Sunday, January 11, 2009
I loved Moloka'i, I found it so human, so touching, so real, and I'm so looking forward to Honolulu, but my very favorite piece of Alan Brennert writing is "Ma Qui." That was just a "Wow" piece of writing for me, and while I like many books and stories, not much makes me say "Wow." "Ma Qui" definitely did. I found it utterly unforgettable. Do you have a personal favorite among your work, and if so, what makes it special to you?
My favorite short story is one I wrote when I was in college: “Queen of the Magic Kingdom.” It was based on a real incident—told to me on my first visit to Disneyland by a friend who worked as a security guard on Tom Sawyer Island (!)—about a woman who claimed she wanted to live in the park. I think I wrote it in one sitting in my squalid but fondly-remembered little studio apartment in Long Beach, California. I still think it’s my best written short story, which is a bit depressing considering I wrote it when I was twenty years old; I don’t think I changed more than a comma when I reprinted it in my collection Her Pilgrim Soul and Other Stories.
Almost every review of Moloka'i (and I'm including reviews such as Amazon reader reviews here, not just reviews from the professionals) has been outstanding. Has a review or comment ever changed your perspective on your work? Do you read what others say about your work? Do you take it to heart? Have you been pleased with it?
The majority of reviews I’ve received on Moloka’i weren’t from professional sources—you can count on Mickey Mouse’s hand the number of newspaper reviews the book got upon publication—but from readers, either on Amazon or book blogs. And I’ve spoken with nearly a hundred reading groups as well, so I’ve been fortunate to have gotten a great deal of reader feedback, some of which I could never have anticipated. One book club brought up the fact that Rachel’s husband Kenji, though eligible for “temporary release” from Kalaupapa, chose not to take it because Rachel would have had to stay. “And he never told her,” one woman chided me. “Rachel never found out what he did for her!” She appeared to take it almost personally, and she wasn’t alone. I’d written the scene that way because it seemed like sound irony to me and it underscored the idea that in life we don’t always learn about all the things other people have done for us. But it never even occurred to me that a reader might find this upsetting.Sometimes this tension between what readers want to happen in a story, and what an author gives them, can create the most memorable fiction: no one, for instance, would remember Flowers for Algernon today if Charlie had retained his intelligence at the end (as one magazine editor, by the way, actually wanted). I’ve done this myself: the ending to my novel Kindred Spirits was consciously designed to confound readers’ expectations. But I’d never before done it accidentally! And yet withholding that knowledge of Kenji’s actions from Rachel ultimately provoked a greater emotional response from these readers than if had she known—got them to examine what they were feeling, and why—and so, to my mind, it more than justified the choice.
Moloka'i was a big hit with reading groups and book clubs, and deservedly so. Do you feel Honolulu will lend itself to group discussion just as well? Are there any tips you want to give book club readers to better navigate their discussion of your new book?
I think there’s just as much to interest reading groups in Honolulu as there was in Moloka’i: the role of women in Korean culture, the rich history of Honolulu in the 20th century, and most of all the relationship of Jin and her fellow picture brides, the way they support each other in forging new lives and new careers for themselves. And there’s a dimension to the book that it didn’t possess prior to November 4th: Honolulu is also the story of Hawai’i’s multicultural society, which has given us our new President, and how it came to be. The story of Honolulu is in many ways the story of Barack Obama, and the story of America as well.
Do you have an "ideal reader?" What kind of people do you envision reading your short stories and books? Do you write specifically for any type of reader, or do you simply write to please yourself?
Rod Serling was once asked this, and his response was that he envisioned an audience made up of people exactly like him. I think that’s all you can do, as a writer—to write about what intrigues you, and hope that there are enough readers out there who share your own inclinations and tastes.
Ann Patchett once told me that she knew absolutely nothing at all about opera when she decided to write Bel Canto. That surprised me a little since so much of the book revolves around an opera singer. What might surprise readers of Moloka'i or Honolulu?
Oh, I knew just as little about leprosy and Korea before starting those projects! But I don’t think it’s unusual for writers to be attracted to stories that expose them to new ideas. As somebody once said, after two or three novels an author runs out of autobiography, and unless you want to endlessly rehash old themes, a good writer seeks out new subject matter. Who wants to write only about things you know? The pleasure is in learning new things, then sharing them with readers—along with, one hopes, a compelling personal story.
What authors have been most influential in your own writing? Are these the same authors you enjoy reading in your spare time?
As a hatchling writer I was imprinted upon by a wide, some might say bewildering, range of writers. As a teenager I loved F. Scott Fitzgerald, especially The Great Gatsby, but an equally powerful influence on me was Daniel Keyes’ aforementioned novel Flowers for Algernon. Nathanael West made a big impression: Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust. Ray Bradbury in his entirety. Dramatists like Rod Serling, James Costigan (Eleanor and Franklin), and Robert Anderson, whose play Silent Night, Lonely Night was made into a poignant TV-movie in 1969 (and which inspired my novel Kindred Spirits). John Knowles’ A Separate Peace and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Edward Lewis Wallant’s The Tenants of Moonbloom. Anything by Gerald Kersh, a prolific British writer of the last century who could write absolutely anything—comedy, mystery, fantasy, war stories, historical fiction—with equal dexterity. One of the most important books in my development as a writer is one you may never have heard of: Ourselves by Jonathan Strong. I stumbled across it as a student, and though its cover—a stark silhouette of black trees and a small figure against a white background—appealed to the gloomy young man in me, the novel itself was a delightful, charming coming-of-age story with immensely likable characters and sweet, clear, evocative prose. For years afterward I would periodically go back and re-read the book, each time holding it up to myself as a standard of excellence against which I judged my own work (and in those early years often found myself sadly wanting). Jonathan Strong has written nine other books, all of them beautifully written and well worth reading.More recent books I’ve enjoyed and admired include Larry McMurtry’s The Desert Rose (a perfect cameo of a novel); Harriet Doerr’s Consider This, Señora, which was indirectly responsible for me writing Moloka’i; Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars; and Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. And a few less familiar titles: Michael Cassutt’s Red Moon, an excellent historical thriller about the Russian space program; Julie Phillips’ extraordinary biography James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon; and a brilliant collection of short stories by Carter Scholz, The Amount to Carry.
Are there any upcoming appearances/events you'd like to share with us?
I’ll be doing a West Coast book tour when Honolulu is published next March: Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Honolulu. A full itinerary will be posted on my website when it’s been finalized. And as always I’m happy to chat with any book club with a speakerphone or a Skype connection.
What can we expect to see from you next? More novels? And will they be set in Hawaii, too?
More novels, yes, though not another Hawai’i book, at least not immediately; I want to do something different for my next book, though it will also have a historical element. But I am currently working on a short story set in Hawai’i—one that uses Hawaiian mysticism as a template, even as “Ma Qui” used Vietnamese religion—for an anthology I’ve been asked to contribute to.
If you could leave your readers with one legacy, what would you like that legacy to be? What would you like readers to take away from your work and keep?
The characters. I can only hope that readers might remember Rachel and Jin and my other characters the way I still remember—still live with—Charlie Gordon from Flowers for Algernon, or Xavy and Jeff and Susannah from Ourselves.
And now, for the question we ask all authors: If you were a character in Fahrenheit 451 and had to memorize one book, a book other than one of your own, which book would you choose and why?
That’s a great question. I can’t help but envision the final scene in Francois Truffaut’s film version of Fahrenheit, with the snow falling on the Book People, including the young man who runs up and declares, “I’m The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.” The critic Pauline Kael lambasted Truffaut for that little touch, sniffing that Ray Bradbury was hardly deserving of such posterity. Well, to hell with her: I’d be proud to be Bradbury’s The October Country. So many unforgettable stories in that one volume—“Skeleton,” “The Dwarf,” “The Jar”—and such luminous prose; memorizing those words would be a pleasure.
Read more about Alan Brennert and his books at his Web site: http://www.alanbrennert.com/.
This ends Literary Corner Cafe's exclusive interview with author Alan Brennert. Look for his new novel, Honolulu in stores in early March or preorder it from amazon.com.
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Friday, January 9, 2009
When the dry leaves of autumn began to crumble into dust, when the winter wind began to howl through the bare branches of the giant maples on the front lawn, and when the first snowflakes began to fall, I wanted something really different to read, something very atmospheric and in keeping with the dark, gloomy days and long, seemingly interminable nights. I pulled one book after another off my shelves, but nothing filled the bill until I started reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
I’ve seen so many movie versions of the Dracula legend and none of them, absolutely none, begin to do this book justice. It’s so rich, so haunting, so tragic, so supremely human that once I picked it up, I just couldn’t put it down. Even though I knew how things would work out, I didn’t know how we’d get there, at least not in this book, and I got totally caught up in the story, totally involved with the characters.
Surprisingly, Dracula isn’t Dracula’s story. In Stoker’s book, the Count spends most of his time “off-stage.” This book really belongs to a small group of courageous victims who band together to defeat the forces of darkness.
Told in a series of letters and journal and diary entries, with the occasional newspaper clipping, the book opens when Jonathan Harker’s small law firm sends him from London to Transylvania to complete a real estate transaction at Castle Dracula. Although the Count, on the surface, seems to be a charming and most accommodating host, Jonathan soon becomes suspicious, and after a long and unscheduled delay, follows the Count back to London.
In London, Harker and his bride, Mina, are drawn into the quest to end the Count’s bloody reign of terror when Mina’s dear friend, Lucy Westenra, falls victim to Dracula’s inevitable bloodlust. They’re joined by Lucy’s fiancé, Lord Godalming, Godalming’s friend, the psychiatrist, John Seward, and Dr. Seward’s friend, the fearless Dutch vampire hunter, Abraham Van Helsing. Rounding out the group is a brave and gallant Texan, Quincey Morris, also a friend of Lord Godalming.
The story belongs to everyone in this group, and the point of view constantly shifts from one to the other depending on whose letter or journal we happen to be reading. Stoker really didn’t work hard enough on giving each of his narrators a distinct voice (other than Lucy and Mina), but this didn’t stop me from enjoying the story thoroughly. The one exception to this was Van Helsing. Van Helsing’s extremely broken English, though easy enough to understand, started to grate on my nerves a bit once I passed the book’s halfway point. By the time I reached the end, he started sounding just plain silly, and though he was good and brave and honest and kind, I began losing sympathy for him. Occasionally, other minor characters speak in an almost indecipherable dialect, but fortunately, their appearance in the book is limited to a paragraph or two, and their speech does nothing to stop or slow the book’s momentum.
Dracula is, of course, a 19th century book, and because of that, some people are going to find the language stilted. For example, Lucy begins one of her letters to Mina with “Oceans of love and millions of kisses….” I doubt any woman would write to another in this manner today, but rather than feeling stilted, I felt it enhanced the book’s atmosphere. It really gave me a terrific sense of time and place, and without that sense of time and place, the Dracula legend, at least for me, would have suffered.
So many people think of Dracula as “just” another horror story, or “just” another vampire legend, but nothing could be further from the truth. For me, this book was more of an adventure story, a very atmospheric adventure story. It was, of course, quite Gothic, something I really loved, and something I was really looking forward to. It certainly did not disappoint.
Bram Stoker was a prolific writer, but only one of his works, Dracula, is still widely read today. There’s a good reason for that – the book is truly superb.