An Opera of One’s Own

My knowledge of opera is admittedly shaky, but there are more operas based on American novels than McTeague, yes? Maybe it’s a San Francisco thing: Next month marks the world premiere of The Bonesetter’s Daughter, an opera inspired by Amy Tan‘s S.F.-set novel. Tan’s comments about it to the Wall Street Journal in an interview shows that her responses are as airy as ever (“My role as a librettist was not words. It was story, and emotion within that story.”), but it’s an attitude that works:

I’m writing another novel. I’ve done a lot of the research. I have the structure in my mind. That’s a lot of it. Have I got a lot of pages? No, but that part is OK. In most things creatively you have to get these other things going. The most difficult part is finding the voice and the sense of what the story is.

And So to TED

TED 2008–a self-proclaimed conference about technology and ideas that’s currently underway in Monterey, California–has made a handful of novelists part of its large mix of speakers. Among them is Amy Tan, who spoke about storytelling. BoingBoing’s Mark Frauenfelder reports:

She got some B minuses in school for her creative writing. Parents pushed her to be a doctor, or to be a pianist on Ed Sullivan show. Her father and brother were both diagnosed with brain tumors. Her father was a baptist minister and said God would take care of them. He died soon after and so did her brother. Her mother believed that she and Amy would be next. She then became very creative “in a survival sense.” (This could be why she is so interested in “luck and fate and coincidences and the synchrony of mysterious forces.”)

Yesterday there was also a discussion of the question, “What Stirs Us?” The TED blog is currently on the fritz, but among the speakers was Nigerian-born author Chris Abani:

My search is to find stories of everyday people that transcend us, that don’t look away at the reality: we are never more beautiful than when we are ugly. What I’ve come to learn is that the world is never seen in the grand gestures, but in the accumulation of the simple, soft, selfless acts of compassion. In South Africa they say “Ubuntu”: the only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me. Which means that there is no way for us to be human without other people.
So Abani tells stories of people. People standing up to soldiers wanting to kill them. People being compassionate. People being human, reclaiming their humanity, recognizing that we are surrounded by amazing people, who offer all of us the mirror to a whole humanity.

Abani spoke about his writing, the commonalities between Africa and America, and why Things Fall Apart is like Gone With the Wind last June at TED.

The Red Room Factor

Today’s San Francisco Chronicle has a story about Red Room, a venture-backed portal for writers that’s attracted investors like Craigslist founder Craig Newmark. There’s lots to like about Red Room at first glance: It boasts a slick design, features on big-name authors like Salman Rushdie, and links to news, blogs, and multimedia for individual writers. If I click on, say, the page for Adam Johnson (whose first short-story collection, Emporium, I liked quite a bit) I get info on his books, a quick bio, updates on events, audio of a story of his (reg req’d), and blog, should he ever choose to write one on the site.

I started getting skeptical, though, when I saw this quote in the article by Norman Mailer Anderson, author of a raucous, funny novel about Northern Californians, Boonville: He says Red Room is “becoming the definitive, encyclopedic reference for writers, as defined by writers, which I think is different from defining writers in terms of the commerce they can garner from them, or the anonymity or carelessness that goes on in Wikipedia.”

But: Amazon and Wikipedia aren’t the sole outlets for an author to promote himself, and if your Wikipedia entry is “careless,” you can correct the errors yourself. If the value of Red Room, as founder Ivory Madison argues, is that it gives lesser-known authors a foothold “much as emerging musicians do on” according to the article, why can’t an author simply start a MySpace page? If social networking has taught us anything, it’s not the theme of the site that matters, but the opportunities to put your name in front of lots of other people. Why an author would choose to go to Red Room, simply because it’s “all about books,” instead of simply launching a blog or a Facebook page isn’t yet clear to me. Amy Tan, richer than God, can afford to blog for the first time on a circa-2000 portal site; lesser-known writers are at a high risk of getting lost in the shuffle here.