No Day of Dialog would be complete without a star-studded author panel, and last week’s annual gathering at New York’s McGraw-Hill building didn’t disappoint. The afternoon’s “Drop-Dead Gorgeous Fiction” panel was moderated by LJ Prepub Alert editor Barbara Hoffert and featured authors Lev Grossman, Emma Straub, Jane Smiley, Jules Feiffer, Lily King, and Marlon James.
Hoffert opened with a question for Feiffer, illustrator of The Phantom Tollbooth, among many other books, and a long-time syndicated cartoonist whose work has appeared in the Village Voice, the New Yorker, and multiple other publications. His latest book is the graphic novel Kill My Mother, which features a cast of women and a hard-boiled-style detective. What was it like to move to long-form storytelling, Hoffert asked, and how did Feiffer conceive of this latest work?
Feiffer explained that his style has evolved since he realized that many stories “have so much to cover that I can’t do it in six panels.” The detective genre is nothing new to him, he said, as he “grew up on Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.” Learning to draw from adventure films helped too, Feiffer noted, with all the experiences combining to make creating this book “the best time I’ve ever had in my life.” Asked whether we inevitably reinvent over time, Feiffer again thanked his movie and theater background. His later work, he said, “is reinvention of art I did as a kid and of movies,” adding, “there’s more of my escapist life than my real life in my work.”
“Did you mean [the character] Annie to be every mother’s worst nightmare?” asked Hoffert. Feiffer admitted that Annie thinks of herself as abandoned and is in a tantrum for the first half of the book. “But it’s not my fault,” he said, adding, “I love creating these characters and losing control of them. By the end I”m just a stenographer.”
Grossman, book critic for Time magazine, then discussed his latest title, The Magician’s Land, which is the last in a trilogy. He didn’t realize he would write a series, he explained, but after the first book, The Magicians, and the second, The Magician King, he realized that the story still wasn’t complete. Asked whether becoming a novelist is a metaphor for growing up, Grossman answered that for him, writing these novels has meant saying something of his personal truth, and turning around the idea that growing up has to mean an abandonment of magic. As he wrote, he explained, he asked himself, “what kind of spells does an adult use?” Grossman’s enjoyment of fiction has been heightened, he added, by recent genre-expanding works such as Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and books by George R.R. Martin—“it’s like that dream where you find extra rooms in your house.” Some classic elements of fantasy are present in his work too, though: the author noted that a key trope of any fantasy book is the end of the world, and his is no different.
Hoffert asked Smiley whether she saw her latest book, Some Luck (“everybody gets at least some luck”), the first in a trilogy, as being about parenting. It’s true, Smiley said, that the the opening chapter “is told from a baby’s point of view,” but she sees the title as also concerning farm life, as “farms and agriculture form the root of society.” She wanted to explore how technology has changed all that, she explained, as the details of how food is produced are “important to us in a zillion different ways.” The second volume in the trilogy, the author revealed, may be titled Early Warning.
To audience laughter, Hoffert noted that Straub’s The Vacationers is “refreshingly uncynical” and that the author must not have grown up in New York. “It’s a shameful truth,” admitted Straub, “I’m an optimist.” The author was pregnant while writing the book, she said, meaning that “I was really full of hope, and I used humor and the dark stuff that’s inside hope and optimism to rough up characters.” Straub then offered something of a writing workshop. Her novel is set on a vacation, she said, because it was a device to get her unstuck. She was writing for nine years but couldn’t figure out what the start of the book should be, as there were so many moving parts, and finally figured out that she had to get the characters out of their usual world and isolate them in one place. The next step was to bring an outsider in as otherwise there was no way to access the insider elements of the story.
On transforming fact into fiction, King, author of Euphoria, explained that she does “research with a bit of a squint eye.” Her book appears to be about a certain subject—in this case, Margaret Mead and her anthropological work—but takes another turn. King reconceptualized the work, she explained, once she realized that the main character was really a male colleague of Mead’s. Her book is also concerned with ownership as a Western construct.
James’s latest is the novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. The Jamaican author’s fictionalized biography is ostensibly about an attack on Bob Marley, but it’s really about Jamaica, said James, which in the 1970s was a country in turmoil. James wanted to explore an insider’s perspective, as “there are things you can learn from Mark Twain that you can’t learn from Shelby Foote…If this place is overrun by CIA, what does that mean for the maid?”
A writing teacher (he allows his students “one exclamation point for every 200,000 words and no adverbs for two years”), James used “the greatest article in American History,” Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” as his guide. Talese couldn’t get access to Sinatra, so he contacted everyone around the singer instead. In the same way, Marley is peripheral to this book. The reggae artist was not universally admired in his home country, explained James; people like the author’s father saw Marley as “an ignorant rasta boy” who went against the values of Jamaicans who were trying to become middle-class. James was also inspired by the era of the book—”I couldn’t wait to get back into ’70s lingo,” he said, “and I really wanted to put my characters in polyester.”