Tag Archives: World’s Strongest Librarian

Marveling over the Macabre

The Monkey is feeling the author-love today…

…first of all, through the recent shout-outs on newly-published novelist Josh Hanagarne’s The World’s Strongest Librarian blog and published authors Wendy Robertson, Avril Joy, and Gillian Wales’s Room to Write website (they’re hosting another Durham conference in November!).

…second of all, as I sit cradling my copies of Her Fearful Symmetry and Falling Angels freshly signed by their respective authors, Audrey Niffenegger and Tracy Chevalier!!  Imagine my delight during a dull workday afternoon when I received the phone call that my wait-listed arse had scored a last-minute opening for last night’s lecture.  Located in the 19th-century chapel of London’s Highgate Cemetery, the event began with a cocktail-half-hour of wine and milling about the gateway to Highgate’s West Cemetery (where poet Christina Rossetti and her brother, Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti are buried, among other notable deceased–Karl Marx is buried in the East counterpart).  Filing into the intimate confines of the chapel, we were treated to readings from each author’s novel as well as explanations as to how they came to chance upon Highgate Cemetery and become inspired to build their literary projects around its historic, overgrown, and elegantly morose splendor.

Both American women had merely visited as tourists that first time, but the impression upon both was immediate, and they subsequently became volunteer tour guides as a means of interacting with this enchanting garden of flora and headstones as well as unearthing more of its history than any texts could reveal (Niffenegger continues to conduct tours here, and Chevalier lives just down the hill from the site).  Following their brief “lectures” (which were structured as interviews between the two authors themselves), the floor was opened to a Q&A session with the audience.

Chevalier had originally written a manuscript divided between modern-day and a period backdrop, yet ultimately felt the graveyard and its history lent itself best to historical fiction, so her novel, Falling Angels, takes place during Edwardian England.  She was most interested in how this once pristinely trimmed and pruned site came to fall into such decay and neglect following the Victorian Era, yet wanted to capture the local culture prior to the changes wrought by World War I, when many had lost their faith in God.  The tale depicts two feuding families that ironically share neighboring burial plots in Highgate Cemetery.

Niffenegger had likewise begun her novel along a different path than the one ultimately taken, centering on a different character and a different graveyard (Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery—woo-hoo to my sweet home, Chicago!).  She had realized that if a cemetery was to play such an integral role in her book, she would need to ensure that it was one of the ultimate ones.  Just like Chevalier had visited the cemetery several years before actually writing about it, Niffenegger cited memories of a 1990s visit to Highgate Cemetery during which she spent half the time looking at it through a camera lens and fiddling with said contraption (her words to the wise are to visit the cemetery without your camera on your first visit, which I gratefully did just two weeks ago…I wrestle with the ethics of graveyard photo-opping anyway).  She, however, essentially said her mind does not wrap around historical fiction naturally, so she maintained her novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, during the present day and incorporates an American element, given that her two main characters are American twins who come to inherit their aunt’s London flat that overlooks the cemetery.

I was captivated by everything each woman said in its entirety, yet my pea-brain is unable to reproduce an accurate transcript of everything wonderful and insightful about it.  A couple other comments that do linger in my mind, though, were their reflections on after a novel is written.  Chevalier said that she continues to “collect” ideas from the places that inspire her, whereas Audrey felt that her characters and their story lines eventually go “quiet” in her mind, and thus she moves on.

I wonder which will ultimately happen to me…Ironically, I found great inspiration to write at another Victorian cemetery just a block from my flat and which I’ve been visiting ever since the day after I moved here two years ago, so I had more affinity for this particular lecture than merely the fact that I did love reading the authors’ other books, The Time Traveler’s Wife and Girl With a Pearl Earring.  And, like Niffenegger, I do sense my protagonist’s voice and immediacy fading from my consciousness lately, which signals to me that it’s time to bring her story to rest.  May it requiescat in pace for her, then, yet stay alive in my imagination and those who will humor me and read it some day 🙂

*** For more coverage of this event, please do also see author/illustrator Sarah McIntyre‘s blog post, audrey niffenegger & tracy chevalier at highgate cemetery” —this is a comprehensive trove of observations, sketches, photos, and video! ***

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On Imagination

[I see that YouTube has removed this video for whatever reason, so please refer to this post’s comment sections for a transcript of Will Smith’s monologue in the film Six Degrees of Separation.]

It only took me about 15 years to finally view the film Six Degrees of Separation for the first time last night.  What an evening of captivation that made for…you could say it quite captured my imagination.  As far as what “imagination” itself is, the film (an adaptation of John Guare’s stage play of same name) is frank in its perspectives on the concept in the above scene, which gives me pause to reflect on how this can apply to one’s writing.

“The imagination has been so debased that the imagination…being imaginative, rather than being the linchpin of our existence, now stands as a synonym for something outside ourselves.”

To many, “fiction” and “creative writing” may connote creating new, original worlds comprised of new, original creatures that lift us out of our reality.  Admittedly, I often characterize my choice of reading fiction over nonfiction as my “escape” from my everyday.  Yet, to be fair, my disbelief can only be suspended so far—at some point, I need to be able to see something recognizable within the text if I am to relate to it and learn from it and thereby stay engaged with it.

I remember making a pop-up book for a grad school assignment (yes, grad as in graduate school, not grade school!) that asked us to create a visual representation of our “reading life.”  I fashioned my book such that, with every turn of the page, a different symbol would pop up (that’s no easy feat to engineer, by the way…it took ages) that depicted one particular function reading serves in my life.  Among other things, I had an airplane to represent that idea of escape, a telescope for seeing beyond my immediate frame of reference, and a staff of music notes for the musicality or harmony books can provide through their themes or lyrical style.  And yet…

“Why has imagination become a synonym for style?  I believe the imagination is the passport that we create to help take us into the real world.  I believe the imagination is merely another phrase for what is most uniquely us.”

One symbol I also distinctly recall inserting into the pages of my pop-up book was a mirror.  As I explained to my peers during my presentation, reading is a way of holding a mirror in front of myself because it may either convey or conflict with my perspectives, and in that confrontation, there is reflection, be it validating my beliefs or modifying them through the acquisition of new knowledge or ways of thinking.  It tells me something about myself, and I in turn form my interpretations of plot, character, etc. in terms of what I know from my own life experience and attitudes.  And while I’m certainly infusing certain personal meaning into what I write, I do hope that it strikes a chord with other readers’ lives such that they derive their own meaning.

I’ve felt the sting of insecurity before over incorporating aspects that are true to my life in my stories, as though that meant I was being unoriginal—after all, if I am truly creative, shouldn’t it all stem purely out of my imagination?  Consolingly, I have since reached understanding that it’s actually the moment we stop seeing ourselves in our writing that we’ve stopped being imaginative.

This brings to mind something I just read today by Josh Hanagarne (a newly published author) on his World’s Strongest Librarian blog.  With regard to his new novel, The Knot, Josh says:

“I am this book.  This book means everything to me.  It is pure me, […] easily the most personal thing I am able to share with you.”

I think when it’s all said and done, whether we get published or not, we should all be able to feel this way about what we’ve written.  So, in closing, I offer you this line from the film:

“To face ourselves – that’s the hard thing.  The imagination…that’s God’s gift to make the act of self-examination bearable.”

As writers, to what extent are our stories a means of self-examination?  Where do you see yourself in your characters, your truths in their “fictitious” circumstances and dialogue?  Do you find that the writing process is therapeutic in making your analysis of self “bearable”?  Might it do the same for your readers?


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