This past week The Center for Fiction (founded back in 1820 as the Mercantile Library & mentioned briefly in my April 18th post) brought together Richard Ford & Joyce Carol Oates for a reading from their new novels – Ford’s Canada & Oates’s Mudwoman – and for a one-on-one, unmediated literary and, at times, deeply personal discussion. The event did not take place (as usual) at The Center for Fiction on East 47th St. but, rather, at John Jay College’s Lynch Theater at 10th Ave. & 59th St.(a much larger venue), in partnership for this occasion with The City University of New York (CUNY).
Ford read the first chapter of Canada because, he said, he wouldn’t have to provide a lot of context as he would if he read from somewhere in the middle of the volume; Oates read the final chapter of Mudwoman because most authors who engage in public readings read from somewhere in the middle and she simply wanted to offer the attentive audience an initial dose of something, well, different. The two authors, obviously friends for a number of years, discussed their books (past & present); their writing styles; issues surrounding the writing of fiction (at times underscoring the distinction from writing in the memoir form); how they began writing fiction; relationships between the novel, the longer form, and the short story; and bits and pieces of a number of personal details from their very different backgrounds.
The discussion proved to be an extremely honest, spontaneous and enlightening session of a kind that is rarely heard or witnessed between fiction writers – with no interviewer present to pose the typical mechanical questions – and in front of a large and utterly engaged audience. One is rarely privy to this sort of one-on-one interaction on stage. Ford, for example, revealed to Ms. Oates that he thought he’d become a police officer (following some time put in at law school) long before he became a novelist and Oates told a story about her mother having been cast away from her own family simply because they were dirt poor and had too many children. The revelation, on her part, had obviously had a major impact on her life and work; she provided several details around and about the separation, explaining that, for her, engaging routinely in the writing of fiction tended to mitigate any feelings of loneliness she might have at a given moment.
The evening seemed to be a great success, as if we audience members (all fans of the two writers) were simply observing, indeed eavesdropping on, two colleagues chatting rather informally about themselves – about aspects of their lives and their work. The discussion went on for approximately an hour and ½ and there was little time for more than one or two questions from the audience floor. Also, really, a very good thing!
We’d heard much advertising (on NPR, WNYC, and elsewhere) about “Monet’s Garden,” the new show at The New York Botanical Garden (sponsored by the MetLife Foundation), so we planned a Sunday trip up to The Bronx for an afternoon visit. There is a rich garden “path” in the Conservatory filled with a profusion of plants and flowers of all sorts and all colors, actually a fairly narrow section of the building, aiming to duplicate a portion of Monet’s actual garden at Giverny; and there are a few of Monet’s paintings (barely a handful) and photos (maybe a dozen, or so) of Monet at Giverny housed in the Mertz Library (in a small gallery on the 6th floor). But, aside from the short (but lush) garden path; a lily pond recalling those Monet maintained at Giverny; a few films about Monet, including his profound interest in food and dining; a batch of French Symbolist poems (Verlaine, Mallarme, Rimbaud & Baudelaire) scattered, mostly, on small “billboards” around and about the path between the Leon Levy Visitor Center and the Conservatory (best poem: "Evening Harmony," from Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal,1857); and the "Monet Evenings" featuring water lily concerts – there is little to explore that will truly blow you away a la the Dale Chihuly sculpture show mounted just a few years ago (in 2006).