Sunday, September 25, 2005

New Yorker Festival 2005

Oh, beloved, dusty blog of mine. How I neglect you. Can you forgive me for these ten-day bouts of silence? Can you? Good. Thanks. Sorry.

This weekend was the New Yorker Festival, what has become my favorite event in the Manhattan calendar. The first time I went was in 2003 - L and I saw Michael Cunningham, Jhumpa Lahiri (be still my heart), Dave Eggers, and others giving readings across town. It was an amazing night - hopping on trains to get from one venue to the next, getting lost downtown, stealing a flyer advertising the festival that I had framed and hung on my wall, and finally seeing my fellow New Yorker compatriots. I didn't get to go to any events last year because of work obligations, but this weekend L and I have been out at full force.

Last night we saw two readings over at the Directors Guild. First up was Michael Chabon and Stephen King. Chabon read the first chapter of his upcoming novel, a Jewish hard-boiled crime fiction/noir type deal. It did not keep my interest - I actually fell asleep at the reading, which was embarassing. But with Stephen King I was back on board - I've always loved his books, and he read an excerpt that was suspenseful and scary. He is so down to earth and unpretentious about his craft.

Next up was Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen. Zadie read a chunk of her new novel and decked it out with a variety of accents (her native English, American, Jamaican, Nigerian). It was awesome, very funny and winsome, and she was surprisingly pretty. Very tall, and she walked very purposefully up to the podium. Her voice was deeper and more rugged than I thought it would be. Jonathan Franzen read part of his latest New Yorker essay, "My Bird Problem," encompassing his passion for birding, global warming, and the collapse of his marriage. He was incredibly droll and tentative, almost embarassed by his presence. I loved this essay so much - it was one that I read aloud to James while we were driving through Tennessee or Mississippi - and to hear the author recite it, knowing what was ahead, was wonderful. Although I think I read it just as well as he did. I felt such affection and affinity with him - he reminded me of me in a way, with his smarts and neuroses and use of humor as an attempt to bind the two (sorry for the ego there). During the questions and answers, the two were an utterly charming pair - Franzen had no patience for foolish questions and deflected them well. They talked about the challenges of writing, the struggle to find the right tone, fiction versus non-, and their feelings about poetry ("Sometimes we worry that the novel will become like poetry in a few years," Franzen said. He talked about how much work it took to slog through the typical New Yorker poem - he is so right). It was chilly in the auditorium, and Jonathan gave Zadie his blazer to wear. It was very titillating for the crowd, in an odd way, seeing these two people we loved getting along so well. He loved her generosity and affection for her characters, too. The best question of the night was from a young woman who talked bout how Jonathan's work doesn't provide answers to the big questions, but does at least try to illuminate the arguments. She said reading him was like not knowing math and doing the homework with somebody who didn't know math either - you weren't sure about things, but at least you knew someone understood you.

Boy, do I love Franzen. I want to be like him (in a limited way) and I want to write like him. His essays inspire me to make this blog (and the rest of my writing) something I can be proud of.

Today L and I went to see David Remnick (another lit-hero of mine) interview John Updike. It was interesting, but it was still listening to an old man ramble for 90 minutes. I can only take so much. He talked about his influences, how he got started, his own ambiguity to New York. He said people who live here travel in very narrow routes, which makes sense. He actually saw the towers fall on September 11th, and he said the way the collapsed in on themselves and shimmied it down - it was like "a silk dress falling off a woman." Beautiful. He said to write at least an hour day if you want to make it. He was very smart and spry and erudite. I think in hindsight my appreciation for that conversation will grow.

So that's my New Yorker festival. I love it so much. If anyone is interested, they're blogging the hell out of it over at Beatrice. To be among other readers is such a delight. I love this city.

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