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(Photo by E.J. Greenblat)

A FORGOTTEN CHILDHOOD: Carlos Eire, winner of the non-fiction award for the 2003 National Book Awards, spoke at the Gold Medal Tour at the Jewish Center on Thursday, February 19. Author of Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, Mr. Eire's book talks about the period in which Fidel Castro overthrew the Cuban government, as seen through the eyes of a young Mr. Eire.
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Award-Winning Authors Discuss Their Personal Writing Techniques

Candace Braun

Constant editing and drawing from personal experience are key parts of the writing process, according to four poets and authors that spoke at the Jewish Center of Princeton on Thursday, February 19. Procrastination also comes in handy, according to the winners of the 2003 National Book Awards.

Carlos Eire, Shirley Hazzard, Polly Horvath, and Princeton poet C.K. Williams came to Princeton as part of the 2004 Gold Medal Tour.

The book tour, which is sponsored by the Princeton Public Library, the National Book Foundation, and Bloomberg, is making several stops around the U.S., with Princeton being its second after the New York Public Library.

Each author was asked to talk about their own writing techniques and answer audience members' questions about their work.

Mr. Eire, who won the non-fiction award for his memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, said that he only recently discovered his talent for personal writing. A professor of history and religious studies at Yale University, he said he had written historical books previously.

Waiting for Snow in Havana is Mr. Eire's personal tale of living in Cuba as a young boy when Fidel Castro overthrew the government. The author said that until recently, he had put his memories of Cuba behind him and didn't allow himself to think about the first 11 years of his life.

"The images had been haunting me my whole life even though I had tried to suppress them," said Mr. Eire.

However one day he found himself writing about his past and what he remembered from his childhood, and realized he was writing a book about his own life.

"It came from a place I didn't know existed in my brain and in my soul," the author said.

Mr. Eire said the irony of this book receiving an award was that it took four months to write, while other historical books had taken him almost 10 years. All but a very few dialogs in the book recount the author's memories word for word, which he said he felt was important because it showed others the truth of what went on in Cuba in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

"I felt I had something to say and no one would listen unless I wrote it down," said Mr. Eire, who said he has been thrilled to have his book well received by both Americans and Cubans.

"I got to relive my childhood as a 49-year-old man," he said. "The end result surprised me, and everyone around me."

The author said that now that he has found another voice to write in, he wants to continue to explore it and see what comes from it.

"I feel blessed, I'm so thrilled that I was able to find another voice ... I've reclaimed my Cuban identity and I don't know what's next," said Mr. Eire.

Honoring a Local Poet

Princeton's own C.K. Williams was the 2003 National Book Award winner for his poetry book, The Singing. Like many writers, Mr. Williams said he felt his career as a poet was slow to start, as he felt many of his first poems were not good enough for publication.

"All the poems that came across me daunted me and made me feel ashamed," Mr. Williams said.

Now, as a professor in the creative writing program at Princeton University, Mr. Williams is looked to as an expert in poetry, with many books under his belt. Among those he has published include Repair, for which he received a Pulitzer Prize in 2000.

Mr. Williams concluded his talk with the reading of one of his poems, My Mother's Lips, which talks about his relationship with his mother as a child and how it changed as he become an adolescent.

Recounting Memories

Shirley Hazzard, a native of Sydney, Australia, won the fiction award for her novel, The Great Fire, which is her first published work in more than 20 years.

With a father who was a diplomat, Ms. Hazzard was able to live in many places as a child, which enabled her to see first hand different countries suffering through World War II, which is what she writes about in her book.

"Every detail [in the novel] is remembered: I didn't have to look any of it up," said Ms. Hazzard. Ms. Hazzard's novel began as two separate articles in The New Yorker many years ago. While pursuing other things, she had left the book aside for awhile, but finally, after editing and reworking the book several times, she published it 20 years after she had begun.

One audience member asked if, over the years, Ms. Hazzard has switched from using a typewriter to a computer, to which she responded that she still works with a yellow pad and pencil, and then converts it to her old-fashioned typewriter.

"I like it that way; I like the mess of it," she said.

A Dark Novel

Polly Horvath, author of five books for young readers, won the young adult fiction award for her book, The Canning Season. This book has been described as a dark novel, reaching beyond the limitations of most books for youth. It tells the story of a child sent to live with distant relatives in Maine and the stories and events that she encounters there.

A writer since the age of eight, Ms. Horvath pursued her other passion – dance – in her late teens, dancing in both Toronto and New York. However she went back to writing when she was older, and has now published several books for young adults, one of which, Everything on a Waffle, was a Newbery Honor Book.

Ms. Horvath compared the act of fine-tuning her writing to flicking a wine glass to test if it is real crystal. A wine glass will ring if its crystal, and thunk if its not; she said she is always looking to make the words in her books "ring."

She said that her writing not only surprises others, but herself, as well.

"Once an entire book showed up when I was in the middle of another one," Ms. Horvath said.

The authors will continue their tour by visiting cities such as Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. This is the tenth year the book tour has taken place, and the third year it has stopped in Princeton.

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