Late last year, I read Junot Diaz's book "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." I loved it. I googled him, to find out if he was speaking anywhere I might be, and saw he had spoken at the Key West Literary Seminar in 2008. I clicked on the website for the seminar and saw that the 2009 theme would be historical fiction. I had just finished my second novel - which is - drum roll - historical fiction. It was a Sign. Junot Diaz was not going to be there in 2009, but other literary Lions and Lionesses would speak and read and breathe the same air and I might find out something about historical fiction. There was financial aid; I applied and got it. That's why I was in Key West in January 2009. And before I go on - the Key West Literary Seminar is well worth attending.
The Seminar had two parts - workshops, where you joined a group of a dozen or so led by a teacher, and everyone's submitted writing was critiqued - and then the seminar itself, with lectures, panel discussions and readings from established authors. I've grown weary of the writing workshop over the years - especially for long forms. It's really hard to do justice to a novel when all anyone has read is 30 pages. So I joined the workshop for non fiction, planning a non fiction work which would be suitable for these terrible times in publishing.
There is a certain spirit that pervades such a gathering. The Aspiring Writers - all are, of course, voracious readers - walk around exclaiming at the aphorisms delivered by their favourite writers in panel discussions, they talk earnestly about books they've read, there is an atmosphere of heady intellectualism and wafting through it all is the taint of desperation from those yearning for publication, wanting to be one of the chosen reading to an audience from an actual book of their own, pronouncing on literary dogma, being the last word. People exclaim at seeing their heroes in the flesh in restaurants or hotel lobbies. And the published writers arrive just before the panels and try to leave just after, but always are waylaid by those who want even the briefest of brushes with their celebrity and that holy grail of writers' seminars - the signature on the flyleaf of a book, the actual handwriting of a Famous Author. "Mr. Vidal. Mr. Smart Bell. Mr. Matthieson. I'm a HUGE fan, would you mind...?" The book is handed over. The Famous Author smiles and tries to extricate himself or herself. The Aspiring Author has this one moment to get their attention and goes on, "...and I've just completed (fill in the blank - novel, short story, personal essay - the personal essay is big this year). What advice would you...?" Depending on the age and personality of the Famous Author, the encounter is short or long, general or specific, slightly useful or not useful at all, but regardless of the form, the Eager Young Writer (who is often anything but young) talks about it to other Aspiring Writers until the end of the seminar.
From the beginning, I had been sitting at the front row of the auditorium in Key West - I found there was more space to stretch out my sore knee. The writers had their own reserved section to the right. And one night I found myself sandwiched between a Literary Lioness and a Literary Lion. I had spoken to the Lion before because he had written about Jamaica, and he greeted me distractedly, because he had lost something and needed it before he went on stage. The Lioness ignored me. We waited for the first item to begin - it was described in the programme as a performance from a Chinese American writer I had not heard of.
The Lioness leaned across me and spoke to the Lion. The Lion glanced at me, apparently somewhat uncomforable with the Lioness's bad manners, but he answered her. They conversed. I tried to evaporate, feeling the stares of the Aspiring Writers behind me who were not seated in such august company. Look. At her. She's sitting with...!
The performance began. It was like that staple of Jamaican functions - the cultural item - slightly cheesy, somewhat amateurish, but endearing for all that. The Chinese writer was engaging in her enthusiams, she acted bits of her book with her daughter, she sang some opera, she did a bit of pretend martial arts, she changed costumes, she made jokes. She was thrilled to be someone who had struggled with English all her life - and who was now writing best selling novels in English. You go girl, I thought.
When it was finished, the Lioness leaned across me again. "What was THAT?" she said to the Lion.
"Oh, well a performance, you know," the Lion said, glancing at me again. The Lioness damned it as inauthentic, ridiculous, pointless. I became annoyed. "Would you two like to sit together?" I said to the Lioness.
She was unabashed. "No," she said. "We're going on stage now."
She was brilliant in her panel, as was the Lion. At the end, they came off the stage and stood to one side, awaiting their accolades. I saw the Chinese American writer approach them and she almost bowed to the Lioness, and I could see she was asking with utmost humility if she could have her photograph taken with this woman who had just condemned her performance and her work. The Lioness struck a pose and the Chinese American woman stood beside her and her friends took her picture.
It's trite to say talented people are just people in all their variety - but it struck me that a certain ego is required to set words on paper and imagine that others will want to read them. And these days that ego is overfed by the book tour and the writer's workshop and literary festival and the spectre of being an Oprah pick or a Richard and Judy pick or the winner of a mega literary prize. No longer can a writer be a romantic recluse, eschewing interviews, affecting a tantalizing mystique. It's the Era of the Media and you gotta be out there.
Who knows what the fate of my own books will be. One will be published late this year or early next, the other is just beginning it's search for a publisher. I suppose one day I might have to read from my own work, might have someone ask me for advice about their unpublished work - how did you do it, Miss McCaulay? - or thrust a copy of my book at me and ask for a message to someone I have never met and my signature. Happy birthday Doris. Diana McCaulay. I hope I'll cope with grace, remembering what the world looked like from the seat of the Aspiring Writer.