Miranda Beverly-Whittemore and Wendy Salinger have been friends ever since they met at the 92 Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center, where Salinger ran the Schools Project for many years, while Beverly-Whittemore helped curate the Center’s excellent reading series. When Salinger’s memoir, Listen, came out last year, the two of them got together to talk about their writing experiences. At the time, Beverly-Whittemore had seen her first novel, The Effects of Light, published the year before; her latest book, Set Me Free, has just been published.
Wendy Salinger: Your first novel is loosely based on your own experience, while my memoir uses some fictional techniques to tell the story of my childhood. Do you think there’s anything new in the current debate about truth in memoir, or is it just about fundamental ambiguities between genres? I mean, is there anything left to say about the James Frey scandal?
Miranda Beverly-Whittemore: You write on the copyright page of Listen, “Because remembering is an act of the imagination, the only real name I’ve used in this book is my own.” Reading that, I thought a lot about the responsibility of the writer when she takes on incidents from her own life. I first read Listen when it was still a novel entitled Victor Dying, and I know that it was a winding road for you to see the book as a memoir, and that in doing so, you knew you needed to give your family some degree of anonymity.
Although my novel has an entirely made-up plot, the jumping-off place for that plot was based in my real-life experience of being photographed by a close family artist friend. Because the real photographs of this friend have been misrepresented and misinterpreted by the religious right, I knew I had to be very cautious about separating the made-up photographs in my book from the real photographs in the world, and the photographer in my novel from the photographer in my life—for my sake, for the sake of my readership, and, perhaps most importantly, for the photographer and my family. I did that by making sure that everyone close to me who had the potential be hurt by my book’s subject matter had the chance to read the book and talk to me about it. It was ultimately essential to me that I approached them. Not because I was asking their permission, but because they were fabulous resources.
In light of all that, what fascinates me about the James Frey stuff is that the debate was dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, that is, Oprah’s berating of James Frey for “lying.” A lot of good could have come out of all of this with some interesting discussion about blurred lines between genre, about what memoir is, about exactly why Oprah was so angry—what that says about her as a cultural bellwether. I get that she was embarrassed. But I also believe that Frey was punished for something that’s a central issue in our country right now; our President lied to get us to war, for God’s sakes. It’s no surprise that this is what we’re dealing with right now, culturally: Kaavya Viswanathan, JT Leroy, James Frey—I think they just happen to be the literary versions of the lying all around us. At least something’s prompting a discussion about lying!
21 March 2007 | author2author |
As I read the opening scenes of James Cañón’s Tales from the Town of Widows, I was impressed to find myself in the hands of a debut novelist who was already an accomplished stylist, and even moreso when I realized that Cañón had only become fluent enough in English to write this novel as he was writing it. I asked him to talk about that process, and I hope it inspires you to check out his book!
Writing fiction in a second—and even third—language is a literary choice that has a long history: Joseph Conrad, Milan Kundera, Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov, among many others, wrote masterpieces in languages different than their own.
For me, writing my first novel in my second language was not a choice. I conceived the idea for Tales from the Town of Widows originally in Spanish. I even wrote a few pages of it in Spanish, but it didn’t feel right. I don’t know how to explain it: I wanted to write a novel about Colombia that took place in Colombia, and yet it didn’t seem natural to write it in Spanish. I put the idea aside, then joined the creative writing graduate program at Columbia University and began writing short stories in English—I could write English, only not idiomatically or precisely, much less beautifully. But I couldn’t delay the idea forever, and in my second year at Columbia I decided to give it another chance. I wrote a short story called “The Other Widow,” in English, because it was for school and the weekly workshops were obviously conducted in English.
The story was terrible and the grammar was wrong, and yet I felt good about it. English, I realized, offered me an unconventional perspective on the Colombian conflict. It made me more detached from patriotism and sentimentality, and therefore more unbiased to convey my own points of view in my writing. I kept redrafting that first story until I thought it was good. Then I wrote and rewrote several more stories that eventually became chapters of the novel. I, however, continued doing all the thinking in Spanish, translating those thoughts into English before putting them in writing. In fact, I wrote the entire novel with the help of an unabridged English-Spanish dictionary, and of a good writer friend who worked as my “unofficial” editor/proofreader.
14 March 2007 | guest authors |