Author keeps those at symposium entertained
By Deirdre Parker Smith
Jane Hamilton is funny. She tells a great story, enjoys wordplay and has the sort of laugh it’s fun to watch.
As the featured author at the Brady Author’s Symposium at Catawba College Thursday, she immediately connected with her audience and kept them laughing for an hour that seemed to pass in 10 minutes.
Hamilton is the author of such serious novels as “The Book of Ruth” and “A Map of the World,” books that can be depressing. She’s also the author of “Laura Rider’s Masterpiece,” a satire about “people who want to write but don’t read anything,” and a send-up of what passes for romance these days.
After a reverential introduction by Catawba’s writer-in-residence, Janice Fuller, Hamilton started the crowd laughing by saying she was so “elderly I have no memory of my books.”
She told a story about a bookcase she coveted in her husband’s office. “It held the soybeans he won a ribbon for at the fair five years ago and old books about seeds.” He lugs it upstairs for her. Years later, he wants the bookshelf back, so she grumbles and gripes and starts packing her books in boxes, kissing each one as she remembers what was wonderful about them.
“It wasn’t about the bookcase,” Hamilton said. “What it’s about is I have too many books. .. If I had an e-reader, I wouldn’t need those bookshelves.”
She won’t have an e-reader. There’s no joy in scrolling, she says. “I want to touch the pages.”
Here’s the story she weaves through her talks — she’s on a train from New York to Washington, D.C., looking for a place to work while she rides. She sees a guy reading the New York Times and asks if she can share the table. He looks safe, an older balding fellow. She works in an easy quiet until lunch, when he takes a break and starts talking, “as if we’re old friends.”
He tells her he’s a lawyer, and he understands the entire range of human emotion. She does, too, she says. Especially frustration. He doesn’t take the hint. As soon she tells him her name, he downloads “Laura Rider” on his iPad, saying it’s fun reading in front of the author.
“Not for me,” Hamilton thinks.
She wrote the book after teaching a class on a cruise ship to wannabe writers, the ones who use so many adjectives Hamilton can’t find the subject, verb or object.
Now comes her costume change. Hamilton dresses “in plain clothing in concerned colors.” She’s in a black top and tan pants. She had to buy something for the cruise. Suddenly, she run across the stage to her purple co-op tote bag, pulls out a sequin-covered shift and puts it on over her clothes. Huge laughter. “This was my gateway to Laura Rider.”
Mr. lawyer-on-the-train doesn’t know the book is satire. Satire, Hamilton said, is perfectly illustrated in her son’s essay for gym class — describe your career as it relates to healthy living. Party event clowns, he writes, get lots of exercise, blowing up balloons, learning to ride miniature bikes, almost the same as a construction worker. It’s low stress, with 10 to 14 hours of sleep a day.
“He subverts the exercise while sticking to the letter of the law.”
The lawyer reads in silence, not smiling or laughing, making a phone call or emailing while he’s reading.
Hamilton tells another story of her excruciating ballet class with Mr. and Mrs. Ellis, former dancers. “We were terrified of them, but fascinated by them. ... that world was a caste system and we all knew who we were.
“I was told my body was not right for ballet.” It meant she had no talent.
She later used that to write “The Short History of a Prince,” about Walter McCloud, the boy dancer, who happens to be the worst at the ballet school.
She was speaking at a fundraiser that included the ballet master of the Joffrey Ballet. With him is an elegant, old woman — gasp — Mrs. Ellis, and just after “The Short History of Prince” is published. She doesn’t remember Jane, and asks which of her books she should read. Not the new one. No. But the man from the Joffrey laughs and says it’s wonderful.
Mrs. Ellis writes to Hamilton, “Now that I have read your book, I must talk to you.”
Hamilton is mortified.
Mrs. Ellis says, “Oh my dear, were we really that awful?”
“How do I answer that? It was torture. But we understood the cruelty ... after all, it’s fiction.
Writers don’t know how to interpret reviews, “like on Amazon, where reviews go from zero stars to five.” One blog writer, writing as if she were Laura Rider, was sort of a nut. Then Hamilton found an academic paper about the book, which compares it to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Hamilton gives a look that says it all.
Mr. lawyer-on-the-train asks her to get off the train with him and run away. He tells her he played himself on an episode of “The Wire.”
No thanks, she says, while maybe 1 percent of her considers it.
It’s then she is firm in her conviction that writing and reading are solitary acts, and she will never, ever get an e-reader.
And then, Hamilton ends up at an event with author Laura Lippman, whose husband writes “The Wire.” Lippman knows the lawyer, finds the story hysterical and begins texting all of her friends. For Hamilton, it’s another blow for electronics.
“I love reading and writing in private. ... I have a love of the work. In black ink my love shines bright.”
Answering questions from the audience she said it wasn’t exactly true that she didn’t speak as a child. “I had four older siblings who were really funny people.” When she once made a joke, it fell flat, and her mother told her, “You leave the funny stuff to the others. Your job is to be sweet and nice.”
So she wrote.
Did she suffer from rejection like other authors? “I have been rejected in the beginning, the middle ... now.
“I’d been working on a book for three years. I sold it, they asked me to rewrite it, then they didn’t want it.”
But what happens before doesn’t prepare you for the next thing. “My interests and sensibility have changed. I don’t think I’m getting better. ... I am deeply, intimately familiar with rejection.”
She loves many authors, but says Alice McDermott is in the pantheon of the gods; Robert Massie (“Catherine the Great”) is “historical candy. I want more, more, more.” She likes Carol Ann Shaw and Lorrie Moore and “Arcadia “ by Lauren Groff.
“The kids are very ambitious and lyrical.
“My greatest pleasure is reading, but I have to make myself do it.”
Her next work? She’s determined to fix that failed novel. “I know there’s a kernel there, I can feel it.”