Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Author Panel II: Different Ways to tell stories


More pictures on flickr

Storytelling - its everywhere!

Lynda Barry has a new book "What it is". Its based upon an idea she got in a college painting class" image is different than thinking. Think of your first phone number. Now think of one from three numbers ago. It feels different and good to remember the first one. When you get a really good book, you slow down before the end, when its over, you stop and look at it - you don't just put it down. Then the book contains an image for you. Images are all about mental health. She's really interested in images, stories, how people deal with objects - that's what her new book is about. "Librarians saved my life. Thank you, thank you, thank you!! I've seen the way you quietly slip a book to someone, I've seen your actions."

Thrity Umrigar switched from journalism to teaching 13 years ago. Her new book "The weight of heaven: selected memories of an Indian childhood" tells the story of an American couple in their 30s who've just lost their 7 year old son. They're from Ann Arbor and have been living outside Bombay for about 16 months when it opens. 4 months after their son's death the husband is asked to open a new branch in India and off they go. "India turns out to be nobodies wallpaper". The wife thinks a change of local will help them heal and salvage their marriage but finds a country that asserts itself into their lives in two ways. The husband is drawn to their housekeeper's 9 year old son and becomes obsessed. The American company he works for, Herbal Solutions, has just purchased significant acerage in India for cultivating a tree that treats diabetes. The local people are not happy with the exporting of this resource and how its being owned. The message is all about how things we haven't dealt with come back to us later.

Lynda wrote her first novel in 10 days. The next she took 10 years to write "because the computer had a delete button". Then she started writing books by making books from construction paper, and then she progressed to a paint brush - and that took nine months. When combining pictures and words, she thinks there's a completely different story that's told with our hands than when we use electronic means. Thats why she really likes to mix them. Images are not decoration, they serve an absolute biological function. If you can't draw, go home and create a hand print turkey - try it, you'll feel better!

Jump from journalism to fiction? Why?
Fiction can tell you the truth. Journalism gives you the facts, or really, opinion any more. Thrity didn't grow up with artists around her but knew since age 5 that she always wanted to be a writer and "took a shortcut" by becoming a journalist. She realized people always considered journalism a poor cousin of literature so she tried to create journalism that read like literature. In that sense, it wasn't a huge leap into writing fiction. She was happy to help other people tell stories but got to a point where she wanted to tell her own stories. She really likes telling emotional, psychological truths about how we function in the world. The need to tell stories is what makes us human. Even when you're telling the truth you're writing fiction. Even memoirs are acts of creation, creating your own persona.

Lynda once had a friend with a real imaginary friend (hers was an imaginary imaginary friend) She new it was real because it had a dumb name - Sprinkles, and she could only talk to it through a fan (sorry you missed the demonstration). She also gets lost reading cereal boxes.

Thrity entered a sad alternate reality while writing this book. There was something about this subject matter, the frequency that couple's loose children, and its possible someone in this situaiotn could pick up her book so she felt a great responsibility. Her greatest concern: the book had to be emotionally honest. Its a weird subjectivity / objectivity that she enters when she writes things close to her own experiences. She hates stories of happy childhoods, because childhood, for everyone, is hard. How did she know what the grief would be like? She just thought about it and was able to feel it.

Lynda's faux naive style isn't faux. Its really hard for her and she's tried everything else she can think of, but how she creates is just her - and "it takes a lot of nerve".

The wife (Ellie) in Thirty's book makes two good choices. She's "made large" by what's happened and becomes much more sensitive to the world around her. The husband (Frank) has the opposite reaction and closes down, becoming a very bitter person. Ellie embraces India and Frank tries to force American values onto it - and fails badly. We all start life with a vision of what we want to be when we grow up, what the world should look like. Thrity wanted a life filled with music, fresh flowers, good friends. She feels incredibly lucky. For all the difficulties in her childhood she's also had a lot of love, especially from her extended family - aunts & uncles.

Lynd knew in third grade all about pioneers - esp. Lewis & Clark and she wanted to be one. Once you decide what an image is, the form you give it is up to you. She's clearly become a metaphorical pioneer. She got a good break because someone mis-interpreted her strip and yelled at her, and then someone else who hated the yeller started printing her strip on the back page just to spite the editor.

Thrity doesn't speak for the huge, complicated, complex country of India - and no one person ever could. She doesn't tell stories about India, but does include parts of India in her novels.

Mashups: Graphic novel is a term not liked by any cartoonists that Lynda likes. However, its necessary so they can be sold. Comics, alternative comics, punk comics, hippie punk comics, no graphic novels - and not Lady Chatterlies Lover - a true GRAPHIC novel. On Amazon her book is classified as science fiction! She edited a collection of "best of" graphic novels and was amazed at all the rules - after they were applied it was just depressed guys with headaches writing about their sex lives. She LOVES the reluctant reader award - thats who she wants to reach.

If Thrity wrote a graphic novel she doesn't know what it would look like.

The floor asked Lynda for her influences: Dr. Seuss. She wanted to be what he was. She didn't know what he was, he's classified as a graphic novelist - a faux naive artist. She liked R. Crumb - terrified by his stories which she found when she was 12.

Thrity was influenced by Salman Rushdie - loves the ambition and audacity of his writing. She didn't read a single Indian writer until just before leaving India for the US at age 20. Her first was Midnight's Children. She also was influenced by Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf - dazzling language and amazing grasp of human psychology.

Lynda: All a writer does is hold images a little longer than the rest of us, capturing places & moments, what's around us, to the right & the left.

Lynda's favorite thing to do is teach. She does it very DIY - tickets on ebay, do workshops anywhere - Bars, yoga studios.... She was just at Manitowoc high school teaching and really got excited by the girls there who are really into Manga. They have a graphic novel collection at their library and loves how libraries are opening this portal for girls. In her class, if a cellphone goes off the owner has to buy her a shot of whiskey.

Thrity teaches creative writing courses and her students are often taking their only writing course. She sees her primary role as all about teaching PASSION. She likes to play the "holy fool" - she teaches touching, feeling, sentimental existence.

Thrity finds the future of journalism very frightening. It's insane to consider a democracy without newspapers - who else will hold the politicians accountable? She subscribes to the NYTimes as an act of charity - she reads it online everyday and sees buying newspapers as a moral issue that we need to push.

Lynda's most reliable source of income is selling stuff on ebay. She used to be carried in "alternative" papers across the country but now that job is gone. The loss of physical papers is a real loss.

People always think Lynda's books are for kids - but they have really mature subject matter. She doesn't think they are a good thing to give to kids / teens. If they find it on their own that's another thing altogether.

Fee copies to be signed by the authors were provided at the end.

Pictures will be added to this post later today.

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