Their stories are set in places far and wide — Jane Smiley’s farms in medieval Greenland and contemporary Iowa; Scott Turow’s courtrooms and crime scenes in fictional Kindle County, Ill., or Bosnia and The Hague; Alice Hoffman’s witches in 1960s New York and 17th-century Salem, to name a few — but for each of these prolific, bestselling authors, the impulse to write arose as children at home.
Hoffman, whose novel “The Rules of Magic” came out this fall, started off by listening.
“I was raised in a house of women. I listened to my grandmother’s stories,” said Hoffman, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., and was moved to write on behalf of “women who didn’t get a chance to tell their own stories.”
Raised near St. Louis, Mo., Smiley, too, credits her talkative family’s tales with her inception as a novelist. But the idea of writing struck while reading “The Hound of the Baskervilles” as a child.
“I had a feeling that I could tame that dog,” said the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “A Thousand Acres,” whose latest work, a trilogy of novels, tracks a large Iowa family over 100 years.
Turow, who will deliver the Kauai Writers Conference opening address Friday morning, said his mother inspired him to write during his Chicago childhood.
“She loved literature, she taught me to read it, she dreamt of writing but she wasn’t as disciplined as she could have been and I took a lesson from that.” His commitment to discipline has sustained his dual successful careers as a lawyer and author of legal thrillers, the latter launched with his blockbuster “Presumed Innocent” in 1987.
Featuring presenters Nicholas and Elena Delbanco, Sara Gruen, Kaui Hart Hemmings, Kristin Hannah, Alice Hoffman, Christina Baker Kline, Joshua Mohr, Jane Smiley, Garth Stein and Scott Turow>> Where: Kaua‘i Marriott Resort
>> When: Conference begins with a 7:30 a.m. breakfast and 9:30 a.m. keynote speech by Scott Turow Friday, and ends at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 11; Makana performs 8 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday; master classes run Monday through Thursday
>> Cost: $695 (15 percent discount for kamaaina and students, 25 percent for MFA writing program students) includes breakfasts, lunches and Makana concert; concert is open to the public for $40; fees for master classes run $695 to $1,250
>> Note: The conference is preceded by four days of small master classes/seminars taught by a few of the conference faculty (enrollment is limited)
These three authors will join many other leading writers, as well as agents and editors, in a rare conjunction of stars at the conference in Lihue, Friday through Nov. 11. In phone calls before they traveled, Hoffman, Smiley and Turow, who pack both mainstream and literary credentials, having gotten their starts in university writing programs, previewed some secrets of the craft they’ll be sharing with aspiring writers at the conference.
WRITING TIPS FROM THE MASTERS
Successful novels have to keep the reader turning the pages. What’s the secret to a compelling plot?
That would be compelling characters.
“Plot and character, as I see it, are one,” said Turow, speaking from Chicago, where he practices law. “Some character development is internal, but in life and in fiction we define people by what they do.”
Plus, you have to get readers to care.
“Fiction is good if it makes you think, better if it makes you feel,” said Hoffman, who lives in Cambridge, Mass. “(That means) creating characters people relate to, feel for and can identify with.”
Not that they have to be virtuous.
“If you understand somebody on their own terms, you can’t help but empathize,” Turow said, citing “the genius of Dostoevsky” in making us identify with the murderer Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment.”
And plot, along with character, evolves. As the story moves along, Smiley said, it needs a periodic interruption she calls “the buzz.”
“I mean the thing that happens that’s startling or sad,” said the Carmel, Calif., resident who teaches writing at the University of California, Riverside. “That’s part of your job as a novelist, to do unexpected things, and in my experience they have to be unexpected to you, also.”
For example, in “Golden Age,” which concludes her Iowa trilogy, a long-married couple are obsessing about the husband’s invalid father when the husband is struck by lightning and dies.
The wife’s reaction?
“She isn’t actually that surprised,” Smiley said. Which is surprising in itself, and reveals something about the character.
As for narrative point of view, “It’s very much a plot-driven decision,” Turow said. “Presumed Innocent” was told in the first-person by Rusty Sabich, who’s accused of murder and seeks to prove his innocence. The sequel, “Innocent,” had multiple narrators because “there was no way to tell the story I wanted to tell if it was all from his point of view.” But wherever possible, Turow advises going simple.
The narration itself comes wrapped in the writer’s own voice, which, Hoffman said, is the most important thing for beginning writers to find.
Although she writes mainly in third person these days, Hoffman’s lyric yet tough, witty voice has remained consistent since her stunning 1977 debut, “Property Of,” told in first person by a girl seeking entry into a New York boys’ gang. “I think for me each book is different but still has the same thread of who I am as a writer, what my concerns are.”
Hoffman recalled her teacher and mentor, Albert Guerard, saying “a writer’s voice is like a fingerprint: It’s the core of who you are.” Guerard was a professor of English at Stanford University, where the young Hoffman and Turow both held post-graduate fellowships in fiction writing.
An admirer of Anthony Trollope, with whom she shares a mastery of comic, yet emotionally gripping omniscient narrative, Smiley said an authentic sense of place is crucial.
“The place dictates how the action works out: The writer has to understand the place and its influence on the characters,” she said, citing Trollope’s meticulously drawn, fictional parish of Barchester, based on the countryside around Salisbury, England, which had captured his imagination.
As a student at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Smiley was fascinated by the Iowa landscape: farm fields, wetlands, little towns.
“What struck me was how nothing was the same. Everything was different. And so I guess that was my inspiration.”
She had a similar impression of Hawaii, where she’s visited many times and remembers “the landscape and how beautiful and how different each of the islands is from the others,” she said.
“We don’t hear enough about the idiosyncratic culture of Hawaii,” she added. “It’s a fabulously interesting place.”
Part of fiction’s magic is the way it addresses broader societal themes through the lens of the local and personal, much as Smiley’s family members folded current events into tales of what happened to them that day.
The fate of the defendants in Turow’s legal dramas resonates with his real-life activism against the death penalty and the unequal distribution of justice between rich and poor.
“I’m a ’60s kid and remember when I was out at Stanford, canvassing for George McGovern,” he said.
Hoffman, whose “Rules of Magic” includes the Vietnam War and the Stonewall riots, is currently writing a book about refugees; Smiley’s prescient 2017 “Golden Age” contains scathing satire on recent politics and personalities.
What keeps us reading, though, is the personal. The lawyer hero of Turow’s 2017 “Testimony” travels from Chicago to try and find and bring to justice a murderer of civilians during the Bosnian civil war, but it’s his struggles with his midlife crisis and failure as a family man that make us care. “I’m ambitious, and (in this book) I get to confront the fact that there are many kinds of success that don’t make you happy,” Turow said.
Take fame, which, Smiley warned, is a poor reason to want to write.
“What turns out to be a pleasure is the daily work.”
While many dream of publishing that novel they’ve got in a drawer, Smiley added, she knows people who’ve put their novel back in the drawer after finally coming to understand what they needed to understand.
Perhaps it’s enough that writing should help make sense of life, while furnishing lots of surprises along the way.
HAWAII WRITERS LOOK FORWARD TO LITERARY STAYCATION
This is the fifth year and something of a breakthrough for the Kauai Writers Conference. Director David Katz attributes an especially generous lineup of renowned writers to word of mouth from former faculty and students, many of whom return. Plus, he said, “Everybody wants to come to Kauai.”
What’s also exciting, Katz said, is there will be enough space at the new venue — the Kaua‘i Marriott Resort — that they won’t have to limit attendance at the conference, which has sold out in past years. Thus far, he said, about 300 in all, among them 60 Hawaii residents, have registered for the conference and separate master classes. (Many of the classes, for which space is limited, are full.)
Three Oahu registrants spoke with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser about their hopes and plans for the Kauai gathering.
Having finished writing a memoir, Cynthia Christian of Kailua now wants to find an agent.
“This is the only opportunity in Hawaii to find the professionals that’ll help me,” she said.
Christian has signed up for a master class taught by agent Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management in New York, whose students have submitted a writing sample, query letter and book synopsis.
“He’ll make sure we’ve got it in the right format, and guide us” through next steps, she said.
She’s booked a one-on-one pitch session with agent Emma Sweeney.
“I’ll give her my elevator pitch: Here’s what my book is about, here’s why you’re the right agent.”
Also querying agents will be Kaneohe lawyer Katharine Nohr, an author of legal mysteries set in Honolulu and regular participant at the Kauai conference every year. She looks forward to meeting fellow students as well as faculty in the relaxed atmosphere.
“You have the opportunity to talk informally with famous authors; they’re not mobbed.”
Honolulu freelance journalist Powell Berger will not be looking for an agent on Kauai.
“I know what they’re going to tell me; I just need to get the d—- thing written and then we’ll talk,” she said of her unfinished novel. She said she will be going for inspiration, the spirit of community and to learn more about the craft.
Plus, she said, she looks forward to hitting the beach.
But realistically, will she have time?
“You don’t have to go to class!”
Right. It helps to have a life to turn into art.