The Novel as a Window on Society: from nuns to pythons and beyond

By Janet Somerville

Tuesday night four fabulous women novelists appeared in a round table conversation in the Brigantine Room to discuss the Novel as Window on Society as it related to their most recent books. Simonetta Agnello Hornby, Emily St. John Mandel, Emily Schultz and Linda Spalding revealed their singular intelligence and commitment to their craft throughout the discussion moderated by David Layton.

Hornby, whose most recent novel is The Nun, began with the caveat “I have no faith, so it was difficult for me to become a nun.” In terms of offering her readers a way of engaging with her protagonist she suggested that “change could happen within yourself from reading. There’s the power of literature. And, change came for this 19th century nun through the books she is gifted from an admirer.”

Mandel’s noir, The Lola Quartet,  grounded in the recent financial collapse, is “about a disgraced journalist who flames out spectacularly in New York City and ends up selling foreclosed real estate in Florida for his sister.” Commenting on the menacing burmese pythons that slither through the Florida wetlands in her narrative, Mandel said she realized they served as a metaphor for “creeping civilization and the idea of borders: the way the world should be versus the way it is.”

Schultz’s dystopian satire, The Blondes, found its genesis in a Gucci ad in Vanity Fair in which four blonde women in safari wear, their eyes heavily lined, “looked like vampires that were going to ravage you and not in a good way.” And, although there is plenty of gore, it is a socially conscious novel, informed by the paranoia and panic created in the days, weeks and months surrounding the SARS and avian flu epidemics.

Spalding’s historical fiction, The Purchase—shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize—is the most personal of the four, inspired as it is by a relative who was a Quaker who happened to be a slaveowner, a shocking revelation about which she became obsessed since “the Quakers were the great abolitionists of the 18th century.” What could possibly have made that great great grandfather abandon society and “regressively become something almost feral?”

About getting to the chair and writing each offered the following advice: Hornby insisted, “You must want to do it. Respect for the reader has got to be fundamental.” Mandel said, “Do the work. Put the hours in.” Schultz suggested that each subsequent manuscript she hoped “was like a lover, each new one better than the last.” Spalding concluded, “If you keep challenging yourself, it shouldn’t get easier.”

Wise words, indeed.

Visit readings.org for more event listings. Follow Janet Somerville on twitter at @janetsomerville or on her blog Reading for the Joy of It.

Five Questions with…Emily Schultz

Emily Schultz, author of The Blondes, will participate in a round table discussion on October 23 and a reading October 25.

© Brian Joseph Davis

IFOA: Who are you most looking forward to seeing at the Festival?

Schultz: Too many to list, but as  I lived in Toronto for quite a few years I’m looking forward to catching up with friends and local writers who I miss.

IFOA: You’re the co-founder of Joyland. What’s one thing you’ve learned from your contributors lately?

Schultz: Short fiction has different laws from novel writing but maybe something I’m reminded of all the time is don’t waste that first sentence. It’s the one free moment the reader gives you. Everything after has to be earned.

IFOA: In The Blondes, women with blonde hair turn into zombies—even if they have a dye job. We hear you’ve dyed your hair blonde in the past. Did you like being a blonde?

Schultz: I think what I learned, and what I tried to to put into the novel, was that small things divide women during our day to day lives—hair, culture, class, age—but more important issues will always unite us.

IFOA: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?

Schultz: Well I’m working on a TV pilot right now and that feels like a vacation from novel writing. I guess I have no escape from writing.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I wish I could…

Schultz: Zero-out my Visa balance once in my life.

IFOA: Bonus question: International Festival of Authors in one word:

Schultz: Opulent. (An adjective that most writers never get to experience, so thank you IFOA!)

Click here for more about Schultz and The Blondes.

Five questions with… novelist Corey Redekop

© Judd Dowhy

Corey Redekop will be at IFOA to share Husk, a novel about a struggling actor turned zombie.

IFOA: Who are you most excited to see at the Festival, and why?

Redekop: Aside from all the authors I “know” through Facebook and Twitter but haven’t yet met in person, there’s one individual I’m truly excited about (two if you count Cory Doctorow, but as we’re in the same event, I’ll just assume we’ll actually shake hands). I’m not sure if I’ll get to see him because of scheduling, but I do hope I’ll get chance to see and maybe meet China Miéville. Right now, pound for pound, Miéville’s one of the best fantasy writers on the planet, one of those rare writers able to infuse fantastical scenarios with absolutely believable characters (others being Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker). His prose is second to none, and The City and the City is one of the best fantasy thriller novels I’ve read this millennium. At heart, I am a huge geek, and while it bugs me that I’m actually older than many of the authors I geek out over, I’ll probably shriek with glee if I meet him.

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Redekop: I typically read a few books at a time, my version of channel surfing, I suppose. I just completed Michael Tregebov’s very funny Jewish comedy The Shiva and Emily Schultz’s just so damned good The Blondes. I’m currently devouring Gemma Files’ A Tree of Bones, a great wrap-up to her Hexslinger trilogy, and I’m quite enjoying John Scalzi’s comic fantasy An Agent to the Stars. On deck, I’ve got Paul Tremblay’s Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye, Heather Jessup’s The Lightning Field, and Mark A. Rayner’s The Fridgularity.

IFOA: What’s the coolest thing about being a zombie?

Redekop: Well, you don’t need sleep, so you get a lot of work done. By “work,” I mean rampant cannibalism, but it is work, especially when your lunch refuses to sit still. Also cool? You can easily win any “how long can you hold your breath?” contests.

IFOA: We’ve heard you’ll be here for your birthday. What do you usually do on your birthday?

Redekop: Normally, I take the day off work and lounge about the house in a bathrobe or, sometimes, completely naked. Should make for an interesting round table. IFOA is a clothing optional festival, right?

IFOA: Finish this sentence: The Internet is…

Redekop: A massive timesuck, made of cats, a warning sign of the dumbing down of the world, and the greatest thing ever made.

IFOA: Bonus question: This year’s International Festival of Authors in one word…

Redekop: Eclectic.

Redekop will participate in two IFOA events: an October 25 reading and a round table called Zombies, Witches, Killers and Cowboys: Visions of the Future of the Novel on October 27.