25 August 2011

Return of Shakar

(Also, the 9/11 novel, and some advice from Susan Choi.)

There was a moment last month when everybody was talking about author Alex Shakar and his essay "The Year Of Wonders." Ten years ago Shakar was a wunderkind* novelist with a six-figure advance and a coveted September pub date for his debut THE SAVAGE GIRL, feeling all the high highs of that status -- followed by the low lows as first his editor died, and then the September 11th attacks just a week before he was set to go on book tour mowed down any momentum the book might have had.

"My very loss was meaningless compared to those who’d lost for real," Shakar writes. Yet there's something of an undercurrent of anger to the piece, and not (to my mind) entirely undeserved. Who wouldn't want to rail at the heavens with a mighty "It's not fair!!"

As someone who had never heard of Shakar before the piece ran I was just as guilty of what he seemed to be accusing the world of -- and I felt guilty, but also confused. Was everyone passing around his manifesto as an example of how the book industry is vulnerable, or how it is mean? Was there another grudge I was meant to hold? (I'll gladly chalk my ignorance of him not to national events, but rather to the fact that I was a senior in high school, and was too busy either working on college applications or getting grounded again.)

I hoped to study him up close at Shakar's reading last night at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, and sure, I know how creepy that sounds. I found him calm, careful with his words, with a wry smile. And when novelist Susan Choi, who also read with him and served as his interviewer, said to him "Your first book kind of got kicked in the head -- I think that's how you feel," he didn't look sad, maybe a little chagrined. He looked very zen, in fact later alluded to having taken up meditation in the process of researching his new novel LUMINARIUM.

"A novel is sort of a contract with the universe you make," he said. "For many years I felt it wasn't living up to its end of the bargain." 

Whether he wanted to talk about his relationship to 9/11 and more broadly New York or not, the crowd wouldn't let him forget it, particularly when it was dropped that the novel was originally set in Chicago but "became" a New York book, and was set there in the years preceding and following 2001.(Don't we just love talking about ourselves now! Don't we just!) To the latter point, Shakar said he was interested in how people made meaning out of the event, rather than the event itself, but he also alluded to "the 9/11 novel as something everybody had to do" or felt like they should address in fiction (a topic previously covered here).

I haven't read LUMINARIUM yet so I can't speak to its treatment of same, but it was kind of refreshing to hear an author just get that out in the open. Maybe that's the freedom Shakar gains from admitting, hey: this is how it interrupted my life, because along with the macro-interruptions (loss of life, U.S. foreign policy, airport security) there were micro-interruptions as well. At the same time, the compulsion to respond to or describe 9/11 in literature isn't going away. I don't know whether this was by accident, but Choi chose to read a section of her unpublished work that described the day from the perspective of a very young New Yorker. It is written, and then it is written again.


The first two audience questions addressed writing advice and tips, and Choi offered this story from a novel-writing class she just taught (her first): She confidently assigned her students to write 300 words a day, weekends off, for the entire 12-week semester, with the proviso that they had to "file" it with her regularly. (To prevent the whole "stay-up-till-4am-and-write-something-unworkable" pattern of shorter fiction classes. Amen.) The person by whom she ran this plan past said, "Great! So you're going to do it as well?" She tried, but by her own admission, couldn't hack it.

*Actually, looking back at the essay he was 32 when he signed the deal, so let's consider wunderkind more of a feeling than a specific age for the purpose of this post. It's the least I can do.

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