Homer Alaska - Arts

Story last updated at 1:51 PM on Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Former Homer reporter shares her craft

Andromeda Romano-Lax in town this weekend to teach, read from recent novel



Andromeda Romano-Lax

"To learn, read; to know, write; to master, teach," goes the proverb. For Andromeda Romano-Lax, working toward mastering her craft might describe the current stage of her 20-year writing career.

Recognizing her deficiencies, Romano-Lax has worked on becoming a better reader. Since working as a reporter for the Homer News in 1995 and 1996, she has gone on to write and publish three books, including her recent novel, "The Detour" (Soho Press, $25). With five novels mostly written, and a first novel, "The Spanish Bow," that got a to-die-for advance, it might seem odd that Romano-Lax has taken a path that for other writers starts their careers — working on a master of fine arts in writing. She's now in the second year of a low-residency program at Antioch University, Los Angeles.

That's the mastery part.

"I wanted to become more confident as a teacher," she said of why she's working on an MFA.

This Saturday, Romano-Lax shares some of her teaching in two workshops at the Homer Public Library. In "Memory as Muse," starting at 10 a.m., she looks at the science of memory and a literary discussion of the use of memory.

"It's using memory as a starting point," she said. "Mostly, how we unravel our memories, but also an exercise on how you can remember more than you think."

At 11 a.m. she presents "Reading Like a Writer." That comes from a realization Romano-Lax had 10 years ago: that she wasn't all that well-read. She came up with a plan to focus and organize her reading, to read so as to understand how other writers practice their craft. She also will talk about "reverse engineering," a term she heard former Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference keynote speaker Jeffrey Eugenides use — how you can take a writer's work and figure out how she or he did it.

At 5 p.m. Saturday at Bunnell Street Arts Center, Romano-Lax also does a reading and lecture about "The Detour," a novel set in 1938 Europe as the world was on the cusp of war.

Andromeda Romano-Lax

10 a.m., Saturday

"Memory as Muse," free workshop

11 a.m. Saturday

"Reading Like a Writer," free workshop

Homer Public Library

5 p.m., Saturday

Reading and lecture

Bunnell Street Arts Center

"The Detour" starts with an image and an idea, a classic Roman sculpture, "The Discus Thrower," and Adolf Hitler's obsession in acquiring it from the Italian government in 1938. The Italians weren't willing sellers, and Hitler probably applied some political muscle to get it. Romano-Lax invents a fictional character, Ernst Vogler, an art curator who goes to Rome to pick up the statue and bring it back to Germany.

In a larger context, Hitler and Nazi Germany sought out the world's art as a way to give their government more legitimacy. Eventually the Nazis just outright stole or seized great art as war booty. But why in 1938 did Hitler want this one sculpture? Romano-Lax wrote "The Detour" as a way to figure that out.

"I tend to start with a question, something I'm trying to figure out," she said of her narrative technique.

Romano-Lax said she likes to focus on a footnote in history, even an object, and then find a character off to the side who can observe that moment in history.

"You inhabit the character and inhabit that world and find out all the other things going on," she said.

Her theory about Hitler's obsession with "The Discus Thrower" is that "it matched the perfect body, in the way it matched that Aryan ideal."

There's also symbolism in the sculpture that suggests the time, just a year before the invasion of Poland, Romano-Lax said. It's a frozen posture at the moment before the release of the discus.

"No one has won or lost. No one has been judged. It's the moment of potentiality," she said. "The entire year of 1938 felt like that moment before it happened. Everything is stuck."

Reviews of "The Detour" have been generally good, Romano-Lax said. Readers have commented that they thought it would be something else, a mystery or a thriller, but liked it anyway. Of "The Detour," The Washington Independent Review of Books, wrote, "Ernst's story is an engrossing one. It also serves as a means by which the author demonstrates the insidious role of Nazi culture in ordinary lives... A very satisfying novel."

Some readers have criticized Ernst for not being heroic.

"'We shouldn't reserve any sympathy for average Germans who didn't stand up to the Nazis,'" Romano-Lax said some have told her.

"I tend to be attracted to unlikable characters," she said. "I'm not drawn to writing about a hero who knows from the beginning what he's going to do."

Although "The Detour" is her second published novel, in the five years between it and "The Spanish Bow," Romano-Lax wrote another complete novel and a few partial novels that never got accepted or published. Her agent spiked one novel set in the 1870s about biblical archaeology and the discovery of "The Epic of Gilgamesh." That's OK, though, Romano-Lax said.

"I know there are writers who want just everything out there, and I don't," she said. "I did the first time. Now it's about the writing, the writing and the learning."

With her fourth novel finished, a dark novel she wrote during her MFA workshop, Romano-Lax doesn't even want to talk about that one. It may or may not be her thesis. She's working on a fifth novel set in 1920s Baltimore about two famous psychologists involved in a divorce scandal. Not worrying about publishing has been liberating.

"The more I write, the more I write for myself. I'm writing things I don't need to get published," she said. "I'm not writing because I'm imagining the audience and the audience feedback. I'm writing because I'm interested in the story."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.