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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
In 2001, the New Yorker printed four short stories by unpublished authors. Nell Freudenberger was one of them (Jonathan Safran Foer was another). The legendary agent Amanda "Binky" Urban immediately signed Nell and a bidding war broke out over her first book. Lucky Girls was sold for a six-figure sum and went on to be nominated for the Orange New Writing Prize. The Dissident is her first novel.
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for The Dissident?
NF: When I was in high school, a Chinese artist visited our school for several weeks. He was called a "Visiting Scholar;" the idea was that he would teach us traditional Chinese painting in ink. This was a single-sex, non-sectarian preparatory school in Los Angeles, where the students wore short, pastel-colored little-girl dresses (pink, white, yellow or violet) with the school's initials monogrammed on the right sleeve. At the time, a visiting scholar from China seemed very exotic to me, and it's hard to imagine what he must have thought of us. I don't remember his name, only that he had three of them, and that they began with X, Y and Z. He didn't speak English and of course none of us spoke any Chinese. I remember fantasizing that our glamorous, wealthy art teacher (she drove a red Masarati) was helping Mr. XYZ defect.
Mr. XYZ's classes were silent by necessity; he would communicate that we had made a mistake by tearing the drawing off the easel, leaving a fresh sheet of paper underneath. He made us copy rocks, bamboo, and finally-the crowning achievement-a lobster, over and over again until we got the strokes right. Apart from the novelty, I think I was attracted to the Visiting Scholar's classes because he was the first art teacher who had ever told us that we were wrong. Until that point, our teachers had encouraged us to "be creative" or to "express ourselves;" I think it was a relief to me to hear that you could learn to make a piece of art by copying. I was not a gifted art student (to say the least) but I think the lessons of that painter can be applied to writing. You learn to write by copying the writers you love, consciously or unconsciously, and hope that eventually you come to something of your own.
The narrator of this novel gets involved with artists similar to a group of real artists who lived in Beijing in the early nineties. They included Rong Rong, Zhang Huan, and Ma Liuming, who are of course very famous today. At the time, they were living pretty much hand to mouth in a dilapidated neighborhood on the eastern edge of the city, which they nicknamed the "Beijing East Village." Rong Rong's arresting photographs of their collaborative performance projects were another inspiration.
MT: How long did it take you to write it?
NF: About three years.
MT: Your first book Lucky Girls was a collection of five short stories. How did you find the progression to writing a novel?
NF: Before I wrote those stories, I wrote a 600-page novel about a commune in Massachusetts whose denizens manufactured fruit juice and didn't believe in romantic love. Needless to say, it was not something I wanted to share with anyone. I started writing the stories in Lucky Girls after I threw out those other pages, and it was a relief to be doing something different. Nevertheless I think I felt more comfortable when I got back to writing a novel; it's an easier form, much kinder to mistakes. Even the stories in my first book weren't that short (I kept hearing that they weren't "magazine length.") I have a friend who complains that her stories are always within a few hundred words of each other, and wonders why there isn't more variation. I think most writers have length that is natural to them, and that mine is a little longer.
MT: Aside from the obvious issue of length, what would you say is the main diffence in writing shorts to writing a novel?
NF: It's a completely different kind of idea. Every story I've ever written has started all at once, with a sentence. It's not necessarily the first sentence but it's usually one that winds up in the finished story. The Dissident is my first novel (not counting the fruit juice disaster) and it started in a very different way from any story. I probably played around for six months with these characters before I wrote anything that actually wound up in the book.
MT: What were the biggest challenges you faced in writing The Dissident? How did you overcome them?
NF: "Freudenberger," in case anyone was wondering, is not a Chinese name. It was very inconvenient to write a novel with a Chinese main character. I had been studying Mandarin, and I had gotten interested in contemporary Chinese art, but those things were hobbies-I never expected them to be part of a novel. When I started writing in this character's voice, I thought it was just something I had to write out: I thought I would continue until I couldn't write any more, and that it wouldn't take very long to be done with him. The problem (at least for me) is that I don't have an inspiring new idea every day; for whatever reason, this was the character whose voice felt most comfortable to me. (I think that's why his section of the book is in the first-person). When I figured that out, I was pretty discouraged. I knew I had a lot of work to do if I was going to make his background convincing.
I was interested in continuing my Chinese classes and in going to art shows anyway, and so that was how I started. I begged a first trip to China from the U.S. State Department, which has a program that sponsors cultural exchange programs between "specialists" in particular fields. Eventually I pitched a travel magazine article that allowed me to go back to Beijing for a month and interview some of the artists whose work I admired. My feeling about research is that it should be something you're interested in to begin with. Your interests will make their way organically into what you write; you may become more deeply involved in something because you're writing about it, but I don't think that hunting down facts is very helpful to fiction.
MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing? Lots of research or none at all?
NF: I can barely write a thank-you note in longhand. Computer-generated papers were a requirement at my high school (along with those dresses) and I don't feel comfortable unless I can move back and forth inside sentences. I think I write relatively fast, and I spend a lot of time revising. I know I drive editors crazy, changing things again and again. In his Nobel Prize lecture, Orhan Pamuk mentioned that some writers use a typewriter; others (like himself) write longhand; still others, "profit from the ease of a computer." Oh no, I thought when I read that -- that's me, profiting from ease!
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
NF: I travel a lot. I study Chinese. I read a lot. (This questions always makes me feel like the most boring person alive). I do yoga (ashtanga style), and I tutor students at the Bronx Academy of Letters, a small New York City school focused on writing. Last year I taught a more formal creative writing class there; I'm not much of a public speaker, but I would rather face a hundred adults than eight fifteen year-olds. At that age they have automatic bullshit sensors; you really have to know what you're talking about.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
NF: I think it's important to remember that you're writing to someone. Not a particular or an ideal someone, but someone. The year after I graduated from university, I got a job teaching English at a high school in Bangkok. During that year I noticed that the letters I was writing to people at home were much better (and much funnier) than the fiction I was trying to write in my spare time. It should be obvious, but I think that for a lot of young writers (who don't have any readers yet) there's a feeling that you're only writing for yourself; you forget the writer's obligation to make the reader want to turn the pages.
MT: What are you working on now?
NF: A novel, I hope. It's a story about two couples who go on a honeymoon together in Bangladesh and what happens to them afterwards.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
NF: I'm not going to win any points for originality, but George Eliot and Tolstoy are my favorite writers. Middlemarch and Anna Karenina are probably my favorite novels; I also love Tolstoy's story Family Happiness. Among contemporary fiction writers I really like Peter Carey, V.S. Naipaul, Ha Jin, Grace Paley, David Mitchell, Norman Rush and Alice Munro. I also love Paul Bowles' stories and Elizabeth Bowen's novels.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
NF: I don't think I'm quite at the tip-giving stage yet. 'Write every day' is the piece of advice that was most helpful to me. I think you learn to write by reading, but that's not really advice; all writers read all the time anyway.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
NF: Thank you.
MT: Thank you, Nell!
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