words: eleanor catton, the paris review and its crepuscular readers

Red Pandas are considered crepuscular creatures

Red Pandas are considered crepuscular creatures

I googled Eleanor Catton and the Paris Review in search of a possible interview with her. I’ve been reading The Rehearsal for a good chunk of this year and I’m not embarrassed to admit it. I’ve gotten through some books in a few days or weeks and others I’ve spent months and months on. It’s actually a compliment to the writer when I spend more time reading their book. The other night, in returning to The Rehearsal, I started looking at some of the pages from a different perspective and came up with a list of questions for Catton. I would like to interview her. I will share the questions below, though The Rehearsal was published in 2008 so I don’t know if it’s an option. While googling Paris Review + Catton, I came across this article she wrote about a Twitter-user referring to a poet as elitist because of their use of the word crepuscular in a poem. My fingers will itch till I respond to this topic, though the article also delves deeper into the issue of art as a product for consumption – also very important.

Literacy, and language in itself, are such fantastic gifts that when we learn a new word, we should accept it willingly in anything we read. I am a bit embarrassed for the Twitter-user and appalled at the same time. I think it’s ridiculous to throw accusations at a writer for exercising their grasp of language. I relish the opportunity to use Dictionary.com and, as Sylvia Plath taught me several years back, I now have no qualms with using a thesaurus when writing. It took me a long time to become secure enough with my knowledge to take that route, though.

I used to think it was irritating if a person threw words I didn’t recognize into conversation, but I think that sentiment comes from a place of insecurity. Now, when my boyfriend throws words I don’t understand into daily conversations, I get turned on. I do stick to the belief, however, that I won’t just say or write words without knowing what they mean. That bothers me and I often re-check the exact definition of a word to make sure I’m using it in context and correctly. Language is a learning process for all of us, regardless of class or upbringing. Even the most academic will learn from the various ways a collection of words can be strung together.

The beauty of reading and learning come from tackling words and language we don’t understand, and overcoming it so that next time, we are stronger readers, writers and imagineers. There are plenty of books, poems and plays we will come across that make absolutely no sense to us or that we will never finish. I do it all the time. If I don’t get it or I’m not pulled to it, I will move on and blame it on being at the wrong time and place. One of the comments on the referenced article says it well:

“But some great books refuse readers willing to offer love and empathy, and reward only the rare literary athletes like themselves, who climb a hard book like a mountain.”

As a child, in grade 3 I think, I was once asked by a classmate why I talked like a book. Whatever that means. I remember being self-conscious about my use of language for some time after that. I was already self-conscious about everything, anyway, so it added to how awkward I felt in my own skin. I would never expect someone to change the way they speak for me. I would rather stand there and ask the meaning of every word they utter than expect a change.

I was hunting through old email yesterday and came across one from the early days of a friendship that’s now very dear to me. This friend is a voracious reader with a superb grasp of language and, though it might come off as pretentious to some, I have learned a ton from her and feel very much at ease speaking openly with her. It is in conversation with good friends and through the written word that we are given the freedom to express our thoughts and feelings openly. Why tell a writer or speaker to dumb down their language and thereby strangle their message?

Alternatively, I once wrote for a publication targeting new English learners and I was instructed to use simple language and words. That’s understandable because it’s for a specific audience. Similarly, when copywriting for brands or content writing on selected subjects, I would not use words such as crepuscular. But I will give readers a little more credit – I believe our readers are smarter than we think and just as hungry to learn more. By the way, curious about what crepuscular means? I was, too. It is not quite nocturnal nor diurnal, but is used rather to describe dawn and dusk dwellers.

Going back to the work of Eleanor Catton, I’ve been marvelling at every word and thought she writes. I might be seen licking my lips while reading her work without realizing it. Here’s what I wanted to ask her regarding The Rehearsal:

  • At what age did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
  • How much of your work is based on real life vs fiction?
  • On another note, was your youth anything at all like that of the characters in The Rehearsal?
  • When you write, how do you build your characters – the saxophone teacher, for instance, or Stanley the young theatre student?
  • If The Rehearsal were a screenplay and you were to cast actors the roles of any of its characters, who would they be played by?
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