Friday, October 28, 2011
Seattle Public Library
October 24, 2011
Tonight is going to be huge and I am so sure of it I get off work early to ensure I get a prime seat. One of the true masters of prose, Michael Ondaatje has arrived to promote his newest book, “The Cat’s Table.”
Mr. Ondaatje’s appearance was advertised in the Seattle times as part of the Library author series and as expected the place was packed.
Now, I honestly believe that Mr. Ondaatje writing is some of the best prose by any living author. Too bad his author reading stunk.
Rick from Elliot Bay Bookstore gives a heartfelt introduction and Ondaatje makes a grand appearance, looking the part of a regal professor from that Ivy League school you wished you could have attended.
This is the biggest crowd I have seen in a long time. Three hundred plus fans of literature appear tonight for an evening that truly sucked. This is the kind of author who is capable of attracting a crowd that might never step out of the house.
Oh a word about the audience. This is not the regular lit crowd. Book clubs came. Groups of students arrive. This is the high snob, I read a book a week and what an intellectual I am crowd. This is the crowd that comes into town with friends for dinner and lectures, plays symphonies. They buy books get it?
Mr. Ondaatje begins with a very brief introduction, so brief in fact that I barely get the premise before he starts reading scattered long sections from his newest novel. “Cat’s Table”
The novel is the story of three eleven year old boys, on a voyage to London. The boys, strangers at first, are traveling unsupervised by adults and the novel follows their journey of discovery as they leave home for various reasons.
Mr.Ondaatje’s reading voice can best be described as hypnotic. He has a soft unique accent that is pleasant to the ear and as he begins reading you can hear a pin drop. The passages he reads tonight lead me to believe this book is of the same caliber as his previous works and his ability to command words that good together is on full display. If you have never read one of his novels, check one out and you will see what I mean.
For instance, Mr.Ondaatje’s protagonist, (ironically named Michael) describes a specific character he meets as “tentative,” “languid”, and “moving like a sick cat.” When the boys place themselves intentionally in harm's way and are discovered by the ship’s spotlight the narrator describes that he and his companions could “sense the outrage behind the light.”
As said earlier, Mr.Ondaatje has a soothing voice, it lacks inflection, but is a gorgeous voice causing the crowd to sway like the rocking of the ship his characters travel. There is however a danger to listening to this kind of author read and that is the danger of falling asleep.
The first twenty minutes go well. Rarely did Mr.Ondaatje take a break from reading to explain anything and when doing so, the author offered little background to the audience. What little bit of the novel’s back story he did expound upon lacked humor or antidotes.
This reading was analogous to a long slow steady love making session; after the initial magic wears off the constant rhythm becomes irritating and then you just hope it ends soon.
Finally when he stopped reading, the author closed the book and said softly, “I will now take your questions.”
Questions about what? He hardly said anything, read for forty minutes and now the crowd was expected to ask questions? I got some questions, Hey Mike why don’t you talk to us about the book's plot, or your motivation for writing or your writing process or you what you had for dinner? Something so the audience has a starting point for a conversation.
So now unfold the worst thing that can happen during an author reading. The audience provides all subject material; the author is forced to deal with the result thus turning a nice evening into a staid, insipid mess.
So what do you get when an author steps on the stage, reads for forty minutes then goes straight into Q&A?
Here are some pearls:
Which of your novels is your favorite? (Ondaatje dismisses the question.)
What are you reading now? (He can’t remember off the top of his head)
Who was your first publisher? (Relevance please)
By now, Mr. Ondaatje looks bored. I’m bored. That is because there is no focus of his reading. The excitement of the audience is reduced to a band of adults checking their smart phones. Give us a conversation starter Ondaatje. Tell us where you lived how you started where you came to love the craft? My God it was more awkward than a junior high dance.
Here is some more questions:
“What novels were your inspiration?” (The author says too many to mention)
“What is your method of writing?” (Long hand then three or four drafts before the finished product.)
Okay, maybe I am being too harsh. To be fair Mr. Ondaatje has been on a huge tour and Seattle was the tail end. He is and older man now; he successful but he is tired. I doubt there are few questions he has never been asked.
I don’t care. People made sacrifices to come here tonight. Seattle is in the midst of one of the biggest paralyzing road projects in its history. It was a testament to Mr. Ondaatje and the city’s literary fans that came out tonight in such impressive numbers most authors will never experience.
At least Mr. Ondaatje could have made an effort to be interesting.
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Seattle Public Library
Sponsored by Secret Garden Books
October 10, 2011
Short Version: "Scott Westerfeld is not the adult who tries to relate to younger fans by acting their age. Westerfeld succeeds by being an adult who holds a youth’s attention by being interesting. He certainly had mine tonight."
Here is something adults complain about, not enough adolescents read these days. Well they should have been here this night
A few years back I attended a writer’s conference in Canada and Scott Westerfeld's novel "Leviathan" was hailed by this particular literary agent as the premier novel on the Steampunk genre. Well goodness me anytime the premiere anything is in town it is time to make an appearance. I confess this was an eye opener.
By the time I got in the door to the Seattle Downtown library I didn’t know what the hell to think. Kids. Loads of them, showing up on a Friday night with books to be autographed and dressed in costumes resembling the characters Westerfeld had created.
As a lone adult I had neither a costume nor was I escorting a teenage fan and so I stuck out like a sore thumb as the crowd lined up.
One group of young ladies (Age 13-15 )were dressed up in outfits straight out a scene from a Monte painting. Actually they didn’t look so out of place as they did, well, cute. They were clean cute clean polite proper girls who read books and are into the characters. Moms stayed an appropriate distance away of course but it was heartwarming.
Then there was the smallish prepubescent boy (13?) sporting the Duran Duran Haircut who wore a shirt that said “Step into the Dork Side” What was funny about him was every time another adult appeared his dad would look around with that expression of ‘Please God don’t let anyone I know see me.’
Steam punk is hard to define. Think of alternative universe where automation and technology have no bounds but everything is new and takes place around the turn of the last century. Confused? Think "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" as an early Steampunk adventure novel.
Inside the library I get a good seat when a young man fired up on what seems a lethal combination of Red Bull and hyper-enthusiasm jumps the seat next to right and asks me “Are you pulling a Malone?” Huh?
Malone it turns out is a reporter in the Westerfeld novels and this kid thinks my note pad and tape recorder are part of my costume. I am just playing a character. The young man is old by the crowds standards, (19) and he is fully decked out in military surplus gear (complete with Aviator Goggles of course) and explains to me that he is dressed as a “Clanker” from the novel.
I don’t know what a Clanker is but as the kid prattles on (Let’s call him Wes) I now realize I have a Sherpa to take me inside the world of the Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy.
HOLD YOUR BREATH THIS IS THE DYSTOPIAN BACKDROP OF LEVIATHAN.
According to Wes, Charles Darwin discovers DNA. This allows counties known as Darwinist, (Britain, France, Russia,) use their advanced technology to create an advanced weapon system dominated by gene splicing. This means their weapons are hybrid animals with special powers to be used in warfare.
The Darwinist nations are opposed to the “Clanker Nations” (Germany, Austria-Hungary) who have developed high powered creative War machines operated by Steam and other fuels existing before the age of Nuclear power. The Clankers are at philosophical and technological differences with the Darwinist. The Arch Duke Ferdinand gets assassinated, World War I has breaks out and it is up to the two sides to settle things once and for all.
Get it? I don’t either because IT’S STEAMPUNK but I am hoping Scott Westerfeld will explain as his author reading is about to start. “Wes” is done with me and finds costume company on the auditorium floor.
It’s hard to hold the attention of someone across the room but holding the attention of one hundred fifty kids? The atmosphere is that of a high school pep rally and I am dying to see how this middle aged author is going to pull it off.
Westerfeld is tall and comes across gentle even shy, as if he has never yelled at anyone in his life. Rather than stand off stage waiting for the big entrance, Westerfeld sits calmly at the front of the stage taking pictures of the crowd and playing with his telephone. For a man who is here to speak to adoring fans I am shocked how the crowd streams in past him not giving him a second glance. I wonder if these kids know who he is because they ignore him like a substitute teacher.
Westerfeld looks bored, and if he reads like he looks this is going to be a wasted reading. What is the old saying about judging a book and its cover?
After he is introduced by the library staff Westerfeld a portable microphone where the author turns into part history professor and part game show host complete with a PowerPoint presentation.
Unlike the adult who is scared of children, Westerfeld refuses to hide behind a podium. He prefers the portable microphone for mobility and like any good novel, Westerfeld challenges the audience to not only follow what he says but to physically follow his movements on stage.
Now I understand his secret. Scott Westerfeld is not the adult who tries to relate to younger fans by acting their age. Westerfeld succeeds by being an adult who holds a youth’s attention by being interesting. He certainly had mine tonight.
What was so great about tonight? I complain that authors should talk about their novels and read from their books for the purpose of increasing book sales. Westerfeld is one of those rare birds who can sell books without uttering a word from his novel.
He did this through the visual images of his novel’s illustrations.
You see, tonight this was not a reading but a history lesson about illustrations in novels. The author spoke of the power of the illustrator and how they can shape and increase the pleasure of the written word. He talked about how the legendary image of Sherlock Holmes, complete with Deerstalking hat, was not created by the author, but rather an illustrator. Nowhere in the Sherlock Holmes books does it say Holmes even wears a hat of any kind; let alone a Londoner wearing a hat used when hunting in the woods but that first illustrator gave Holmes an iconic image for history.
With this background, Westerfeld began to explain to the audience how his illustrator, Keith Thompson, helped shape the world of the Leviathan series. Westerfeld heaped praise on Thompson’s work as a key component to the success of the series.
Westerfeld said that he would write a few chapters then Thompson would send back the drawings that came to his imagination from Westerfeld’s words. Often times Thompson’s illustrations shaped and changed the novels so that the two fit hand in hand.
Toward the end, Westerfeld, encouraged the young audience, or anyone who dared to write a novel to stretch their imaginations beyond what they think others will accept as normal.
It was an inspiring night even for an adult.