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Off the Page: Shirley Hazzard

With Shirley Hazzard
Winner of 2003 National Book Award in Fiction
Thursday, January 8, 2004; 1:00 PM

Shirley Hazzard, winner of this year's National Book Award for fiction, will be online Thursday, Jan. 8, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her prize-winning novel, The Great Fire.

The Great Fire is set in post-WWII Asia, where its main character, Maj. Aldred Leith, is traveling to research a book. In his review in The Washington Post's Book World, the novelist Howard Norman wrote about the novel: ?'The ravages of war are very much at its heart? People everywhere, as Hazzard writes, ?need to rehearse being normal.' For all its melancholy and stark tableaux, this, finally, is a story that celebrates love as the most dignified strategy for survival.''

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Hazzard was online Thursday, Jan. 8 to discuss her writing and her new novel. A transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Carole Burns: Happy New Year, and welcome to Off the Page. We are honored to have Shirley Hazzard as our guest today. Welcome!

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Washington, D.C.: I loved your memoir about Graham Greene. Did he teach you anything about novel writing?

Shirley Hazzard: He did, long before I ever met him, because I remember in 1947 at Christmas when I was living in Hong Kong with my parents, I asked for a Christmas present, for a new novel of his that has just come out, The Heart of the Matter. I was 16 at the time, and I had read novels of Graham's before, because from the time I was about 12 or so I was aware of his existence as a writer, especially because there were already films of his books that he called entertainment. and when I asked for this book for christmas, I was by then beginning to grow up, and it had a new effect on me. It was the fact of being able to write like that in a clear way in what was close to one's own relatively contemporary feelings, and very direct about the emotions a sensitive reader would feel. If I had to choose one novel of Graham Greene's as his best, I would still choose The Heart of the Matter.

I wasn't a writer then. But it affected me in that I appreciated this thing that I was seeing fresh, because at that age one is changing. And I understood what this was, the difficulty he had in love and trying to be truthful and trying to be true to himself. It's certainly his kindest book. There is more human kindness in it than in most of the books. He also came to dislike the book because people felt that--it is more accessible in a sense. It speaks more directly to responsiveness in human beings rather than difficulty.

In any case, then I became hooked, and whatever thereafter appeared from Graham I read it, and that was the beginning of an impression he made on me. I think every young reader who has sensibility in some part of themselves, they express themselves in light of a book that made a strong impression, and I was aware of the fresh kind of writing that he had, and the expression of his times. Although he was rooted in the 20s and 30s, he kept moving--he never became a person of the past. I think he was always there and always a fresh voice and one gave a fresh ear to it.

I became a writer myself, and nothing like Graham. Those things always have their influence. There are different standards of writing, and one could admire and be enlightened by his. It was very economical and precise, and very poetic sometimes. He was full of the knowledge and love of poetry and English literature.

When I met him, I supplied a line of a poem that he was seeking in a cafe, and that immediately led to meeting him again. It's now 40 years since that day in the cafe. So he was an influence in conversation. He was an unquiet man, and although he constantly said he wanted peace, he did not want peace, he needed the stimulus, sometimes of making others unhappy. He was a difficult person and always enchanting and always interesting.

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Carole Burns: You may be tired of talking about your comments at the National Book Award in defense of literature -- but can you do it again? Can you give us a heartfelt defense of literary fiction?

Shirley Hazzard: I stand absolutely by what I said, but I can't imagine how it's been turned into some sort of wrangle. I will tell you concisely what I feel. I feel this is the biggest non-controversy since weapons of mass destruction. Stephen King and I spoke very cordially that evening, and we fingered each others' medals and things like that, and so I had no sense at all there was anything to build a controversy on. I could not imagine that evening that it would be taken up as being anything confrontational. I didn't say anything antagonistic, and certainly not in an intemperate tone.

Stephen King was receiving a lifetime award and spoke for 20 minutes or so. I spoke for two or three minutes, about what good company I was in in the fiction nominees. I have absolutely no quarrel with Stephen King. He has his opinion, mine is different. I just wanted to say that his opinions are not universally agreed with. I was convinced I would not get that award, so it was a lovely surprise for me, and I had nothing prepared. It was just what I had to say in the few minutes I had to thank people.

I don't regard it as a competition--we shouldn't be split up into factions, that one part of the writing world is an establishment but one is not. In contemporary writing there is possibly less of greatness than we've had in the past--the vocabulary is certainly declining. But I don't think we should be splitting ourselves into categories--as if there's an academic faction. I don't think there is.

I think the variety of the novels nominated for the award speaks for itself--they are coming from all directions. I'd be very sorry that the word literary came to connote respectability or fuddy-duddy-ness. All of that is to say that I think we should be shy of working up factions or being antagonistic. The important thing for writers is that writers should be solitary, because we want to be single people, not emulative of other writers, or envious.

I don't think we should be discouraged from having other opinions. We need disagreement. On another occasion, someone else should not be intimidated by the possibility that reasonable remarks might be considered argumentative.

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Washington, D.C.: What books or authors have you read recently and liked?

Shirley Hazzard: I'm always reading in the past and I think most passionate readers are like that, Conrad for example, and some works that stay in your mind and that you visit often.

I've liked several books by women lately. Annabel Davis-Goff, she is an Anglo-Irish writer, who's a friend. The title is The Fox's Walk. And I have just read another Irish writer, Colum Toibin, a novel of the life of Henry James, and it's a very unusual book and very well written. It's called The Master.

And then I like another Irish writer, John Banville, but I dislike his criticism. I'm not so enthusiastic about his criticism, but his novels are very differently written. I think we are getting from Ireland some very expressive writing.

I have two more books I want particularly to mention, a book by Donald Keene, and his is the greatest Japanologist, Yosimasa. This is the history of a Shogun who didn't want to fight, and this was in the 16th century. He transformed the educated concepts in Japan of decoration and manners and aesthetics in general, and this one man seemed to have done so much--for example, the tea ceremony came in with him.

There is a writer whose work I've come to who excites me very much, an American, professor of Italian and French literature, Robert Pogue Harrison. I came upon a book of his that I recommend, called Forests. It's a wonderful meditation on the earth covered in forests for millions of years, and now the denuding of the earth. Very poetic and impassioned, a wonderful control of language. Now there is a new book, The Dominion of the Dead, and this traces over centuries relations with our dead. It is so deep and poetic and it's exhilarating to read.

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Bethesda, Md.: How long have you been writing The Great Fire? Is it something you've lived with for some time before setting pen (or keyboard) to paper?

Shirley Hazzard: I've lived with it all my grown-up life really. It was my experience in the Far East, but it's "material" that waited for me a long time. I knew I would use it eventually, and I began to think about it as a book over 20 years ago when I finished the Transit of Venus. And then I began to write it in the 1980s, and some chapters were published in the New Yorker then, but quite a lot of the draft material I discarded. I didn't think it was developed enough. So I had to convalesce from discarding those things. So I wrote a book about the Waldheim case,. I saw it would be pushed under the U.N. rug again, and the book is called Continents of Truth. And then I came a time in my life where my husband, who is considerably older than I, and he needed me more. His memory was failing, so in his last year I could only work sporadically on my long-gestated novel. I still felt it passionately and I still thought about it constantly. And that's when I did the memoir of Graham Greene. One of my pleasures in writing the memoir of Graham Greene was to give remembrance of my life with my husband. Graham wasn't exactly an excuse, but I liked having a chance to give a context to the way we lived.

And then I thought, now I'll finish my novel. It was a great consolation.

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Carole Burns: Both The Great Fire and The Transit of Venus have a post-war setting. What is it about such a time that you think attracts you to it?

Shirley Hazzard: It's partly what was vital in the world when I was a child and when I was growing up. The war years, which I remember very vividly, though I was 8 years old when war broke out. I remember very very clearly the embattled world. Great Britain was expected to crumble in weeks, and they held out and held out and that made a very strong impression of me. And then the end of the war, when I was 15 my father was appointed to go to Asia, and by the time I arrived and settled there, a few years later, I worked for British intelligence in Hong Kong. It was the most wonderful office. Mao was obviously going to prevail, and the office I was in was in the heart of all this strange transformation and controversy. And that was my education and how I grew up. I think of it very tenderly indeed.

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Bethesda, MD: You write a lot about love. Can you tell us why?

Shirley Hazzard: Well, it's been a lot of my life! It's perhaps the most interesting phenomenon, it's almost like a spell that's cast on us, falling in love, that is. There is nothing else like it in life, and I think it is a central element of existence, either the attaining of it, or the lack of it, because the lack of love is a preoccupation of people. It's very obviously a part of our literary history, it has been a central concern to every write, and that's because it's a central concern to everyone who lives.

Also many things happen because of love, people withdraw from life or become violent for lack of love. And where there is not love, there is nothing.

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Washington D.C.: What do you like least -- and most -- about being "rediscovered" after such a long hiatus between books?

Shirley Hazzard: This is like saying that Dr. Livingston discovered Africa--the people were there all the time. I don't feel I've been rediscovered. I've been here all the time. I am very happy that this book has come out and it has such wonderful readers. It's a great happiness to me to be back on the scene in that way with a novel, because I love fiction, and I never want to write anything else. I'm very happy that the book has appeared, and that many people have like it.

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Carole Burns: Thanks so much, Shirley, for coming online today! Please join Michael Dirda for his discussion starting at 2. And join Off the Page in two weeks! To be added to the mailing list, email me at offthepage2004@yahoo.com.

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