Silver Spring, Maryland, USA, who goes there? As it happens, anyone who attended the Families in Global Transition conference in March 2013. I have been a regular attendee and presenter for a number of years and have learnt much, met many and laughed lots.
This year I was asked to facilitate a writer’s forum the evening before the official opening, a keynote speech to be given by an internationally renowned writer. After a great deal of thought, and with some trepidation I agreed. Why my hesitancy? Because the writer I was to interview, and then open the floor to questions for, was a man whose work I have long admired.
My anxiety was caused by my internal radar as far as writers are concerned. My prospective interviewee and I are so far apart on the writer spectrum it is frankly laughable. Nevertheless I plucked up courage and made contact. After a pleasant exchange of emails we eventually met, three hours before the session was to take place.
Over a berry milkshake and sandwich in a place new to us both we exchanged tales of boarding schools on different sides of the world, he in Britain and I in Australia. We laughed at the idiosyncrasies of a roving life, of people met and attitudes faced. It was easy, my nervousness dispelled by his graciousness. But it was just the two of us, and rather different to conducting my first interview in front of, hopefully, a roomful of people.
We returned to our hotel. He to his room and me to the bar: ostensibly to help greet new attendees to the conference but in reality to have a glass of Dutch courage. Just the one.
Two hours later we reconvened in the designated room at the Silver Spring Civic Center. Chairs were hastily rearranged into the requested semi circle, and I tweaked the angles of the two armchairs my guest and I were to sit in. Refusing to drink from bottles of water, à la Marco Rubio, I removed two glasses from my handbag, filched from my bathroom in the hotel, and set them on the table between us.
Ruth Van Reken, the founder of FIGT, chatted to my guest who stood patiently waiting for me to stop fussing. The room started to fill and pretending calm I flicked through my questions one final time, the clipboard my prop to lessen evidence of my nervousness.
And then we started.
An icebreaker question about his name, unusual by most standards but made more so by the questioner being called ‘Apple’, worked. For him, for the audience but mainly for me. We laughed and I relaxed.
We spoke briefly about his upbringing straddling three cultures – that of his immigrant Indian parentage, his early childhood in Oxford, England, his relocation with his family to Santa Barbara, California at the age of eight and his subsequent time spent flitting between the two countries for the sake of education. He is an intelligent man. I tried not to let his congratulatory double first from Oxford University intimidate me.
We talked about Japan, his home for the last 25 years, and whether he, like many expatriates, could ever envisage a return to either the UK or the US. His response was a pragmatic ‘maybe’. Family, health, a desire to feel wholly at ease in a system that is inherently understood are all familiar themes to the global nomad.
And then we launched into what the session was about. Writing. Not just the how, but the why. We discussed his belief that “politics is too often local while fiction travels the world” in that the reader learns, often subliminally, a great deal about different cultures and global history from fiction, in part because we don’t realise we are learning. Something every parent of teenagers discover the hard way.
We discussed the assumptions often made about writers in that we, the reader, believe we know he, the writer. But we don’t. We know only what the writer wants us to know. George Orwell wrote in Why I Write, “…. it is true that one can write nothing really readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.” What Graham Greene called, “a splinter of ice in the heart of the writer”. In the same vein, my guest agreed with Philip Roth who in an interview for NPR said, “Shame isn’t for writers. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel shame in my own life, but I can’t as a writer.”
There were nods around the room and I found myself nodding along to. It is a noble principle to write by but one I, as a fledgling writer, find extraordinarily difficult to follow.
On a question about learning to write well, the answer was one I did find easy to accept. Read great literature but don’t become too obsessed with any one writer as we can find our own voice becoming subdued. I felt enormous relief at his response, having struggled to read cover to cover some of the books promising writing success if one followed the formula laid down within. I was relieved that ditching most of those books years ago had in fact been the correct move.
Reading a short extract from Cuba and the Night lead to a question about dialogue and hearing the voices as we write. And then being true to those voices. The difficulty of editing our own work was covered, with no easy answer, and as I glanced at my watch I realised over an hour had passed and the audience had not yet had a chance to ask their own burning questions.
My guest answered both the audiences and my questions with honesty, humour and humility. His writing is likewise imbued, with much showing the inherent dignity of man. His name? Pico Iyer.