Washington State Convention Center | March 1, 2014
(Gish Jen, Jess Walter, Tobias Wolff) Gish Jen, author of The Love Wife and Typical American, and Tobias Wolff, author of This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, present readings of their award-winning work, followed by a discussion moderated by Jess Walter.
Published Date: August 6, 2014
Introduction by AWP staff member Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson: Welcome to the AWP Podcast Series. This event was recorded at the 2014 AWP Conference in Seattle. The recording features Gish Jen and Tobias Wolff. You will now hear Elena Passarello and Jess Walter provide introductions.
Elena Passarello: Hi everyone. My name is Elena Passarello, and it is my great pleasure to welcome you all to an exciting seventy-five minutes with two great fiction writers. Before we begin, I’d like to remind everybody to please turn off all of your mechanical devices, and there’ll be tweet seats in the front, but make sure even your devices in the tweet seats are set on silent. There’s gonna be a signing immediately following the event right outside those doors. But if you could do us a favor and let the authors exit before we head out, that would probably make everything a lot more expeditious.
The reason that I’m here is that I’m a member of the faculty at Oregon State University in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film, [which] is the sponsor for this afternoon’s event. I have the pleasure of teaching in the MFA program, which is a vibrant program founded in 2002 that has grown to a cohort of twenty-seven fully funded students in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. And we have some of the best karaoke singers this side of the Rockies if I do say so myself.
In 2011, thanks to the generosity of OSU alumni, Patrick and Vicki Stone, we established the Stone Award in Lifetime Literary Achievement. It’s one of the nation’s most generous literary prizes. In 2011, it was given to Joyce Carol Oates, and our 2014 recipient who we will honor on May 21st and May 22nd, is sitting right here to my left, Mr. Tobias Wolff. All of us at Oregon State are proud of our convivial and hardworking community, and we are so pleased to be here at this terrific AWP event. Speaking of the event, let’s get it started. The introductions will be delivered by the author of Beautiful Ruins and other novels, Mr. Jess Walter.
Jess Walter: Thank you, and for the record, you can take pictures of me. I’m the only one. I like it actually. Thank you everyone.
This is my first AWP and I’ve had friends say, “you know, it can get a little tiring,” and I realize that what begins as a giant party ends as kind of a kind of hostage situation (audience laughter), but we’re near the end, I promise, and what a great group of events we’ve got here.
I was actually a little nervous about my first AWP. I’d heard about the clubbiness and the constant networking, and the nerdy debauchery, and since I’m not really affiliated with any teaching institution myself, I wondered, “Will I even fit in? Will the conversations be more sophisticated than the usual ramblings I have with my writer friends? ‘Dude, are you watching True Detective?’ Will I even know what to say? Will I get nervous, and, in a burst of insecurity and for no particular reason, blurt out the word “pedagogy”? Do I even know how to pronounce “pedagogy”?
But the very first writer I saw here dispelled any reservations I might have had. An accomplished novelist from a writing program I’d once visited. He was coming out of a convenience store when he saw me and said, “What the hell, man? Pot’s legal in Seattle and you can’t buy it in stores?” I shrugged. That’s pedagogy for you. “Dude,” he said, “are you watchin’ True Detective?”
So thank you, AWP, for putting on this amazing conference, and for inviting an unemployed guy from Spokane to do a few things. Thanks to the host of this event, Oregon State University, to Elena, to Marjorie, Sander, to Keith Scribner, and all the faculty of Oregon State. I’m honored to be considered a friend of such a terrific writing program.
Today, we’re here to listen to and celebrate two writers whose varied work exists at the center of American culture in America. Two writers whose novels, stories, memoirs, and essays some of us studied, some of us have taught, and all of us admire. I prepared a quite laudatory introduction for both of these eminent writers, but as you might have read, AWP had to make a last-minute revenue deal with the city of Seattle to open up the Conference to the public today. Little did I know that, as part of that deal, AWP agreed to a three percent tax on all gushing literary praise.
Even the empty praise down in the hotel lobby and bar meant to coax other writers up to a hotel room is subject to this tax.
So because of this, the conference is now running at a deficit of almost $12 billion dollars. After crunching the numbers, I realized I should keep these introductions short, in spite of the fact that I could go on and on about these brilliant writers and their many accomplishments.
Gish Jen was born in Long Island to parents who had emigrated from China in the 1940s. A graduate of Harvard, she dropped out of the Stanford Business School to get her MFA in fiction; in other words, your parents’ worst nightmare. But we readers are lucky because Gish Jen is a brilliant creator of trenchant, witty novels and stories. There are those writers whose indelible voice you recall the way you recall meeting someone new in Jen’s audacious and incisive novel. Typical American announced itself to me that way. It’s an American story she writes of her protagonist Ralph Chang, and goes on. We meet him at six. He doesn’t know where or what “America” is.
This has been the great theme of Gish Jen’s work over the last twenty-five years: exploring exactly what and where America is. Not just for recent immigrants, but [also] for the children of immigrants, who are so charmed and repelled and baffled—but for all of us, natives and immigrants of every generation, charmed, repelled, and baffled by our times and our country.
The New York Times said of Typical American, “No paraphrase can capture the intelligence of Gish Jen’s prose—it’s epigrammatic sweep and swiftness. The author just keeps coming at you line after stunning line.”
Line after stunning line, Gish Jen has authored three other novels, Mona in the Promised Land, The Love Wife, and the World and Town, as well as a book of short fiction, Who’s Irish. She’s been a Fulbright Fellow, won the Guggenheim, and won the Lannan Literary Award. Her short fiction has been much anthologized, and her story, “Beginners,” was chosen by John Updike for The Best American Short Stories of The Century. Her latest is a book of essays, Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, and it was originally delivered for the William E. Massey, Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard. Describing it, with a reckless abandon that is going to cost AWP a bundle, Junot Díaz said this, “Gish Jen is the Great American Novelist we’re always hearing about, and in Tiger Writing she delivers a profound meditation on the divergent roles of storytelling, art making, and selfhood.” Penetrating, inspired, and, yes, indispensable. Ladies and gentlemen, Gish Jen.
Gish Jen: Thank you so much. I can’t tell you what an honor it is to be here. I feel like after Jess’s intro, I might start crying. But that would not do. I’m gonna read from my novel, World and Town.
How many of you have had this experience of being in one world when a strength from another world pulls on you? That’s what happens to my protagonist Hattie Kong. She is sixty-eight years old. She’s a Chinese immigrant who came to the United States in the 1940s when she was in her teens, but she says she’s someone who was half-American before she came because her mother was an American missionary from Iowa. Her father, on the other hand, was a descendent of Confucius. As a descendant of Confucius, he had the right to be married in the Confucian family graveyard.
I don’t know how many of you have been to China. There’s a town called Qufu about two-thirds the way out from Shanghai to Beijing, and there are about 2,000 years of Confucian descendants that have been buried. It’s a very, very beautiful place. Very, very old. Trees very, very evocative. Very, very magical. But I think this says something about what the twentieth century was for China; that Hattie’s parents are not buried there, but elsewhere, as you will hear, and as a result of this, some of Hattie’s relatives are saying they’re having bad luck, and so they are sending her emails. I’m gonna read three short sections of the book today, and the first one is one of these emails. This is from Hattie’s niece, Tina, in Hong Kong, who wants Hattie to move her parents back to Qufu.
(Jen reads from World and Town)
(Jen reads passage regarding to opening a grave and the bones being “picked dry,” interjects)
And that is true that if graves are moved, there are these people who are called bone pickers who pick the bones out.
(Jen continues to read)
You know, Hattie is come to this small New England town to escape the past, but as you can gather from that passage, the past isn’t so easy to escape.
This next section involves a man named Carter Hatch, who has just retired and has also come to this small town to start over. Hattie knows Carter because she lived with his family when she first came to the United States, and also because she used to work with him in his lab before she became a teacher. They were both neurobiologists, and they often talked about what they were talking about, without talking about it. You’ll hear Joe referred to in this passage—that’s Hattie’s husband, who has recently died—but this is back in the lab.
(Jen continues to read from World and Town)
But of course this is a novel, it’s not perfect.
Finally, I’m going to read one last section. This involves a Cambodian family who are (sic) also trying to start over. They survived Pol Pot, they survived life in the refuge camps in the tri-border and now they’re trying to get away from the gangs in the inner city. And now they’ve moved in next door to Hattie. Hattie is teaching the mother of the family English. To follow this section, you need to know that a blue car has been coming to the house. The blue car is being sent by some Christian Fundamentalists for their daughter Sophy, and also a white van has been coming to town, and that is unfortunately full of their son’s former gang member friends, the very ones they’ve been trying to escape. The mother’s name is Mum.
(Jean continues to read from World and Town)
Walter: After the readings, we’ll have a short Q&A up here and then be outside to sign books. So hopefully you’ll stay around for that.
Tobias Wolff and I first met working as writers and mercenaries in the jungles of Burma in the late seventies, where I saved him from drowning and suggested an alternate ending for the story that would become “Bullet in the Brain.”
Actually, none of that is true. In fact, we met at a bar in Spokane, but Tobias Wolff is the kind of writer whose work not only thrills and mystifies for its lucid brilliance; he’s also the kind of writer you wish to emulate, to study with, to learn from and, yes, to share some great adventures with, although I have to tell you [that] that bar in Spokane was no picnic. This is a homecoming of sorts for Toby. His brilliant memoir, This Boy’s Life, which was written before memoirs had titles like Back to Rehab: Stint Six (audience laughter) and My Year Without Gluten (more laughter), takes place in nearby Concrete, Washington, although early on, Toby and his mother lived in a boarding house in Seattle that smelled of mildew.
I remember saying in Burma once, “Man, if you’re going to have a house in Seattle, you’re going to have to be more specific than that.” In This Boy’s Life, he writes of stealing tricycles in Seattle and coasting them down the hills of Alki Beach and weaving through the winos of Pioneer Square to stare at guns in the windows of pawn shops. Or in other words, AWP.
About This Boy’s Life, the New York Times wrote, “It’s so absolutely clear and hypnotic that a reader wants to take it apart and find some simple way to describe why it works so beautifully.” That’s why it’s so nice to be here in Seattle, honoring Tobias Wolff, who later this year will receive the Stone Award for Lifetime Literary Achievement from Oregon State—a prize for “a writer of great accomplishment, who has also been a generous mentor and an inspiration for new writers.”
I really can’t imagine a more fitting recipient for a prize with that description. From his long tenure at Stanford, where he has guided the careers of some of America’s young best writers, to students who only know him from his work, Wolff is the kind of presence that causes young people to want to write and causes writers to want to write better.
In fact, [at] about one-thirty this morning, when I was trying to get back to my room to sleep, I ran into some great students from Purdue who tried to waylay me for just one more drink, on me I think, and when I explained that I had to go finish my Tobias Wolff intro, they stopped and gasped, and parted their heads, bowed, quietly and reverently offering questions that I might use today. Unfortunately, the only one that I could remember this morning was this one: “Did you know when you grew that awesome mustache, that one day all the cool guys would be rocking them?”
Tobias Wolff is the author of three novels, four collections of stories, and two groundbreaking memoirs. Among his many honors and awards are The Story Prize, the LA Times Book Prize, the RIO Award for Short Fiction, and the PEN/Malamud Prize. The Chicago Tribune has said that “Wolff’s writing is as supple and distilled as an contemporary American writer’s in its economy, in its structure, and most of all in its candor, humor, and its generosity of spirit,” and Tim O’Brien says, “The magic of Tobias Wolff’s fiction cannot be explained. It is the ancient art of the master storyteller.”
Ladies and gentlemen, Tobias Wolff.
Tobias Wolff: Thank you, Jess (Wolff laughs). Thank you. It’s an honor to be on this stage with the authors of Beautiful Ruins, Ruby Ridge, Typical American, Mona, and The Promise Land—these books I’ve loved. And I want to thank the people who brought us all together like this. It’s an amazing undertaking. There are apparently 12,000-14,000 of us here, and you can actually find the rooms the things are in. Somehow it all works! I think the next time we invade a country (audience laughter)... it can’t be far off... they ought to talk to these people. We couldn’t do worse... we could do worse, rather.
I’m going to read... I was thinking that, you know, since many of us as writers are gathered together here and talking about and thinking about writing, I’m going to read from a novel, Old School, that has a great deal to do with writing and the vocation and ambition around it. I just... I think it needs very little introduction. The narrator is a scholarship student in a boarding school back east. He comes from this very place. I have some history that went into the writing of this, but it is a novel, not a memoir, which I guess means that no one in my family hated me after I finished it. So I’ll just get going here. These are sections from the first chapter that I hope knit together well.
(Wolff reads from Old School, and then stops to give background information)
I should say that the school invites a visiting writer two or three [times] a year to the school, out of an endowed fund, and that’s the context for this.
(Wolff continues to read from Old School)
Walter: A room full of poets. Yeah... how well does that go over in Concrete, I wonder? That’s actually a great place to start our conversation. That great piece about young writer ambition and when you’re at AWP, of course, you are certainly aware of it. Can you both talk about ambition with yourselves as younger writers, both its pitfalls and how it drives you? And now, if you see ambition the same way; is that still what drives you? That sort of humming ambition of class? Maybe you start, Toby...
Wolff: That’s a good question, I mean, ambition... how could you do anything without that? I mean, how would... it depends on how we define it, too, I mean ambition can be a good thing; it can also be an absolute recipe for despair. The problem with “writing ambition” is that no one wants to be a writer without being a reader. And those who want to be writers tend to be pretty good readers and appreciative of good writing. And when you first start this practice, you embark on this life, you’re a good enough reader to know that what you’ve just written isn’t the same as what you just read last night, and that distance between what you’re doing and what you want to do, can be very discouraging, and can only be bridged by gritting your teeth and doing it more and more.
You know, I have seen all three of my children learn musical instruments and I can think of no better way to learn about how writing works in a way, and how you get better, and those little steps—those little incremental things that learning an instrument [involves]—and “yeah, ok, I couldn’t play it, but I’ll play it better tomorrow, and even better than that the next day, and the month after that,” until finally, you’re playing something beautiful. And you have to have that kind of faith when you’re a writer as well, but we’re always... it never stops being the case that you always... those things that you love, that you hold as models in your head will always, to some extent, be at best, a goad to you to write better and maybe sometimes at worst, a sense of: “I can never do that.”
Walter: How about you Gish, do you connect with your young writer self?
Jen: Well, you know, it’s so interesting. I think, maybe, because for a variety of reasons, I’ve been talking to a lot of people today about gender. The reason is because (inaudible) another panel, in May, and there are so many writers around, and I’ve asked them about it, and you know, it’s... listening to you read and listening to you talk now, and I don’t know how much of this is gender and how much is me, I have to say, I recognize almost none of it. And I don’t mean to....
Jen: I mean, I’m just saying I was a person where the whole idea that I would ever do this thing never crossed my mind. I was a junior in college before I wrote anything, and I wrote quite by accident. I had taken a class in prosody, I was an English major, loved to read, and I took this class in prosody, I took it because I thought... actually there’s somebody in this audience who knows this class, I’m trying to think, it was a class given by Robert Fitzgerald at Harvard.
Unidentified Voice: Yeah, sure!
Jen: It was just a wonderful, wonderful class, but he said there was going to be a weekly assignment, and I thought he meant, like, a paper. And it turns out there was a weekly assignment in verse, and I thought, ‘Oh my god, well I can always drop.’ You know? And I tried to... the first assignment was in (inaudible) syllables—something I can barely say today, and you know, it’s like, I loved it, and I remember saying to a roommate, my roommate, that, ‘”You know, I love this, and if I could do this for the rest of my life, I would!” But, you know, I’m the daughter of immigrants, you know? People like me did not become writers. I’d never met a writer; the whole idea of becoming a writer just never crossed my mind. And so I was in this class and I was writing these poems every week, and I was loving it and loving it, and had not my professor said to me, “Have you ever thought about being a writer?” I’m sure I would have a paying job today. It just never occurred to me.
And I would say that my... I was also talking to somebody who knows my editor. My editor knows that like, [I’m] always about to quit, and it’s very genuine. I don’t feel that... of course, I’m supposed to do this thing, or that, I...you know, I always feel like I’ve kind of “said enough.” You know, “I have all these books; I don’t need any more.” And I can’t even tell you what a different thing it is, and then over and over again, I have my editor, or somebody will kind of coax it out of me, and then invariably, too, I will say that my reasons for writing, it seems to me, are maybe not like everyone’s.
Just this morning, I was telling a friend of mine, because, you know, once again, I’m kind of getting older, “You know there’s a way I could just kind of stop now.” But if I ask myself, “Why can I not stop now?” I can’t stop now because actually, it’s been pretty tough being a mother and being a writer. It’s been very difficult to balance these things. And the whole thought that now I would quit and that my daughter’s narrative would be, that as a result of having her, I stopped writing. Like, that’s totally unacceptable. I cannot give that to my daughter. I cannot give that to my son. And for that reason, I’m stuck writing another book. But I think it’s just really different. I’m not thinking, “Oh, maybe I’ll be Hemingway.”
Walter: I wonder at the time... the figure of the great American writer was Frost and was Fitzgerald and was Hemingway. It was a typically male thing. I wonder if that has changed for young writers, if, you know, if the examples, there’s so many more examples of what it is to be a writer. But that figure definitely was male. Certainly...
Jen: You’re absolutely right. I think that you know when I, I think about who I want to be like, I have to say that it’s never in terms of greatness—like “I want to be a great writer.” I concede that certain writers are great, but when I think about who I really care about, it’s figures like Grace Paley, you know? And you know, who really chose, and you can serve as a great example of somebody where being a great contributor to writers and to the young is not at odds with great writing and it’s not in her case either.
I think in her case, she did hit a balance that was more weighted toward what she gave, maybe, than what she produced. I think about that every day, but with the greatest admiration for her. I mean for me, it’s just not clear. And I will say that there’s a way in which I’ve encountered voices, also; interestingly, I’ve been friends all the way along with Cynthia Ozick as well, and Cynthia when she would see me doing something out in public, she would say, “You’re being a citizen.” You know? It’s so interesting because OZ and PA, they’re right next to each other on the bookshelf, but they had very different attitudes towards the writer’s position. And I would always... you know what I mean? Sometimes I’d hear Cynthia, sometimes I’d hear Grace, sometimes I’d hear Cynthia, but any case, I can’t say that I don’t want to say that, I don’t want to make it sound.... I don’t want to speak for all women or whatever, but I mostly would think, “Should I be more like Cynthia, or should I be more like Grace?” And I never thought, “Am I going to be like Hemingway?” or “Am I going to be like Bellow?” Somebody asked me, “Well, what about Bellow?” You know...
Walter: (inaudible)... those are pretty good targets.
Jen: Well, I mean, they’re wonderful writers. Yeah, no, no. Wonderful, wonderful writers, but I just think, I’m thinking that it’s much more like, well, should I give more of myself this way? Or this way? And I don’t think so much about, I guess... it’s not achievement exactly...it’s more like a life thing.
Walter: It seems like those targets drive you as a young writer. Are there books you find yourself going back to now, that inspire the desire to write, to try to do that for the craft, for something, and are there books that you go back to year after year?
Wolff: Well, yeah, I actually have a little book club thing. At Stanford, and it is kind of dedicated to revisiting books, and just last week, we talked about Philip Roth’s novel, The Ghost Writer, which is kind of a perennial favorite of mine, and every time I read it, I learn from it again. And one of the things that come out in that book is... the premise is that this young writer, Zuckerman, is staying at an artist colony and he goes to visit a writer he absolutely adores, E. I. Lonoff, and he wants to know Lonoff’s kind of secret, you know, “What is this brain, what is it like? What’s the writer’s life really like?” Because he’s just starting. And Lonoff says, “Well, I turn sentences around. When I go to bed, I turn the sentences around some more. When I sit and I go back to work... and when I go for a walk with my wife, I don’t really go for a walk with my wife, I’m turning sentences around.”
It’s a horrible sort of description of a life. And you know, as (inaudible) once said, somebody asked him about, you know, what’s a writer’s life like, he said, “You know, I take semi-colons out and put them back in.” And that wasn’t the notion of the writer’s life that I entered on—Life Magazine used to have the full page Karger photographs with the (inaudible) on there. I forget, I was about fourteen or fifteen, and starting to really think about writing, seeing a picture that he had taken of Hemingway leaving Madison Square Garden with Marlene Dietrich on his arm, [when] I thought, “That’s the writer’s life, and that is the life I want,” and it didn’t have a lot to do with the writing, it had to do with being a writer. And then at some point, you had to cross that bridge from being... this ideal sensation of being a writer, to actually, oh, what does Yeats call it? “...the foul rag and bone shop of the heart” that you enter when you actually have to sit down and do it. How about you? What drove you, Jess?
Walter: Me? Oh, I don’t read. I have a staff that does that for me.
Wolff: What? In that bar in Spokane?
Walter: I’m in a men’s Shakespeare club. Which is so incredible.
Jen: That’s fantastic.
Wolff: You read Shakespeare?
Walter: Six men, and we read the plays. Three scholars and three novelists. And we come in and just say, “It’s so (inaudible)...” and just to see, and I go back to Tolstoy every summer, just to see that paradoxical view of human nature where we want love and love will destroy us, but the lack of love will also destroy us. That fullness of character, I just find wildly inspiring every time. Yeah. How about you, Gish?
Jen: You know of course, I never... just a gazillion books to which I return. But I will say... and I return for always-different reasons... but I think one thing that I am sort of fascinated by because, of course, I was thinking about your work, Toby, is just the enormous poise of some books. Do you know what I mean? And I think that, you know, in the end, you know, whenever I think of your work, and this has been true for twenty or thirty years, I always see a kind of gyroscope. You know? And it just feels like it can go everywhere, but you never, you know what I mean, it’s, it’s...it could be wildly funny, it could be writing about really tough stuff, and you write about many very difficult things, but no matter how shameful something is, no matter how desperate it is, you write it... you never lose your center. And there is a way... I think it’s extraordinary, and I guess, at least, maybe just right now, you know, I’m interested in these, yeah, and the writers who have this tremendous, tremendous, poise. You know, and of course that’s many writers, I mean that’s Jane Austen, that’s George Eliot, you know, it’s many people. But, for whatever reason, at this stage of life, I am especially drawn to that quality, just to say, work that (inaudible), which is to say, work that I remember being very influenced by when I was a young writer many years ago. I come back to it. It’s still wonderful but for a different reason.
I think that when I was younger, the humor, you know. It’s so sharply written, it’s so kind of relentlessly funny, do you know what I mean? You never miss a line. Now I see something else, which is I see this, I guess you would have to call it “maturity.” You know? This tremendous emotional maturity, you know, that kind of grounds everything that you do. I don’t know if that’s an answer.
Walter: I think that’s a perfect answer. You’re both also accomplished story writers and last year, after Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize, and the success of George Saunders’s Tenth of December, someone coined it the “Year of the Short Story.” And I thought of you, Toby, because I think in the nineties at one point, someone called it the “Renaissance of the Short Story,” which implied that there had been a Dark Age, which you didn’t recall. You know?
Wolff: Not in this country. Not since Washington Irving. I mean it’s just been a steady lineage. Like Russia, like Ireland, there’s a genius in this country for the short story. It’s incredible how consistent that’s been. It’s been a pulse in our literature from really very early on.
Walter: And you find that now all the hand-wringing over the future of publishing and all those things, do you give that much credence, or do you feel like really, it’s such a healthy form? The [short] story?
Wolff: Well I maybe just generally I remember a friend of mine went all the way to Tangier to interview Paul Bowles, and asked him at the end, “You know your outlook on things, is there something you want to say?” at the end of the piece. And Bowles said, “Yeah, everything gets worse.” And so you know we could do that, we could indulge in this sort of thing today. Things will find their own way, and none of us knows actually, what is going to happen. This is an amazing testament to the fact that a lot of this despair is perhaps misplaced. As long as there is (sic) writers like the ones you mentioned, George Saunders and Alice Munro keep vivifying this form and vivifying people’s interest in it. It’s just such a powerful form, and it has this way of kind of entering in what we’ve read like memory. You don’t mistake the novels you’ve read for your memories, but short stories have a way of getting in there somehow.
Walter: How about you, Gish? Do you read stories, still write them, is that still [a] vibrant form?
Jen: It’s still very much a vibrant form for me, and of course I read them with great pleasure. I think there’s a special freedom in the story, you know, it’s like you have the great, you know the kind that, you’re right, because it’s narrative and let’s face it, we are hard-wired to absorb narrative. And I think that there’s a way in which you get that you have the reader in a special way once you have the narrative, but then, because it’s so short, you have, I think, just an unbelievable level of freedom—which you really feel in Munro especially. You know, just... right? You know, this... and there’s a way in which the rules can be remade in something that’s short, which, you know, it’s hard to remake them that radically in the novel. You know they’ve got to get people through those pages, get through the whole publishing machinery.
I think the story is in a special place. I will say that maybe I’m less sanguine than you about the current state of publishing in the sense that I do think it’s harder and harder for people to make a living actually writing. And I see people working, or it used to be that they could be expected to come out with a novel every three or four years, or maybe five, but now it’s very frequent that people are nine years, ten years, twelve years, fifteen years between books, and that’s tough. You know, I always say to myself, “I never want to be ten years between books,” because if it doesn’t go well, it’s so hard to, you know, to start over, it’s so devastating.
Wolff: That’s right.
Jen: And the converse is, well, you want to take a big risk. And if you’ve got ten years on the line, you can’t take the same kind of risk. I think it will also affect who writes. You know, I think that there’s... you know, there are many, many people who are on the margin, and so if they can kind of squeak by, they will write, and then if they can’t even squeak by, maybe we’ll have two books from them instead of seven. You know? So I think it’s kind of an unfortunate thing, I will say. That said, you know the little presses are doing better and better, and so the whole thing is evolving so quickly, you know. I wouldn’t say it’s over by any means, but I do think it’s kind of a delicate time for a lot of people.
Walter: This is also though from someone who decided not to get an MBA and become a writer, so... (Jen laughs), so amazing thing, and I think you’re right, being at this conference is seeing the energy behind the desire to be a writer, to communicate and push those things along.
Jen: You know, it’s not even desire, it’s just that it’s true for me, and it’s true for many people... you simply don’t have a choice.
Walter: Right. You can’t not write.
Jen: You don’t have a choice. I know for me, there was a moment where I suddenly realized that. It’s funny because my parents were immigrants; it was very late when we realized that people died, because we didn’t know that many people, and had never been to a funeral. I didn’t really know, and then all the sudden I was in my late twenties and I was like, “Oh, my God. We’re all gonna die.”
Walter: And on that note....
Jen: Well, I did, and I thought, “I’m gonna be there on my deathbed thinking, ‘Why didn’t I try being a writer.’” You know? I thought, “Well you can’t do that, right?” But I think that there are a lot of people, I think, in this room, that... there are a lot of people... you don’t have a choice, to be really honest with you, you don’t have a choice. And so there it is.
Walter: Well, if you don’t have a choice, you should find those great novels to write and we should go sign books, but I want to thank you both for being the kinds of writers that drive us to want to write.
Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson: Thank you for tuning in to the AWP Podcast Series. For other podcasts, please visit our website at www.awpwriter.org.