I am at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island. I am tired and already wondering whether I will make it through the evening. The event, one of the sessions in this year’s Vancouver Writers’ Festival, is to be a panel discussion called The Pursuit of Fiction. This could be very dry.
Foreboding deepens as the authors file on stage and take their seats. They do not look like a lively bunch. In fact, as they slump in their seats and look anywhere but at the audience, they do not look as if they want to be here.
Probably the two women are the worst offenders. A.L Kennedy is a small, mannish-looking woman with a snarky, chip-on-the-shoulder air. Claire Keegan looks sulky and resentful. But the men don’t exactly have dramatic stage presence either. William Gibson wears an unflattering checked shirt and I wish, not for the first time, that more writers would dress up a bit when appearing in public. Alessandro Piperno looks prim and uncomfortable. Liam Durcan looks tentative.
The moderator is Kirk LaPointe, managing director of the local paper, and he is annoying in other ways: smooth and smug, with expensive suit, shiny shoes, well-cut greying hair. I sink down in my seat. This is going to be a long evening.
LaPointe speaks and, to be fair, he speaks well. He introduces the authors and the topic with a touch of dry humour. Dry, at this time, works. But the authors don’t respond. Claire Keegan’s mouth seems to droop even further downward.
The central question is: does fiction have a purpose beyond entertainment? And if it introduces moral and political topics, how does a writer avoid proselytizing?
Keegan speaks first, briefly and dismissively. Hmmm: entertainment is not on the agenda here. Kennedy is next. She uncoils her tense little body enough to wave her hands about and answer in more detail. Gibson and Durcan are both slow in their responses, but Piperno is by far the slowest. He apologizes for his lack of English and reads, with many hesitations, from his notes.
The exit door closest to me is labelled Emergency Exit Only. The other one would require a very public departure. I am trapped.
But a miracle of sorts happens. The chemistry between authors and audience begins to emerge, even through the fog of Piperno’s mispronunciations and the long gaps in between Gibson’s words.
I am now becoming used to the downward-drooping lines of Keegan’s face. In fact, with her pale, luminous skin and her long red-gold wavy hair, she is starting to look like the Madonna of the Rocks. (Well, maybe the Madonna model at the end of the day when she was really tired of holding that pose for the painter.) Anyway, her voice is beautiful. And she’s nobody’s fool. When asked if she has something to add to a questions that others have answered, she says, firmly, “No, thank you.”
Alessandro Piperno continues hesitant, mangling his words and holding the audience hostage through long pauses while he searches for a way to express an idea. Yet we warm to him anyway and when he finally gets out a wry thought, we laugh and applaud.
A.L. Kennedy is the one to completely win over the audience, though. She is funny, offbeat, uncensored. I discover later that she does stand-up comedy as well. She paints a wonderful picture of herself as an outcast: trapped in an attic, unable to come out and face the world before she pours her twisted thoughts and imaginings out onto paper. I think she calls them “my ugly children.”
I’m reminded once more that there is nothing to distinguish writers from the outside. They may be solitary people. They are not necessarily dazzled at the idea of having to appear in front of people to read their work and answer questions from readers with a point to make or unpublished writers with burning questions. But words are their business and with a little nourishment—given even a hint of the right environment—they can put them together in a way that illuminates. Finally, I relax, settle back in my seat and forget about the exit door.