Sunday, June 28, 2009

Listening to an Author

Last week I had the opportunity to hear Carlos Ruiz Zafon speak at Nicola's Bookstore. He is the author of The Shadow of the Wind and now The Angel's Game, a second novel in what he hopes to make a quartet. I read The Shadow of the Wind shortly after it came out in English and was intrigued not only by the deeply complex and fascinating plot but also by the beautiful language used to tell the story. It was an easy decision to jump at the chance to hear him speak. I am so glad I did as he offered many things that made be think. You can read more about him at his official site and then read on for some of my thoughts on what he said about reading and writing.

Zafon began his career as a novelist with a novel that won a prestigious prize for young adult novels in Spain. He said that the lure of money and fame is important to any author so he wrote some more young adult novels. Being pegged as a young adult author did not appeal to him because he never liked to read books labeled as being for such a finite group. Zafon sees himself as writer and reader without divisions for age or other limitations. He said he never read books called "young adult" when he was a young adult. He sees readers as a community and that all books that are good are for all members of that community. (This was the first time I wanted to stand up and cheer during his talk. I was moved by how succinctly he put this idea and struck by how it resonated with me.)

Maybe that was not the first time I wanted to cheer. The discussion began with Zafon discussing the idea that "Books do not need passports." This is again a reference to the world community of readers. A good book is a good book. It is that simple. They may need translation to make them accessible (Zafon's books have been translated into more than 35 languages) but the heart of the truly good novel will touch the heart of readers everywhere. Books are what can and does tie people together despite surface differences.

Readers put themselves into a book. This is why Zafon, despite his many screenplays, does not want to see his novels become movies. (Another time I considered a hearty round of applause.) A well written book has to tread a fine line as it leaves just the right amount of the story to the imagination, inviting the reader to claim the story, mixing it with personal experiences and opinions. The screenwriter, Zafon suggests, writes so that the actor and director create the nuances of the story. The author must guide the reader to find those nuances. Naturally, these nuances are colored by the personality and personal experiences of the reader. This is why the movie of a beloved book rarely meets the viewers' expectations. Frequently, I hear people say "The movie is not nearly as good as the book" but rarely does anyone express the opposite opinion. (I did not love Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake but did enjoy the movie. The not loving the novel is probably what allowed me to enjoy the movie. The movie version of The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman was a travesty, totally failing to capture what I loved about that wonderful trilogy.) When you read a book, appreciate what is put into and put yourself into the book. Then, if you must, go to the movie. Don't do it the other way around. The movie will color the way you picture the novel.

In that vein, Zafon was adamant about his commitment to writing a story that merits the reader's giving time and money to that book. He says he does write for others and is conscious of writing a story that he loves with the idea of others becoming as attached to it as he has by the time the novel is completed.

Because English is Zafon's third language (growing up in Barcelona he learned Spanish and Catalan), it is not the language in which he writes. He talked at length about the process of translation. His translator Lucia Graves discovered his book in a Spanish bookstore and approached him about translating it. She is not a recognized translator but soon proved that she had a better idea of what he wanted than any of the others. Apparently several translators are offered the opportunity to submit a translation of a chapter of the book. Zafon and others looked at these translations before selecting the translator. Because he is fluent in English (he currently lives in Los Angeles), Zafon was able to read every page of the translation and make suggestions. He felt that soon Graves was inhabiting his mind. The translation of the second novel went even more smoothly because the author and the translator were thinking along the same lines. This is a luxury he does not have with translations into languages with which he is not familiar. All he can do is hope that when in goes on book tour in Korea or Estonia or wherever that he will still receive a positive reception. In the past week I have thought a great deal about the burden that falls on the translator. It is an amazing talent to be able to not only convey another person's text but also the emotions behind the words.

If you get a chance to hear a favorite author, I urge you to do just that. Not only will you probably end up with an autographed copy of the book and a brief moment of interacting with the author, you will also learn a great deal about reading, writing, and human nature.

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