By Evan Roberts
In Dewberry Hall during George Mason’s annual Fall for the Book festival, Harvard alumnus and new Mason professor Tania James spoke to a packed crowd of eager, rain-soaked undergraduates. I was privileged enough to be one of them.
“I really was expecting to read to only two people,” joked James, author of the well-received novel The Tusk That Did the Damage. And while I was prepared to pester her with questions about the unique perspectives in her latest novel, she made clear that she had turned the page to the next section of her life, moving beyond this latest piece.
For one, she’s a recent mother, and is more recently escaping a year-long writer’s block following childbirth. With less time on her hands, now she writes in “short bursts,” as opposed to forcing herself to write for extended hours. James recounted that previously she spent long periods of time writing “because [she] had to,” but now believes that time wasn’t used efficiently. It’s a predicament I believe every writer can relate to: the desire to produce, or else face the chest-gripping sense of guilt. “It’s a waste of time to work on one thing if you’d rather work on something else,” she said. Amidst all these exciting life changes there is one writing ritual James still abides, one from before her days as a mother: the first two hours of each morning are dedicated to the craft.
Currently, James is interested in what she calls the “weirdness of early motherhood.” In this transitory period of her life, now she’s drawn towards writers who have a surrealistic take because she feels surrealism speaks to her own experiences of past events – specifically to her own experience with motherhood. This new perspective captivated me. It seemed to provide a new source of inspiration, a way to dwell on the most confusing of reflections, and to appreciate them not necessarily for how they actually occurred, but for how they are remembered. When asked how she balances surrealism in otherwise realistic stories, she said that the voice should not be trying to “convince;” it should not linger in trying to explain or rationalize the science of the world, and should instead state what is occurring with authority. By explaining the inner workings of our worlds, we bring unnecessary attention to the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
In the concluding moments of the reading, James spoke on the dichotomy between a novel-length work and a short story. To her, a novel is the culmination of life lessons and perspectives gleaned over a period of several years of the author’s life. A novel is essentially the product of “countless inspirations,” and I truly believe this to be evident in her works. In contrast, James said that a short story has an intense focus – such an intense focus that it’s impossible for her to see past the borders that this single inspiration has framed for her.
Before the applause of damp hands and the formation of a queue by the author’s desk came the inevitable question during any reading: What inspires you?
Said James, “Every day seems to offer something.”