year's Prague Writers' Festival was dedicated to Jean Genet,
and the program included the text of his May Day Speech
from 1970, in which he recounts the time when he and some
companions were boarding an airplane in the U.S. In the
group, only one man was black, and he was the only one to
face an invasive search of his luggage. The rest of the
speech focused on race relations in America and, in an appendix
that wasn't read on that day but had been written to accompany
the speech, Genet declares, "What they call American
civilization will disappear."
That speech in mind, it was interesting to attend the keynote
conversation between Elmore Leonard and William T. Vollmann,
two very popular yet very different American authors. The
climactic event, held last Thursday, was moderated by the
festival's organizer, sometime author, poet and translator
Michael March. As a virgin attendee, I didn't know what
to expect, but veterans were hoping for a car crash. I was
told that Susan Sontag in 2000 was "visibly aggravated"
by March's bumbling and rambling, while Salman Rushdie and
Gore Vidal in 2001 were bewildered by his incoherence and
This year, March centered the conversation around the U.S.
in the wake of Sept. 11, and his questions tended to be
flimsily disguised statements of typical expat contempt
for his country of birth. He was unable to let the writers
voice their opinions without bringing everything back to
his belief that America is blatantly imperialistic, isolationist
Vollmann, an avid traveler who has written about Afghanistan,
Burma, Sarajevo, just to name a few hotspots, is clearly
skeptical of the U.S. government's actions yet doesn't come
off as a U.S.-basher. He remains objective enough to separate
what he identified as commercial culture and American culture,
a point that he futilely tried to impress upon March. "Commercial
culture," he said, "crushes competition, replicates
itself so that in 20 or 30 countries they're singing the
same song." That should not be confused with American
culture, which on an individual level is comprised of decent
people. Yes, he admitted, Americans may not have as high
an awareness of other cultures as Europeans do, but they
do not all live as intentional ignorants or isolationists.
He spent time in Afghanistan after graduating from college
in the 80s and then again in 2000, and circulated among
the Taliban. "For you Europeans," he said, addressing
the audience, "they don't just hate us, they hate you
Leonard and Vollmann seemed tired of fielding questions
about Sept. 11, just as the audience seemed tired of hearing
it in every one of March's questions. The conversation was
more interesting when the two men were allowed to discuss
their crafts. Vollmann is always on the go, traveling here
and there, scribbling notes that later turn into stories
and articles. His writing about prostitutes in Bangkok and
San Francisco's Tenderloin district are famous examples
of immersion, wherein he became intimately involved with
his subjects: "You start out as their customer and
then become their friend. That's when they'll talk to you."
He's currently working on the fifth of a seven-novel project
titled "Seven Dreams," in which he is attempting
to understand and recreate North American history by way
of its landscapes and their relationship to the people.
Again, he's immersive: he reads primary sources, then secondary
sources, then experiences the environments firsthand.
Leonard, on the other hand, is a disciplined, daily writer
who conjures his characters while working at home. His day
starts no later than 10 and lasts until 6, during which
time he usually produces four pages of worthwhile work.
He added that it's gotten harder in recent years: he could
once write a page an hour. In a panel earlier in the week,
he recalled seven years of full-time copywriting while pumping
out short stories from 5 to 7 every morning.
Leonard seems quite pleased with his success and the fact
it's been several decades since he's needed to "write
cute" for car and truck ads. "I'm a commercial
writer," he said quite honestly. "I have to sell...
I'm not fooling anyone. But I try to do it my best; I do
it to please myself, the best I can."
Overall, the festival was worth attending. I was exposed
to the works of Korean poet Ko Un, exiled Chinese poet Duo
Duo and Mexico's Homero Aridjis, and where else could I
attend a panel with Elmore Leonard and William T. Vollmann
for three dollars? Critics regularly lambaste March for
pandering to the English-speaking Prague community, but
they also admit that he does an admirable job of assembling
international talent. My only suggestion to him would be
to shut up and let the writers talk some more about what's
important to them: the writing.