Monday, July 14, 2008

Wolff Enright (not a law firm!)

I only made it to one event during this year's Dublin Writers Festival. The festival coincided with a pretty hectic pre-holiday period for me plus I was a bit word-weary for a while there. However, I did manage to make it along to this event. Couldn't have missed it really, as I admire and enjoy Wolff's writing in a big way. To have him double-heading with the bould Enright was just too good a ticket to pass on.

It was a pretty full house on the night (and very muggy inside - what's the story Project?). First up with the introductions was Niall McMonagle, who then welcomed both writers to the stand. Enright read her story Honey from her recent collection Taking Pictures. This story was originally the worthwhile winner of the inaugural Davy Byrnes Award (for which Wolff had been one of the judges). It's a typical Enright story - as much as such a thing exists? A crackling, vernacular and bleakly humourous narrative of a protaganist whorled up in guilt, grief and gumption, spitting and fidgeting towards some kind of release. Enright is adept at traversing her characters across passages of brittle, iced language compacted into suspended, breathless near-hysteria, only to skid on a word or two into pools of warmth and emotion. So it was here. As Wolff followed her to the podium, he exclaimed that he'd be pleased to hand over the award cheque again - so good was this story. It was a wonderful reading of a classic modern story, IMHO. The good news is that Honey is available to read online over on the Irish Times website. The bad news is that only available by subscription! Here's the link.

Wolff followed up with two of his own classics: Say Yes (which you'll find here) and Bullet in the Brain, (read by T. Coraghessan Boyle in a podcast here). Both are cracking stories - not neccessarily what I would consider his most representative work, so an interesting choice.

After that, we needed a pause to breathe and let the words settle. Then we were off into a somewhat fractured discussion on the short story which, in truth, contained cliche as well as insight. But there were tasty moments too. Considering the merits of the story versus the novel, Wolff opined that Randall Jarrell's (?) somewhat glib definition of the novel as "a work in prose of a certain length that has something wrong with it" could equally be applied to the short story. I also seem to recollect that he commented on the story form having more in common with poetry than with the novel, but my memory might just be channelling Wolff's close friend, Ray Carver on this recollection - I know I've heard him say this.

Discussing the start of a story, Enright said she 'doesn't do' beginnings. Also, she doesn't have much time for those writers who claim not to know whether a piece will become a story or a novel. For her it's one or the other, from the off. She also said something interesting on endings. For her, it's not so much about the endline as the silence that follows it - and how that differs from the silence before the story began. A bit precious maybe, but a compelling consideration.

Also discussing endlines, Wolff commented on Carver's skill in this area, turning the most open and inconclusive lines into a kind of revery. He referenced the endline of Carver's story 'Gazebo' for this. I don't have this to hand just now. Crack a book :-) (I'll add it here later). One area that wasn't discussed was the role of the editor. With so much referencing of Carver, I'd hoped to maybe raise the contentious issue of Gordon Lish's role in paring back Carver's original drafts. But time was limited and I didn't make the cut.

Enright mentioned some significant influences on her as a younger writer, citing Alice Munro in particular as well as a seventies anthology of experimental work, "The Naked I", which brought subjective narrative to the fore. She also spoke of those many, many stories still to be told from the point of view of women, particulary Irish women. A curious moment occured when a female audience member asked both writers for their thoughts on the differences in the short stories of male and female writers. Wolff demurred to Enright, as she had lead the timbre of the discussion in this direction, but the Booker winner was somewhat gobsmacked and flustered by the question. Strangely unsure, I thought, considering how much of her writing drags a raggedy fingernail along the frayed seams of gender politics. For his part, Wolff suggested that there seemed to be more violence in men's writing. To his chagrin, he's had it pointed out that the mortality rate of dogs in his stories is quite high.

Finally, appropriately enough, an anecdote that Wolff shared with us;

The discussion came round to those questions which writers face at events like this, one in particular being "When did you realise you wanted to be a writer?" Where many writers might refer to vague, intuitive urges, Wolff remembered an exact moment from his schooldays, when he would often write exercises on behalf of his classmates (for reward, no doubt). On one such occasion, the recipient of said 'hokey homework' told him 'you know you're good at this.... you should be a writer'. This specific incident planted the idea. On subsequent occasions, having entirely lost contact with this guy, he would refer to the incident in public readings and offer his thanks to the individual. At one such event, a lady stayed behind, quietly made her way over to him and explained that she was the individual's daughter. She explained how her father, like Wolff, had served in Vietnam. Unlike Wolff, however, he returned a scarred and deeply troubled man who moved his family to remotest Alaska, where he sought a precise kind of solitude. If any other settler moved to within four miles of their home, he would up stakes and move even further into the wilderness. Eventually (of course) his wife had had more than enough privation, took the kids and left him to it! Recounting all this to Wolff, the daughter finished with the meek observation, "I guess somebody must've told him he should be a hermit."

Knowing the young Wolff's propensity for 'creative truth', I'd be inclined to take this with a pinch of salt - but a fitting yarn nonetheless, from a master storyteller on a wonderfully interesting and entertaining night.