Some months ago I received, via email, an invitation to appear at the 9th Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF) in Bali, Indonesia. Naturally I thought it was a mistake—I hadn’t done anything literary in years, I would be spotted instantly as a fraud. Then I saw the list of writers who were coming to the festival. It included novelists I regard with awe and terror, such as Jeffrey Eugenides (author of The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex), Chang-Rae Lee (The Surrendered) and Colson Whitehead (Sag Harbor, Zone One—probably the best zombie novel every written). I accepted the invitation and hoped the mistake would not be discovered till it was too late.
The UWRF was organized to support the community in the aftermath of the Bali bombings; since then it’s grown into the largest, most acclaimed literary festival in the region. This year 140 writers from 30 countries converged on picturesque Ubud, recognizable to many as the setting of Eat, Pray, Love (and of the asinine Julia Roberts movie). There were panel discussions, readings, workshops, tours, movies, a concert by Nick Cave, and film screenings. I participated in two panel sessions and managed not to get anything hurled at me (Given the large population of ducks roaming around the open-air venues it would’ve been easy to grab random fowl and throw them in anger).
The best part of the festival was sitting in the presence of some of the most gifted novelists of our time and hearing them talk about writing—not as some mystical experience/divinely-inspired ritual, but as a job they toil at, flesh, blood and brains. I tried to get an interview with Jeffrey Eugenides, whose first book The Virgin Suicides is my definition of “incandescent”, but he managed to evade my requests. I had to be content with attending his talk, which turned out to be better than my planned interview. The author was in good form, the moderator asked the right questions, and the audience was knowledgeable and appreciative.
“I’m always working on a book,” began Eugenides (Eu-GEN-ee-dees), 52. He took us back to the start of his career, when he was trying to get short stories published in magazines. Like most writers he amassed a collection of form rejection slips—sometimes there would be a scrawled “Try us again” at the bottom, and this would be enough encouragement for two years.
Read our column today in the Philippine Star.
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Eugenides said his all-time favorite book, the one he reads over and over again, is Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.
His other favorites are Herzog by Saul Bellow and the novels of Henry James (marriage plots!).
In middle age he’s come to revere Alice Munro.
Recently he enjoyed the Patrick Melrose novels of Edward St. Aubyn, which he pronounced delightful, funny and wicked.