Monday, March 31, 2008

Writers Residency: VSC or VCCA?

VSC: The Red Mill

As a writer, at some point of your writing career, you may find yourself tired of workshops, instead looking for a residency where you can write without distraction.

I am at Vermont Studio Center (VSC) right now. And I was at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) last summer. According to Jon Gregg, director of VSC, these two are the largest artist residencies in the US. At any given time, the average number of residents is 55 in VSC, twice as many as in VCCA, compared to the national average of 9.

There are some differences between the two residencies. VCCA, located in a ranch-like area of Virginia deep in the country, with horses and cows nibbling around, seems to operate in a more informal manner. There are no (advisory) visiting writers or artists, which helps to keep the overhead costs lower. In the application form, the suggested fee is $30 per day. Voluntary higher contributions are very welcome, of course, but you can also request a lower fee based on your financial situation. (I was awarded the Goldfarb nonfiction fellowship by VCCA last year, thus paid only a $50 deposit for a full two weeks of wonderful productive time.)

In comparison, VSC is an in-town site in northern Vermont, and its operation is

VCCA: on the path to studios
well organized and programmatic. Each month there are several visiting artists and writers, who give talks and one-to-one conferences with the residents. Thus, when applying, you have the choice of a month when your favorite authors visit. This is nice, however there is a catch. Except for the lucky few who receive full fellowships, for most residents the cost it a lot higher than VCCA. I received a partial scholarship and am paying for the balance, which amounts to $70 per day. The normal stay is one month, but because of the high cost I opted for two weeks instead.

Here at VSC writers are a minority compared with visual artists, with a ratio of 17:38 in the first two weeks of April. To my delight, our studios, in a new building named Maverick, are the envy of the visual artists. The building is only one year old and still smells of fresh paint, with windows facing the running Gihon River (I wonder why it isn't frozen). I like that we writers are all together in one office building, as it makes it much easier to have a writerly chat.

Both VCCA and VSC are open to international applicants. While I saw quite a few European artists but no Asians at VCCA, VSC seems to be the opposite in this respect.

One important thing to mention: both residencies provide great food. Again VSC is more programmatic in organizing meals. Last night when we lined up for our first dinner, the plates were filled by the kitchen staff instead of ourselves, and we were told "no seconds." In comparison, at VCCA, you get your meal in a buffet manner. This is easy on the residents, but might be harder for the chef to do quantity management. Last summer a change of chef at VCCA resulted in a few days of uneven food supply. On the other hand, to be as well-organized as VSC requires more kitchen staff and again increases overhead costs. There are pros and cons either way.

In conclusion, both VSC and VCCA are wonderful residencies where you can get writing done, yet you have a choice of organization style. Other things being equal, if you'd like an opportunity of exchange with established authors, and don't mind paying a bit more, go for VSC. If you just want to have your own time to write, and prefer an informal, self-governing rural setting, you'll probably enjoy the lower-cost residency (plus a nice trail in the woods) at VCCA more.

A friend once asked me what else I get from a residency. I find meal times a wonderful opportunity to network with other writers and artists. You sit with different people each meal, and you often can have fun and stimulating conversations. It is a real plus that you get out a writer's isolation once in a while.

Apart from VSC and VCCA, there are a number of no-cost and highly reputed residencies in New York State, such as Yaddo and MacDowell, for which you pay a small application fee but nothing else. However because of their limited capacity and high demand, those are much harder to get in. And you are only allowed to apply once per year. Those are my targets for next year.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Don't Limit Your Characters – An Author Interview

Pamela Erens's novel, The Understory, was the winner of the Ironweed Press Fiction Prize and is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction. Erens's fiction, poetry, and essays have been published in a wide variety of literary and mainstream magazines. She has twice been awarded a fellowship in fiction from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.
What role does the Ramble play in the novel?

This interview was conducted by Xujun Eberlein during two weeks of March, 2008.

Interviewer: Is The Understory your first attempt at a novel?

Pamela Erens: Yes. I had written and published short stories, poetry, and essays, but I was afraid that a novel was beyond me. I didn't think I could build that elaborate a structure, hold that many strands of character and plot in my head at once. So the novel was a challenge I set myself. I was daring myself, to see if I could pull it off. Also, I was a mother of young children then, and my time was very fragmented. It felt very reassuring to have this project I could go back to day after day, that just stayed there even as the rest of my life was all about quick shifts of attention.

Interviewer: Many writers start the first novel from their own experience. Apparently this is not the case for you. What triggered the idea for this novel?

Jack takes refuge in a Buddhist monastery
Pamela Erens: From the beginning I've enjoyed writing stories that aren't close to my own. I've always liked writing male characters and from a male point of view. That's partly because when I do so, it's plain to me that the character is a fiction, is not me. My imagination is more free. At the same time I strongly believe that there has to be an autobiographical component to the emotion in a story or novel. With Jack I was writing out of, if exaggerating, my own experiences of isolation and longing. The seed of the story was an idea that came to me, God knows how, of a man who wants to find a spiritual twin, someone with whom he can have a complete emotional and psychological connection. I literally had the guy putting an ad in The Village Voice, advertising for this spiritual twin. That was the Ur-source of the Jack-Patrick storyline. After a while it became clear to me that what I was writing was really a story about a man whose buried longing for human connection begins to come to the surface, in a way that is threatening to his stability.

: Very interesting that you like to write from a male point of view. What are the challenges of writing from the POV of the opposite sex? Do you have brothers who you grew up with? If so, does the experience help in understanding male minds?

Pamela Erens: I honestly didn’t find writing from the point of view of a male character a challenge. I just didn’t think about it. As I mentioned before, I’ve often gravitated to writing from a male p.o.v. I do have brothers but I don’t think that has much to do with that choice. I really do feel that the primary emotions—longing or rage or remorse or whatever—are accessible to you as a writer whether you’re working with a male or a female character. I think at the base level we’re all made up of the same stuff. Maybe I’m naïve.

Interviewer: Why is it so important for you to separate from a character and make it plainly clear that "the character is a fiction, is not me"?

Jack first meets Patrick in a brownstone

Pamela Erens: I meant that it has to be clear to me that the character is a fiction. I’m not thinking about the reader here.

If I merge too much with a character—if I give her (or him) a history or hobbies or a personality that is too much like my own—it limits that character. I might fail to let an aspect of her character bloom because it feels alien or frightening to me. I might not let her take an action I would never take. It hobbles my imagination. At worst, it can also be a species of self-therapy: Oh, let me put this version of myself on the page and then I’ll just grind all my axes and wail about all the stuff I’m still unhappy about and feel a little self-satisfaction or relief that way.

Interviewer: You mentioned the author's emotional truth in fiction, and in the case of The Understory it is related to your own experiences of isolation and longing. Where does your feeling of isolation come from?

Pamela Erens: That’s probably an unanswerable question! In many ways I don’t feel isolated at all. I have a husband and children, and my life is quite full. But I’ve always had a hermit side to my personality. I like being alone for big chunks of the day. I have a pretty busy interior life—I’m not saying a fascinating one, just a busy one—and maybe at times that makes me hyperaware of the boundaries between me and everybody else. And then there were times in my life, when I was younger, when I was much too much alone and felt kind of frighteningly lost. So it doesn’t take that much for me to access the feeling of being alone, different, or isolated.

Interviewer: What made you choose a Buddhist monastery as one of the main settings? Buddhism believes "No desire is strength" and, in a way, embraces isolation and loneliness. Do you find this an interesting contrast to Jack's mindset?

Pamela Erens: Yes, I thought Buddhist practice, with its emphasis on silence and awareness, would be an interesting counterpoint to Jack’s type of solitude and introspection. I could see Jack being instinctively drawn to Buddhism. But Buddhist practice actually requires that you spend a great deal of time not being in your own head--in being attuned, rather, to what’s outside of you. It also requires that you follow external rules and submit to authority. Both of those things are difficult for Jack, who wants to set his own rules and happens to enjoy the world of his thoughts. I don’t think I chose the monastery setting in any rational way. Like most of the bigger decisions I made about the novel, it was kind of intuitive. I just wanted him to go there.

Interviewer: Are you a plant lover? How did this help in portraying Jack's character?

Jack attends bonsais

Pamela Erens: I don’t know if I’m a plant lover. I like plants, but I’m not a gardener and I’m not even that knowledgeable about plant life. I learned a fair amount to write the novel, but I’ve forgotten a lot of it now. I do have a fascination with systems, and the taxonomy of plants always seemed a cool thing to me, as it does to Jack. My husband happens to be an avid gardener, and I’ve learned some things from watching him or listening to him talk about our garden. He’s the expert, not me. But when he gets me to focus on, say, our tomatoes, or cajoles me into planting carrot seeds, I can see how people get totally obsessed with this activity. There is something magical about the way plants grow and mature, and if you want them to thrive you have to pay attention to all the little details in the same way that you have to pay attention to all the little details when you’re raising children. I keep telling my husband that if there were twenty extra hours in the day, then, sure, I could see getting pretty absorbed by gardening.

Interviewer: There is a memorable side character, Mrs. Fiore, who wants Jack to address her by first name. Is this interesting detail from any of your own experience?

Pamela Erens: I didn’t base that detail on any one particular experience, but names and how we address people are bound up with questions of intimacy. What do you do when you don’t want to invite further closeness with someone, but you don’t want to insult them, either? This is a classic Jack dilemma. There are other moments having to do with names and naming in the book, such as when Jack sees his name written on an envelope in Patrick’s handwriting, and that connection makes him feel differently about the name, which he’s never liked.

Interviewer: The opening paragraph strikes me as deceptively calm, almost matter of fact, yet it radiates such an ambiance that I was immediately drawn to read more. It turns out to be a great opening in many different respects. What were your considerations in choosing such an opening?

Pamela Erens: For a long time I had a different opening, in which Jack was already at the monastery and was just talking to us about it, its look, its feel, its routines. One day it struck me that the current opening would be more distinctive and dramatic (if you can call pouring a cup of coffee dramatic), and crystallize something about Jack’s character and the kind of interior tensions he lives with.

Interviewer: I'm glad you changed the opening to the current one, because it really works. Did you ever consider ending the novel with the second last chapter? What do you think the book would lose or gain without the last chapter?

Jack hides in a knotweed bush at a climactic point

Pamela Erens: I never did consider that. I think too much would be lost. We need to know, first of all, what happens to Patrick, and we also need to glean what is behind Jack's final attempt to contact him.

Interviewer: The key reversal moment caught me by surprise, however in retrospect it is only logical. Had you planned this moment all along, or did it come to you as a surprise as well?

Pamela Erens: I had that key reversal or climactic scene in mind from very early on. I had an idea of the basic arc of the novel, and wanted that to be the ending. Although many things changed over the course of the writing, that scene was one thing that never changed, that I always knew I was going toward.

Interviewer: What was the most challenging part in writing the novel? What was the most enjoyable part?

Pamela Erens: The most challenging part was moving from an earlier incarnation of the book--which was more intellectualized and involved more of Jack yammering on about various topics—to the version that exists now, in which Jack is hopefully revealed primarily through action and situation. Another way of putting it is that the most challenging part was maturing as a writer! I didn’t realize at first just how much I had failed to dramatize.

But that hard work was also enjoyable. I got excited as I realized I could convey certain emotions and realities through scenes, not just by talking about them. I enjoyed figuring out ways to do that.

One of the other enjoyable parts was working with the structure. Right from the beginning I knew that I wanted to toggle between the present-tense monastery scenes and the past-tense New York scenes. It was an idea I’d stolen from a beautiful novella by William Trevor called Reading Turgenev, which starts in the present tense in a mental institution, describing the life of an older woman there. Then the novella jumps back decades to show you the woman’s youth, jumps to the present again, and so on, until gradually the two timelines converge and you understand how the woman ended up in the institution.

The structure did pose complications, of course. I was always poring over my dual timelines, trying to figure out how to make everything come out right.

Interviewer: When did you submit The Understory to the Ironweed contest? Did you try to find an agent or publisher for the novel before that?

Pamela Erens: When the book was done I sent it around to agents for a while. The comment I most often got was, "This is beautifully written, but...." I told my husband that that was what was going to end up on my tombstone, "She wrote beautifully, but..." When no agent took the novel, I started looking at small presses, and I entered the manuscript in Ironweed Press's fiction contest.

I did a good deal of revision after the book was accepted. My editor had some changes he wanted, and once I started to make those I wanted to rethink everything. I ended up doing far more than I, or my editor, had planned for. But I think those changes eventually solved the "beautifully written, but...." problem. The novel came out leaner and the element of suspense was increased.

Interviewer: Even though you struggled to publish this novel, it has gained significant literary acclaim and press attention. At the same time, many works that get published are not that well received. Do you see anything, beyond luck, at play in this?

Pamela Erens: If the question has to do with number of reviews, it’s been a combination of luck and footwork. I amended the list of reviewers that Ironweed Press planned to send bound galleys to, because I felt it was too all-purpose. I wanted to send to places I thought might actually take a specific interest in the book, either because of the subject matter or because it was a small-press book or because (if I was really lucky) I knew someone – or knew someone who knew someone – who worked there. So I did a lot of research to find those places, and after the galleys went out I wrote lots of followup letters. A large number of galleys still fell into a black hole, but that’s to be expected.

If you’re talking more about the positive nature of the response, I’ll have to hope and pray that I’ve actually earned it. It does seem to me a plus that my novel is so short. People don’t have too much time to get bored.

Interviewer: Chicago Tribune calls the writing "understated." Another review mentions the novel’s "minimal plot." Do you agree or disagree with those comments?

Pamela Erens: Yes, phrases like "understated" and "minimal plot" come up over and over in the reviews! I more or less agree with those statements. Certainly I think the novel's narrative approach is to express major emotions through minor occurrences. I'm not sure I'd call the plot genuinely "minimal." A few dramatic things do happen. But it's true that the novel takes place over a fairly short period of time, the cast of characters is small, and there are no wars or shootings or flamboyant love affairs. #

Thursday, March 13, 2008

'Lust, Caution': Dangers and Promise

by Lance Berry

"I have to be honest; as soon as I saw the flashback beginning, I thought, Oh, no--! Not another film that's going to try and be clever, by showing us a flashback and then returning to the present to show us how this character arrived at that point. It's been done to death (or absolutely murdered, if the recent Vantage Point is any indication). However, under the skilled aegis of director Ang Lee ('Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon', 'Brokeback Mountain'), the device is wielded effectively, refashioned from a blunt club back into a surgical tool once again. Like the magnificent 'Crouching Tiger', 'Lust, Caution' is an automatic classic...and is a complete and absolute apology for 2003's abysmal Hulk." Continue to read>>

Related posts:
Another Kind of Movie Reviwer
'Lust, Caution' (色戒) ,Tony Leung, and Eileen Chang
Michael Wood on Lust, Caution ("色戒")

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ning Feng and Paganini's 'Cannone'

by Hong Jiang (translated from Chinese by Xujun Eberlein)

(Hong Jiang is my townsfolk from Chongqing, China. Our friendship began many years ago as undergraduates in Chongqing University. She now works as a database administrator in one world, and the chairwoman of Yan-Huang Performing Arts in another. – Xujun)
I first heard Ning Feng's name from Hu Kun, professor of the Royal Academy of Music in London and my husband's childhood buddy. It was 2003, and I was organizing the "Concertos for Piano, Violin, Erhu and Pipa." I invited Hu Kun to perform a violin concerto. He was unable to make it, so he recommended his newly graduated student Ning Feng. I hesitated. The players I recruited for the concert were all world-level musicians, but Ning Feng was an unheard-of name.

As if guessing my thought, Hu Kun said, "Don't worry. I promise Ning Feng will make your concert a success." He even mailed me the congratulatory letter from the Academy's president when Ning Feng became the first in 200 years to receive full-score for his graduation concert.
Thus 21-year-old Ning Feng came to Boston. A fellow Sichuanese, his lovely honest face looked artless. If you ran into him on the street, you wouldn't have connected his image to a world-level artist. However, when he stood at ease on the ornate stage of Jordan Hall, intoxicant in his own playing of Jean Sibelius' "Violin concerto in D minor," his rakish manner and artistic excellence thoroughly conquered the entire audience. The nearly 40-minute long violin piece was played in one perfect breath. The excited audience applauded and shouted "Encore! Encore!" Ning Feng had to return to the stage three times. Afterward, several people said to me, "He was too good! My hands are red from clapping so hard."

From Ning Feng's bio I learned that he had already won a dozen awards in international competitions. I asked him why he hadn't been in the Paganini Competition. He said, "I will."

True to his words, the next year, in 2004, Ning Feng applied for the Paganini Competition and was accepted. A week before he was to set off for Italy, however, he contracted a bad flu and tonsillitis. His high fever lasted for days, and he was forced to cancel the journey. A few weeks later, the competition result revealed: the first prize was vacant.

As if waiting for him, beginning that year, the competition was changed from annual to bi-annual.

In September 2006, 55 young violinists from all over the world traveled to Genova, Italy for the 51th Paganini Competition. Upon his arrival, Ning Feng's luggage and stage-costume were lost, and he had to wear jeans on stage. After a week of fierce contention in the preliminaries and semi-finals, Ning Feng found himself entering the final match with five other violinists. Besides a required Paganini piece, he chose a difficult Brahms' violin concerto. This is a piece of non-sentimental, profound music, thus one that is hard to please a jury with. The choice was a display of unusual confidence. Was he over-confident?

Ning Feng would later write in a blog article titled "Dream":

As a child I owned a hand-copied violin score, on its cover a hand-written title "24 Capriccios of Paganini." I thought then, "Perhaps one day I will be playing them on a stage."
In middle school, I once bought a CD, with it came a photo of Paganini's own violin "Cannone." I thought then, "Perhaps one day I will be holding 'Cannone' and hearing its sounds from my own hands?"

On October 1, 2006, in Genova, Italy, at the award ceremony of the 51th International Violin Competition, Ning Feng heard his name read three times by the chairman of the jury, who spoke only Italian. Ning Feng went on the stage three times to receive the medals, but he did not understand a single Italian word other than his name, and did not know what the awards were for. At last, he could not help but asking an English-speaking juror standing behind him:

"Who got the first place?"

The juror looked at him suspiciously, as if to decide whether he was pretending, before saying, "Why, it is you."

To Ning Feng, the highest award was that, as the first place winner he was given the honor of playing Paganini's violin, the 1743 Guarneri del Gesù 'Cannone.'

(Ning Feng, together with Chen Xi, will be performing violin in Boston on Saturday, March 22, 2008, as well as in New Brunswick, NJ, on Saturday April 12 2008. Details and tickets on )

Monday, March 10, 2008

At the Boston Flower Show

Yesterday, my husband and I went to the Spring Flower Show at Boston's Bayside Expo Center. The walls separate a blooming spring from icy winter outside. After attending a talk "Introduction to Garden Water Features," we spent hours perusing exhibits. We studied several landscape showcases, and lingered in front of many intricate flower arrangements. For the latter I want to share with you a few of my favorites (you can click the photos to enlarge).

1. (left) Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, is distinguished by its asymmetric form and use of empty space as an essential feature.

2. (right) Joyce Girvin, Hollistin GC/Sedona Area GC, Second Award

Judge comments: "A true tornado. Visual weight at the top affects the balance."

3. (left) Linda Clarke, Ikenobo School. Plant materials: Forsythia, Spray roses

4. (below) Cathy Walsh, Independent, First Award

Judge comments: "Skillful handling of pristine plant material creates a walk through the Fens."

Friday, March 7, 2008

'Lust, Caution' (色戒) ,Tony Leung, and Eileen Chang

I missed Ang Lee's Lust, Caution in the local theaters. Before finally watching the newly released DVD at home last weekend, I had already heard much about it. Even though I avoided reading reviews, words came into my ear from unavoidable friends. No surprise would have been left, or so I thought.

When the movie finished, I found myself in an upset state. I stayed up late trying to figure out what was so disturbing. It isn't the sex scenes that everyone is talking about; those scenes probably affect men more than women. It is the execution, or more precisely, the unshown, therefore seemly unfinished, execution of the students that include Mrs. Mak (Tang Wei). My unwriterly refusal to "see" the fact lingered until well after: isn't he going to spare her life, as she did his?

The rational and realistic answer, of course, is "no." We Chinese have a ready adage for this – "not cruel, not man," not to mention that issuing execution orders is part of Mr. Yee's profession. The question then is why I should be so shocked.

It is Tony Leung's melancholic eyes.

That night I searched on the internet and found Eileen Chang's original story in Chinese, in which the reputed 1940s author wrote the key reversal moment (my translation):

His smile at the moment is without the slightest irony, only a bit of sadness. His silhouette from the table lamp, his eyes cast down, eyelashes like rice-colored moth wings, resting on his lean face, and she sees tenderness and compassion in his look.

This man is really in love with me, she suddenly thinks. A bang on her heart, something lost.

Too late.

The store owner hands him the receipt. He slides it in his pocket.

"Go, quick," she says in a low voice.

Nothing could have reproduced those subtle words of Eileen Chang's like Tony Leung's melancholic eyes. The incongruity of Mr.Yee's inside and outside is a source of shock. The man is capable of being poetic and cruel at the same time, and true to both, while the woman, in an inexplicable and critical moment, chooses to see only the former but not the latter. The very source of tragic consequence.

Interestingly, the story is only an artful and symbolic rendition of Eileen Chang's real love life. An extremely happening writer in 1940s China, whose legendary life later ended with loneliness in 1995 Los Angeles, Eileen Chang's most-talked-about love was with Hu Lancheng. She was 24, and Hu was a 38-year-old married man. Like the story, he worked for the Japanese occupiers and thus was a "traitor to the Chinese." That did not matter to Chang. She was in love with the man, not his job. Unlike the story, their separation later was not due to political stance, but the man's infidelity. Yet his silhouette stayed with her for a long time.

Chang wrote "Lust, Caution" in 1950's Shanghai, not long before she fled China for fear of political persecution. There might have been a personal reason for the story's ending of Mr. Yee's betrayal and Mrs. Mak's destruction.

Though there are many modifications by Ang Lee of the namesake story, for example Chang pens no explicit sex scenes or violence, Ang Lee at least is loyal to Chang's original ending. The undisplayed execution has a deep impact on audience psychology. As long as we haven't heard the gun shots, our hallucination of humanity is kept alive. The longer the hallucination lasts, the harder the blow when it disintegrates.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Bufflo News Report on 'Radical Gratitude'

"In the mud hut they called home, the 5-year-old boy watched as his grandfather lay dying on a bed of straw. It wasn’t the harsh Siberian cold or the meager rations that were killing the old man, though they might have. It was, instead, that he decided to starve himself.

It was the winter of 1940, and Vladislav Paluchowski, a man of quiet strength, had been hungry for weeks, along with his wife, daughter and two grandsons. He did the only thing he could: He decided to die so the others might share a few more scraps of food."

So begins the The Bufflo News report on Radical Gratitude, a nonfiction book co-authored by Andrew Bienkowski and Mary Akers. I so look forward to reading the book!

Continue to read the report here.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

An Innovative Interview

Steve Prosapio, a novelist, interviews another novelist on his No Bull website today. What struck me as a fascinating idea is the concept of a "virtual meeting." The interview begins with eye-catching photos of the "meeting" place and a bit of its history. If – I'm being fussy here – the chosen place were somehow connected to the novel being discussed, the effect would be even greater!

The novel they discussed is Geoffrey Edwards' Fire Bell in the Night, a Civil War story that won the First Chapters contest. The questions involve both the process of writing and the content of the book. Check out the interview here.

"The Camphor Suitcase" Second in Essay Contest

My personal essay, "The Camphor Suitcase," won second prize in Literal Latte's Essay Awards. The top three winners will receive $1000, $300, and $200 respectively, and be published on-line when Literal Latte finishes redesigning its website in a few weeks.

A 10-year-old innovative magazine with a big literary presence and highly reputed contests, Literal Latte used to be a newsprint publication available for free in every independent coffeehouse in NYC. Now it has moved to completely on-line, complemented with annual print anthologies. With Starbucks taking over everywhere and the consequent disappearance of independent coffee houses, such a move is welcome. I heard rumors that the new face of Literal Latte's website will be exciting, and I look forward to seeing it.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Also on Literal and Literary Truth

by Larry Mongoss, guest blogger

Did you read the story in the New York Times – “National Enquirer Article a Fabrication?” I can’t remember what the article being referred to was about, something to do with the founding of Rome I think. Still, I was astonished that a nationally distributed periodical would knowingly publish something containing falsehoods.

After that, when I read the story about Misha Defonseca admitting that her book, Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, was made up I was not nearly as surprised as everyone else seems to have been. I have not had a chance to read the book but in it four year old Misha’s parents are taken to a concentration camp by the Nazis and she wanders for several years in the woods until she is adopted by a pack of wolves.

OK, I guess I can understand that the temptation to believe a story like that. A few internet searches do turn up modern day Moglis. From the girl found in Cambodia after, some claim, 10 years in the jungle to a boy raised by dogs in Russia, these stories appear often (there is actually a website devoted to such children). Unlike Mogli or Tarzan though, these people do not present as well adjusted mentally healthy individuals. They are, in fact, stunted and traumatized to the point where most can never function as a member of society.

Anyone with even a little bit of common sense reading Defonseca’s book must have known it was not literal truth; the question then is whether it is literary truth. In this case the real source of distrust probably arises from the fact that her parents were not taken to a concentration camp, but underground movement members caught and executed. Does that discredit every, or most, insights into the human condition that one can get reading the book?

When James Frey’s book went through a similar turn I read it with just that question in mind. The book fascinated me, not so much because of the rich, and fabricated, storyline, but more because of the disdain it showed for the AA five step program. I have always been struck by what I perceived as a lack of dissent on that program. Frey’s book provides that dissent, but is it legitimate?

The whole question of literal and literary truth has been, and continues to be, heavily debated among writers. An article in the November issue of Harper's,A Lie that Tells the Truth” by Joel Agee, looks at this, concluding that some license is reasonable. When you approach this question from the perspective of the reader, however, different issues are at play. First, and foremost, everybody lies. Be it a memoir, a textbook or a newspaper article expecting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth seems pretty naive.

Thus the question of legitimacy is not one for Frey, or Defonseca, or really any writer to answer, it is for the reader to decide. Literary, and most human, truths have to depend on a preponderance of evidence. In short that means you have to read more than one thing. If anyone ever tells you there is only one book you need to read on a topic, run the other way and read none, or plenty. A great writer should be loved, but never trusted. #

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Disagreeing with Smart People
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