March 27, 2013 by Heidi
This past week marked the annual NYC Teen Author Festival, though this year was the first where I personally attended some events. I went to the panel on Wednesday night, and the symposium on Saturday, though unfortunately I was unable to attend some of the other fun events they had going on around the city.
I was surprised overall that this event seemed more to attract other authors/aspiring writers than readers. There were close to no actual teens either day that I attended, which is a shame, and by show of hands at Saturday’s symposium, I’d say over 50% of the attendees were writers. Because I attended a few panels overall, I’m going to split my recap up by the days I attended. Today I’ll be talking about last Wednesday’s panel, and later this week I’ll talk about Saturday’s symposium.
Wednesday evening’s panel at the NYPL was entitled Imagination: A Conversation. Here’s the official description: It’s a given that authors’ minds are very strange, wonderful, twisted, illogical, inventive places. Here we talk to five rather imaginative authors about how they conjure the worlds in their books and the stories that they tell, along with glimpses of the strange and wonderful worlds they are creating at the present.
I took that to mean it would be predominantly about world building, but it was more about the creative process in general, which was even more interesting. Participating authors included: Holly Black, Lev Grossman, Michelle Hodkin, Alaya Dawn Johnson, and Robin Wasserman, and the panel was moderated by David Levithan.
Levithan began the panel by having each author read something from someone else’s work that they found particularly inspiring or felt fueled imagination. Michelle Hodkin provided Nova Ren Suma (who was in the audience) with her first public reading by choosing a section from the opening of just published 17 & Gone. Lev Grossman chose to read from Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrel by Susanna Clarke, which convinced me that yes, I do really need to read this book, but also frightened me as I saw just how huge it is. Grossman detialed Clarke’s ability to describe magic unlike anyone else–as if it’s actively happening. Robin Wasserman insisted that she struggled quite a bit with this assignment, as she thinks of herself as severely lacking imagination. And so she chose the scene from Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery in which Anne is attempting to explain imagination to Diana (which was personally my favorite choice of the evening). Wasserman said that she could probably blame Anne for most of her neurosis, though Levithan shocked us all at this point by declaring “Anne is an insufferable bitch!” I truly considered jumping up and slapping the man, but I’m sure he felt enough fear from the sheer crush of ‘that’s funny, but we’ll have to kill you’ laughter surrounding him. Holly Black, who is very inspired by folklore read the Yeats’ poem The Hosting of the Sidhe, explaining that the feeling that she gets when reading that poem is what she tries to get across in her writing. Alaya Dawn Johnson was the only author to introduce a completely new to me book, The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow. The section she read was particularly hilarious, about books writing other books–it was indeed quite imaginative, and I very much would like to read this one.
Levithan prompted the authors to talk about their world building process, though they largely discussed their imaginative writing process in general. Holly Black’s process was incredibly interesting to me as she relies heavily on creating as she goes as much as she plans ahead. She’s constantly acquiring ideas, but has to sit down and write one chapter of something before she really has any idea of what it could become. Robin Wasserman says that she usually has this rush of imaginative expenditure that takes place entirely before she begins writing. Alaya Dawn Johnson says she has to have a map before she starts writing (woohoo! love maps), and that she constantly has ideas popping up that she’ll mash together when possible for a single story. She describes this quality to really good ideas that she can just feel, and that these are the ideas that become her full fledged work. Lev Grossman described having this moment of clarity before beginning to write, and that the writing process is him chasing that feeling throughout the book. Michelle Hodkin started writing backward–she knew where she wanted her character (Mara Dyer) to end, but had to figure out how she got there.
The authors all described having moments where everything just comes clear, often through some setting (the shower, Korean sauna), or a forward momentum action like walking or driving. Wasserman said she’d read somewhere that there’s something about repetitive mindless action that activates the brain–but also said you can’t rely on this, and a lot of writing is forcing yourself to stay in that chair and work through it the hard way. Black talks a lot of her issues through, including one hilarious instance of forcing Cassie Clare to role play as Holly Black, so that Black could then talk through her issues with herself. Levithan threw in that he usually brainstorms as he writes, so of course the lovely Wasserman was kind enough to point out that he writes like Anne.
Levithan then asked the authors if they read a lot while they’re writing their own work. Hodkin says she initially turned very isolationist and didn’t expose herself to anything else while reading, but realized at some point that this was unproductive, so now she mostly rereads favorites while working. Grossman reads constantly, and will in fact try to influence the voice of his work by using other writers’ voices as a crutch. He’d jokingly say “I need to Franzenize”, at which point he’d read a bunch of Jonathan Franzen. When asked if he ever thinks of “Grossmanizing” by going back and reading his earlier work, he blanched at the idea, but Wasserman pointed out that Franzen actually wrote an essay in which he mocked the fear of influence. Alaya Dawn Johnson says part of her creative process stems from reading books, hating them, and thinking she could have written them better. She too felt she was losing by not interacting with books.
Levithan wanted to know how deadlines affected the authors’ imaginations–if they felt stunted. Grossman said he actually found deadlines super inspiring because of the fear and adrenaline they created. Black said that deadlines do make her feel this tension, but admits she’s a very lazy person at heart, and she’d never finish without the guilt of missing deadlines. She said that the only uncomplicated relationship she has with her work is with whatever her next book is, at which point Wasserman jumped in shocked to say that she never gets her next book idea before finishing her current work. Johnson said she usually feels incredibly creative when working on a deadline…just not for the book she has the deadline for.
Levithan then asked if the authors felt that there was a relationship between what was hard for them to write and what they ended up liking later. Hodkin observes that what she feels is misery to write ends up being the most awful parts of her work. Wasserman agreed with this by stating that she feels the parts that come easily are usually the best. Johnson works differently, and stated that the parts that are hard for her to work through end up being some of the best. Grossman jokingly related the fact that the one scene in The Magicians that he gets complimented on the most is one that he wrote on an incredibly ordinary day, and was utterly ordinary to write (although he was bitter about the fact that Jonathan Safran Foer was sitting in his usual chair). Levithan chimed in to say that he feels that he spends 60% of his writing time on the first three chapters, and then begins rushing for the end.
Next up was a question about how the authors imagined characters. Black said that people struggle with plot, but that characters are magical. She states that you feel this wrongness about them until everything clicks into place. Hodkin said again that she worked backwards on Mara, knowing who she wanted her to be by the end of the series and having to create who she was up till then. Johnson said that secondary characters in particular tend to just show up while she’s writing, and that this is her version of pantsing–she finds secondary characters to be the most fun and surprising (I often do too!). Wasserman talked about creating her characters by thinking a lot about their family dynamics, whether or not those families are in the books, they’ve worked to form who these people are. Levithan said he constructs his characters in relationship to one another. One thing that did interest/surprise me was that these authors tended to agree that their characters don’t “speak” to them in a way that you often hear (Melina Marchetta comes to mind), they emphasized that the characters are not external, they make them up!
An audience member wanted to know if the authors felt a difference in their writing longhand vs. by computer, though all of them stated they write by computer. Levithan said that when he writes by hand it’s when he’s most himself, and one of his resolutions this year (which he’s been keeping) has been to write a longhand letter to someone every day. Wasserman disagrees, and said she finds longhand writing distancing–she can’t forget that she’s writing, and can actually be much more herself through e-mail.
We then came back around to world building, specifically how they create their magic structures. Grossman and Johnson both spoke to coming up with rules for their magic systems–what it can’t do, and create an emerging complexity from there. Black spoke about two different kinds of magic: Day Logic Magic which has exact rules, and Night Logic Magic which works on a more intuitive sense–I would love to read more about these two types of magic structures! She agreed that magic needs limits. Wasserman stated emphatically that she loves writing about the real world, and would much rather work there, but Levithan pointed out that even when you’re writing contemp you’re still creating a world and choosing what to include/not include. Today in particular he feels contemporary writers are always up against technology.
Levithan chose to wrap up with asking the authors about what surprised them most in their own writing process. Johnson said again it was the appearance of her secondary characters that became her favorites. Hodkin said that she was struggling with how to end The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer when her brother told her the last line of the book (I’ll admit this made me chuckle since many readers I know didn’t like this book till the very end–and it was her brother that wrote that part for her!). Grossman said his character Julia in The Magicians kept showing up unexpectedly, and Black admitted that her greatest surprise came when Wasserman told her the thesis of the book Black herself was working on (I believe Tithe), which Black needed to know to give it direction.
In the end, I was so happy I’d trudged into the still-too-cold March evening to see this panel. David Levithan was an astoundingly great moderator, making this one of the best panels I’ve ever attended, and fueling me with questions to ask authors in the future–I loved many of these! Particularly I loved the emphasis on how writers don’t really work in a bubble, how they continue to influence and interact with each other throughout the process. I realize this was a loooooong post for me, but I hope some of you stuck through because I personally found this to be a fascinating conversation! Come back on Saturday where I’ll talk (with much greater brevity) about the symposium.