Thursday, June 4, 2015

Writing as Philosophical Exercise

I listened to the author Samantha Harvey on our local university radio station yesterday. She spoke about her novel, Dear Thief, which received several awards, including being longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. Harvey talked about her early studies in philosophy. She seemed to be headed for a life in academia, she said, but soon realized it wasn’t for her. She turned to fiction-writing as another outlet for her interest. Writing a novel, she claimed, seemed to be a comprehensive and longform way to work out a philosophical idea. She said that the inspiration for her writing is, at first, the idea and then, the way it can be expressed through the lives of characters. (I’m paraphrasing here, because I lost my notes or should I say…my notes vanished after an unnamed child used my computer. A podcast of Harvey’s interview isn’t available online as of today but it will be, eventually, and is certainly worth a listen. Check here.)

Dear Thief isn’t an easy read. As implied by the title, the novel takes the form of a long letter written over a period of several months. The letter-writer brings up memories and questions she’s brooded over the many years since she and the addressee have seen each other. There was a betrayal and much misunderstanding, a tumultuous friendship that eventually ended. Her letter deals not only with what actually happened, but also with her musings of what might have happened and what the ex-friend may be doing now. It is perhaps one of the more intimate things I’ve read, as the entire purview is this woman’s tortured mind and hurt feelings, and the gulf left by what the other woman has stolen from her. But there’s a sort of puzzle to be made of it and isn’t that the way with any memory, any impression? The twists between what happened and what we’ve made of it since, peppered with the perspectives of everyone else. I thought the novel was brave, engrossing, and metaphorically in line with the process each of us writers goes through to create a fictional world.

So that’s the novel. What really stayed with me after Harvey’s interview was her comments about philosophy and the initial spark for her writing. The exploration of a philosophical idea, manifest in the actions and minds of characters. This comes very close to how I’d describe my own process, and I felt a comradery with Harvey for what I know is a solitary, mind-draining experience. A moment of writerly sisterhood, if you will. And then I turned off the radio and went back to work.



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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka