A Conversation with Past PEN Hemingway Winners

TOM PUTNAM: Good afternoon. I'm Tom Putnam, Director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. On behalf of Tom McNaught, Executive Director of the Kennedy Library Foundation, and all of my Library and Foundation colleagues, I thank you for joining us today.

Let me begin by acknowledging the generous underwriters of the Kennedy Library Forums, including lead sponsor Bank of America, Boston Capital, the Lowell Institute, Raytheon, the Boston Foundation, and our media partners, The Boston Globe, WBUR and NECN.

We're thrilled to host today's discussion with three former winners of the PEN Hemingway Award, which is given annually for a novel or book of short stories by an American author who has not previously published a book of fiction.

The late Mary Hemingway, a member of PEN, founded the award in 1976 to honor the memory of her husband and to recognize distinguished first books of fiction. And Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was instrumental in bringing the Award and the Hemingway papers to the Library a few years later.

The Award is funded by the Hemingway Foundation and administered by PEN New England, and we welcome members of both of those organizations to this event.

The Kennedy Library is honored to be associated with and to serve as the host of this annual award ceremony, which will be held here tomorrow.

Patrick Hemingway, who is here with us today, along with his wife Carol and nephew Sean, once compared giving an award for a writer's first book of fiction to placing a bet on a horse after only having seen it win one race. Yet the faith past judges bestowed on Marilynne Robinson, Ha Jin and Joshua Ferris most surely was not misplaced, as each has gone on in their own unique way to write stunning novels and short stories.

I've spent hours mesmerized by Marilynne Robinson's fictional town of Gilead, tormented by the difficulties faced by Ha Jin's protagonist waiting for love and a chance for a second marriage in the face of Chinese Communist strictures, and taking midnight walks, fueled by the unnamed compulsion of Joshua Ferris's most recent main character.

I was not at the Library when Marilynne Robinson and Ha Jin won their Awards, but I still remember portions of Mr. Ferris's remarks. He spoke about the persistent gap between what science can tell us about consciousness and what the experience of consciousness actually is. Allow me to share a brief excerpt.

"Go ahead and map the brain. Name its circuits. Pinpoint its most subtle exchanges. This will never thoroughly explain the harsh human beauty of the winter blizzard, or the thrill of singing along with Johnny Cash, or the delight I take in my wife's witticisms. Where science must necessarily end, literature begins. It captures, as only the lived moment can, the complexities of love and the torment of loss, the primary desire for something divine, the big heart's thump-thump in beauty's light. This is the reason we turn, time and again, to the poems of Dickinson, the essays of Emerson and the novels of Hemingway."

I should note that my son Gabe, who was 12 at the time, still remembers the reading Joshua Ferris gave at this award ceremony from a scene in his novel when the character Benny tries to make his way through an entire workday at his advertising firm using only lines from The Godfather. [Laughter] Though because he only heard that one excerpt, the way Gabe tells the story now, it's about an author who has written a novel in which every piece of dialogue in the whole book is from that film. [Laughter]

Literary awards are given to celebrate excellence and encourage creativity. Among us, in addition to the three PEN Hemingway Award winners on stage, we are joined by this year's winner, Brando Skyhorse, who will receive his Award tomorrow, as well as three Pulitzer Prize winners, including last year's winner, Paul Harding.

But such awards are also idiosyncratic. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel for literature, Ernest Hemingway famously wrote, "No writer who knows the great writers who did not receive the Prize can accept it other than with humility. For writers, each book should be a new beginning where they try again for something that is beyond attainment," Hemingway states, and based on what he calls "the degree of alchemy that each writer possesses, the work will then either endure or be forgotten."

Patrick Hemingway was once asked on this stage if he was aware while growing up of the enduring legacy of his father's writing, and he said no. As a boy, he knew his father was a writer, disappearing at times to various corners of their home to practice his art, but that was about all. But he also mentioned that on his dad's birthday, he and his brother would give gifts of pencils and yellow writing pads. Their hope, he quipped, was to get their father to write more so that they all could live better.

We are honored to host this Forum today. In a moment, I'll turn the program over to our moderator, Helene Atwan, a member of the PEN New England board who has, for as long as I've known her, overseen the administration of the PEN Hemingway Award.

Helene is the Director of the Beacon Press, where she was recently feted for her 15 years at the helm at that unique publishing institution and for all she does to promote good literature and those who create it in this community and beyond.

In the spirit of President Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, Ernest Hemingway and the Kennedy and Hemingway families, this Library does all it can to support the arts and the role of the artists in our society.

My wife often cautions me about my propensity towards self-disclosure, but if you all don't mind, I thought I'd conclude with one anecdote related to my relationship with PEN New England.

It seems just about every year at this time, I put us all through a bit of a charade in which I look at the budget for the PEN Hemingway events, scratch my head, and to provide myself with a false sense of fiscal restraint, I ask my colleagues, "Remind me again why we serve free wine and beer at the post-Award reception." [Laughter] And then suggest that maybe this year, in these difficult financial times, we just cannot afford to do so.

Reminded of this annual routine, Amy McDonald, who put today's Forum together and works tirelessly on the award ceremony that will be held tomorrow, makes some calls and replies to me, "Well, I've talked it over with PEN New England and with Helene, and they'd really like to keep the reception the way it is."

Implicit in this exchange is the sense that unlike other forums that appeal to those who like history and politics, that those who attend tomorrow are literary types, artists and writers who deserve, or at least enjoy, a glass of wine when they are here. [Laughter]

So we shuffle around some funds and that makes it easier for me to justify various expenses. And those of you joining us again tomorrow, and I hope you all do so, will be pleased at how this got resolved again this year.

Far be it for me to somehow jinx the magic that inspires the artists among us to create their works, for we hope that the work we do, like the literary awards that we bestow here, helps spur the artists' magic, like elements of an alchemist toolkit. No one knows what prompts the muse that helps create the art that so enriches our lives, but surely a yellow pad of paper, a son's deep affection, and a refreshing libation shared among friends can never hurt.

And now please join me in welcoming Marilynne Robinson, Ha Jin, Joshua Ferris and Helene Atwan. [Applause]

HELENE ATWAN: Thank you, Tom. Thank you very much, and I want everyone in this room to be my witness, that we are having wine and beer this year, and next year. [Laughter] So we don't have to go through this again. Very important, as you point out.

So I'm delighted to be here today. In fact, I'm going to skip a bit of this introduction because Tom has already described the inception of the Hemingway Award. But I will want to say that since the inception in 1976, many celebrated writers have served on the judging panel for the Hemingway Award – the Award is judged each year by three – including Dorothy Allison, Percival Everett, Gish Jen, Sue Miller, Annie Proulx, Richard Russo, who is here with us today, and Russell Banks.

And many fine writers have received the Award and gone on to further accolades, including Bobbie Ann Mason, Jane Hamilton, Jhumpa Lahiri, Yiyun Li; along with those writers who also did us the honor of coming back to serve as judges for the Award, Charlotte Bacon, Joan Chase, Bernard Cooper, Dagoberto Gilb, Jennifer Haigh, Ernest Hebert, Chang-rae Lee and Edward P. Jones, who in fact served on the judging panel this year.

So we have special thanks due to those writers.

And I'm so thankful to the writers who are joining us today on this panel. And I'm going to very briefly introduce each of them. And then I'm going to ask them to speak a little bit about publishing a first book, winning the Hemingway Award, perhaps a little bit about their lives after the Hemingway Award and their other books. And then we'll have a little bit of dialogue here about fiction and prizes and discovering new writers, and maybe even about new technologies. And then we'll open the floor to questions.

So I'm going to start here. I had the pleasure of introducing Joshua Ferris at the Boston Book Festival last fall, and he asked me to say in his intro, "Josh Ferris lives in New York." That's all. So that's what I did then, and I'm going to– is that good, Josh?

JOSHUA FERRIS: That's good.

HELENE ATWAN: I admit, I added a few words. I'll also say that Josh graduated from the University of Iowa with a BA in English and philosophy in 1996. He then moved to Chicago where he worked in advertising for several years before completing an MFA in writing at UC-Irvine.

His first published story appeared in Iowa Review in 1999. You'll see there's an Iowa theme going on today. His debut novel, Then We Came to the End, received a flood of praise, has been published in 25 languages, was a finalist for the National Book Award and, most importantly, received the 2007 Hemingway Foundation PEN Award for the best work of first fiction by an American author.

In their front-page review of the book, The New York Times Book Review described Joshua Ferris as "fluent in the language of white-collar wordsmiths under siege," and having "a sixth sense for paranoia." Pretty potent stuff.

JOSHUA FERRIS: Were they talking about me?

HELENE ATWAN: [Laughter] They were, indeed. Josh's second novel, The Unnamed, was published in January of 2010. The book editor at The Economist called it "the best new novel I have read in the past ten years." The Boston Globe called him "a writer of the first order," and Time Magazine named him – this is my favorite – "one of the young Turks." And that one's definitely you. And this proves that the Hemingway judges were very prescient.

He lives in New York. We're so happy to have him with us.


HELENE ATWAN: Ha Jin is the pen name of Jin Xuefei. Born in mainland China, he grew up in a small, rural town. From the age of 14 to 19, he volunteered to serve in the People's Liberation Army. He taught himself middle and high school courses while in the army, hoping to go to college. But colleges remained closed during the Cultural Revolution, which continued when he was demobilized. So he worked as a telegraph operator at a railroad company until 1977, when the colleges reopened. And he passed entrance exams and went to university in Harbin, where he was assigned to study English, even though, rumor has it, it was his last choice as a major.

HA JIN: [12.8] [Laughter]

HELENE ATWAN: He received a degree in English in '81, then studied American literature at Shandong University, where he received an advanced degree in '84. The following year, he came to the US to do graduate work at Brandeis, from which he earned a PhD in 1993.

In the meantime, he studied fiction writing at Boston University with the novelists Leslie Epstein and Aharon Appelfeld. After the Tiananmen massacre, he realized it would be impossible to write honestly in China, so he decided to emigrate. Unlike most exiled writers already established in their native language, Ha Jin had no audience in Chinese, and so chose to write from the beginning in English.

He published two volumes of poetry and a collection of short stories, Ocean of Words, which received the Hemingway Foundation PEN Award in 1996. His next book was Under the Red Flag, which received the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, and then a novella, In the Pond. Waiting, his first novel, won the '99 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2000 PEN Faulkner Award.

He went on to publish more acclaimed books, including collections of stories and poetry and the novels, The Crazed, War Trash and A Free Life. His next novel, Nanjing Requiem, is coming out in October.

Marilynne Robinson was born and grew up in Sandpoint, Idaho, and did her undergraduate work at Pembroke College, the former women's college of Brown University, receiving a BA there and moving to the University of Washington, where she took a PhD in English. Feel free to jump in if I'm getting anything wrong.


HELENE ATWAN: Marilynne's first novel, Housekeeping, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and of course won the Hemingway Foundation PEN Award in 1982. She turned to non-fiction for a stretch, publishing Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution in 1989, and The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought in '98.

It wasn't until 2004 that she came out with her second novel, Gilead, but all the critics and her legions of fans agreed that it had been well worth the wait. Gilead was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.

A companion book of sorts, the novel Home, set in the same time and place as Gilead – that is, a small town in Iowa in the late '50s – received the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction, and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Marilynne has been a writer-in-residence or a visiting professor at many universities, including the University of Kent, Amherst, and the University of Massachusetts MFA Program. In 2009, she held a lectureship at Yale University, giving a series of talks entitled, "Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self," which was subsequently published as a book.

She currently teaches at the Iowa Writers Workshop, where an extraordinary number of Hemingway winners and finalists have studied and taught, including, as you will recall, Josh Ferris.

I'd like to ask each of our writers to begin now by telling us a little bit about their memories of winning the Award, of what happened immediately afterwards and what impact they think the Award had on their careers. Would you like to start, Marilynne?

MARILYNNE ROBINSON: All right. I wrote Housekeeping as a book that I thought would never be published. I had not published anything, and so I could just project that future forward. I hadn't even tried to publish anything, and I didn't actually try to publish Housekeeping. I wrote the book. I talked to a friend of mine who had actually published a novel, and I said, "I wrote a novel." And he said, "Can I see it?" So I gave him this handwritten manuscript, and he sent it to an agent. And so, the first information I had about the book was a letter from the agent, who's still my agent, saying she would be happy to represent it. It wasn't until that time that I even knew that it had been submitted to anybody.

So it was very accidental. I don't know what would have happened if this person had not intervened in my life.

It was bought by Farrar Straus, the first publishing house that looked at it. So it had a very, very uncannily fortunate entrance into the world. But at every stage, people told me that they would be happy to publish it, or they would be happy to represent it, but it was very unlikely to have any success. [Laughter] Which is sort of heartening and disheartening at the same time.

But in any case, it did have its own kind of success. Pretty quiet, but it was noticed by the Hemingway people, and received this prize. I was surprised. Part of the thing is, of course, as somebody who loves American literature – that's my great passion, I suppose – to be sort of adopted into the family of American literature under the name Hemingway, it's just a very lovely thing. Surprised me.

It's hard to describe how important that is, to feel that you actually are being sort of recognized in the strict sense of the word as being an American writer. And then I didn't write any fiction for 25 years. And that's another long story.

But in any case, to the extent that I did not actually impede my own career, the fact that I had received this prize was an enormous help.

HA JIN: For me, I think there was a lot of change, but not drastic change in my life after I got this Award. But there was a lot of subtle changes. I'll talk about that. But the Hemingway Award was the only one I was allowed to enter, because I was not a citizen, a US citizen yet. So this was the only one.

But I really had a very hard time to get the first book of fiction published. I basically lost two agents. They lost confidence in this project. And I received a good number of rejection letters, which some of them said, "We like this, but we don't see a market for it." So there was no hardcover for this book. Zoland, very tiny Zoland Books, based in Cambridge, a very small press that went out of business long ago. But it was a very small press. And I tried to sell the book by myself. They accepted this book, Ocean of Words, but there was no hardcover, just 1,500 first print.

HELENE ATWAN: That's amazing, 1,500.

HA JIN: But just think, I don't know why, but I sent three copies to the Hemingway Foundation. I didn't know why. I didn't bother about anywhere else, but just– something happened, I just sent them out!

JOSHUA FERRIS: You personally?

HA JIN: Yeah, personally. Why, I don't know why, what prompted me to do that! [Laughter]

HELENE ATWAN: That's a great story. [Simultaneous speaking]

HA JIN: The book got the Award, it was a big surprise. But on the other hand, there were no big changes. Zoland Books agreed to do a reprint, so another 1,000 copies. So that's it. But what happened is they bought my second book, a small novel, In the Pond. So they did hardcover for it. Then I published another collection of short stories with the University of Georgia Press, another book [20.9]. And it took a few years to get my novel Waiting published.

But I think meanwhile, in the meantime, the publishers began to notice my projects. I think that really, in a subtle way I could feel it. And also, I think the judges, I think really, they broadened my frame of reference. For instance, one of them was Jim Grimsley. He was a playwright and also a fiction writer in Atlanta. I didn't know him, but after the Award he invited me to dinner. When we had dinner he said, "I didn't know English was not your first language." For me, that was a big moment. Maybe he didn't say– he said it with [22.1], I would say. But for me that was a point of reference, for me in the future, later I always remembered I said this, as long as I try harder, I can do it. So that's a very important moment.

Linda Davis was another judge. And my second collection of short stories, Under the Red Flag, when it came out it got panned in The New York Times. And she sent me a note and said "this happens to writers, take it in your stride," something like that. That was a big encouragement.

Gish Jen, I didn't know her before, and then she really gave blurbs to both Waiting and In the Pond. So suddenly I felt my world somehow was widened by this. And also I went to Ucross; that was another, a really important point of reference in my life. I planned to write a novel, The Crazed, but it was a three-week visit. It was such a beautiful place, quiet. There even delivered lunches. [Laughter] Lunch to our door! But I was not allowed to call home. There was a pay phone somewhere, but I didn't call home anyway.

But in two weeks I finished everything. For the third week, I didn't have anything to do anymore. [Laughter] But I met a group of writers there.

There was an Australian guy, David Foster. He was an older writer. In that year he was

59. He basically had won most awards in Australia, he was an Australian writer. But his name was David Foster, overlapping the other young writer David Foster Wallace. So as a result, his book could not enter the US market. So the US publishers urged him to change his name, and he wouldn't. So that was the situation.

He talked to me a lot. He said, "I'm going to write a book for the Booker because I'm 59, this would be my last shot." And he had already gone to England and talked with a publisher. Because in England, each publisher was allowed to enter only four titles for the Booker.

So the publisher agreed to let him write a book. Everything was measured, and so he worked very hard on it. But I think later I saw his name on the short list; it didn't make it. It was a very sad case, that the man was very talented. And he said "because I'm 59"– he used to be a fisherman; still at the time, he still did it part-time. But because he was getting older, no boats would hire him anymore. So it was quite a sad story.

And then one day, people at Ucross, Sharon drove us to Billings, Montana, to give a reading there. He and I, David Foster and I went together. Because there was no books available, his books available in the US, he didn't have a book with him. I said, "How could you read?" He didn't bring anything.

So at the reading, he recited from memory. Every day he started his book from first line to where he stopped the previous day. Every day he did the same thing. So for him, it was difficult to get the whole book out of his system once it was written. But just imagine the labor he put into it.

So for me, that was a reference point, a very important point. Whenever I get frustrated, I often remember this writer. He worked so hard, hopeless, but still kept going. So that was a good point. A good, good reference point, important one.

I think also I had similar kind of a mysterious feeling to what Marilynne said just now, just under the aegis of Hemingway. In fact, there are two gods of American literature in China. One is Hemingway and another is Faulkner. But different from Faulkner, Hemingway, the name sounds grandeur, a grand name. It means like bright grandeur of the ocean. So very striking name.

So as a result, Hemingway is always better known. [Laughter] Can you imagine me associated, because these two gods, they would think, Hemingway, we always imagine Hemingway, now he is related to Hemingway. So I'm always reminded of that by the Chinese media. So that in a way makes me feel as if I'm under the spirit of protection of Hemingway. That really starts in a subtle way; gradually somehow the distance is getting closer in that sense.

HELENE ATWAN: That's lovely.

JOSHUA FERRIS: You're certainly the most Hemingway Chinese writer I've ever read. [Laughter] I think that's great.

HA JIN: Thank you.

HELENE ATWAN: Before you start, I want to say two things that you've pointed out about the Hemingway Award. One that's really important is that the Hemingway Award is given for a first work of fiction by an American writer. But you do not need to be an American citizen. We have defined American writer per, I think, Mary Hemingway's gift, as a writer who lives in America and works in English and writes in English. And that's why you were able to win the Hemingway Award. And thank goodness you thought to send them copies of your book! [Laughter] Three of those 1,500 went to the Hemingway Foundation. That's really great.

And the other thing that you've mentioned that I think is important is Ucross. I think you all went to Ucross, right? No, you didn't.

JOSHUA FERRIS: There's probably still an offer for you, if you want.

HA JIN: Sure, absolutely.

HELENE ATWAN: I'm sure Sharon would be delighted. So Ucross Foundation has partnered with the Hemingway Awards for many years, and invites the winner of the Hemingway, and not only the winner, but the finalist and the two honorable mentions. So five writers named by the Hemingway judges every year are invited to do a fellowship at Ucross Foundation, which is a real gift, I think. And obviously was for you, even though you ran out of material after the first couple of weeks.

Anyway, Joshua.

JOSHUA FERRIS: I remember saying to my editor that I would really like to win the PEN Hemingway Award. [Laughter]

HELENE ATWAN: There was that check she wrote!

JOSHUA FERRIS: Yeah, exactly. And so, she promptly got a hold of Patrick and things were right. [Laughter] But I thought it's for a first-time novel, so maybe I'll have a chance. But really, the thought was, I like PEN and believe in PEN, and I love Hemingway. And you put those two things together, it's a very attractive award. So I singled it out in my mind as something that both was attainable and would be extremely edifying to win.

So the day came that I was told. And there was another award ceremony; I'd won the Barnes & Noble Discover Voices Award. Or I'd been nominated, excuse me, I'd been nominated. And the day before, my wife, she was supposed to take care of some parking tickets that we had for alternate side parking in Brooklyn. And she had failed to do that. I think there were maybe probably a dozen tickets, or something like that.

And we had decided that it was her responsibility, I don't know how. It was wonderfully fortuitous that it was her responsibility, these tickets. I think it was because I had bought the car, I had gotten the registration, I'd done all that, so when we started getting tickets, because we had screwed up the registration, it was her job to go and pay them, or pay them online.

So we met early in the day and had some breakfast and then we went to this Discover Award, and that's where I found out that I had won Discover Award, which was an absolute delight, and the people were wonderful and I got a little money, and it was just wonderful news.

And my wife said, "Well, now I'm going to go now and take care of this parking ticket problem." And so she went and discovered that the car had been towed. [Laughter] And so she called me. I was celebrating with my editor and my agent the fact that I had just won this award. And she was in tears and she said, "The car has been towed and I can't"– who thinks that any borough of New York or any city has it together enough to go out and tow your car when you get parking tickets? But in fact it had been towed.

And so, she went down to try to get it taken out of hock and found out that the person whose name the car was in had to be there. So she had to pull me out of this celebration. She felt absolutely terrible about it. I said, "Don't worry about it." I was riding high that I'd won this award. So I said no worries, no worries. We get to the place where the car is and it was $1,200. I said, Now it's time to worry. [Laughter] This is bad news.

So basically all of the money that Barnes & Noble had just given me, I turned right over to the Borough of Brooklyn. [Laughter]

But we were then going to do this reading with the other finalists of the Barnes & Noble award and I got caught at the Battery Tunnel, the traffic at the Battery Tunnel. And I said, You'd better send Marlene, who was my publicist, an email that we're going to be late because we were very backed up. So she took my handheld and said, "I think you have an email here that says you won the PEN Hemingway Award." So I was right at the entrance to the Battery Tunnel, stuck in traffic, buffeted by the winds of fate, because I had $1,200 just taken out of my wallet, but a few thousand more given to me a couple of hours earlier and found out this terrific news.

And it was just one of the best days of my life. [Laughter] It was the only way that being towed was going to be palatable. The only way.

HELENE ATWAN: That's great. So you've each won many awards, actually. Not just the Hemingway, but others, including the Barnes & Noble Discover Award. What kind of role do you think the awards play in American fiction, in a larger sense? Not just in your career, but in fiction, how we read, how we decide what to read; does it shape what's being published?

MARILYNNE ROBINSON: It may. One of the things that I think is interesting about American literary culture is in general if someone says, "Who's of interest, who's writing?" you can sort of produce a list. You know what I mean? Whereas, it seems to me– I mean, when I'm in France I always say, "Who's of interest, who's writing?" And it's as if they don't have the same mechanisms that we have for, in a certain sense, narrowing– alerting people to the fact that an interesting book has been written.

So I think that the prizes put people's names out, and everybody knows that prizewinning can be a slightly random thing and all the rest of it. But nevertheless, I think that they have a pretty good history of success, of actually seeing valuable books. And it gives people a good reading list, I really think that that's true. And gives the culture as a whole, I think, the sense that it has a functioning literary community as large as it is; it's not as if there were some coterie in some capital of the culture or something. But this system of prizes finds writers all over the country and creates a sort of spontaneous community out of the fact of their attention.

JOSHUA FERRIS: I think the default very often is that a reader has to find a book. And what an award does is let the book find the reader. So if you go into– I've given the analogy to some people who are afraid of books, who don't read books, and I say "Why don't you read?" and they say, "Well, when I go into the bookstore I'm confused, I'm overwhelmed." And I think of it very much as how I feel when I walk into a hardware store, I just want to get the hell out of there. [Laughter] I don't know what anything is named, and I certainly don't know the use for it, so I'm overwhelmed. But if a guy comes up to me and says "these are the pliers, and this is what you need," then I take the pliers away and go.

I think what the imprimatur of an award will do is say to the reader "this was worthwhile the organization, for the judges," and if they trust or know anything, or perhaps the bookseller points out that this was an award winner, then the book has a way of finding the reader. Whereas, perhaps the book would just sort of slide under the radar.

HA JIN: I think the PEN Hemingway Award is different from others because it is given for the first fiction. So as a result, people pay attention more, I mean among the literary circles. Especially as writers, as teachers, I think we pay a lot of attention to that. Not just the winner, but also the finalists. A lot of finalists over the years became important writers – George Saunders [35.4] Jennifer Haigh, many of them. So very often that's the indicator for new arrivals. I think about it, from that point of view, I think it's a very important award for young writers.

Otherwise, I think very often there is another side of it. All the good things happen, but a lot of pressure there's always been sort of for the next book. So there's always a pressure. But people's expectations are higher. So eventually a writer will fall, I think. As we age, you can't perform constantly at a very high level. But you have to try, have to keep going.

I think it's a bittersweet experience. But the PEN Hemingway Award is, really it always indicates a beginning. So in that sense it's a great thing.

HELENE ATWAN: I actually overhead a little bit of conversation between Richard Russo and Paul Harding, who just won the Pulitzer Prize. And Rick asked Paul about the whole landscape of having just won an important prize. And I overhead them talking about how you have to chunk up your game. [Laughter] Keep it up on a higher level. So does that become a burden? Does that become an albatross?

MARILYNNE ROBINSON: I really never, I don't think about that, I have to say, I really don't. I mean, I try to write as well as I can. I've always tried to write as well as I can. If I'd never been published, I'd still have been trying to write as well as I could.

Prizes sort of surprise me. I know that when a book wins a prize, there are probably 40 other books in the country at the same time that could very well have won the same prize.

I enjoy these things as sort of blows of fate of the most positive kind. But I don't think they mean that much.

JOSHUA FERRIS: I think it immediately splits a writer into a public and a private person, just by the nature of it being a public thing. And it's extremely important, I think probably very intuitive to most writers, that the private writer maintain his or her mission, which is privacy, basically.

And the things that attend the public reception of the book, like awards, need to be contextualized and I think kind of compartmentalized as something that is very nice, very encouraging, very welcoming, but not essential to the process of writing itself. And I can imagine someone confusing those two things, so that you're no longer trying to write as best you can, but you're trying to write to win an award. And that would be, I think, a poisoning of the well. And I don't imagine that those books would win awards.

HELENE ATWAN: Was that what happened with David Foster?

HA JIN: I don't know. I think he's still writing. But I don't know. I never heard from him after that. I only saw his name on the short list for the Booker, in the late '90s.

For me, I think the book has its own life. Awards may help the book for the moment. In the long run, the book has to sustain itself. So as a writer, I think we have to take awards as kind of luck, I would say.

Even a book that doesn't win an award, if it's a good book, it will have its own life. It will find its own readers. I do believe in that. Maybe it's an illusion, but it's essential.

Otherwise, how could we continue? So what we can do is just give a strong heart to a book.

HELENE ATWAN: But how do people discover writers, do you think, now? Apart from the big prizes like the Hemingway, how do people discover new writers? What is your thought? What do your students say?

MARILYNNE ROBINSON: In the student community, like Iowa, there's always talk. There's always the writer that everybody has to read, and all that sort of thing. So it's a sort of very active word-of-mouth community. And then, of course, I think a lot of the people that teach there also teach very contemporary writing, because it's very much of interest to the students.

I'm very interested in the question of readers. Just going around in the world in the way that I do, going to sort of little colleges I've never heard of before, and all that sort of thing, in places where I had no idea in the world what the sort of intellectual atmosphere would be, or anything, I find that there are very intense communities of readers.

The whole idea that this country stopped reading absolutely does not square with my experience. And I'm often sort of in awe of how carefully they look for writers, how much they love the ones they love. It really is amazing, and it makes me aware of the fact that I'm not a reader in that same sense.

From the point of view of why would you want to write, one of the reasons that one wants to write is because you find out that there's a profound appetite for fiction, and that it's not uncommon for people to say, "Such-and-such book changed my life," to say it with a kind of passion that you feel they're telling you the truth. And that being able to go out into the country, the way that we all can do, and talk with people has– I mean, I haven't been able to articulate it, but it's very much transformed my idea of what the whole phenomenon is, and made me much– I mean, almost terrified in my respect for who might be out there reading my book.

JOSHUA FERRIS: I think it's very surprising to find such an avid readership. And what I'm terrified by is that they're going to ask me if I've read the books they've read, because I haven't.


JOSHUA FERRIS: This is exactly I think what you're saying, is that I'm certainly not the reader in my house. That would be my wife, she's the one that has read everything; she keeps up to date, and so forth. I don't read a quarter of what she reads. I don't have the time because I'm writing.

So I'm always afraid that somebody's going to ask me what I think about this latest book, because I haven't read it, and that's my– Supposedly that's my job, I'm supposed to be an ambassador for these books. But I just haven't gotten around to reading them because I've been writing.

But it's heartening, it's extremely heartening to go out and find not just that you can fill an auditorium or you encounter six people who have read your book, but also the sense of deep commitment and passion that they have, to particular books, but to reading in general.

I don't think that's quite– books and literature are not the biggest point of passion for people in American culture. But when you encounter them, certainly the passion is as high as it would be for the latest Hollywood blockbuster, or whatever you might contrast with the book. And that's very good, I think.

HA JIN: In fact, I never encourage my students to become professional writers. I think writing is not a great profession. There are a lot of better professions. [Laughter] [44.0] there are not many readers, but as a writer that was not my business, that's not my business. All I can do is just to write a good book.

For instance, A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, that book sold zero copies in 1948. So there are a lot of things, a lot of failures. And I think I was very much influenced by Kafka in that sense. And I just, this is the space on the page. I can exist. But of course, there are other metaphysical dimensions of the writing experience. And for me, I have to– because I think I'm in a different situation. I always feel that on the ground– the ground under my feet is slippery because I don't have that kind of reference as a regular American writer or Chinese writer. I don't have a lot of support. At every turn, somehow I might get confused, I might get lost. So that as a result, I have to write in order to prove that I exist as a person, as a voice.

And also, because I grew up in mainland China. As we know, that society is different from elsewhere. My existence itself as a writer is a spin[?] on authority's face. So I had to prove I had to be there and stay, stick. And so, in that sense I have to keep going, have to write. Whether I can write better, that's another issue; I just do my best.

So that's my mentality as a writer. In fact, when I was interviewed by the Emory people, my first job there, and they asked me "why do you write," I said, "I failed to do anything else." [Laughter] That was an honest answer! That was an honest answer! So that's the only thing I feel I can do.

Another thing, my wife would always say, "You can only do two things; one is to be a good teacher, the other is to be a good writer. That's all you can do. So don't think about anything else." [Laughter]

HELENE ATWAN: Well, I'd like to give the audience a chance to weigh in with questions or comments. A little hard to see with the lights glaring in my eyes, but– and there is a microphone, so don't be shy, come up.

But while we're waiting for you to come up to the microphone to ask your question, I'm going to throw out one more based on something that you just said, which is about the political context in which you write. Because you're aware of yourself as a writer whose success has some impact in China.

HA JIN: Impact? Not exactly. But I do always feel China as a power looming behind me as a writer. The reason is that my way of existence is different from most writers in China. Many of them, especially the well-known ones, they were paid, they have a regular salary. They were paid. They all write full-time. Everything, even their travel, trips were paid, are paid by the government. So they always have a big country to rely upon.

But I'm American citizen, so I live on myself. My existence shows that there is another kind of existence as a writer, as an artist, it is possible. So that fact alone is a challenge. It's not whether I'm paid or not, just by being a writer you can speak in a voice, a small–


HA JIN: There's a political factor. A lot of people don't like it. So in order to continue, I have to produce books. Book by book, almost every time people say "this is the end of his career." [Laughter] Now [0.3] he can't continue anymore. But I have to continue.

HELENE ATWAN: Interesting. Marilynne, you've written very overtly politically in non-fiction. What are your thoughts about politics and fiction and the political arena in fiction?

MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Well, in general, I think you could say that I keep my fiction and my politics kind of separate. Not really. The reason that I wrote the Gilead books was because when I moved into the Middle West, I realized that it had an entire beautiful history that it had forgotten. I would say to people, what is the history of the Middle West, and they'd say it doesn't have one. This was the absolutely predictable response.

So I started reading things that were 19th century and I find out that it had a huge progressive abolitionist culture that really was very much in advance of anything else that was going on in the rest of the country, because in general they were people who were moving out, onto the frontier, for idealistic reasons, to found colleges and to found churches and to create towns that would be part of the Underground Railroad, and so on. So there was a very strong, self-selected, progressive culture that developed all sorts of things, like the public school system, God bless it, that became enormous progressive influences in American history and American culture altogether.

But to find out that on the one hand they have an extremely important, very beautiful history, and on the other hand they had an almost complete amnesia about the fact that these things had happened, that they could happen, that they could be done, that there were integrated gender and racial, integrated colleges on the frontier in the 1830s – forgotten – so that all of these things had to be done over again as if for the first time. It's absolutely bizarre.

So I thought on the one hand how wonderful to read this history, which is full of political meaning, and on the other hand how terrifying to understand that what it was and what it accomplished could be so absolutely lost.

And then you extrapolate [laughter] from those advances in the society to more recent advances in the society and you think, what could we lose? What is the nature of this amnesia that really can swallow up important cultural movements as if they'd never happened?

And I think that's a very real issue in our period, a very essential issue. And I don't know the answer. All I can say is that, yes, it does happen. It's like a tectonic shift that occurs. If there were any way to reverse the tectonics, I would be the first there with the crowbar, or whatever. [Laughter]

    : Thank you. I have so many questions, but I'll limit myself to two. First of all, Ha Jin, I'm in the middle of listening to your book, A Free Life, which I'm thoroughly enjoying. But I guess listening to your story a bit, is there some autobiographical things that happened with the main character of that book and yourself, perchance?

HA JIN: Because that was my first book set in the States, so I tried to stay with my life as closely as possible. But I think the big story was not autobiographical. But there are small things. Because once a book is set in the States, it would be a lot of empirical references. I can't invent a lot of details. So I have to stay close to my own experience.

But overall, that book is not autobiographical. For instance, there's a poet, Dick Harrison, and he's– in fact, I held his job at Emory as a poet-in-residence for eight years. So in other words, I was much more fortunate than the protagonist.

I would say at the micro level, yes, there are lots of autobiographical experiences. But the big book, the overall, at the macro level, it is not.

    : And that brings up the whole audiobooks, which I have enjoyed a lot. Do all of you feel that the audiobook kind of explosion has been a good thing for writers?

HELENE ATWAN: Good question, really good question. I actually listened to The Unnamed, your reading of it, which I loved, by the way. But listening to a book is a different experience, particularly if the writer didn't read it, and obviously you didn't read your book. So what are your thoughts about audiobooks?

JOSHUA FERRIS: I don't know, because I don't listen to them, and I don't really know exactly– I guess I could look at a royalty sheet or something and try to figure out if it made financial sense. I think if it gets people interacting with the book, I think it's a positive thing. I probably am not the perfect person to ask because I don't listen to them myself.

HELENE ATWAN: Even your own.

JOSHUA FERRIS: Well, no, especially my own. [Laughter]

HELENE ATWAN: Marilynne, have you done audio?

MARILYNNE ROBINSON: I haven't recorded them. But audios have been made. With varying degrees of success by my lights, but nevertheless I tend to think that– I've developed this concept. It's called innocent pleasure. [Laughter] If people want to sit at a stoplight, listening to a pretty okay reading of a pretty nice piece of fiction, I have no quarrel with that.

HA JIN: I think it's a great thing, I do. I'm grateful just for the effort. My recent collection of short stories was put on tape, and I saw the list of readers. Because a short story has more people in it, right? So they have all the people, as if it's a big play. Just for that fact alone, I am grateful for that. It will really make the book accessible to many people who can't sit down and read.

HELENE ATWAN: Now, you didn't ask the big question though, which is about e- books. Were you getting ready to ask about e-books?

    : No, because I haven't gone to e-books myself. Not that other people haven't. But you bring up, who reads the book makes a huge difference as to whether I actually will listen beyond more than half of the first disk, I have to say. To me, it makes a huge difference, and I'm sure it does for lots of people.

I also want to talk about book groups a little bit, which is how I was introduced to Marilynne Robinson's book Housekeeping. Read it many years ago for a book group. And my sense is that the proliferation of book groups has really had a lot to do with reading. People seem to be much more interested in having somebody to talk about a book with, and I guess I'm wondering what your take is on that, also.

MARILYNNE ROBINSON: I think they're great. I mean, they fall solidly under the category of innocent pleasure. It's interesting, I mean, I was asked to talk to two book groups in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. One of them was 100 years old and the other was 125 years old. If you look back in American history, you find that people have been doing this for a long time. And it's only because we always describe things in terms of trends and phenomena that we see it as being perhaps some sort of departure.

I can certainly understand wanting to talk to somebody else about an interesting book. I think that's great.

HELENE ATWAN: There's a question behind you. Thank you for your questions.

    : Hi. Can I ask Marilynne why you didn't write another novel for 20 or 25 years. I've always wondered. Your novel Housekeeping is just the best, one of the most beautiful books I've ever read.

MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Oh, thank you. Well, when I was in college, I was taking writing courses, and for one thing I found out that nobody knew anything about where I came from. It was the essence of flyover. I mean, you did not look at the window, right?

It was actually a wonderful place to grow up, a beautiful landscape. So I became very aware of that. But also, I didn't like the prevailing aesthetic when I was starting to write. It seemed kind of suburban cynical to me. And so I thought I would write about my own terrain in the vocabulary that would have been available to me to understand that terrain, and so on.

So I did that, and it was very satisfying. But I didn't want to be stuck to one solution. I wanted to be able to– you know what I mean? I didn't want to recreate one solution to this problem. So I didn't write– every time I tried to write something, it looked like an outtake from Housekeeping, which was disturbing to me.

In any case, I decided that I needed to know more before I could feel that I could really credit what I said if I was going to write more broadly about the world. So I spent a lot of time reading the books that people act as if they've read. And it's a long list, it's unbelievable.

But in any case, I read economics and history, all sorts of things. And read all through Freud. Just to see what the conversation was about. Red Capital. At the end of that, I really felt as if I had sort of refurnished my mind in a way that made me feel that my ideas were my own, that I wasn't simply transcribing from some sort of cultural voice that I couldn't really invest in.

So it took me 25 years. [Laughter]

    : If nobody else has a question, I'd like to ask about e-books, what you all think.

HELENE ATWAN: I was going to propose that anyway, thank you. Yes, thoughts about e-books? Josh, you want to start?

JOSHUA FERRIS: I don't have an e-reader myself. I was thinking the other day that I could probably happily go my life without one, because of my, I guess, commitment to the physical thing and my distaste for reading on the screen, personally. But its conveniences can't be cast into doubt. It's an extraordinary phenomenon. I think if anybody– if the e-reader were introduced, say, 30 years ago and somebody came up to somebody in 1981 and said, "I can give you this little device, put all the books on it you want, and you can go and read it and it's got a battery life of 12 hours, what do you think," they would say "yes, my God, yes."

What's happening right now is because it's the introduction and there's all of this copyright argument, and all these kind of messy debates about its merits and demerits, it's a debate. But it's a marvel, it's simply a marvel. And I don't think anybody can really deny that it's a marvelous creation. I just, on a personal level, prefer to have the book in my hand.

HELENE ATWAN: Do you have any feeling?

HA JIN: I think it's a good thing, especially think about a lot the people, they travel, and it's hard to carry many books with them. But personally, I'm getting slower, slower as a reader. So I have no need for a Kindle. But I think for a lot of people, even for kids, it might be a good thing.

In fact, the first time I saw a Kindle was in the hands of my German editor, because she had to read a lot of manuscripts. Now for the first time she had this little box and she could read on trips. So I think there's a lot of necessity for that.

But to what degree it will be very prevalent, I don't know. But books may be a kind of luxury, commodity. That's okay with me. I never thought I would make money by writing, so that's fine.

One thing I forgot to mention, for readers, for me, I think it's very often the individual reader is more important to me. I think that once I ran into a reader, he talked about A Free Life. The book got a lot of grief when it came out. But he said, "I read the book on the weekend. Next Monday I will read that again." And for me, the purpose of writing, one of the purposes was simple. I would never let him down.

So for me, in that sense, I more care about the reader as an individual.

HELENE ATWAN: But what about the concept of a library? If you have everything in a box, you don't have these beautiful shelves with all these gorgeous–

MARILYNNE ROBINSON: I don't know if those things, I don't know if they will really supplant. I have a lot of very obscure books at home, old, public domain sort of library. But sometimes I'm somewhere and I don't have my library. Or in the middle of the night I realize that there's some book that I absolutely need. And then I could get it on my poor, little, injured Kindle within two minutes, as they say. And it supplements, but it does not supplant my library, which only grows.

I think they're great. If the need to read is spilling over, the ways of satisfying this demand are spilling over into other technologies, and so on, I think that's just good.

JOSHUA FERRIS: It would be wonderful if they could somehow, when you bought a hardback, you also got a download. This is the way they work the LPs. If you buy an LP these days, you also get a coupon inside the record and you pull it out and you can download it, so now you can have it on all your formats. I don't think that they've figured out how to do it, a business model. It's a very difficult thing to do.

Because one of the things that I get frustrated by, if I'm reading along and there's a minor character and I haven't been paying attention and I forget about it, I can't do a search on my hardcover, I can't search for that name, so I can go back and get introduced to him again because I didn't pay enough attention to him initially.

So I would love to have the hardback and then to have this, as you say, supplement. Not just in terms of supplementing a library, but actually supplementing the reading experience. You could look up these characters that you've forgotten, or look up the word immediately, or whatever it may be.

HELENE ATWAN: On the other hand, one of the biggest complaints about the e- readers is that it's so much harder to scroll back.

JOSHUA FERRIS: But you have a search function though, don't you? HELENE ATWAN: Not on Kindle. But the new ones, iPad reader– JOSHUA FERRIS: You've got to have a search function.

HELENE ATWAN: Need a search function, you're right. But people do complain that an e-reader, no matter how good, does not have the flexibility of literally being able to just leaf through the book pages.

MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Yeah, I think that's why books and these electronic things will co-exist. When I read a book and some passage becomes important to me, I remember I'm halfway through the book, on the right-hand side, in the upper part of the page.

JOSHUA FERRIS: It's topographical.

MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Exactly, exactly. And there's no way to approximate that. But you can search through a Kindle, you can.

HELENE ATWAN: Let's take one more question.

    : Actually, mine was going to be a follow-up on that. One thing I like when I'm going back and looking through a book that I've read maybe 15 years ago or something are the notes that I've made. And if you would miss that experience, too, and think now you have a different take on it, it has a history that way. And how you would feel about that sort of intertextuality that you get with yourself, the book, and then across time.

So how you guys would feel about that, I'm just curious. Because I think your idea that it could enhance the reading experience is good, but I would wonder about the notes that you take, if you do that, if you're a weird reader like me that always has a pen in hand, even if you're just reading a magazine. But I'd wonder, I guess, about that. So that's my question.

JOSHUA FERRIS: Even if you're not taking notes. I'm sure everybody here, you're here for a reason, is because you love books, and we love books, so everybody loves books and you probably have a deep commitment to some of your favorite books. And they're physical things. They're things with covers that you fall in love with as you're reading the book.

And so, it's a romance that probably can't be captured in the same way quite if you're reading it online. It almost feels like it does come from the clouds a little bit. Or maybe it is even flattened. If you're toggling back and forth, it's flattened out with The New York Times article you just read, and the Huffington Post article you just read, and the YouTube video you just watched, and the song you just heard, all these other media. So it sort of takes a kind of flattened– there's a flattening effect, with that physical thing that you bend and you break and you wet. I mean not– that was bad, but you know what I mean. You get wet– [Laughter]

HELENE ATWAN: In the bathtub.

JOSHUA FERRIS: In the bathtub, or the sink. It becomes this physical thing. It's beaten up but it looks cool, and you're like, "I spent time with this thing."

HA JIN: [18.7] also can do that. Physical books, you write on it, other people can do it again and again. That act, that physical act might disappear with e-books.

Another thing I notice, that in fact e-books cannot preserve a lot of things. For instance, I don't use Britannica, the encyclopedia anymore. But I have a huge set, published in the '90s. But before we moved from Georgia, I had one big set as well, written in the '60s. I just sent them to the Goodwill store.

And now my son, he's an aspiring historian. He has been looking for Britannica written in the '30s. There's no way to find a set like that. Because the articles, essays are written much better in the older books.

HELENE ATWAN: That's true. And some of that marginalia, I'm thinking that Martin Luther King, Junior, had a copy of the Bible that he wrote in the margins. And what he wrote in those margins is so important, both historically and for his religious community, also. So that would be lost.

Well, speaking of wonderful books and the importance of books– oh, I'm sorry.

    : Just one more.

HELENE ATWAN: One more, okay.

    : I loved the stories, the story that you told about David Foster and what you told us more about those 25 years between books. I was wondering if each of you could talk a little bit about the creative process, maybe a time that you struggled with, I don't even know exactly what to say– producing? And if you could tell us about how you got through it.

HELENE ATWAN: All right, that will probably be a good way to end, then, if each of you wants to take a–

HA JIN: I think what Marilynne said is really, I think, essential, to learn how to look at things. Spending 25 years doing that, eventually that will make a writer different. It's not just the way you use words. It's the way you think, you look at things, your understanding of people and the world around you. I think that eventually makes a writer different.

That's more important than anything else.

But for me, again, I'm in a different situation. My first five books were published by small presses. And it really was a big struggle. And there was always kind of a struggle for existence; I would say that still there is. As a result, there was kind of fear. All kinds of fear. I think that fear is, in that sense, it can be transformed or converted into energy in that sense.

But as I continue to write, I think I have reached a stage that I don't want to rush anymore. I just want to write a good book, try to write a better book. But again, that's the most difficult thing, to write, how to make your next book better. That's the most difficult task.

So for me now, it really is how to write with more patience. That's, I think, my challenge. But because I always teach, when I'm teaching, I can't write a long piece, especially the first draft. So usually in the summer I don't go anywhere because I would write a draft.

So when I teach, I can revise and edit. That's my process.

So the real writing in fact is in the editing and the revision. I think a lot of writers are like that. Even Philip Roth, he said he had to write to see the structure, to see what kind of difficulties he would encounter in the book. I'm in the same kind of mentality, how to write a first draft very rapidly, then spend a few years editing and revising the manuscript.

JOSHUA FERRIS: I find it interesting what you say about fear. Because so often I think that the impulse to write– and you've talked a little bit also about trying to get your existence on the page and feel real, and you've talked about Kafka, and the sort of evanescent feeling that one has as just being a person on earth until you write and you sort of write yourself into existence.

And that is underscored, oddly, by waiting 25 years to write. At this point in time, during that 25 years, fear isn't entering into the equation. What you're doing actually is making an enormous leap of faith in yourself, because obviously you're a writer, right? I mean, during those 25 years you're still a writer.

MARILYNNE ROBINSON: I actually wrote two books. They weren't novels, they weren't fiction.

JOSHUA FERRIS: But I'm sure you're feeling like a writer and you're teaching, but– I'm trying to come around to how I would answer this, which is to say I think that I operate to some extent out of fear of either not getting it down. Like every day I have to show up. I feel like I have to show up. Sometimes I'm working out of that fear to make sure that I'm writing myself into existence.

And I think I have the opposite problem. I don't mean to characterize the 25 years in which you weren't writing fiction as a problem, but I would take the opposite phenomenon, where I sort of have to stop myself and insist upon more patience and more discrimination and more discipline with respect to the reading that I'm doing, and the learning that I'm doing, and the experiencing, and the observing that I'm doing in order to ensure that what I'm writing is not just fearful writing, that it is actually attempting to say something that matters and that is distinct from other voices that I might be throwing in there in that given moment because I'm writing out of fear, or a sense of, I don't know, a kind of just this existential– I think you're capturing some kind of existential anguish that a writer feels, and you write yourself out of that. And sometimes perhaps if I'm writing too quickly, I'm writing for the wrong reasons.

HA JIN: Yeah, I agree, I think you're right. But also, I think very often there is a psychological need. Once you are done with a project, at least in my case, I feel calmer. The anxiety is gone. It's not really whether the book will do well or not, it's just to go through that process.

HELENE ATWAN: The calmness that goes with it.

HA JIN: Yes.

JOSHUA FERRIS: Which is only acquired at the end of the day.

HA JIN: Yes.

JOSHUA FERRIS: The day doesn't begin that way. There's a lot of anxiety.

HELENE ATWAN: Do you want to add anything?

MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Well, I think that when I write fiction, I can write fiction because I have somehow or other suspended my own disbelief. It's another state of mind from– I mean, I actually, in a sense, believe in the fiction that I am creating. And the mind is a strange thing, what can I say? Because on the one hand, I'm very much aware that I spend 10 hours a day worrying about people who don't exist. [Laughter]

[Simultaneous speaking]

MARILYNNE ROBINSON: But one consequence of this way of writing is that, if I cannot concentrate at that level, there is no point trying. The work ethic does not apply to my case. Either I'm absorbed in what I'm doing, or I really ought to be doing something else.

I've devoted a fair part of my career to doing something else. It's worked well enough. [Laughter] I'm not a prolific novelist. Maybe as the biological clock keeps ticking, I might hurry up a little bit. But it's the big biological clock we're talking about here. [Laughter]

But in any case, I'm content. I am so grateful for those 25 years. I really feel like I didn't save my soul, but I saved my mind. I really feel like that. I'm glad I did it.

HELENE ATWAN: How extraordinary. Well, I have two announcements to make, and then I want to thank everyone. The first announcement is that we're very lucky to have these three people here, and we are very lucky to have their books for sale in the other room. And I'm sure they will be, I hope they will be happy to sign books for any of you after this, if you'd like.

And the more important one is, tomorrow please come back. Same place, 3:00. And we will have more wonderful writers, talking, reading. It's a wonderful event. Please, please join us then.

And then I want, on behalf of PEN New England and on behalf of the Hemingway family and the Hemingway Foundation, and the JFK Library to thank you all for coming, but especially to thank these three wonderful writers for sharing their thoughts. [Applause]