Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2008
What do you read when you are not writing?
By Eric Forbes
For The Bali Times
August 15, 2008
“WHAT DO YOU READ WHEN YOU ARE NOT WRITING?” Eric Forbes asked for The Bali Times a few writers appearing at the 2008 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival what they read for pleasure
ARAVIND ADIGA, author of The White Tiger, recently longlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize for Fiction: “I read a lot of nonfiction, and often find it more interesting than fiction. I’ve just finished reading To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson’s classic narrative of the rise of Marxism, which has to be one of the best books I’ve ever read.”
ALEXIS WRIGHT, author of Carpentaria, winner of the 2008 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction: “I have been reading Alberto Manguel’s The City of Words and The Library at Night. I am also reading recently published books on the writings of Fuentes and Márquez, and Wellsprings, a small volume of essays by Mario Vargas Llosa. I am reading Seamus Heaney’s poetry and a selection of his prose, Finders Keepers, and I have also been reading a book on Buddhist poet monks of China, The Clouds Should Know Me By Now. I have just started reading Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem.”
PREETA SAMARASAN, author of Evening Is the Whole Day: “When I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing. These days I find myself learning, or trying to learn, from everything I read, whether it’s the rich and precise vocabulary of a literary novel or the page-turning plot of an English mystery. Pleasure and business have become inseparable. Some old favorites I turn to over and over again for both fun and education: Peter Carey; Salman Rushdie; Charles Dickens; the food writing of M.F.K. Fisher; Alice B. Toklas; and, more recently, Nigel Slater; mysteries by Dorothy L. Sayers and H.R.F. Keating; P.G. Wodehouse; and lots and lots of poetry by Yeats, Eliot, Auden, e.e. cummings, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Michael Ondaatje, Jack Gilbert, Mary Oliver, Anne Carson, Nancy Willard, Sharon Olds, Daljit Nagra, Srikanth Reddy, and others. I read poetry every day!”
CAMILLA GIBB, author of Sweetness in the Belly: “I tend to read writers in translation into English—work that captures the feel, both grammatically and thematically, of having been written in another language and produced in a cultural context other than my own. It forces me to think about language differently, allows me to ‘travel’ imaginatively and see the world from different angles and at the same time doesn’t interfere with my own writing because the language and context are so different from my own. My go-to guy is Haruki Murakami, whose work ‘feels’ Japanese despite its translation, and who can make me believe in things no one else could make me believe in—talking cats, for instance.”
LIJIA ZHANG, author of Socialism Is Great!: A Worker’s Memoir of the New China: “I have just finished John Man’s Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection. It is an exhilarating blend of travel and history. About a third of the books I read are in Chinese. I am disappointed at the quality of the fiction coming out of China these days, which was why I was so excited and thrilled to come across this highly unusual novel, Tian Huidong’s A Bridge Without Bank: An Aesthetic’s Two Lives, a sort of magic realism with Chinese characteristics. A book I always take on trips with me is Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, a semi-biographical account of his journey back to Sri Lanka. It is so evocative, beautiful and exotic. I read poems, both traditional Chinese and modern poems from around the world. Poetry is good for the soul.”
MATTHEW CONDON, author of The Trout Opera, shortlisted for the 2008 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction: “As a journalist and writer of fiction, I can’t get out of the lifelong habit of pouring through newspapers, journals and news websites each day. After finishing a novel, I immerse myself in nonfiction. I can’t face reminders of the limitations of my ability by immediately wading into Saul Bellow, Patrick White et al.; so nonfiction it is. Only when I’m warming up to writing a new novel do I return to great fiction. That’s when I need all the hope I can get. Writing a novel is like training for a half-marathon. There’s solace to be had from listening to the best trainers and sticking to a tried and true diet. Then the cycle repeats itself.”
JAMIE JAMES, author of The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge: “When I read for pleasure nowadays, I find myself returning to my favorite reading when I was in high school and college: poetry. Unfortunately, I pay little attention to contemporary poetry; I prefer to reread what made me love literature in the first place, following the traditional curriculum pretty closely. It falls into five groups: the classics, especially Homer and Latin lyric poetry; Shakespeare; the English Romantics; the French Decadents, mainly Baudelaire and Rimbaud; and modernism, Eliot and Pound. Few of my friends know about this: it’s a bit of a conversation-stopper, when people are talking about the new novel or latest Bush-bashing memoir they’re reading, to say you’re reading Wordsworth or Pound. I fear they will think I’m being pretentious, and in any case only a few people I know would take the slightest interest. Of course I read new books, but when I’m in the midst of a new project, I find it helpful to read something completely unlike what I’m working on. Anyway, there’s nothing better. If you want to find out what went wrong in Iraq, read Homer’s The Iliad.”
Eric Forbes is senior editor of Malaysia-based literary magazine MPH Quill, which will be publishing a special Ubud edition to coincide with the 2008 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, which runs from October 14-19, 2008.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Bali Times of August 15, 2008