TRINITY PREP SCHOOL--The VanderMeer Road Trip Continues
So, after the triumverate of Washington D.C., New York City, and Minneapolis in Nov-Dec of last year, it's on to the triad of Orlando, Columbia (South Carolina), and England (Blackpool, London, Coventry, etc.) in Feb-April of this year. Not quite the time crunch of three major cities in less than four weeks, but pretty close, when you throw in a couple of readings in Tallahassee itself in March. Besides, it looks now like I've got about seven events planned for England.
We just got back from the Orlando gig yesterday--which consisted of being part of the Visiting Writer series at Trinity Prep School. Trinity Prep is a private school with grades six through twelve. The senior English classes had been reading "The Transformation of Martin Lake" and "The Strange Case of X" from City of Saints & Madmen. Before reading "Strange Case of X," they'd been reading Malcolm X, so it looked pretty surreal on the syllabus--and was probably pretty surreal reading-wise, too!
I spoke to six English classes Monday, which consisted of me giving the students some background on the publication history of City of Saints (four failed publication attempts before the final book came out, including a publisher who stole all the pre-order money for his honeymoon [although I was told later, his emails actually came from an insane asylum where he'd had a nervous breakdown] and another one who said they loved the stories but wanted me to change the setting to Paris around 1900) and then me answering student questions.
This was my first captive audience. I remember my own high school English class as being somewhat jaded. Half of the class tended to be indifferent to whatever text we were studying. When we had a guest speaker, about half the class could have cared less. Of course, short of juggling and doing some kind of song and dance, I didn't have much recourse re entertaining that half of the class in this case.
The questions ranged from clear put-up jobs to questions poised by students with a genuine interest in what the answer might be. Each class had a different energy--and I had a different level of energy in response. In one class, we actually did a writing exercise. And in the last class of the day, after picking on the class smart-ass (who, admirably, and to my horror, did a good job of holding his own), I found myself drawing Cheshire cats on the blackboard, among other things. By then, I was exhausted from the repetition of introducing the book and answering some of the same questions. Drawing Cheshire cats seemed like a very good idea. And I'm sure the class itself was just ready to go home.
In general, I tried to be as honest as possible in my answers, even when that honesty meant the answer was less interesting in a way. There are all kinds of ways in which writers can falsely glamorize their profession, their approach to writing, their skill set, etc. As soon as I set foot in the classroom, I was dead-set against anything that might be considered even a slight fabrication, because, for the most part, the students all seemed very sincere.
Questions included one about the significance of the rose in "The Strange Case of X," a rose that mostly solved a technical issue for me--How to identify the characters when the shift to third person to first person hits?--and an aesthetic one involving the darkness of colors in the story. My initial reaction that the rose had no other true significance raised some eyebrows, since its symbolism appeared to have been a test question for the students. (In fact, my answer apparently spread like wildfire through the senior class, since a later class had this question: "Is it true that the rose doesn't mean anything?") In later classes, I clarified a little, in pointing out that most of the images I use are charged images--they have a built-in symbolism to them, although it is not something that comes to me consciously. It's just there. And I spoke a little bit about how the reader meets the writer half-way, and how a reader's interpretation can be valid regardless of the writer's main intent. I talked a lot about how I write by feel and intuition rather than a conscious process, even in my most self-conscious pieces.
One student asked, "In Martin Lake, why can't they just kill Bender themselves?" I replied that that was a very good question and that the story--and City of Saints in general--might answer that question satisfactorily for some readers and not for others. And that most stories have at least one fault point--a point where it's possible to say the story might not exist except for luck or chance.
Another student asked, "Is Martin Lake guilty of killing Bender? Should he have done it?" I told this student that I wouldn't have done it--that I truly couldn't have, and that Bender's captors probably would have killed me. The student wanted to know, still, if Lake was guilty. I said there were extenuating circumstances, and that really the question isn't fully answerable--but that it was one of the central questions of the story. Was Lake culpable? Could he live with himself in the absence of certainty that he had any other choice.
Yet another student asked why I wrote so much about mentally disturbed people. I replied that my interest was in the nature of obsession and of love. People who are deeply obsessed or deeply in love are very close to being insane.
I was also asked, twice, about whether or not I used hallucinogenic mushrooms--to which I replied, no, because even a glass of wine is enough to disrupt my ability to write. I also shared--because it's sadly funny, not as a warning--the story of a writer friend of mine who had begun to use drugs more and more heavily, his stories becoming shorter and shorter until most of them were only a paragraph long.
But if I was exhausted by the end of the day (I now have even more respect for teachers), I was also very flattered and humbled by the attention some of the students had given to the text. Some had even bought the extended edition and asked me to sign it. Many of the questions had made me think of my work in a different way, and I had learned that it would not do to be sarcastic or too joking, because many of them were sincerely hanging on every word. One student, named Angela, had so loved City of Saints that she had gone out and bought Veniss Underground and had several of my books to sign. I was really rather touched and, again, flattered, by that reaction. I remember how obsessed I had become with certain authors while in high school. It both energized me and humbled me to have been able to create that obsession in someone else.
In fact, I had many flashbacks to high school while at Trinity, while at the same time I was trying hard to concentrate on the students AND to catalog details about the school--there's a scene set in a private school in Ambergris in Shriek: An Afterword, the new novel, and I wanted to make sure I took some telling detail home with me.
Then it was time for the multimedia presentation, with about 90 to 100 students present. They laughed in the right places, which reassured me, and the auditorium was so beautifully put together, I felt quite at my ease. I am so comfortable with the material I read for the multimedia presentation that I've begun to sculpt the individual City of Saints excerpts with a different tone and rhythm for each. Soon, I'll be able to do the transition text without referring to my notes.
After the presentation, during which I read the Bookman Old Style erotic font note from City of Saints, I was asked what sexual acts capital H, M, and O represented in the font. To which I replied, "That is for consenting adults in the privacy of their own homes to discover." Which was not, I suspect, a satisfactory answer.
I also had students come up asking for writing advice, which was quite sobering. They were all very earnest and serious--as they should be--and it struck me that I should take great care in whatever I should say to them--that it would make a much greater difference to them than to most people I talk to creative writing about. One asked for advice on who to send his poems to. Another, an eighth grader, I think, told me she was writing an article on me for the school paper and that she was working on a novel and wanted advice on what to do with it. I asked her how far along she was. She said she was in the middle of it, that it seemed like it was never going to end. I could tell that any answer I gave her about her novel was going to mean a great deal to her. So I told her that what she should do is concentrate on finishing her novel. That in any novel there comes a point when it feels like it will never be finished, that the only thing for it is to keep slogging along, that if one part wasn't going well, to skip to a part that was more fun to write and go back and write the other bits later. (This was uncomfortably close-to-home for me, in that all I could think of was Shriek: An Afterword, sitting in folders at home, not yet finished.) It was, again, rather humbling, and rather wonderful to have that interaction. I learned a lot and I had a lot of fun.
Two other things happened after the presentation--Ann brought out the alien baby, which was greeting with cries of "The alien baby! The alien baby!" from several students who, unbeknownst to me, must have visited my vanderworld web site. That was sincerely funny. The other was the raffling of two smoked turkeys to help fund the school's literary society. In honor of Ambergris, the cook had stuffed them with mushrooms rather than traditional stuffing!!
It was also fun to have dinner with Robbie Boerth, who arranged for my trip down to Orlando as a visiting writer, and his wife, Stephanie, whose English students I had been interrogated by all day. In addition, Brendan Connell had, by a stroke of luck, flown into Orlando for a family reunion just before I arrived, and was able to join us on two occasions and for a Borders signing. Brendan is a disease guide contributor and proved to have a very good sense of humor in addition to an encyclopedic knowledge of interesting obscure writers. Rounding out the group was book dealer Mark Wingenfeld of Kathmandu Books--extremely knowledgeable about books in general, funny, and an all around great guy. Drinks with Robbie, Brendan, Mark, and my long-suffering wife after the presentation Monday night made for a relaxing, fun time. (Also fun--talking about the Patrick O'Brian novels with one of the creative writing teachers, dinner with an English teacher and a biology teacher and her very serious baby named "Bob", and meeting a Latvian painter.)
(My wife Ann had, of course, been her usual wonderful self, sitting through each class and asking her own questions if the pace flagged or it seemed relevant to explore some topic, manning the laptop for my multimedia presentation, and just generally taking better care of me than I deserve.)
I came away from the whole event with a renewed sense of purpose, a better understanding of my own writing in City of Saints, and just a general fondness for these kids, who were where I remembered being some 20 years ago--on the cusp of great opportunities, not always sure what they want to do in life, not always secure in who they were, sincere, funny, polite, sarcastic, clique-y, and yet individualistic. They were a really sweet bunch of people, and I wish them well.