoped to attend the nonfiction keynote by Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose massive tome on Theodore Roosevelt and journalism entitled The Bully Pulpit I loaded onto my iPod, but the line wrapped around the block multiple times and we were unable to grab a seat. (I did sneak into the book signing tent afterwards and snap a picture of her.) My book club friend and I decided to attend the “Literary Thriller” session, instead. This was the only session where authors actually read from their novels, and we both ended up purchasing a copy of Edgard Telles Ribeiro’s His Own Man.
The reading itself was intriguing, but my interest was peaked because of Riberio’s explanation of how he came to write the novel, which focuses on one man in the foreign service during a dictatorship in a South American country. Focusing on one person in a fictional novel was the only way Riberio felt he could actually examine and unpack the experience of living under a dictatorship — a topic that is, according to Riberio, not often addressed by the people of his country. His agent and a translator of novels from South America later chimed in during the audience Q&A section of the panel that although novels from South America do not address the dictatorship directly, they are all inherently political. So, obviously, I’m intrigued by this one.
The final session I attended, “Another Country”, featured authors Rupert Thomson, Lily King, and Joseph O’Neill, whose most recent novel was longlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize. Again, the topic of research arose because each of these authors set their novel in a location (and, in two cases, time) they themselves are not familiar with.
King, whose novel is set in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s, stated that she decided to invent the tribes her characters meet because “I didn’t want to be responsible for getting details right on each tribe. There were so many other details I was responsible for”. But O’Neill stated that his two trips to Dubai to conduct research on the country confirmed what he already assumed about the place and because it is a relatively new place, he only needed five things to ground his novel in the truth of the location.
“The real facts have to be servant to the imagined facts.” — Rupert Thomson
Most interesting, though, was Rupert Thomson’s statement that although he technically wrote a piece of historical fiction, he is not interested in the genre and wrote two drafts of the novel before he did any research. Such a contrary statement to how I would assume an author approaches a novel set outside of the last decade or so.
There were so many authors in attendance whose works I have read or want to read in attendance — Scott Westerfeld, Nicholas Carr, Laura Goodwin, Claire Messud, Cassandra Clare, Ann M. Martin, Jennifer Haigh, and Gregory Maguire, to name more than a few — whose sessions I would have loved to attend. But it was also fun to meet so many new authors and I had a great time at the book festival. Hopefully, I’ll learn how to clone myself and be in more than one place at a time before next year’s book festival!