Round Rock New Neighbors is a social organization of women welcoming women in the Round Rock area since 1978. Both "new" and "old" neighbors are welcome. For more information: rrnewneighbors.org [Barnes & Noble requires that RRNN's book club be open to the public, so you do not need to be an RRNN member to attend book club, and both men and women are welcome and do attend. ]
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
We found Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple, fun to read, satirical, and a fairly in-depth character study of a creative and somewhat lost main character. Pam brought a list of thoughtful, thought-provoking questions, and we stayed mostly on topic. I’ll go over a few of the questions and responses here:
Question: What in the story was a surprise?
Janice was surprised by the Russian scam.
Linda was surprised that Audrey was redeemed. She enjoyed hating Audrey during the first part of the book and had to switch gears.
Jay was surprised by the author’s portrayal of the Canadians, and her satire of the Canadian attitude of equality. An elite person here would be equal to a bum there. Being special makes you get squashed down to everyone else’s level. Some of this makes the stereotyped Canadian too friendly and cheerful.
Jay was impressed by author’s knowledge of architects and her mention of Art Forum magazine, which is obscure and scholarly. It was clear that Semple researched this book carefully.
Question: Were you surprised by Elgie: the depth that he shared in letter and/ or his emotions?
Linda was surprised at his having an affair and that there was a child. Janice wanted the pregnancy to be false. I also wanted it to go away.
Pat was surprised at how Bee thought of Elgie on the ship, like a woman with a lot of stuff on his night table.
Patty was surprised about the Microsoft bashing. She was also surprised that the places in the book were real places.
Patty’s daughter-in-law went to Lakeside school. It was nicknamed “the Cadillac school. Patty’s son lives in a big beautiful craftsman house. The neighborhood of Craftsman homes in the story exists. And, the blackberries are a very invasive plant that is out of control. Patty saw blackberries covering an apple orchard.
Carla’s son lives in an old Craftsman house in Seattle. Although the author says the buildings in Seattle are just thrown together and block views, Carla said the public library in Seattle is amazing!
Jan K. felt that the author expressed being offended by the Craftsman houses. Jan’s son is in Oregon and there are many similar houses there. Jan suggested that since the Craftsman homes are all similar to each other, maybe author Semple was satirizing them as exemplifying a lack of creativity.
Pam said the stereotype is that every woman in Seattle has long or short grey hair, ie, the natural look without hair coloring to cover the grey.
Marla noted that the satire on Seattle reminded her of the TV show, Portlandia, which satirizes Portland, OR and is available on Netflix and is laugh-out-loud funny (Claudia’s opinion – one of the most consistently laugh-producing shows ever).
Of Seattle and Antarctica
Patty said that there is a permanent exhibit at the University of Washington in Seattle about Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition. Thus, this could be a connection to the author researching Antarctica and using it in the story.
I (Claudia) brought some selected passages from my daughter’s emails from a college experience on a research vessel in Antarctica. (Thanks to Artemis Harbert for allowing this.) I thought it was interesting how closely the author’s descriptions of Antarctica and the activities in the story in Antarctica matched what my daughter experienced. I guess there is a limited array of activities and ways to do things in Antarctica. I hope everyone found the emails interesting. Maybe some in the group will be inspired to cruise down there. Tourists do speak well of it!
Insights & Themes
Patty read the book twice. She picked up a theme of St. Bernadette and the 18 Miracles and felt that the book was organized accordingly.
Patty also said she tried to categorize the novel. What kind of novel? She couldn’t find a standard category but did notice a lot of exaggeration. She suggested a theme of exaggeration.
Pam noticed a theme of hills: blackberries on the hill, sliding into Audrey’s yard, and Dr. Kurtz from Madrona Hill.
Pam thought that Bernadette was destroyed when her beloved home was destroyed and that she became depressed and agoraphobic after that. This explained why she needed the Indian assistant. I thought the assistant was satire, using exaggeration to make the assistant theme funny, at least at first, before the assistant’s true identity was exposed.
Janice thought that a psychiatric diagnosis for Bernadette as having functional bipolar disorder was exemplified by her throwing herself into things she was enthusiastic about. Also, there were funny aspects to Bernadette’s aberrated behavior, such as when she put the dirty dishes in the drawer for the maid. Janice suggested that medication could stifle some of the behavior but that Bernadette realistically needs a therapist and would need one back at home regardless of any satisfaction from building in Antarctica.
Pam had another psychological insight; that Bernadette might have been different if it hadn’t been for the miscarriages, Bee’s illness, and other problems that gave her a slow start in Seattle.
Marla saw Bernadette, Elgie, and Bee’s current house as symbol for Bernadette. Moving the pots for rain, putting a cloth in was like her quieting her own demons. The house problems were never fixed, as Bernadette couldn’t be fixed. Elgie tolerated the idiosyncrasies of the house, because if he wanted to fix things, he would have had to “make them a problem.”
Dennis thought the book was just meant to be entertaining.
Marla noticed that the title of the book was significant. She said that a person disappears when they marry, move, etc. When one finds oneself after that, one is somewhat new and restructured. Bernadette was going through a lot of these kinds of changes, to become a new person.
Pam said the author’s theme was, “Do what you need to do to not lose your essence.” Bernadette was an artist and needed to be an artist. Marla added that one defines oneself by how one feels, not what one does. The two can be tied together.
Patty said she had thought about why Antarctica was used in the story, and that it was as place for Bernadette to find herself. Carla agreed, saying it was a tool, a place where Bernadette could get out of her routine, find herself, and not remain static. Janice added that the trip cuts out everything in their lives except the cold and each other. Cindy T noted that this was helpful to Bee, too, as she was also at end of her rope after all that had happened in the book.
About the Author
Pam told us some facts about the Maria Semple's work. She published a novel, This One is Mine in 2008, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette in 2012. Her television script-writing credits include Beverly Hills, 90210; Mad About You; Saturday Night Live; Arrested Development; Suddenly Susan and Ellen. She appeared in the film I Heart Huckabees. Annapurna Pictures and Color Force acquired the rights to the film adaptation of the Where’d You Go Bernadette in January 2013. Semple is not writing the screenplay but will be an Executive Producer. Richard Linklater is in talks to direct. If you learn anything about this movie, please tell the Book Club!
Monday, July 27, 2015
The parts of the following post that are highlighted in yellow were written from notes by Pam Fuchs; much is verbatim. Thanks, Pam!
We had the honor and privilege of receiving an author visit from David Marion Wilkinson! Wilkinson wrote Not Between Brothers, a historical novel covering Texas from 1816-1861, and consulted on the television production Texas Rising, for the History Channel. Wilkinson told us about some of his experiences writing the book, which was published in 1996, and working with the producers of Texas Rising, which was recently. Wilkinson also expounded on the history of Texas that he had researched. From what Wilkinson said, we can assume the historical facts and physical and cultural descriptions in Not Between Brothers were real.
Wilkinson has been working on TV and/or movie scripts and productions ever since the book was published. The book was well-received, selling 5500 copies in 2 months, mostly in Texas and surrounding states. Then the movie and television industry began asking Wilkinson to help them bring to the screen some of the history he had so thoroughly researched.
Apparently, the recent completion and screening of Texas Rising on the History Channel was a difficult situation and somewhat of an embarrassment to our author. As a historical-accuracy consultant and screenwriter, he was appalled by the producers' failures to be true to the history. Three blatant examples the author railed about were filming in the mountains when there were no mountains where the events took place, the characters wearing hats that look like souvenirs from highway rest stops rather than from the 1800s, and the characters using more current language styles than would accurately represent the history. Wilkinson knew the Texans would notice the discrepancies, but the producers didn't get that. They realized and admitted later that Wilkinson was "right." Nevertheless, Wilkinson claims he has refused to "write" another screenplay for the group who produced Texas Rising.
Wilkinson said he read hundreds of books about Texas history before starting. The book that pushed him over the edge to do this book was The Raven's Bride. He become good friends with the author, Elizabeth Crook, and expressed gratitude toward her for help with his book. To write the book, Wilkinson quit his carpenter/construction job. With a wife and 2 children to care for and a novel to write, he built a 7' by 7' room and filled it with bookshelves and books. Other than helping with some childcare, he spent 24/7 in that room writing, for 11 months. Just after he started, both his agent and his editor quit on him. He told us he wrote purely from fear: fear of not being able to care for his family, fear of failure.... He said he believes the reader can feel the fear he felt as they read the book - which he thinks worked well for it because those days were about fear.
The fear and anxiety that Wilkinson claims were constant companions of everyone living in the 1800s in what is now Texas were about feeding families, feeding tribes, retaining access to hunting grounds and living spaces, and raising children in a time and place of hard work and almost constant warfare. The expansion of the country was a major theme of history. The whites were farming the Texas soil for the first time. A lot of Native American tribes were decimated as soon as they had their first contact with others, as in the smallpox episode that Kills White Bear endured. Everyone is always caught up in their time and place, and this historical novel is about normal people in extraordinary times. There are stereotypes of natives with a pastoral life, but the reality is that they were always fighting with other tribes over every water hole (small and important), access to the buffalo herds, (huge and important), and, it seems, most everything else. The natives had to cope with the Mexicans and the pioneering whites, and the whites suffered constant fear of natives raiding their holdings to steal horses, women, and children. The whites fought with the Mexicans. The Mexicans worried about Indian raids, too, and didn't like the hardworking but relatively uncultured whites who were arriving in droves and taking over the land. Among all these different cultures, kill or be killed was what happened.
A lot of potential was lost in the fighting, such as Native American knowledge about nature.
Wilkinson admires the pioneers' self-reliance, strength, and endurance. He can forgive the people in the story, by judging them according to their times and not ours. Life was physically harsh! People were always willing to fight. Western expansion wasn’t a scheme but was a need. People needed more land to house and feed their families and animals. They moved to where land was cheaper. Part of the cheaper package was that it was located where you could more easily get killed. People were fighting for their families; that’s what made them so strongly motivated, so interesting and brutal. If you lost, you lost it all.
The Comanches played a big role in making Not Between Brothers exciting. Wilkinson mentioned some authors who wrote about the Comanche. Of all the Indian tribes that were fighting for the Texas area, the Comanche held on to their lifestyle and freedom the longest: 45 years! Some of the other tribes ceased to exist after only 10 years among the white pioneers. Wilkinson spoke of the differences between experiences of children captured. Many boys wanted to go back to the Comanches after being returned to their parents; they loved the Comanche lifestyle! Some women, too, adapted to the native ways. Wilkinson's story was that if a woman was captured, she was hazed, often tortured. They tribal women tested (tried to break) the whites; if the white women "survived" and stayed strong, they were often accepted and became wives of warriors.
Wilkinson asked, When the politicians say we should get America back to when things were great - when was that exactly? He believes every period had and always will have its difficulties, struggles, and wars.
Questions & Answers:
Janice asked about the Comanche vision quest. Wilkinson said these happened early in life and much in the way described in the book. Early in the 1800s, the Native American boy would go out alone, cold, sleep-deprived, and fasting. The physical deprivation brought visions etc. Later more substance-induced visions became more common, e.g., with peyote. Wilkinson said they did get into an altered state. As for the example of talking with a bear; Wilkinson was not saying that the bear talked, but that the person heard it. Another example that is covered in the history literature is that birds told Crazy Horse where he could find elk, and he saved his people with those elk.
Shirley asked whether the symbols between the chapters in the book are authentic. Wilkinson answered that these are from a book by Jack Jackson, about ranches and brands. The brands in the book are not from Texas but from old Mexican haciendas.
Carla asked about Wilkinson's story of how Sam Houston and Andrew Jackson had planned to annex and start a war. Wilkinson explained some of the complexities of the situation, which he said is not documented history, but he and others think that was what happened.
Wilkinson would like to finish a novel he has been working on. We can understand his staying where he's needed in video media right now, but we look forward to another book!
Wednesday, July 8, 2015
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevi
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
The Martian by Andy Weir
Thanks to Cindy T. for this preview!
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
The Martian by Andy Weir
Thanks to Cindy T. for this preview!
Posted by ClaudiaH at 2:39 PM
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Atonement, by Ian McEwan, is a complex book, complete with book-within-a-book, seeming truths that are later called fictitious, drama, dramatic personalities, and misleading clues about aspects of the story. It is a book that demands close reading, with single sentences that direct the story line nestled among long detailed sections. Thanks to Linda for giving us some questions to ponder while reading Atonement! Previewing the questions helped me with focus and understanding as I read.
As a mixture of disclaimer and acceptance of responsibility, I will say that during our meeting, there seemed to me to be more than the usual of multiple conversations going on at the same time, and that this was probably my fault. I attempted to simultaneously perform as the designated substitute leader of this discussion as well as the note-taker. Note to self (Twin Peaks, anyone?) and group: it takes one to run the discussion and another to take notes.
Here are the questions and some of the notes that turned up on my computer after the discussion:
The most important question to start with is whether you enjoyed reading this work? Many people refer to McEwan as Ian Macabre.
Marla was angry when she finished the book. Why? The situation, especially as second-time reader, knowing about what was supposedly real and what wasn’t and all the things that don’t fall together in these people’s lives, gave her a sense of despair.
Pam said that the book is dark and that she wondered why anyone would want to read it. Although she didn't hate the book, she said she expected more from the end but that it didn't click for her.
Rod thought it was interesting that McEwan showed how powerful fiction is: even though the story isn't true, everyone gets into it, readers as well as the characters. Rod got angry at the end of the book because of the happy part of the story not being true.
Cindy V. was interested in reading Atonement because author James Magnuson, who visited our group last month, said McEwan was one of his favorite authors. When she read Atonement, Cindy was surprised at Magnuson's compliments about the book.
Jay read a bunch of reviews of Atonement on the website, GoodReads. He said there were 25 quotes from the book posted on GoodReads. He said that the sentences seemed revolutionary out of context but not when he was reading the book.
Who is the narrator of this story? Why do you think McEwan hides the fact that it is Briony until much later in the book?
Frank said there is a device in literature: the reliable or unreliable narrator. This book uses that literary device. Leaving the reader with doubt as to whether Briony, as narrator, is trustworthy is an example of this device. Was Briony repentant or making it up? Another example Frank gave to explain the point is that some books have plots with children accusing adults, as in Briony accusing Robbie of molesting Lola and Cecilia. There is often a question in these books (and there certainly was in Atonement) as to whether the child is really innocent.
And, what makes Atonement that much more complex than other books is that the reader didn't even know that Briony was the narrator, rather than the typical omniscient author, until the end of the book.
Personally, I found that because of seeing this question before reading the book, I thought of it often while reading, and it lent a mixture of wonder and understanding to my reading experience.
What must Briony atone for? How does she do it? Is the pen mightier than the sword?
Dennis asked, "Is the penitentiary mightier than the sword?"
Pam said it didn't seem that Briony felt guilty and that she never did atone for the troubles she caused.
Marla suggested that Briony was trying to make her readers feel that she felt guilty, especially by titling "her" book Atonement.
Carla felt that Briony's impending dementia was a cause of suffering for her.
What role does class play in the novel?
Carry said that when people have serious wealth, they might think their wealth takes care of everything; but the truth is that most everyone else knows it doesn’t.
Pam said that it didn’t seem that class was a big factor in this story, because the father in the wealthy family was supporting the maid's child, Robbie, all through his life.
Shirley though that class was important, in that Robbie was treated like part of the family but that it was made clear to the reader and everyone in the story that he really wasn’t part of the family. Briony was aware at some level even as a child and even though she accepted Robbie and had a crush on him for a while. The family maybe helps Robbie to rise out of the poor class, but Briony sends him back lower than ever. Later, as a nurse, Briony makes the French boy like her, to show she is atoning and being nice to someone she thinks is from a lower class.
Carla noted that Paul was of the wealthy class. This was a major theme of Paul throughout.
Rod brought up the topic of racial/class profiling. He said that just as police will stop a strong-looking black man on the road for no legal reason, people accepted Robbie as dangerous based on Briony's sketchy accusation. We had some further discussion here about To Kill a Mockingbird and whether/how Briony's and Scout's accusations are related.
Here we went off on a bit of a tangent about Briony's accusation of Robbie. Someone (Frank?) asked how soon after the searching the twins and Briony's accusation did Briony realize she made a mistake. At age 18, Briony narrates a tale of talking to Cecilia about officially and legally recanting her accusation to clear Robbie's name. I said that at age 11 Briony, as author, went into great detail about the time right after making the accusation, saying over and over that Briony (before the reader knew that Briony was the writer) was conflicted right away.
Joyce said that Briony's accusation and its consequences show an example of mob psychology, wherein the judicial system leaves a vulnerability for people to be convicted by such lies as what happened in Atonement.
Here we had another slight turn of direction to the conversation away from the original question but following the train of thought about the accusation. Shirley asked the group whether we thought Lola knew it was Marshall?
Carla: Lola knew.
Pam mentioned Emily, Briony's mother (and Lola's aunt) here. Emily's history includes her sister (Lola's mother) who had all the attention as a child (drama queen). Emily has headaches now, and there is an implication that they are a way for her to get attention (poor imitation of a drama queen). Pam suggested that Briony was making the accusation of Robbie to get attention, just like her Mom did things to get attention. Once she got the attention for being the one who had seen the supposed criminal, Briony liked the attention and stayed with her story rather than lose that limelight, even though she wasn't sure about the accusation. Pam was angry at end of the story that Briony received attention she didn’t deserve, even as an old woman.
Shirley said that the audience at the end hadn’t read Briony's book yet but might read it later and hate Briony.
What major themes is McEwan dealing with in this book? (guilt, loss of innocence, order, the power of writing.)
Janice opened the question as to whether Briony was possibly not motivated by jealousy but was really wanting to protect Cecilia.
Marla thought Briony knew what was happening and was jealous, partly because of her previous crush on Robbie and Cecilia's now claiming his romantic attention.
At the end, what does Briony face instead of death that is worse than death?
Carla said that Briony loses both her sister and Robbie, as they were dead without reuniting with her, and the scene that Briony wrote with the small potential for a reconnecting among them (and redemption) was fictitious.
Janice said that Briony was victim of own Victorian upbringing. She thought Briony was innocent of any understanding of what was happening between Robbie and Cecilia and the meanings of Robbie's note, because Briony didn’t know about sex and lust. But Briony did understand a lot about Lola being molested (and yet she didn't, did she?)
Marla mentioned noticing that Briony didn’t have fear.
Carla brought up the later plot twist where Lola married Paul.
Janice interjected that Lola liked rough sex. We got some comic relief from that statement, but the truth within the story wasn't really far from that; as Lola was apparently treated roughly by Paul (see section later about Paul's scratched face) and ended up marrying him. I asked whether the movie showed that Lola was mean to Paul during their marriage, maybe getting back at him all his life? Shirley said that the movie didn’t show Paul & Lola relating.
Our group read and discussed Atonement in 2008. The group had a few of the same members then as now. There is a summary of that discussion on the blog. Read it here. The biggest differences seemed to be that this time we analyzed the ending more closely and ended up more sure of the author's intent as to what really happened to Robbie and Cecilia, and that last time the movie was newly released and was a topic of discussion; whereas this time little was said about the movie.
If you read the previous blog summary of our discussion of Atonement, you might notice that someone in the book club disliked Ian McEwan's books (Ian Macabre). I looked through my old notes to see who this was. I couldn't find any reference to it! And I realized I wouldn't disclose it anyway, especially not online. I do try to be respectful; and of course, if you ever see anything you don't feel comfortable with on the blog, please let me know and I'll change it.
What I did find in my notes that I didn't write on the previous blog was insight about the scratches on Paul's face! I brought up the topic this time around, in 2015, and I apparently had taken notes on it and brought it up last time, too.
This time we discussed that Paul Marshall came back from searching for the twins on that fateful night (p. 223) and then in the next pages about the family and the search, there was no word of scratches on him. He gave the police cigarettes and then was just mentioned in passing as one of the people around the house during the next time period. Much later, when she goes to Paul and Lola's wedding (p. 417), Briony she remembers "...the scratches on Lola's shoulder and down Marshall's face..." So I asked at the meeting: Wouldn’t Paul have been implicated by scratches? I wondered whether it a fiction aspect, that the scratches weren’t there but that Briony is supposedly remembering them in the story she wrote?
Shirley said that maybe his face was scratched but he was above suspicion because of his class.
Carla said maybe Paul had actually bruised Lola before the dinner, before the twins left. And Carla was right, though I didn't realize during the meeting that she was speaking directly from the story and not just speculating. In my notes from our 2008 discussion, I have notes on Paul's scratches that begin on p. 149, where Lola shows Briony that her arms are chafed from the twins' supposedly twisting her skin. (I didn't see anything about shoulder, but it might be there.) Lola is extremely upset, and Briony wonders to herself how the little twin boys could bring Lola to such desolation. Then Briony rationalizes to herself that Lola has had a lot of family problems lately and so could be easily upset. At this time, Briony also enjoys a feeling of taking Lola under her wing; thus, Lola's early injuries feed Briony's ego. Then everyone goes to supper, and during the supper, on p. 161, Robbie notices to himself that Paul's face is scratched. Then the supper conversation involves the twins, Robbie, and Briony; all put together, this conversation causes the reader to be distracted from the twins' (and also Paul Marshall's) possible involvement in Lola's arm bruises. Then the twins disappear, etc.
Paul and Lola's marriage is an interesting twist to the whole story! Many twists!
By the way, Linda informs us that McEwan is leaving all his papers to the Harry Ransom Center. Yay! Article About the Archive Acquisition
Saturday, June 6, 2015
Hello fellow readers. Here are the books I will be nominating on June 15th, one of which we will select to read August 17. I read each of these books for the first time in the last 3 months and each earned a stellar **** in my 5-star rating system. The Tortilla Curtain and Where's You Go, Bernadette were recommended to me by my former book discussion group in Boulder, CO. A Walk in the Woods has been staring at me from a bookshelf for about 5 years and I finally decided to read it (instead of unpack). I am nominating it just in case I'm wrong about "everyone" having read it except me - because the film version will be released Labor Day weekend.
The Tortilla Curtain, 1995, T.C. Boyle. Fiction. Although T.C. Boyle has written more than two dozen books, we've not read anything by him (not sure if he's been nominated).
Where'd You Go, Bernadette, 2013, Maria Semple. Fiction. This is Maria Semple's 2nd novel. She is well known for her TV writing having received Award nominations for Mad About You and Arrested Development.
A Walk in the Woods, 1998, Bill Bryson. NonFiction. In 2005 we read A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.
I look forward to telling you more about my experience with these books. I believe they all provide food for thought and would make for good discussion! See you on the 15th when we discuss Atonement!!
Tuesday, May 26, 2015
We had the honor and pleasure of hosting a visit with James Magnuson, author, television writer, and Director of the Michener Center for Writers at UT Austin. We had read Magnuson's newest book, Famous Writers I Have Known, and some of us had read other books Magnuson has previously written. We enjoyed reading Famous Writers I Have Known! The book was funny, with quirky characters and a fast pace that started on the first page and continued to surprise us and make us smile and laugh. Our discussion tended to touch on the book occasionally but mostly focused on James Magnuson's career, his interactions with the legendary James Michener, and the Master of Fine Arts in Writing program at the Michener Center for Writers.
Magnuson told us how he got his big break when he was 28 years old and broke. He met a religion professor from Princeton University who nominated him for a position at Princeton for promising but unknown writers. Magnuson sent in an application and got the job. He wrote a play while at Princeton the first year and stayed at Princeton for 5 years, writing more plays.
Janice asked Magnuson the question I think we all were wanting to ask: about his career in television script writing. Magnuson told us that one of his friends from Columbia University became in charge of Knots Landing and asked Magnuson to help with the writing. Magnuson, totally unfamiliar with the show, saw some pictures from Knots Landing in a copy of People Magazine on the plane to Los Angeles. He then wrote scripts for the show for a year. Magnuson was told he was 1 of the 3 best 1-hour script writers in Hollywood. His friend was fired, but the new boss thought Magnuson was the best writer and asked him to stay. All the other writers were fired.
Magnuson continued writing books.
Pam mentioned that she had noticed that Magnuson had published a book approximately every 8-10 years and that each book had a different publisher. This double question was a powerful one for Magnuson. He became nostalgic for a moment. He remembered that he had published every 2-3 years when he was young, accumulating 9 novels, 12 plays, and 20 hours of television scripts. Back to the present, he seemed glad to announce that his next book is on the way, making the most recent gap between books a short one. As to publishers, which apparently are fickle, he told us that the young people, even the new MFA graduates from his program, command higher bids on their work than older writers. This seems counter-intuitive to a reader, but it makes sense looking at the world from a media/business point of view.
Magnuson works hard, writing 3 hours/morning 7 days/week. He told us a few stories of grueling rewrites, being turned down 6 times for one book, spending 9 months on a rewrite of another book for a publisher and then having to spend another 9 months rewriting before the publisher accepted the book. He has completed 5 drafts of the book he is going to be publishing soon.
James Magnuson met James Michener in Texas, when Michener was writing Texas. Magnuson was teaching writing at UT Austin, and Michener sat in on some classes. The famous author donated $2 million to the UT MFA program and soon after that another $18 million, the biggest creative writing award ever. Not sure at what point in the process, but the program was named after Michener, now the Michener Center. Michener published 10 books while he was aged 80-90 years. It unusual and amazing to think of Michener being so productive at those ages! Magnuson told us a few details about Michener; he said the older writer was generous but enjoyed a bargain when he had a chance. Magnuson said that Michener had great ideas and was credited with bringing in 60% of Random House profits for some years. Yet Michener wasn’t taken seriously by the critics, who didn’t like those big books. At this, Dennis mentioned that he liked Michener's early novels but noticed that they got worse and were poorly edited. Magnuson mentioned that for all historical those pages Michener published, he did have researchers but not writers.
I asked Mr. Magnuson whether the character, Rex, in Famous Writers I Have Known, was based on Michener; and Magnuson said the character was indeed based on Michener. He said that during the last 5 years of Michener's life, people were vying for his money. Michener reminded Magnuson of his father, growing up during the depression. Magnuson did make some creative changes with Rex; he mentioned that there was no Ramona, no cook, no rivalry with Salinger, and no feud, but there were battles with Mailer and Buckley. So you can draw your own conclusions as to what James Michener was like as an elderly man.
The Writers' Workshop at the Michener Center now accepts 12 among 1200 applicants and gives a $27,000 fellowship. The students have been successfully published. The Center website has a page listing the books students have published: Michener Center Student Books. The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers, has made a big splash, and Benedict Cumberbatch is starring in a movie based on the book, for 2016 release. Jake Silverstein, who studied nonfiction for his MFA at the Michener Center and was editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly magazine, is now the editor-in-chief of the New York Times Magazine. Philipp Meyer was a Pulitzer Prize finalist last year for his book, The Son. Student F.T. Kola is currently on the short list of 5 contenders for the Caine Prize for African Writing, with a book called A Party for the Colonel. The list of honors won by students of the Michener Center is also easily accessible at the website.
Patty asked Magnuson what sort of classes and student-teacher interaction are involved in the MFA program. Magnuson said part of the program is a workshop with critiques of everyone's work. Part of it involves writing exercises, similar to some mentioned in Famous Writers I Have Known. Magnuson said one successful exercise is writing 2 pages starting with "My mother never..." He sometimes asks the students to describe something from an odd point of view. Magnuson also helps with theses and meets one-on-one with the students. He says he often finds himself in the role of counselor, as the young writers are going through a difficult part of their youth and need plenty of support of all kinds.
Linda asked another tough question. She asked what the true benefits of the writer's workshop are, in that the classics were written without the benefits of writers' workshops. Magnuson seemed to have considered this, as he had a several-part answer ready. He said that he is glad the UT program has become famous and popular, so that it can be as selective as it is and avoid selling classes to any untalented writers or setting up any untalented writers for later disappointment. With 250 writing
programs now available across the country, Magnuson indicated that there are probably many students who will probably not be able to pay for their education directly from a writing career.
programs now available across the country, Magnuson indicated that there are probably many students who will probably not be able to pay for their education directly from a writing career.
Then Linda asked what Magnuson thinks is the best way for a writer to be educated. The simple answer was: reading! Magnuson made an analogy between a writer reading and a musician listening to music. He said his students tend to be avid and intense readers. As an example, he told us he suggested that a student from Montana who had been a carpenter should read Anna Karenina, and the student read the book immediately.
Pam asked Magnuson to list his favorite books and authors. Was there going to be a Frankie Abandonado moment? Of course not! Magnuson quickly listed Ian McEwan and his Atonement; The Good Soldier, by Ford Maddox Ford; Parade’s End, by Thomas Hardy; Trollope as an author; Don Quixote; the Russian authors, perhaps Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and particularly the book The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov; Edith Wharton; Larry Wright; Stephen Harrigan; Sarah Bird; and Dennis Johnson. An inspiring list for any of us!
The final question was from Pam, who had read 3 of Magnuson's books before our meeting and thus earned the right to the last question! She asked Magnuson to tell us which author(s) he feels he should be compared to. Thanks to James Magnuson for making us feel comfortable enough with him to ask the questions we had on our minds, and for answering them candidly! Magnuson likened his books to those of Peter Carey and, since we had told him we will be discussing one of his favorite authors, Ian McEwan, next month, he mentioned that he liked to grab the reader on the first page as McEwan does.
Magnuson told us what his new novel is about: the early life of a famous legend, whose name I don't feel right disclosing. The rest of what was said at the RRNN Book Discussion Group stays at the RRNN Book Discussion Group. But I'll bet Magnuson's upcoming book will catch the reader on the first page!
Posted by ClaudiaH at 12:51 PM
Saturday, May 23, 2015
I just finished our July book Not Between Brothers and have spent the last 15 minutes online trying to figure out exactly what days and times "Texas Rising" (based on the book) will be on The History Channel. I see it on Monday and Tuesday nights 8-10pm Central but good luck figuring it out after that. Appalling fact - they changed the character names!! Apparently Remy is James in the TV version and Kills White Bear is BILLY. At least Sam Houston is still Sam Houston :).