Dreams of literature – In a celebration of the enduring pleasure of literature, Glass speaks to four prominent and varied voices on its place in the future

Dreams of literature – In a celebration of the enduring pleasure of literature, Glass speaks to four prominent and varied voices on its place in the future

Literature has a remarkable gift. It touches each of us in a unique and incomparable way, aligns us with our fellow mankind and, at its very core, typifies what it means to endure the human condition. Glass had the privilege of discussing writing, writers and the novel’s present and future with three of the form’s finest exponents. Russell Hoban, Isabel Allende and Junot Diaz, of three different generations, share a breathtaking ability to make words dance, and share a faith in the power of text as a vibrant and vital medium.

In addition, Liz Calder, though no writer herself, has had the honour of publishing many of the greatest of these works and expresses her own views on the nature of great writing, to which attention should be paid. In this interview series, we explore working methods, motivations in writing, views on the future of literature, and above all, the importance of stories.

Junot Diaz, author of the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, has received numerous literary prizes including the Pulitzer and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. His fiction has appeared in the New Yorker amongst other titles. He lives and works in New York.

Dreams of Literature £

Was writing always your dream, or did you aspire to other careers?
You know, you’re young and you have really kind of outlandish dreams. When I was young I was so desperate to imagine myself out of my crazy family that my first dream, my first occupational fantasy was being an astronaut. I figured, you’re an astronaut, you definitely won’t have to hang out with the gang. But beyond those kind of escapist sort of flights, writing was always it.

For many authors, fantasy is a flight away from political and social reality. Your fantasy tends to be a way of exploring it. Do you write with a ‘purpose’, or do you just leave your characters to do what they want to do, and have your story flow from that?
We all have our sense of what we do and our sense of what we do of course is utterly incomplete and inadequate. I could say, as most writers say, that I don’t pay any attention to the political dimension, that I just sort of write, that I’m only interested in good art and in creating honest characters and all that, which for a lot of people that myth is very helpful.

My sense of it is that everything we write is deeply political. I think that even when you’re saying that you pay no conscious mind to political dimensions, the work you write, that very act, is a political act, I think that for me my tactic has always been.

Of course I want to create honest characters, of course I want art that is art. In art that is art there’s always been disruptive, there’s always been transgressional, there’s always been radical elements and I think that for me I know that a novel or a short story is too complicated a form to have a platform, to have a political project, but that doesn’t mean that among its many threads it can’t have sort of a radical and disruptive element. I think if my work is identified with those elements, that itself is an over simplification, but that those elements are present, I would never deny.

What authors or novels would you recommend everyone read immediately?
I guess it depends on what we’re talking about. I think if I said, every single person should go out there and read Octavia E Butler’s Dawn, I would say that that would be something, because that feels really canonical and really important. I would say everybody should rush out and read Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban. Everyone should go out and desperately get their hands on a comic book called Poison River by Gilbert Hernandez.

If it’s new people I would say Christopher Abani’s Graceland is an unstoppable book, Edwidge Danticat’s last few novels, especially The Dew Breaker – that’s an unstoppable book, I think everyone should go out and get it.

There is a lot of talk about the future of the novel, and the new possibilities opened up by Kindles, IPads, etc. Oscar Wao, of course, has much of its content in footnotes, and generally, your work feels like it plays with linear narrative more than most authors. Does the digital novel excite you at all?
I guess I’m just sort of a stick in the mud. I kind of came up during the whole e-revolution but my sense of it is always this; for some people this is a new canvas and I think that that’s wonderful, maybe one day I’ll deploy some of that canvas, I don’t put that beyond me. What I’m concerned with, like any right minded person is, is that these key shifts in technology usually are used by people who control the technology, that disenfranchise the creators. I think that that’s something that I’m certainly more cautious of.

I just think that these sort of things like Kindles in the hands of corporations who’ve never shown any interest in protecting the rights and the livelihood of artists, I think that this just means that we’re going to have to fight, as artists, even harder to be able to receive a fair share of our work.

Why do you think it is that for all our technical advancements over the millennia in all areas, humans still cannot resist the allure of a good book?
I think there’s something about a book’s intimacy, something about the way that a book is the closest we come to telepathy, the closest we come to being able to inhabit another person’s mind, that has attracted people across time and cultures. Now, has it attracted more people at different times?

Certainly, but I do think that there is something remarkably important about all of us who are so isolated and so cut off and can’t really connect directly to another person’s thoughts or heart, but have in the form of a book the most explicit representation and model of another person’s heart and mind right at our finger tips.

I think that that is what a novel allows us to do, it allows us to meet ourselves but more importantly it allows us to feel communion with our fellow humans and that’s not a small thing.

What is your dream for the future of literature?
My dream is for the future of the arts. I believe that the arts are a storehouse of what we call our humanity and my dream of course is that we continue to fight for the centrality in our society. Also perhaps that this twisted civilisation that we’ve created which places profit and of course putting price tags on everything diminishes in the face of much more human practices such as contemplation. I think that that would be a great dream, but it’s sort of utopian, it doesn’t look like we’re heading to that, but we’ve got to keep fighting. I really believe that eventually if we keep fighting something good will happen – I’ve got to believe that.

Isabel Allende, a Chilean writer hailed to be the most widely read Spanish language author in the world. Her books have sold more than 56 million copies and have been translated into over 30 languages.

What compelled you to become a writer?
I think that it was exile. I had been a journalist before in Chile, and I had a TV programme, I worked at a magazine, I had the feeling that I was part of a community, part of a country. Then we had the military coup in Chile on September 11th 1973, and I left my country and went to Venezuela where I lived in exile for 13 years. I couldn’t find a job as a writer, journalist or anything really related to what I love to do.

I had all these stories accumulated inside, and maybe I was just waiting for a good excuse to start writing, but on January 8th 1981 I got a phone call about my grandfather who was dying and started a letter for him, but I think I knew from the very beginning that it was not a normal letter – it evolved into my first novel The House of The Spirits. So what compelled me was the need to tell stories, the need to recover or probably share the memories that I was beginning to lose because of so many years abroad. I was losing my country and my past.

Where do you think humanity’s fascination with literature stems from?
I think that we all need stories. Story telling is a way of passing knowledge to the next generation, of preserving what has happened in history and the past. It’s a way of feeling that what happens to me or to you is not unique – that it’s part of the human experience.

I think that it’s very probable that the medium will change, we won’t have books anymore – we will probably read on a Kindle or they will put a chip in our brain (laughs) or whatever, but the need for stories will always be there. So in one way or another we will be telling each other stories for ever, because that’s the first thing we started with, language.

What makes literature different from other forms of expression?
I think that it gives an incredible freedom to the writer, and if the writer is attentive and gives himself or herself enough solitude, silence and time, we sort of tap into a pool of dreams, ideas, fears, something that is like a common consciousness that is out there and we sort of channel it.

People identify with the stories because they are out there, they belong to them, they don’t belong to the writer. In that sense I think that literature is very important but it’s also important because it is a very private experience. You sit there with the story and you are talking intimately with the writer.

With no other media do you have that type of intimacy, and a book really is a book when somebody reads it; before, it’s just a bunch of pages. So when you read it you give to the story your own insight, your own biography, your experience. Half of the book is really given by the person who is reading it.

What have you learnt from the experience of being a writer?
I have learnt a little bit about me. I have found out what I can connect to, which is important because it’s a knowledge of myself. But then in writing, because my books have been translated to many languages, I receive thousands of emails and letters – I’m connected to the readers. So I feel that I’m not alone anymore, that we all share similar experiences no matter where you live.

I get letters from young women in Tehran and from a man in Finland – and the experience is similar. That is so interesting to see that we are all alike. We all want the same things for our children, we all want more or less the same things for our lives.

What is your dream and hope for the future of literature?
Well my dream, which is almost unobtainable, is that children would read; that we would be able to instil in children the love of reading. When I was a child, there was no TV in Chile and we were very seldom taken to the movies – almost never, I still remember the few movies I saw as a child.

So there was no entertainment – it was just books and very early in my life I started reading and books have been my companions all my life. The joy I get when I sit down, when I’m alone and I’m reading, is so incredible that now I have become an addict to audio books and I have them in the car. So I’m a total addict. I don’t want the future of my children to be so attached to books, but I want them to read.

Russell Hoban has been described as one of the most important contemporary writers of the last half century for his surreal style of fiction. In tribute to Hoban’s birthday, fans placed hundreds of sheets of yellow paper – central in Hoban’s books – in various locations in cities around the world with lines from Hoban’s poetic verses – an example of the cult following he has developed.

How do you go about tuning into your ideas? Do you have a fixed process?
What happens is that when I tune into a particular channel of thought, things feed into it that I didn’t know were there, because the mind retains everything that has ever entered it.

It isn’t always accessible, but once you do open a particular channel of thought, the things that you do remember, but didn’t know about, will feed into it. There is a line in one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays about a public channel of energy that a man can tap into…

I’d always related the idea of characters blending into one another to the idea of the thing that we tap into, a oneness…
In Riddley Walker, the oneness is always coming apart into twoness. At various points he tries to be one with someone or something, and every time, it comes apart and becomes two. I think that in all of us there is a yearning for a unity which is never attainable.

You’ve a line that’s haunted me for some time: “It is the longing for what cannot be that turns the world from night to morning…”
It’s from The Second Mrs Kong. Yes, that’s exactly what it is! The longing for what cannot be.

Is this The Terror? In many of your works – there’s the ‘blackness’, you refer to the Terror, with a capital T. And it’s something external, but part of the human condition that we can’t escape?
Yes. I’m 85 now, and as I get older, I have the feeling of being inhabited by a thing that looks out through our eye-holes, and is not separate from the horror and the terror. In Riddley Walker, Ridley recalls walking with his father along the shore and seeing a broken seagull and his father kills it. And he remembers the yellow eyes of this gull that stare scareless to the last.

They were in the creature, but they didn’t care anything for the creature they were in… this comes from a memory of my own, seeing a broken seagull in Maine, with those scareless yellow eyes, and thinking on it since then, it comes to me that there is, in all of us, this yellow eyed thing, scared of life, that is in us but doesn’t care anything about us.

That is there before us, will be there after us, and it isn’t – what can I say – it is not conservative of the form it inhabits. It doesn’t care at all for the race of creatures it inhabits. It is there in the people that Riddley remembers from time way back who are the people that we are now and will go on making us do what we do. So there’s always the urge to find new ways of destruction.

Do your books fall into reality or dream?
Reality is whatever is. My books are concerned with whatever aspects of reality I perceive when I’m writing, and whatever aspects of reality my characters experience.

What are your essential reference works?

Or far too many to mention?
I’ve often explained that the room where I work, which is full of books and DVDs and CDs, is my exobrain, and I rely on being able to put my hands on whatever I need to refer to at the moment, and so there are lots of books I’ve bought because one paragraph was significant to me. I’m a quick consumer of reference material.

Are there any works, past or present, that you’d recommend that everyone read immediately?
Well, yes! There’s George Eliot. I’ve been rereading Daniel Deronda. And she’s pretty much inexhaustible. But I interrupted my second reading of Daniel Deronda to take up Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. And Theodore Dreiser’s part of a generation that included Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair, a generation that has fallen out of fashion. He’s a tremendous writer, Dreiser, and I recommend that everyone read him.

Also, while I’m recommending, a reference source – more than that – a source that I’m referring to in what I’m writing at the moment is the five quartets that are Beethoven’s late quartets. Obviously, they’re a work of genius, but they’re fascinating in that as my son, who’s a composer, first pointed out to me, Beethoven is vulnerable, and listening to them, I get into the idea of vulnerability more and more. In these quartets, he is always walking on thin ice, nothing is taken for granted, everything is open to question, he didn’t know what the outcome would be, except that part of his mastery was that one movement leads inevitably into the next and into the next, and one quartet leads inexorably to the quartet that follows it.

Many authors have cited you as one of the most important figures in literature of the last half century, and many less illustrious folk, myself included, share that view. But does it trouble you that your wider reputation hasn’t extended as far as your work deserves.
Well, I think it’s better to be underrated than to be overrated. I’m not famous, I’m not as famous as Martin Amis.

Are your characters the most important part of your life?
Well, the writing is the most important part of my life. I can’t live without it. If I’m not writing, I feel physically unwell. I’m always writing. I mean, when I start putting myself together in the morning – I’m writing – and impatient to get through breakfast – to get writing, to get some of the thoughts down.

Why do you think mankind is so enthralled with literature?
I think that literature is the primary art, I think that if painting and music and drama were all wiped out, literature would still remain as a permanent and necessary thing that mankind will never give up. It was the beginning of mankind’s intellectual development and it will always be the means of the development.


Liz Calder, A founder of publishing behemoth, Bloomsbury, co-founder of Full Circle Editions and co-founder of FLIP, South America’s first literary festival held in Paraty, Brazil.

What attracted you to the literary world?
I suppose it was a long-held love of books. If I had had the foresight to envisage an ideal career when I left university, it would have been in the publishing world, but at that time I hadn’t really considered it; it wasn’t one of the options that was put in front of us. In fact I became a school teacher for a couple of years, but as time passed I realised that what I really wanted to do was to work with books.

From your work you have undoubtedly gained a plethora of knowledge and experience, but what do you think that you have gained from literature that cannot be attained elsewhere?
I think that one can learn about human nature from many different places and obviously in many walks of life, but I think reading great books gives us a unique insight into the nature of our humanity.

In your opinion, what makes a good writer?
Well, a good writer is somebody who can put together well-made sentences and construct believable characters and credible plots. But great writers have something more. Great writers have a gift that enables them to explore and describe the human condition and help us to understand who we are. And, at the same time, to bring a whole world to life.

From your experience, what has made great literature able to stand the test of time?
Well, great literature houses those qualities. So if a book has the qualities that I’ve been talking about, and can describe accurately and vividly the human experience, then it will stand the test of time. That’s what marks it out from the ordinary, enabling it to last from generation to generation.

You have been credited with publishing some of the greatest writers of our generation (notably, under the guidance of Calder, Bloomsbury published J K Rowling’s novel Harry Potter after it had been rejected 13 times by other publishers). What, in your opinion, makes a good story?
Obviously, a great story is one that draws you in and keeps you reading, but I look for the writer’s voice. It should be a voice you want to spend time with, a voice that makes you want to stay in that writer’s head. A really great writer will captivate you whatever the subject, and some of the ones that I most love have this gift of enchantment in words.

What is your hope for the future of literature?
I hope that books, and all the other devices for reading, will go on, will spread – particularly among children. I think it would be tragic if children stopped reading and became absorbed only in other media. Reading books is a life-enhancing, essential part of a child’s imaginative life.

You were the first woman on the board at Jonathan Cape, (an influential publishing house, now part of Random House). Times have definitely changed since then, but what is your hope for women in the publishing industry today?
Women have, as you say, achieved a great deal in publishing. When I first came into publishing there were hardly any women in key positions, but now many of the important roles are filled by women. So I hope that that will continue. As far as I can see it is.

What is your earliest literary memory?
My earliest literary memory is of my mother reading Anne of Green Gables to me. She read a few pages and then I was supposed to go to sleep, but I managed to get hold of the book and began reading it for myself, and that was the first book I ever read.

You have accomplished so much in your career, even things which at the beginning might have seemed impossible. What advice would you give to those trying to attain a seemingly unobtainable dream?
I think that you just have to keep on believing that you can achieve what you want to achieve, and also I think it’s important to recognise when an opportunity comes before you, because sometimes we can either overlook it or think, ‘Oh no I can’t do that’. But always seize the opportunity, is what I would say. – By Adam Donen. Interviews with Liz Calder and Isabel Allende

by Kristal Lubin

From the Glass Archive – Issue Five – Dreams

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