Rebecca Lee, Ben Lerner, Jess Walter: considering language and lost in translation

By Janet Somerville

Canadian poet Jacob McArthur Mooney was a gracious and thoughtful host of the reading/interview featuring Rebecca Lee (Bobcat and Other Stories), Ben Lerner (Leaving the Atocha Station) and Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruins). My table companion in the Brigantine Room, David Kent (President of HarperCollins Canada), may have revealed himself to be an equal Lit Nerd to me, as ebullient and supportive as he was about all of the participants and their intelligent comments throughout the afternoon.

The event began with each reading from their work. Lee picked a story about plagiarism, set circa 1985, pre-Internet, when students “had to be bullied into admitting it” in which the accuser asked, “who helped you? A book or a person?” Lerner read an excerpt grounded in misunderstanding because of his poet protagonist’s assumed inability to communicate in Spanish as he tried to establish a life for himself in Madrid, where he “looked at the water and was sober,” comprehending only “in chords.” Walter introduced his Hollywood producer, Michael Deane, “a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed,” one who was seventy-two “with the face of a nine-year-old Filipina girl.” George Hamilton, anyone?

Jess Walter reading at IFOA 2012 (c) readings.org

Jess Walter reading at IFOA 2012 (c) readings.org

Prompted to consider lost in translation as a motif in each of their pieces, Lee suggested it was like falling in love, while Lerner said he found it interesting that “ambiguity is celebrated in poetry–it’s not a problem.” And, in Leaving the Atocha Station, his protagonist “believes people only find him interesting when he speaks in enigmatic fragments. He’s trying to keep fluency at bay.” For Walter, “miscommunication creates interesting distances.” When two of his characters “find each other and fall in love, but don’t speak each other’s language” it seems a “perfect metaphor for stumbling along in any of our lives.”

On writing itself as a process Lee said, “the essential struggle for me is moving ahead in the story and writing it beautifully. I have to write the first sentence and care about it.” For Lerner, “language is what I am most sensitive to, in love with, and annoyed by.” Walter admitted, “the lines drive me in the writing. I have to like the sound of them.” All of that is true for me as a reader, too. What matters is the phrasing, the rhythm, the pacing of each mindfully selected word. How many bars of Ella Fitzgerald do you need to listen to in order to know she’s great? It’s the same with finely crafted writing. You know in a moment or two.

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

Jess Walter on #BeautifulRuins and how writing is like building snowmans

The incredible Jess Walter took some time to chat with us before hopping on a plane and flying to Toronto for IFOA. If you missed it, here’s our recap via Storify.

All books are lovely failures.

Walter will appear in two fantastic IFOA events this weekend: a reading/interview on Saturday, October 27, and a reading Sunday, October 28.