Getting Reacquainted with Fiction | Library Journal’s Day of Dialog

Library Journal‘s 2013 Day of Dialog ended with a table lined with familiar faces: Amy Tan, with her first novel for adults since 2005′s Saving Fish from Drowning; Richard North Patterson, with a work narrated by a 22-year-old woman; Allan Gurganus, with his first book in 16 years; prolific critic Caleb Crain, with his first ever novel (though second book); Al Lamanda, with Sunrise (Gale Cengage, Aug.), the follow up to his Edgar-nominated Sunset; and of course Library Journal‘s own Barbara Hoffert as moderator.

Tan, looking quite dapper, spoke about the impetus for her upcoming book, The Valley of Amazement (Ecco: HarperCollins, Nov.): finding a picture of her grandmother in the traditional costume of a courtesan. (She likened it to finding a picture of a grandparent in full BDSM gear—it might be a Halloween costume, but probably not.) She felt more curiosity than condemnation: “In that society, I think there were very few choices.” That curiosity became a novel that tells the story of a celebrated courtesan in 19th-century Shanghai (among other places). “I have never been able to write about sex,” Tan admitted, which is “very difficult when your characters live in a courtesan house.”

His deep voice inspiring at least a few admiring Tweets, Patterson admitted that, unlike the narrator of Loss of Innocence (Quercus, dist. by Random, Oct.), he “is not a 22-year-old woman.” Ultimately, the work of getting gender right pales in comparison to “getting people to care about your characters,” which is “the key to any novel.”

“One of the things I think fiction can do,” he explained, though novels are “a collection of lies,” is “get [at] truths…very important human truths, [that] biographers can’t.” Patterson went on, “You can read all sorts of facts about Winston Churchill and still not know him. On the other hand, you can portray the interior of a fictional person in a way that is very true to life.”

Gurganus agreed. Novelists are “trained liars,” he said. “I think Matisse put it best when he said exactitude is not the truth. It’s about the central gesture that’s based on decades of observation. Twelve noses. Twelve ways of walking. Twelve ways of eating.” His new novel, Local Souls (Liveright: Norton, Sept.), returns to the setting of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All—the fictional Falls, NC, which is its own kind of “central gesture” of small-town Southern life.

“I think Mark Twain said it best about writing,” Lamanda said. “The difference between finding the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.” It’s all “about finding the right words.”

Crain, whose debut novel, Necessary Errors (Penguin Bks: Penguin Group (USA), Aug.), follows a young American man as he navigates Prague of the early 1990s, echoed this idea in a recent PW interview. “I hate to sound mystical or anything [about writing fiction] but you know when you block on a word or a name and then you don’t think about it for a while but then it comes to you? A lot of the work is like that.”

The last program of the day, this panel sped by. As moderator, Hoffert must have taken Patterson’s advice on producing a good novel: “You are not writing a bound sleeping pill here.”  This panel was anything but tiresome—the audience (me included) was on the edge of their seats.
Molly McArdle About Molly McArdle

Molly McArdle (, @mollitudo on Twitter) is Assistant Editor, Library Journal Book Review. She also manages the Library Journal tumblr.