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At The Wheeler Centre with Kamila Shamsie and Andrew Sean Greer

May has been a big month for literary groupies like me, with the authors of two of my favourite books from last year appearing at Melbourne’s The Wheeler Centre.

Last week, the author of Less, Andrew Sean Greer, was interviewed by Benjamin Law. The Pulitzer prize-winning author was charming and funny, speaking of the ways in which the experiences and behaviours of his protagonist, Arthur Less, at times reflected his own insecurities.

One of the funniest parts of his interview was when he spoke about his rejection by his publisher after he had produced a certain number of books which attracted modest sales and he reached a certain age, only to encounter his former editor as he accepted his Pulitzer Prize.

It was hard not to share in Greer’s joy.

Other interesting morsels from Greer’s interview:

  • Greer also spoke about his intention to create a work that was joyful, although the book also has its fair share of sadness and disappointment. He said that, growing up as a gay man at the time he did, he had been exposed to literature that explored tragedy and prejudice, but little that retained a sense of joy.
  • A questioner asked about his twin brother’s response to his Pulitzer win, and Greer said that during a Thanksgiving dinner, his entire family had said that the thing they were most grateful for that year had been his success with Less.
  • Greer spoke about his sense of being an imposter in literary circles before winning the prize, and how he felt that the best outcome of the Pulitzer is that he now felt he legitimately had a place in his writing community. Benjamin Law joked that it seemed like a high benchmark to reach.
  • Greer said that at a certain point when writing a novel, he tended to become paralysed by a sense that the novel was not progressing as he might have liked and needed to lie on a couch for about a week to gather himself and continue.

Home Fire author Kamila Shamsie also charmed the audience in her interview earlier in the week. In the same way as her book, her interview focused on identity and migration, and how not all residents in a country are treated equally.

She spoke with insight about:

  • Writing a tragedy that was also full of humour. Shamsie said that the interaction of comedy with tragedy reflected life. “Humour doesn’t go away when awful things are happening,” she said.
  • The abundance of information we receive and how difficult it can be to focus on the most important information at the right time. She made an example of the register of British Muslims, which was instigated by George Bush, but only gained attention when it was renamed by Donald Trump.
  • The pressure on young boys to become men, and how it isn’t the natural progression that it is for girls as they become women. “For girls, becoming a woman is an inevitability. For boys, becoming a man is an ambition.” Shamsie said this passage from Home Fire was the most commonly underlined in the book.
  • The way many young men recruited to join ISIS were not solely looking for violence or power, but a sense of belonging to a new and different state.
  • The way a succession of bad decisions never goes without consequences. “At some point you’ll have to pay the price and there’s always a price to pay.”
  • In writing a character, an author does not judge them, but get behind their eyes. In gaining this perspective, it is difficult to dislike or disapprove of a certain character.

 

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