Friday night’s International Festival of Authors event featuring Junot Diaz and Michael Chabon—with a surprise audience appearance by Michael Ondaatje—was a perfect blend of nerdy, thought-provoking conversation. The Q&A, moderated by Toronto journalist and author Siri Agrell (“I thought I was going to be in the middle, like a Pulitzer sandwich,” she quipped as they took their seats), covered issues from the dwindling space books are given in the media to the steps both authors take to ensure their female characters are realistic. (As Chabon noted, he avoids the bizarre fixation some male writers seem to have with eagerly describing their female characters’ breasts.)
For Diaz, who recently followed up his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao with a short-story collection called This Is How You Lose Her, working as a creative writing professor at MIT has proven to him that a lot of male students really do have built-in blind spots when it comes to writing convincing female characters. He also admits they’re not the only ones who need help in that regard.
“The women in my class have basically spent their lives being told that men are human beings, and when they get to writing, they write male human beings,” said Diaz. “And the boys have been told their whole lives that women are not human beings, by the whole culture, so their female characters are absolutely whack. And for me to imagine that I’m somehow impervious to this cultural gravity would be a big mistake.” To overcome this insecurity about writing the opposite sex, Diaz says he actually asks a mini focus group of women to read his work before it’s published, to address any potential missteps.
Chabon, whose latest novel Telegraph Avenue was released last month, said he also worries about writing women convincingly, and relies on his wife to read his manuscripts critically and raise any potential red flags. With Telegraph Avenue, which centres on a lower-middle-class black family in California, he also consulted with at least one black reader.
“The first fact that I need to acknowledge in publishing a book like this is, lucky me. I’m in a fortunate enough position that if I want to do this, I’m allowed to do this,” Chabon said. “It was much easier for me to get a novel published about a lower-middle-class black family not in the middle of a huge race crisis of any kind. There’s no police brutality, there’s no tragic misunderstanding that leads to a murder, there’s no lynching, there’s nothing like that. And it’s a lot easier for me to get that book published than it would be for a young, black woman just starting out.”
But as well as discussions about race and gender, the event was peppered with humour and unexpected moments. When Diaz mentioned his appreciation for the novel The English Patient, someone in the audience eagerly called out “He’s here!,” pointing to Michael Ondaatje, sitting inconspicuously in the audience, now looking slightly uncomfortable about all the attention. Diaz, on the other hand, looked fairly pleased about the whole thing.
It’s hard to put into words the humour and relatability these two authors displayed during their panel—Diaz especially proved to be a chatterbox with no fear of confronting awkward conversation topics—but it’s refreshing when writers are as engaging off the page as they are in their work.
The International Festival of Authors continues until October 28. The full schedule is available on their website.