The best thing about the Sydney Writers Festival? That terrific international authors pop down to Melbourne, and are hosted by the Wheeler Centre, who put on an amazing program in May.
Last night I saw German author Jenny Erpenbeck and American author, Meg Wolitzer, talking about their latest books.
Jenny began by speaking broadly about the experience of asylum seekers in Germany, and how that inspired her to write Go Went Gone. She focused on the question of who we become after we’re forced to flee, “It’s a cut in the biography. You lose the things that have shaped your identity. I’m always interested in how people invent themselves anew without losing what they were.” (Jenny later reflected on her own experience growing up in East Germany and the sense of displacement felt when the Berlin Wall came down.)
In researching her novel, Jenny spent a lot of time with refugees, “It was not the hardest to talk about how they fled, but the daily life that they had lost. That was hard to speak about.”
Jenny was aware that the lives asylum seekers had left behind were hidden, much like their current existence in Germany – “If you didn’t want to see the refugees in Germany, you didn’t have to. But our society was starting to change. People who need permission to stay, put a question to us and force us to make a decision. Even if you stand aside, that becomes a decision.”
Jenny spoke passionately about people ignoring asylum seekers, “If the walls are high enough, the oceans deep enough and the islands far enough away, then we don’t have to think about ‘solidarity’. But if you put up a ‘front’, then you already have a war.”
The decision to have Richard, the main character in Go Went Gone, a retired East German academic male was easy as he had many things in common with the refugees, notably not working – “Having a job is the only way to live a life of dignity under capitalism. Someone who ‘holidays’ forever isn’t respected in our society. If a refugee isn’t allowed to work, they’re called lazy and disrespected.”
Jenny was asked about the absence of female characters in Go Went Gone – “The absent women are almost a character…the loneliness and the missing women. The women are more present when they are absent.”
In discussing the broader role of literature in society, Jenny commented, “It might be possible to change the world if the right words are found. Words can play a good role and a bad role. Literature might be the good version, hopefully. I’ve always been interested in how forms, documents and ink on paper authoritatively decide on someone’s life.”
Finally, Jenny gave some advice for aspiring writers (“Read good books. Cut out anything not necessary. Think carefully about whether or not you have something to tell”) and discussed her own reading habits. On owning yet-to-be-read books, “My library is like a dress. I look for something that fits. I know my books quite well, even when I haven’t read them and I think ‘this is the time to read that book’.”
As to what books she would recommend, Jenny said that Ingo Schulze’s novel, New Lives, is “…the best book I’ve read about the fall of the Wall.”
Part two of the evening was with Meg Wolitzer. Firstly, I didn’t expect Meg Wolitzer to be so funny!
She was there to talk about The Female Persuasion, however, the talk opened with a discussion about female authors, and in particular a piece she wrote for the New York Times many years ago, The Second Shelf. Although not wanting to rehash all that she said in that article, Meg emphasised the issue of cover design and the fact that literary prize winners are rarely books told from a female perspective – “Why are we drawing men away from books?”, she asked.
“I felt sometimes that because I wrote about women, my work was treated as though it was only for women. Men have books with giant letters that suggest they’re an event and women have books with covers where a girl is standing in a field of wheat…”
Meg said that people are often encouraged to write about what they know but she suggests we should write about what obsesses us. If you don’t know what obsesses you, look at your browsing history – “Mine would be Virginia Woolf and ‘does this mole look suspicious?’… Which wouldn’t make a good novel! But I can see the cover now, a big mole in a field of wheat…”
Meg was asked what had obsessed her in women and their experience, that she wanted to capture in Greer, the main character in The Female Persuasion – “The hot-faced feeling. The not knowing… I remember that.”
Meg spoke at length about her mother, who became a published author at age 44, and how her mother’s experience was both an inspiration and a ‘lesson’ for Meg – watching her mother ‘work’, in her bathrobe and armed with a little bottle of whiteout, she remembers saying “Why can’t you be a travel agent like Bunny Goldstein’s mom?!” Meg was reminded of is when her young son pointed out a ‘Now Hiring’ sign at McDonald’s.
Meg talked about other inspiring women in her life – Nora Ephron (“…she showed me that being funny is a serious business”) and her first grade teacher (“…who invited me to her desk to dictate stories”); the making of The Wife movie; and her writing process. On creating an outline for a novel she said, “Outlines are like Epipens – you don’t necessarily use them but they’re good to have.”
Toward the end, she returned to the topic of feminism – “In a way, I’m surprised we’re still talking about these things. When I was a girl, I thought it would all be solved by now.”
Like all good comedians, Meg finished by hooking back to a joke she’d made at the beginning of the talk. She was asked about how she manages the ‘daily grind’ of writing – “Yeah…that really brought me down…How was Australia, Meg?… [crowd laughs]. Seriously, there are days when you’re really cooking and then there are days when you’re unpicking stitches.” She went on to compare the creation of a new novel to the relentlessness of carrying a ‘hobo stick’, that you can never put down – “There’s Meg, with her sandwich, in a handkerchief, on a stick… it’s not glamorous, which is why my son thought I should be a line chef at McDonald’s.”