The advance copy of "The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014" landed on my desk last week while I was out of town. The annual anthology was edited this year by Laura Furman and dedicated to Alice Munro, the Canadian writer who thrilled all lovers of the short story everywhere last year when she won the Nobel Prize. Furman herself is the author of seven books, including "The Mother Who Stayed," a collection of stories, and is the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship.
Among this year's 20 O. Henry Award winners is Minnneapolis writer Louise Erdrich, who won for "Nero," which ran in the New Yorker. Other winners include the great Irish writer William Trevor, who could probably win every year; Laura van den Berg, and Stephen Dixon.
In the notes at the back of the book, Erdrich recounts how she came to write "Nero":
"My grandparents really had a dog named Nero who escaped continually from the backyard," she writes, in part. "The misery of his life contrasted deeply with the characters of my tough but kind grandparents. I never knew what to make of Nero until suddenly, one morning, I was writing this story. ... The python lyceum, as well, was based on a real show. It is my most enthralling memory from grade two at Zimmerman Elementary School in Wahpeton" (North Dakota).
Aging grandparents, an escaping dog, a python lyceum? If you're not a New Yorker subscriber, this is a story to track down. Or wait for the collection, which pubs Sept. 9.
How does it go when the tables are turned and the interviewer becomes the interviewee? Judging by Wednesday night's conversation at Magers & Quinn Bookstore in Minneapolis, a little shy, a little sweet, and very interesting.
Book critic, editor and author John Freeman was in town promoting his new book, "How to Read a Novelist," a collection of author interviews he conducted for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Star Tribune, and elsewhere. (In his interview with Erdrich, he calls her "quiet and self-effacing," words that could have been used to describe Freeman himself last night.)
So during his book tour, novelists have been seizing the opportunity to query him ("It's an obscure form of therapy," Freeman joked)--in Seattle, Nicola Griffith; in Brooklyn, Geoff Dyer; and in Minneapolis, Erdrich, who was respectful and admiring. "This book is absolutely wonderful," she said. "I read some of the pieces over and over."
But she had plenty of questions. For instance: Was there any author Freeman interviewed that he didn't like?
He didn't allow that there was ("I like most people, because I'm from California," he said), but then he went on to talk about John Irving's pugnaciousness and ego, the wrestling ring built right into his house, his hallway of books, "and they're all John Irving books, in various languages."
The evening was a festival of names of authors Freeman has reviewed and interviewed--Irving, Geraldine Brooks, Edmund White, Richard Russo: "I never understood the anger in [Russo's] work. When he does it with humor you almost forget you're swallowing a bitter pill."
Throughout the conversation, Freeman almost reflexively tried to turn the questions back on Erdrich, who was having none of it. Each time, she'd smile a serene Mona Lisa smile and remind Freeman that she wasn't the one being interviewed this time.
In interviewing, "There is this performance anxiety," Freeman said. "And you want to be liked. But as an interviewer, you can't do that." He doesn't see the interviewer and subject as having an adversarial relationship. "As an interviewer, your job is not to try to catch someone with food in their teeth. Your job is to catch them as they really are. In the best interviews, you never see the questions, only the answers. Critics and novelists are often put at odds with each other, but we both use the same tools."
Freeman was not a reader as a child. "Some time at 8, or 7 I stopped reading on my own," he said. But later, when he was reintroduced to literature, "It just cracked my head open," he said. After college and after a few failed jobs in finance, he began reviewing books--first for Publishers Weekly, and then for newspapers and magazines around the country.He became American editor of Granta, a British literary magazine, and then editor, dividing his time between London and New York and expanding the journal's presence around the globe, highlighting writers from Spain, South America, Pakistan and elsewhere.
Though his life is now books he must read--keeping up with what's new, reviewing what's about to come out--are there books he re-reads, Erdrich asked. "Mostly poetry," Freeman said. "Because poetry is meant to be read over and over. Adrienne Rich--I just don't know how she makes those shifts in voice. James Wright--there's a bare-knuckled sadness to his poems."
And what about the dedication, Erdrich asked. "For my father, who asked the right questions." What questions did he ask?
"He just kept asking me from a very early age what I wanted to do with myself," Freeman said. "I took from him that life was extremely serious, at a young age."
Freeman's parents were social workers, "and they looked at weakness not as weakness, but as the human condition, and that's the job of a novelist."
Jhumpa Lahiri had requested no photographs, so you will just have to imagine the scene last night: Two lovely, intense women, both with long dark hair and wearing skirts and boots, seated side-by-side in comfortable armchairs in the front of the beautiful old sanctuary of St. Pau l's Episcopal Church in Minneapolis, a wooden table between them, set with mugs of water. A table lamp cast a warm glow.
The two women were powers of American letters: Louise Erdrich, winner of the 2012 National Book Award (and many other significant awards), in conversation with visiting writer Jhumpa Lahiri, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and currently in the running for both the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize for her new book, "The Lowland." (Strib review here.)
No photos, no video, the talk would be "old school," Erdrich said. "Hard-cover books. An event in present-time. You, us, and this wonderful book--graceful, full of heart."
Lahiri, who reportedly is not fond of book tours, has not only forbidden photographs but has canceled all interview requests for the rest of her tour. "Thank you, Louise, for talking to me and sitting with me tonight," she said. "I think it will be just what I need on this long road, this long march of mine."
She read an early passage of "The Lowland," a powerful section in which the two brothers in the book--Subhash and Udayan--are still young and are caught trespassing in the exclusive Tolly Club and are caught by a policeman, who steals from the boys, beats one of them, threatens both.
"Where did this place come from for you?" Erdrich asked. "It's so powerful."
The place is real, Lahiri said.The Lowland is "the area of Calcutta where my own father was raised, a neighborhood I have come to know quite well. Tolly Land was built by the British, a place for them to retreat and ride horses and play golf and get away from the hustle and bustle of the city."
In her research ("In spite of the fact that I know it well and can conjure it," she still needed to find out the history of the area), Lahiri learned that the area had once been a flood plain, later drained by the English. "That gave me some sort of working metaphor for the story," she said.
The story itself also sprang from memories of her childhood. Lahiri grew up in Rhode Island, but her family traveled back to India every other year to visit relatives. And during those visits, she became aware of the Naxalite Movement, a sometimes-violent rebellion that one of the brothers in her novel becomes involved in.
"There was a family who lived very close to my grandparents," she said, "that had two boys who became involved in the movement." One evening when the police raided the neighborhood, the boys ran and took refuge in the lowland. But they were captured and were executed in front of their family.
"That was the most upsetting thing," she said. "It just shook me. I found it bewildering and confusing that something like that could happen in the neighborhood where I passed time reading books, visiting friends and family. That triggered something in me. I didn't know what to do with it, but when I began writing seriously, the idea would float in and out, and I became aware of the desire to shape this and do something with it."
It was years before she wrote down that scene, but even then it remained just a scene for a long time. "I coudln't do anything more with it. I set it aside for a decade," and finally went back to it in 2008.
Erdrich asked her about the origin on the main characters, and Lahiri replied that she was interested in understanding what leads people to violence. In the case of political movements, "It's often what they see as the greater good," she said. "They did believe in violence as a way to achieve these means.
"I really wanted to examine violence in many forms--not just physical, but emotional. So much of writing begins with these questions, with wanting to understand." And Erdrich, whose latest novel, "The Round House," also involved an examination of violence, nodded in agreement.
Lahiri took no questions from the audience, but at the end of the hour agreed to sign books for the sell-out crowd of 350 people. As Erdrich noted in her opening remarks, the book is on the long list for the National Book Award (the short list will be announced next week) and on the short list for the "extremely prestigious" Man Booker Prize. She hoped, she said, that Lahiri wins both, and that "you can use the same acceptance speech for both of them."
Solomon had already won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Johnson's book had won the Pulitzer Prize.
The Dayton Literary Peace Prize carries an award of $10,000 and will be presented Nov. 3 in Dayton, Ohio.
This year's runners-up were "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," by Ben Fountain (also winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award) and "Devil in the Grove," by Gilbert King.
The list of nominees had included Louise Erdrich's novel, "The Round House," winner of a National Book Award and a Minnesota Book Award, and a memoir of Romania, "Burying the Typewriter," published by Graywolf Press.
The peace prize is awarded annually to books that use the power of literature to foster peace and understanding.
Amanda Coplin is really a Pacific Northwest writer--she was born in Washington state, earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Portland and now lives in Portland. But her MFA is from the University of Minnesota, where she studied under Charles Baxter and others, and her career since graduation has been remarkable. Her first novel, "The Orchardist" (yes, yes, set in the Pacific Northwest) was a New York Times best-seller, garnered wide critical praise (including this review in the Star Tribune), was named a Barnes & Noble Discover Awards finalist, and made several best-of-the-year lists (including the Washington Post).
And now, more accolades: shortly after winning the Washington State Book Award for fiction (the nonfiction award went to Timothy Egan for "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher"), Coplin was named one of the National Book Foundation's "Five under 35." (The other four: Molly Antopol, NoViolet Bulawayo, currently on the Man Booker Prize short list, Daisy Hildyard and Merritt Tierce.)
Each of the five was chosen by a previous National Book Award winner. And who chose Coplin? Why, Louise Erdrich, of course. Definitely not from the Pacific Northwest.
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