Full House for Engaging Five-Author Panel
Written by Nina Lesowitz
A lively discussion among five authors of varying genres explored the creative spark that led them to write each one of their new books. It was held during the kick-off weekend of the 2017 Litquake Festival, as WNBA-SF continued the popular National Reading Group Month event for the fifth consecutive year at Books Inc. Opera Plaza with Litquake as its co-presenter.
The theme of this year’s author panel, “Discovery and Redemption: Authors Discuss their Sources,” revealed the very personal experiences that became the genesis for each novel, short story, or memoir. Our moderator Anita Amirrezvani’s questions prompted a raw discussion with authors, Alice Anderson, Donia Bijan, Sylvia Brownrigg, Martha Conway, and Achy Obejas, centering on their process of discovery.
Donia Bijan, the author of The Last Days of Café Leila, spoke about how she was inspired by the rich tapestry of her childhood in Iran but didn’t want to write “an immigrant story.” She focused on how to make people care about the creatures, food, fauna of her native land. She accepted that as an immigrant author she had a unique vantage point, and considers herself a “double agent” who sends “cross-cultural dispatches” now that she has spent three decades in the United States.
Alice Anderson, whose memoir, Some Bright Morning I’ll Fly Away, focuses on universal truths about relationships while detailing a grueling divorce in post-Katrina Mississippi, said she hates the question, “Was this a process of discovery of self?” For her, the book needed to be a “discovery of the universal through the self.” She didn’t want her memoir to be inwardly focused, but wanted it to uncover deeply true, emotional truths.
Sylvia Brownrigg spoke about her process of allowing characters to express themselves, and that her novel Pages for Her is not autobiographical: She has to constantly remind people that it is a work of fiction. This novel is a sequel to Pages for You and follows the main characters’ lives twenty years later in a chance encounter. It was the insistence of readers, fans of the first novel–their need to know how the characters’ life paths unfolded, that led Brownrigg to write the follow-up.
Martha Conway spoke about getting it right in historical fiction, and read a powerful piece from her novel, The Underground River, that laid bare the extreme, agonizing pain suffered by slaves in this country. Her main character was drawn from a friend’s child who is possibly on the autistic spectrum and who takes things so literally that he is incapable of lying. In Conway’s novel, Mae is challenged to dissemble in order to find a deeper truth and so, her redemption.
Global inheritance was a large theme in the panel discussion: Achy Obejas, whose book of short stories, The Tower of the Antilles, is set in Cuba, touched on her cultural legacy. Achy also reminded us of the outsider experience: Being queer in a predominantly straight culture is like wearing shoes that don’t fit. If your shoes fit, you go about your day, not thinking about your shoes. But if they don’t fit, you’re forced to think about the ways in which your shoes don’t fit. This adds an edge to her writing similar to that of an immigrant.
During Q&A, an audience member asked the question, “Is everything you write based on your own experiences or those of other people you know personally?” The authors were unanimous in explaining that writing is an art, but it comes from one’s wellspring of knowledge. Achy Obejas said, “You can’t invent out of thin air–even non fiction comes from a place of personal interest, even science fiction is a metaphor for what the writer has experienced.”
On a warm Saturday afternoon, we filled all the seats at Books Inc Opera Plaza. This free event, open to the public, drew avid readers and book clubbers with refreshments catered by Max’s Opera Café.
We were honored to have Anita Amirrezvani as our 2017 moderator who brought the depth of NRGM’s panel discussion to a new level and provided readers with an authentic understanding of the five authors’ motivation and craft.
Many thanks to Books Inc. Opera Plaza for their generosity in hosting our annual event, to the NRGM 2017 sponsors, to Great Group Reads, to our SF Chapter volunteers, to the event chair, Nina Lesowitz, and to our SF Chapter President, Brenda Knight, for their invaluable support.