Sunday, November 11, 2007

An Afternoon With Orhan Pamuk

Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Orhan Pamuk visited Buffalo for about 9 hours on Thursday. We brought him in to kick off Just Buffalo's new literary series, Babel. For the past several months we've been encouraging the entire region to read his novel, Snow, a political novel about a small, isolated Anatolian town in the midst of a crisis over the clash of political Islam and secular totalitarian government. He was scheduled for a VIP reception at 6 and for a reading/lecture/q&a and book signing starting at 8. I picked him up at the Airport at 1:30 and took him on a whirlwind tour of the Buffalo/Niagara region before the official festivities began.

Our primary destination was, of course, Niagara Falls. We drove straight there from the airport. On the way, however, he asked if we could stop to buy a winter cap somewhere, as he hates shopping in NYC and so ends up buying a lot of necessities on the road, where the stores are less crowded and require less mental energy to navigate. So, I took the Nobel Prize-winner to the Outlet Mall! We found him a sort of Holden Caulfield-type hunter cap with small earflaps. He wanted to purchase earmuffs, but we couldn't seem to find any at Saks or at J.Crew, so we left with the cap and headed to the falls.

It was dark, wet day at the falls, but there was almost no one there and they hadn't yet closed the steps leading down to the overlook on the American side, so we were able to get a close-up view of the falls. We discovered a mutual interest in snapshots, and so ended up taking hundreds of pictures over the course of the day. If you look at the photoset on my Flickr site, you can see he’s shooting a photograph in just about every picture I took of him. I say snapshots, because neither of us seems really interested in taking photos that are particularly artful. I am rather more interested in their documentary value. This is an extremely new interest for me, one I resisted for years, preferring my own memory to the photos themselves. However, my memory isn’t what it used to be, and I find I very much enjoy the social dimension of photo sharing on the Internet. That said, I shoot my snapshots with a Fujifilm Finepix F45fd, he shoots his with some kind of Leica “point-and-shoot,” so I imagine his snapshots come out pretty well no matter what. My favorite photo of the day was one I took of two ducks sipping water in the middle of the American falls. It’s actually an ok photo in itself, but it was a joy to see in person.

After the falls, Pamuk told me he is interested in the decay of modernism – decay in the most literal, physical sense. I told him he had come to the right place! I have three tours I give visitors, depending on their interests and time constraints – The Falls Tour, The Architecture Tour, and my personal favorite, the Entropy Tour, which charts the sublime ruin that is much of Buffalo. We managed quickie versions of all three this afternoon. First stop was the grain elevators in south Buffalo. These massive concrete structures are in wildly varying states of use, disuse, decay and utter ruination. They make for great photos, as many an artful photographer has discovered.

Following the grain elevators, we drove through the sad wastes of Buffalo’s East Side over to the Central Terminal, Buffalo’s most spectacular ruin. We were fortunate to arrive while a group of students were being given a tour of the inside of the complex, so we just walked in and started shooting photos ourselves. Pamuk was in ecstasy, running around in the half-darkness shooting photos of every nook and cranny. We quickly found ourselves in some off-limits area near some old bathrooms. I could hear the tour group leaving at the other end of the terminal and became concerned we’d get locked in. I ran across the main waiting area toward the front door. Sure enough, the caretaker was there, ready to lock us in. He was not happy. He started screaming at me, and would not accept an apology. When he found out Orhan was still inside, he started screaming at him too. I debated whether or not to tell him he was screaming at a Nobel Prize-winner, but decided it would have little effect. Welcome to Buffalo, Mr. Pamuk!

Next stop was the Louis Sullivan-designed Guaranty building, an ornate, terracotta-covered 19th century office tower. I sent him in to see the lobby, but the security guard would not let him take pictures. O well. Our last stop was meant to be a drive-by of the Darwin Martin House, one of several Frank Lloyd Wright homes in and around Buffalo. I let him out and waited in my car at the curb while he took photos. Turned out part of it was still open, so we went in for a quick tour of the carriage and guest houses. One of the tour guides recognized him, so we got extra special treatment, which we appreciated (especially after the last two stops).

Time was getting short, and since he was not staying the night we decided it would be easiest to run back to our house to change clothes before the event, which we did, and had just enough time for two quick shots of espresso and a quick book signing (we asked him to sign a first ed. hardcover of his newest book, Other Colors, which he inscribed to "Michael, Lory [sic] and mama cat."

The reception took place in the underground lounge at Babeville. Just Buffalo’s board, funders and those who subscribed at higher levels all attended. The reading itself was packed. We sold out all of the tickets four days before the event and every seat in the house was full. I spent three days working from home to write an intro for Pamuk – I think it came off pretty well (my friend Lucy told me she cried, so I guess I did something right!). Pamuk’s talk was more of a lecture about the novel than anything else, but it was a very useful one. He read essays from the new book, mostly. The first, since everyone here was reading Snow, was about the research he did in writing that novel. This was followed by a longer discussion on novel writing as an art, on reading novels, and on some of the novels that most influenced him as a writer. When he reads, he’s got what I would call a sort of eastern European bearing – organized, mildly stern, unwavering in his opinions. But when he looks up from the book and engages the audience directly, he becomes much more endearing.

I returned to the stage after that to read him questions from the audience. We spoke about it beforehand and he said he wanted to take a question about the Armenian genocide, but only one, as he did not want his political persona to overshadow the novelist persona. So, we did one, and the rest were on writing, the novel, Snow, Turkey, et al. One question was written in Turkish, so he read it aloud in Turkish and then answered in English. In the final question, he was asked if he had a muse, to which he replied: no, except that he likes to read his work aloud to friends and loved ones to gauge their interest, and that this was in fact his greatest inspiration. He got a standing ovation, and then proceeded to sign 300 books in about 20 minutes. It was about the fastest book signing I’d ever seen.

As he stepped into a black car headed for a day of interviews in a hotel room in Toronto, I slipped him copies of my two books of poetry–

what the hell, right?

1 comment:

Victoria said...

"only connect" -- isn't that what it's all about?