April 6, 2011

The Voice Behind the Written Word

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When you pick up a book, the author is always this kind of ethereal presence, a photograph on the back cover with a serene smile. When you begin reading, the author takes on the voice of the story itself, melding into the words you narrate inside your head. So, to actually hear that voice in real life is a fascinating, if not always satisfying, experience. The readings of The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht and Touch by Alexi Zentner by each respective author gave such a glance into not only the voice of the books themselves, but also into the life experiences that helped shape them.

The setting in the Cornell Store was relaxed and friendly, like a group of friends were simply getting together. After a brief, hilarious introduction to “Touch the Tiger’s Wife” by Associate Professor J. Robert Lennon, the authors had a short thumb wrestling match to decide who would go first.

Following her spectacular loss, Tea Obreht began with two excerpts from her novel The Tiger’s Wife. The novel follows the memories of the doctor Natalia as she tries to uncover the circumstances of her grandfather’s death through the stories and myths he told her as a child. The first section she read seemed vividly depicted through its language, and you could almost see the young Natalia as she and her grandfather watch the tigers at the zoo. I say seemed because unfortunately the reading was rather flat and monotone, reminding me far too much of those days in high school when the English teacher forced everyone to read out loud. The second excerpt, told from Natalia’s grandfather’s point of view, was slightly more interesting, as Obreht’s reading matched the humorously dry attitude of Natalia’s grandfather. Both excerpts were well chosen to illustrate the feel of the novel without giving anything away, and the second reading especially ended at a mysterious and intriguing place.

Alexi Zentner, author of Touch, chose two sections that would showcase the inherent charm and magic within the human interactions in his novel. Zentner brought back the audience’s own memories of listening to family members recount stories of times past, as the main character Stephan recalls his father’s storytelling. His second reading was especially emotional in its ability to take the listeners back into Stephan’s childhood as he witnesses the loss of both his younger sister and his father. As one listens, one cannot help but feel Stephan’s shock as he watches the futile rescue attempts to save his family from drowning. Throughout his reading, Zentner described how he got started writing his novel, even back to the days of writing in short two hour blocks. Although this was an interesting insight into his writing process, it did disrupt the flow of the readings.

The question and answer section after the readings, as well as Zentner’s presentation, gave a glance into the writing process and life influences that shaped each author’s novel. For both authors, myths and legends represented a major influence on their novels, though in vastly different ways. German and Balkan myths, like that of the “undying man” and the repetition of the number three, provided the basis for many of the myths and events in The Tiger’s Wife. For Touch, Zentner claimed he specifically tried to not use legends from real life, so as not to abuse their telling. Both authors also credited the Cornell MFA program, as well as their friendship with each other, as influences on their writing.

The event was brief but interesting and gave a look into what influences shaped each author’s novel, including the family and friends that attended. Themes of family, magic and wonder clearly influenced each author’s voice. And, although slightly muffled in the beginning, those voices did eventually show through in the readings.

Original Author: Fiona Modrak