Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Olga Grushin, Wayne Karlin, Frederick Reuss

How time zooms. I've been meaning to post something about the panel, "Other Places, Other Times: The Special Challenges of Writing and Publishing Historical and International Fiction," which I moderated (and participated on) at the American Independent Writers Conference in Washington DC last month. The other three panelists were novelists Olga Grushin, Wayne Karlin and Frederick Reuss. These three are not only among the most outstanding writers in the Washington DC area, but the entire country, so it was a priviledge indeed to hear them speak.

Herewith, a few notes:

Olga Grushin. The Russian-born author of The Dream Life of Sukhanov, a first novel that garnered scads of rave reviews, grew up in a radically different mileu than most American writers: in Moscow and Prague and surrounded by artists. In the panel, Grushin spoke of the challenges of not only imagining the point of view of a middle-aged man, but writing in English, which is her second language. She said, "I often find myself thinking of a saying of Charlemagne: 'to know another language is to have a second soul.'" One thing she said that especially intrigued me: "I don't let myself near contemporary fiction when I am writing." Check out Olga Grushin's bio and her fascinating interview with Library Journal.

Wayne Karlin. I met Karlin a few years ago in the strangest place--- a casino at Atlantic City. But no, not gambling; we were both signing books at a regional booksellers conference. I took home his novel The Wished-For Country, a richly poetic vision of mid-seventeenth century Maryland, and I've been a big fan of his ever since. I'll quote Richard Bausch, who says it best:

"In this tragically forgetful country, this country whose own history--- even the history told by the winners and the public figures--- is mostly lost, it has fallen to its best novelists to tell the whole, real story, and to make it indelible. Thatis the province of Truth, finally--- Truth, the old, abused word, one Pontius Pilate had so much trouble with--- and it is what divides all the writers worth reading from those who are not worth reading. Wayne Karlin is one of the truth-tellers. You read him and your spirit is enlarged, and you want immediately to re-read him, for savoring. Line by line, he is lyrical, precise, deeply insightful, and breathtakingly vivid. he has long been among the best writers we have in this country--- in fact, I believe he is among the best writers we have ever had. And this amazing book is moving, utterly involving, and finally unforgettable."

In the panel Karlin talked about the nature of the novel, how it is "a mirror we holdup to ourselves." He went on: "writers, even when they are creating situations of the utmost fanstasy mine their lives for what they've learned, what they've experienced... I believe as Conrad did, that a writer's main job is to give the reader surrogate experiences."

Indeed: "a vivid dream," to use John Gardner's term. Or a "virtual reality."

Read an excerpt from The Wished-For Country here.

Karlin is also the author several other novels, including Marble Mountain and Prisoners. He is also a translator of Vietnamese and has edited anthologies of Vietnamese writing, and his latest book, a work of nonfiction forthcoming in September 2009, is Wandering Souls, about an American soldier who, long after the war, returns to Vietnam.

Frederick Reuss recently published Mohr, a novel inspired by the true story of his uncle, a German writer and playwright well-known before the Nazi persecutions. From the publisher's catalog copy:

With the sort of enthralling narrative step that always marks his work, Reuss allows their story to rise from a cache of photographs he uncovered in Germany—photographs from the 1920s and ’30s of the exiled Jewish playwright and novelist Max Mohr; Käthe, the beautiful wife he left behind; and Eva, their daughter, who would live through it all but would never really understand what had happened.

The interplay between Reuss’s revealing prose and the real faces in nearly 50 photographs offers a reading experience that may be unprecedented in novels...

In the panel Reuss said, "Paradoxically, I feel that in creating Max and Käthe and Eva Mohr as fictional characters, I have come to know them more intimately that if I had stuck to facts."

Read this profile of Reuss and Mohr in the Washington Post; Colleen Mondor's review in Bookslut; and about his earlier novels, Henry of Atlantic City, Horace Afoot, and The Wasties, here.

More anon.