What We Did at Our Summer Conference

Sunday, June 29, the morning of the Booklist Adult Books Readers’ Advisory Forum: Post-9/11 Fiction (that’s the short title; I’d give you the longer version but we’d have to change this blog’s hosting plan to include more bandwidth), I thought I’d look over my remarks one more time while I ate breakfast. So, I went downstairs, got a table for one, and, as I tucked into my Denver omelet, I turned my mind once more to the dark day of September 11, 2001. Then I heard a voice. It was singing.

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.

The voice was coming from the speakers in the ceiling. It was distracting but, after a sip of my fresh-squeezed orange juice, I refocused my attention on the paper in front of me.

A gang of white-aproned waiters surrounded the table next to me, clapping their hands and singing:

Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay
My, oh my, what a wonderful day
Plenty of sunshine headin’ my way
Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay

More challenging, but I tried to tune it out. After all, I’m a professional. I read with even greater ferocity, amending my words here and there for improved flow.

I finally gave up when a six-foot-tall chipmunk–I’m not sure whether it was Chip or Dale–walked up to my table.

Yes, Disneyland’s a strange place to talk about September 11.

The panel went very well. Our allotted two hours flew by, and I know I’m not the only one who could have stayed longer–several people told me the same thing. Carolyn See, Janette Turner Hospital, and Ellen Gilchrist, despite the similar themes of their most recent novels, all have such different personalities and speaking styles, and all of them had very rich food for thought.

Carolyn See spoke powerfully and honestly about grief, about writing There Will Never Be another You near the bed where her life partner lay dying. On September 11, she said, she saw the nation mourning for strangers and thought (I hope I’m getting this line right–I didn’t write it down), “You people know nothing of grief!” She echoed this intensely personal reaction later, when she said:

I’m unable to see the larger picture because I don’t believe the larger picture.

and

The only way for this woman to understand things is to bring it down to a personal level.

She also said, speaking of the “war on terror”:

This is a fight with clouds. 

(She also said, “Communism went the way of green jell-o,” but I don’t think I can recreate the moment enough so you’ll understand why it was so wonderful.)

In a way, quoting her out of context seems unfair, because the horror of September 11 causes some people to get angry with people who don’t react in the “appropriate” way. But I love Carolyn See for her honesty. I have to say, it was just amazing to meet her and hear her. Regular readers know I’m not given to this sort of statement, but she struck me as being what they on the Left Coast call a “wise soul.” Gracious, funny, self-deprecating, and unafraid to speak her mind.

Janette Turner Hospital spoke at length about her previous book, Due Preparations for the Plague, and its origins in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Though it’s often interpreted as a take on September 11, she said she had written all but the last 50 pages when September 11 happened. She stopped writing for months, but returned to the book and gave it a new ending, different because of what had happened.

After that, she said, the last thing she wanted to write about was terrorism. Inspired by the street musicians who play in Boston’s subway stations, she planned to cast one in a love story. But that book, Orpheus Lost, ended up being about terrorism, too. Such are the times.

Hospital was so gracious and refined, and despite saying “I’ve been told I have a mind like the floor of a birdcage,” she showed her experience in the classroom by weaving a fascinating talk together on the fly. She also said that after reading all of our books in a “binge,” she had been inspired to assign them to her students this fall. I think a mark of a great writer is that, despite her own considerable accomplishments, she is always ready to welcome something new, to try change, to avoid repeating herself. And Hospital is truly a great writer.

Ellen Gilchrist was breezy and conversational, occasionally interrupting the other speakers to ask a question, and when she spoke, she referred to the notes she’d been making throughout. She talked at length about A Dangerous Age‘s origins in something that happened to her pilates instructor and the National Guardsman who does her landscaping, and she talked about the idea of genre, making some funny remarks that of course I couldn’t write down fast enough.

But essentially, she said, genre was a bunch of people taking on the same thing. With Vietnam, she said, serious writers were tackling it, and then Tim O’Brien nailed it (with The Things They Carried), “and every writer worth his salt was not jealous. We thought, ‘It’s done.'” And then “we all began to write post-apocalyptic books, and then Cormac McCarthy wrote The Road.'”

(Incidentally, Gilchrist also said, “I wrote The Road, only I called it “Black Winter”–referring to a long, bleak short story that she was repeatedly advised not to publish.)

But why do writers turn to these bleak subjects?

We’re trying to take charge of this catastrophe and make it have a better ending.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

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