In the sun-bathed sitting room of an old English country house, Anne Enright, Booker Prize winner, is imparting her hard-won literary wisdom to a group of aspiring novelists. Her subject is dialogue - specifically, how to write it in a way that rings true, advances the plot and ultimately lands you an agent and a publishing contract.
"The trick is that, once you've written it, you have to hold the page back like this and squint," she mimes the action of looking at her work from a distance. "And if all the lines are the same length all the way down, you know it's either Samuel Beckett or it's rubbish."
A burst of laughter from the group, which dissipates quickly as Enright's wry smile dissolves. She is being pleasant but she's also speaking a literary truth.
In a sense, this sums up atmosphere at the Faber Academy Sussex - one of many courses offered by the storied British publishing house. A three-day course with a hefty price tag (admission is $640, including lunch and snacks), the "Academy" is intended to give aspiring writers a literary experience which, like a good book, both educates and delights. Part workshop, part retreat, part literary tourism, the Faber teaching model has proven so successful in Britain and Europe it is now expanding across the pond, starting with Canada.
The Faber Academy Toronto is slated to open this fall with two longer courses. Writing A Novel - taught by Miriam Toews ( A Complicated Kindness, The Flying Troutmans) and featuring guest appearances by Michael Redhill, Anne Michaels and Margaret Atwood - will start classes in late September. How To Become a Poet - led by Ken Babstock with help from Darren Wershler, Al Moritz and Adam Sol - will start Oct. 11.
Part of Faber's draw is what organizer Patrick Keogh describes as "inspirational venues." In London, longer classes are held at the Faber offices in Bloomsbury (where T.S. Eliot met with his editors), while in Paris, the famed English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company serves as venue. In Toronto, classes will be held at the University of Toronto's Massey College, overseen by the spectre of founding master Robertson Davies.
Here in pastoral Sussex, near England's south coast, the venue is no less impressive. The Faber weekend begins with a tour of Charleston, the former residence of painter Vanessa Bell - sister to Virginia Woolf - and country retreat of the Bloomsbury group. We are then shepherded down a garden path (literally) to Tilton House, the sprawling rural retreat once belonging to John Maynard Keynes and his Russian ballerina wife.
The course begins with a daylong workshop with one of the two hosting writers - in this case Anne Enright ( The Gathering) and Faber's own Andrew O'Hagan ( The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog).
The group of 30-odd people is divided in two and ushered into separate rooms for our workshop. We go around the room introducing ourselves and saying a word or two about our writing experiences. The class, not surprisingly, is mostly female and on the older side (the average age is around 45), but the level of experience is quite diverse, from the friendly American tourist who announces he's "never written a lick" to the couple of people who have agents but no book contract, or have a published story but no agent. This is likely thanks to Keogh's insistence that the course be "selective" in its admission criteria, i.e. some applications are refused.
We read and discuss a Raymond Carver short story, complete some exercises and spend a lot of time discussing the kind of fictional minutiae that is only fascinating to people in the throes of creating fiction. Enright proves both witty and generous in her advice. She advises blocked or agonized writers to "take your feelings about your work and lock them in a box and hide them under the bed because they are not interesting," and tells us to "allow the pleasure of writing, don't resist it." She discloses that the plot for literary masterpiece The Gathering was based on an outline format from Michael Hauge's How to Write Screenplays that Sell. Her manner is as tart and unflinching as her prose.
Day Two begins with a guest lecture from John Lanchester. After being celebrated for his debut novel The Debt to Pleasure, he has recently swerved into topical non-fiction with I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay - and in his pressed khakis and navy polo shirt, he could easily be mistaken for a hedge fund manager on holiday.
He talks engagingly about a range of topics. He shares his list of the Five Greatest Novels Ever Written ( Madame Bovary, Remembrance of Things Past, Middlemarch, Moby Dick and Ulysses, in no particular order). He covers the difficulty of memoir writing, the creative connection between writing and cooking. The experience is a bit like listening to a favourite professor give his best lecture: Topical, accessible and intellectually engaging.
After a delightful lunch of salads and savory tarts - did I mention this is also literary tourism? - the class breaks up to wander the grounds on our own and, later, attend one-on-one tutorials with the author/instructors.
My meeting with Anne Enright is pleasant enough, if a bit rushed, and would probably have been enriched by some actual point of discussion (the authors, in the short courses, don't actually offer criticism on the participants' work). However it's always interesting to have an audience with a literary lion, however brief.
The following (and final) day of our course, we are treated to a talk and discussion by the Scottish novelist Andrew O'Hagan, whose bouncy enthusiasm offers a good contrast to Enright's bluntness.
He begins by assuring us that it is absolutely possible to teach creative writing, goes on to inspire and delight by reading opening paragraphs by writers he admires (Nabokov, Bellow), and, finally, encourages participants to read their own work aloud. While O'Hagan is a lesser writer than Enright, he is by contrast a much more natural teacher. With his optimism and encouragement, the mood in the class lifts and inspiration takes root.
It would almost be enough to inspire us to write, except that school is out and we're off to the garden at Charleston for drinks. A few minutes later we are toasting life and literature in one of the most splendid gardens in all of England.