Yeah yeah yeah. In one week, you'll have to refer to me as Master Camp. Until then, plain old Audrey will do. (And no, referring to me as either "plain" or "old" will not be tolerated!)
Thank you for supporting me throughout the last two years of this program with kind thoughts, encouragement, prayers, and by reading my blog from time to time.
People love pretty much the same things best.
A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best,
but after what he alone loves at all.
What do I alone love at all?
The moment in my loneliness when someone reaches out and calls me friend. I doubt this is a love unique to me. But I have spent much of my life actively moving to a spot on the street where I may be the 'reacher' in this scenario rather than the 'reached.' I look for those people wandering at a slower pace, the ones turning and turning within a crowd.
A girl sobs in a toilet stall in a public bathroom at a concert. I find her. I shoo everyone else away and sit on the dirty bathroom floor and reach my hand under the partition where she can grab it and hold on. It's my way of giving back this bit of beauty that is an unexpected ally. In one's darkest hour, longing for a hero.
It's happened to me, too.
A tumor wrapped itself around my mother's pituitary gland, a giant squid on the prow of her brain. It dragged her deep into the murky black, and I could not follow. A friend showed up for me as I flailed, attempting to move heaven and earth with my tired, human hands. She pulled me away from the phone, into bed. She turned on The Philadelphia Story and stroked my forehead until I slept. She wrapped herself around me. Moss on a stone. She held me until I allowed myself to cry.
That moment, in the arms of someone I'd never before considered stronger, is what I love. The way I could move through the doomed shadows to a place of hope--all because, in my weary invisibility, a friend saw me anyway and came to my aid.
I love falling into the company of pleasant strangers. And because I've got one of those wide-open, trustworthy faces, I've had many opportunities to do exactly that. Not only do I enjoy helping people, but some of the best conversations stem from situations like these.
Standing at the bus stop outside the Folkmuseet on Bygdøy this afternoon, I was approached by two elderly ladies. They carried cameras and backpacks. One of them seemed to be playing a folding map like an accordion. They asked whether they were standing on the correct side of the road to catch the number 30 bus back into town. I said they were.
"So, we'll go that way then," one said, gesturing off to her left.
"No, the bus will take you this way. Back into town."
"Oh Elaine, you're forgetting the sides of the road again!" Elaine's friend teased.
"It's true. We're from England," Elaine explained. "I forget about the roads."
Both women appeared to be in their sixties*. Elaine was shorter, with dark hair still ebbing gray; her blue eyes watered against the brightness as the sun pushed out from behind the clouds. Her friend was tall and wore glasses that darkened in the sunlight; her hair was nearly white. Both of them had soft, slackened cheeks and hands speckled with liver spots, but in many other ways, they were night and day. Elaine peered out the bus windows with big eyes, loving every minute of the city. Her friend said she preferred countryside. Elaine named waypoints on our bus ride, obviously in some command of her location. Her friend clucked her tongue and admitted, "I'm absolutely no use when it comes to directions."
After a short discussion, I offered to ride with them into town and direct them to the harbor. When I learned they had yet to see the palace, and were confused about how to get there, I disembarked with them at Slottsparken and led the way up the hill.
"The palace is just up this way."
"I see it. Lovely. Thank you!"
"Here on the left is my favorite statue on the grounds. Queen Maud."
"Princess Maud! She's one of ours, you know."
"Yes. Queen Victoria's granddaughter, I believe."
"You know if they wipe all of ours out, we get Norway's king as our own."
"Unfortunately, there's too many of ours to wipe out at this point."
"What? I'm a Republican."
"Did you say your name was Elaine?"
"And what's yours?"
While the Opera House was drowning in the agitated mania of Oslo's teenage Justin Bieber fans last Wednesday night, a few dozen literature lovers gathered in the basement of Oslo's Litteraturhuset to see someone else. David Vann, author of Legend of a Suicide and Caribou Island, was visiting to talk about the latter book, most recently translated into Norwegian.
Turning the last page of Caribou Island the week before, I'd felt utterly flattened, almost distraught. The story follows the crumbling of a thirty-year marriage. Gary and Irene are building a cabin on an island in Alaska; as they struggle through that process, they learn how far apart they've grown and how much they have left to lose. It is one of the saddest, least hopeful books I've ever read. That the novel elicited such a strong reaction speaks to the high quality of the writing, but ultimately, I was feeling dark and wary as I took my seat on Wednesday. I had no idea what to expect.
So, it was a pleasant surprise when Vann took the floor and opened with his Bieber impersonation for the audience.
He stepped away from the chair and microphone set up for the interview and took a pop artist's stance, as though on stage: one foot in front of the other, torso leaned forward. He then proceeded to rock out.
"Dead on, right?" he asked. The audience laughed. Vann reddened and returned to his seat.
Norwegian journalist Martin Grüner Larsen led the interview and first brought up Legend of a Suicide.
"Why did you choose to write it as a novel? Why not a memoir?" Larsen asked.
Legend of a Suicide, winner of the 2007 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, is the fractured tale of a man's suicide as told several different ways. Every version is slightly different, a variety of vantage points and writing styles. But the suicide in the story was real. Vann's father took his own life in 1980; that heartbreak for Vann was the jumping off point for what would eventually be a successful literary debut. Vann doesn't hide this fact from his readers; the American edition includes a note confirming it on the inside cover.
"There's no true story in my family," Vann explained. When asked, every family member had something different to say or add about his father's death. For Vann, the only answer was to give his unconscious a free reign in the writing.
"To make the ugly and meaningless beautiful and meaningful is what the unconscious wants," he said. "My family doesn't understand why the beautiful has to be monstrous; [but Legend of a Suicide] is some monstrous version of the true story."
Vann began writing Legend of a Suicide when he was still a student in a writing program. The manuscript was rejected by several publishers. Ultimately, a discouraged Vann gave up and pursued a career as a sailing captain and a boat builder.
"My brain wasn't old enough to do a novel," he said. Only several years later did he return to his original project and find success.
Larsen asked whether writing Legend of a Suicide was something akin to therapy.
Vann nodded. "Yes, I mean, I feel better!"
"But the difference between writing and therapy is that writing has an aesthetic goal... transformation, trying to find something beautiful," he said. Then he continued, "Therapy isn't beautiful."
Thus, the tone of the evening was set. Vann couldn't help vying for the laugh at every turn. He giggled through many of his own quips, gesticulating with frantic hands, rolling his eyes around in his head.