Yesterday, the 14th Library of Congress National Book Festival was a blast! This year, it was moved from its traditional spot on the National Mall to the Washington Convention Center, a huge three-story building with plenty of room for all kinds of programs, and proved to be a perfect venue for such an extraordinary event. You could see hundreds (literally hundreds!) of book lovers of all ages strolling around the hallways, carrying big green bags filled with free brochures and posters, and the books they purchased. The rooms where authors, poets, and illustrators spoke about their work were filled with captivated audiences.
Claire Messud said that some books she’d read in high school had a fireworks effect on her. Clearly, that’s what she’s been striving in her own writing—to affect her readers the same way. And that’s exactly how I felt while listening to the opening of her latest novel, The Woman Upstairs, that she read to us. It sounded like a powerful free verse and yes, it sounded like fireworks!
The opening of this novel is a tirade of a 42-year-old elementary school teacher, a closet artist, who rants about her joyless, unappreciated, unsatisfying life, and she captivates your attention right away. But I’m not going to dwell on what the author said about this woman, because I’ll post my opinion of the book as soon as I read it (soon!). Yes, I bought it and had it autographed—yay! J I’ll just say that Claire Messud loves ranters—disagreeable people, eccentric people, people with problems. She wants them to be heard, so she gives them a voice.
The Woman Upstairs is about someone who wants to be an artist and about someone who is an artist. In Claire Messud’s view, everybody is an artist, in a way, because every one of us has a creative artistic side—whether it’s cooking or building something or writing. But, unfortunately, “so much of our life never breaks the surface,” and that’s what she likes to explore in her novels—“the interior life” of a person. Intriguing? Yes!
Siri Hustvedt talked about her latest novel The Blazing World, which was nominated for the Booker Prize this year. In it she explores the problem of sexism in art, how a woman artist’s work is unappreciated and neglected mainly because of her gender. So when Siri Hustvedt leaned about the nomination for this prestigious award, her first thought was not about her own recognition, but the recognition of her protagonist—“Oh, Harriet will be so happy!”
Highly interested in philosophy, psychiatry, psychology, and neuroscience, Siri Hustvedt brings these subjects into her work. “Where do we draw the line between ‘normal’ people and not so normal (with mental illness)?” is a question she keeps asking herself, and her answer is: “It’s all about how we manage in life.”
Her advice to aspiring writers: 1. No one can write well without reading. So read, read, read! 2. When you’re stuck, read a great piece by another author, and then do “automatic writing”—immediately! That’s how she overcame her writing block. After her first poem had been published in a magazine (1980’s), she wasn’t able to write anymore because she scrutinized every line she wrote, comparing it to “great literature.” Luckily, she took David Shapiro’s advice about “automatic writing” and she knocked off 30 pages at one setting!
“How do we identify ourselves?” Lisa See asks, and answers, “We identify ourselves by the people around us.” She has 400 relatives, many of them Chinese, many American, or mixed. So no wonder she’s influenced by her heritage.
“Art is the heartbeat of an artist.” And that’s what her writing and her books mean for her—they are her heartbeat.
Is it easy for her to write a book? No. Sometimes she spends long months in a “dark place,” trying to make it right. So it is hard. But she hopes that she’s improving with every book.
Her advice to aspiring writers: Writing is not a “one-night-stand” but “a long marriage.” There are too many distractions in your life that can prevent you from writing. So be passionate about it! Live in the clothes of your characters. Care. Write 4,000 words a day—every day! Or at least 500 words, but do not stop!
Well, what a better advice can you get?
I was absolutely thrilled by the festival. And I must say, it’s one of the greatest sources of inspiration for me.