24th Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival, Granville Island Revue Stage, 10:30 a.m.
What a privilege it was to listen to Esi Edugyan, Gayla Reid and Antanas Sileika read from their latest work and discuss their writing process! All three held me spellbound; each chose a pivotal scene from their historical novels (all of which had roots in the momentous period during or immediately after World War II) and all of the authors had wonderful reading voices that gave full justice to their writing.
The novel excerpts were a pleasure to listen to and I vowed to read all of the books as soon as possible. However, the session was also enriched by the guiding questions of the panel moderator, writer Rhea Tregebov. She spoke about the tension involved in writing historical novels; how does the writer give readers the appropriate background information without compromising the primary requirement of fiction, that is to tell a good story?
Sileika was the first reader. The section he read from his just-released second novel, Underground, consisted of a dialogue between a couple living in Paris. The male protagonist has just decided that he must leave his partner to go back to his native Lithuania to continue helping the underground Resistance movement there. His partner is desperately afraid that he will not return–that he will be killed, or at least made a prisoner of the country. Sileika explained that almost nothing is known about the underground resistance movements in Eastern European countries; all written records were hidden until 1991! Writing his novel was only possible because, through his parents, he learned the Lithuanian language and was able to read the documents, including KGB archives, that led to his novel. Sileika added personal information that explained how well he understands the conflict between patriotic loyalty and personal relationships; his son quit university to serve as a front-line soldier in Afghanistan while Sileika was writing Underground.
Gayla Reid, up next, read from her latest novel, Come from Afar. She chose a scene where her two protagonists meet in a field hospital (housed in an old mansion) during the Spanish Civil War. Before reading, she noted that her two characters “fall in love at first touch.” Reid has been praised for her “stunningly beautiful language,” and her readings revealed this as they described the thoughts and connections that are evoked by the first touches between the nurse, Clancy, and her patient, Ross. Reid talked about how her writing begins with her characters: she creates her fictional world by entering into her main characters fully.
Reid remarked that she writes for herself. She explained her desire to create fictional worlds in this way: “As readers we’re greedy. We want to have another life.” Only at the editing and rewriting stage does she put on a “reader’s hat” and consider whether the historical material has been presented with her readers in mind.
Some personal details about Reid were comforting and inspirational: She mentioned that Come from Afar took her a decade to write. I also found it fascinating that an author renowned for the poetic beauty of her language also works as a Plain English instructor!
I was struck by the similar themes in Sileika’s and Reid’s work. In writing historical novels set in these dangerous times, both confront the tension between personal and patriotic loyalty, between personal attachment and heroic actions.
Edugyan was the final panellist to read from her work. She explained first of all that her novel Half-Blood Blues (now nominated for four top literary awards) has two storylines. The first is about a jazz band in 1939 Berlin. The other story unfolds in 1992 when her American Black characters Sid and Chip decide to make a trip to Berlin to try to track down what happened to members of the band who disappeared mysteriously.
Edugyan’s soft, well-paced voice was a special pleasure to listen to. Her voice offered a sharp contrast to the dialect used by her characters. Edugyan remarked later, during the panel discussion, that it was her husband, acting as her first reader and editor, who advised her to give her main character a more distinctive voice.
This was just the beginning of the editing process for Edugyan. She said she finds editing “excruciating” but typically finds she needs to write 4–5 drafts of a novel. Though editing is a difficult process, she said there is also joy in getting feedback.
Reid said she “loves” editing. At that stage, she says, she recognizes that she has to remove parts that she enjoyed writing, but that detract from the main narrative.
Sileika made some humorous comments about his editing process. He said he is greatly moved by formal language like the long, rhythmical style of the King James Bible. He believes this has led to accusations that his writing is stilted, or comes across sometimes as a failed attempt at humour. He said one young editor insisted that Sileikas put more explicit sex scenes in his book; after Sileika complied (worrying all the while that he would win the British Bad Sex in Fiction award) another editor told him to take the scenes back out.
The panellists also talked about the ethical implications of taking on the voices of people who have been through the extreme trauma of historical periods such as World War II. Eduygan said that a novellist can only try to present the story as truthfully and respectfully as possible, being careful to get the details right. Reid commented that creating a piece of historical fiction is paying homage to the people who went through the experience. Sileikas noted how difficult it is for us in the West (he called modern North America “Disneyland” to even be able to imagine what people in Eastern Europe went through, not only during World War II, but long afterwards. Their voices were not heard. In North American we’ve always had the American Dream, but in Eastern Europe, said Sileika, people’s experience was that “the steamroller of history will crush you no matter what your dreams may be.”
I emerged from the dark cavern of the Revue Theatre into the mild gray beauty of the north Granville Island waterfront. I sat on a bench, feeling very excited about writers and books. I had a signed copy of Underground in my backpack. People and pigeons thronged all around me; the usual Saturday crowds were enjoying the pleasures of the Public Market and we literary types added to their number. I watched the panorama of yachts, small ferryboats and kayaks passing between Granville Island and the condos of False Creek. Munching on my Terra Foods grape bread, basking in the relaxing strains of guitar music in the background, I reflected that it was a perfect day.