Back in February I was triple-booked for the one evening I would have given anything to have had free: Mavis Gallant and Jhumpa Lahiri gave a joint reading at the Village Voice. I knew even if I canceled my three other appointments I still wouldn't have had a shot at getting into the reading– when superstars like this read at the Village Voice, it's standing room only. And not even standing in the same room as the writers! For the upstairs section where the readings take place can only accommodate so many spectators, and then the rest overflow down the stairs and onto the main level, obliged to watch the proceedings on video screens. Ever since I've regretted not having gone anyway, three hours in advance if necessary, to stake out a spot upstairs to see these two together.
Imagine how delighted I was, then, when I found that the summer issue of Granta contains a three day-long conversation the two had together while Lahiri was in Paris! And even better, the Granta website has posted videos of the reading– Gallant reading from her short story "In Transit," Lahiri reading from her short story "Once in a Lifetime," and the Q&A they did with the audience just after. So many thanks to Granta, for making it possible to take part in such an important rencontre.
A great moment in the extended conversation:
JL: Did you ever work in cafes?
MG: As a waitress?
JL: I meant to write in.
The idea that a writer in Paris has to answer the question about whether or not to write in cafes means the writer in Paris is always being held up against the Lost Generations I, II, and III (that would be Hemingway & Co., Baldwin & Co., and Beats & Co.), and I love the way Gallant fends it off. Lahiri moves on gracefully (I don't blame her for asking, and for the record I love to write in cafes, it gets me out of the house).
What I found most interesting about their conversation was the generational difference in the way the two approach not only their writing, but the conversation about writing. Lahiri is a very generous interviewer, giving Gallant lots of ideas and references to work with, but she is also a product of a deeply anxious, self-conscious generation of writers. Gallant is much more schematic, more declarative, while Lahiri scurries after making qualifications, or politely begging to differ. For example:
JL: This is one of many examples in your stories where at some point or another we're in every character's head. It's an amalgam of points of view. It's what Tolstoy does in his novels, but you do it in the confines of a story. For me, it was very hard to get to that point. When I first started writing, I always wrote from a single person's point of view. But in your work, even in something early like Green Water, Green Sky, you're already dipping in and out of various characters' minds. Was this something that came easily?
MG: It must have, or I wouldn't have done it.
JL: I felt that I couldn't to it. I read your stories and other people's stories to learn. I didn't know how to go about it. But for you it felt natural?
MG: I never questioned it. The problem is getting it right.
I wonder if this isn't rooted in the way writing gets discussed in creative writing programs. Probably it isn't– Lahiri sounds like any other writer talking shop, and I'm sure Gallant is a great shoptalker when she's in the mood– but there does seems to be a difference of attitude on display here. Gallant's answers tend to be variations on "I've no idea" or anecdotes or reflections on things she lived, rather than how she wrote. She makes it very clear that she has nothing but disdain for the kind of creative writing programs which have such a stranglehold on American letters ("workshop" to her is a "junkie word," and she advises a former student "'Just read and read and go your own way'"), and I get the feeling that while Lahiri was delighted to have this exchange with Gallant, the conversation wasn't exactly what she expected.
Still, it's great fun to read, and to listen in on their talk. Have a listen to Mavis Gallant reading– as I've said before, hearing her read her own stuff brings out nuances and inflections you might not have noticed, reading it to yourself.