03 March 2010

Spotlight on . . . Jen Nadol

Welcome to the Literary Road Trip and my Spotlight On . . . Jen Nadol. I am so happy to welcome Jen, Pennsylvania author, to this edition of the LRT project. If you aren't familiar with her novel The Mark, be sure to see my teaser post from yesterday. My review will be coming up sometime in the next few weeks.

Today Jen talks about how a local landmark can lead us to think about the deeper meaning of what we're reading.

What Does It Mean?

In my hometown, Reading, Pennsylvania, there’s a pagoda—a Japanese temple—on the mountain overlooking downtown: the symbol of the city, so say all the websites. Kind of odd since less than 4 percent of the residents claim Asian roots.

What, exactly, does it symbolize?

The Pagoda was built in 1908 by William Witman as a hotel and restaurant. But, after spending $1.3 million on construction, Mr. Witman was denied a liquor license. Which pretty much killed the hotel/restaurant idea. Three years later, the Pagoda was owned by the city.

Mr. Witman spent years as an elected official, a sort of city councilman. When a scandal forced him out of that position, he ran for mayor. Four times. He never won, but eventually reclaimed the city council job he’d been ousted from years before.

His vision for the Pagoda was that it replicate a castle of the Edo period . . . but the details were actually copied from a Japanese tea garden at Coney Island, New York.

So, what does it all mean? Does the Pagoda symbolize foolishness or perseverance or grandeur or a poor-man’s version of it?

I never really got symbolism in literature. Not in the way my teachers made me think I should. The "A" means this and Pearl means that. Okay, once they pointed it out, maybe I could see it. But to me, trying to decode everything in The Scarlet Letter and other classic novels got in the way of the story more than enhanced it.

Then, I took a poetry class in college. And I was kind of blown away when the professor took us line by line through T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Unfolding the deeper meaning transformed the poem. It had been lyrical, but confusing. Now it was a moving and resonant piece. The only problem was that I needed a translator—my professor—to truly enjoy it.

J. Alfred was an eye-opener, but I prefer the straightforward. Which is not to say the simplistic. My novel, The Mark, is direct in tone and character, but the ethical dilemma—If you know today is someone’s last, should you tell them?—is anything but. Just as The Scarlet Letter was thought-provoking, even with the "A" just an adornment and Pearl just a little girl.

As a movement, symbolism had its heyday in the late 1800s. Around the same time William Witman was planning his Pagoda, coincidentally.

Is it still used today? Probably. I’m guessing John Irving’s bears might mean something, but I don’t know what; so, to me, they’re just bears. And that works fine. Maybe they’re just bears to him, too.

One thing I love about books, both as a reader and writer, is how the same words, against the backdrop of our unique views and experiences, speak to each of us a little differently, allowing each person to take away their own version of a story.

I went to a reading a few weeks ago featuring YA authors David Levithan, Libba Bray, and Natalie Standiford. During the Q&A, an audience member asked Libba Bray a question about the meaning of something in Going Bovine.

She said (and I sort of quote): "It means whatever you think it means. If someone read my book—which has no donuts in it—and said they loved what it said about donuts, I’d say 'I’m happy you enjoyed a story about donuts.' "

Great answer. Symbols in literature, classic or modern, mean one thing to me, something different to you, and sometimes, like the Pagoda, there is no deeper meaning at all: the symbol symbolic only because it’s the biggest, reddest thing on the horizon.

At least, that’s how it seems to me.

Thank you, Jen. I think symbolism was one of things that turned me off of literature classes. My eleventh-grade English teacher told us the ants in A Red Badge of Courage symbolized all the many thoughts running through Henry Fleming's mind. Huh? I thought they were just ants.

I haven't see the Pagoda, but I'm going to make of point of taking a side trip the next time I'm in the Reading area.

The Mark at an Indie
The Mark at Powell's
The Mark at Amazon
These 3 links lead to affiliate programs.

For more on Jen Nadol and her debut novel, The Mark, visit her website.

Jen Nad
ol has a BA in literature from American University and currently resides in a 150-year-old farmhouse in Westchester County, New York, with her husband and three young sons. She has no paranormal abilities and is pretty happy about it. The Mark is her first book.

For more posts in the Literary Road Trip project, visit the LRT link page. Thanks to Michelle of GalleySmith for hosting this fabulous project.


Anonymous,  3/9/10, 8:03 AM  

Anastasia said:

What a great post! I agree about needing a translator to find the symbolism in stuff-- I'm nearly done with my English degree and I still can't pick out most of the stuff my professors see. Maybe that's why I'm not going to grad school for English, aha. :D

Also loved the stuff about the pagoda! Quirky history is always interesting, yep.

Bumbles 3/9/10, 8:03 AM  

Excellent Jen! I too love how one set of words can be interpreted so differently. But a lot of times I just want to know what the originator of those words meant by them. That's always the big mystery. One day I would love to hear an author shoot down all those literary theories about their work and explain there is no hidden meaning.

It reminds me of this season in Lost - when Jack asked Dogen what that was he was holding - "It's a baseball." Duh. Jack was so used to looking for the surreal and symbolic in everyday items that he forgot that sometimes things just really are the everyday item. Although then later it was revealed that the baseball had sentimental meaning to Dogen. So then again, that everyday item was transformed in his interpretation. Argh!!!

Violet 3/9/10, 8:04 AM  

I never get symbolism in literature either but you are right when you say each of us takes what we should and thats what makes our reading experiences so different from each other.

S. Krishna 3/9/10, 8:05 AM  

Sometimes I like looking for symbolism in books, but a lot of the time, I feel like the author was just trying to write a story, not be symbolic!

Robin of M.T.B. 3/9/10, 8:06 AM  

I don't generally get the symbolism in literature unless it is pointed out to me, then it makes sense. Great to "meet" you and looking forward to reading "The Mark."

Anonymous,  3/9/10, 8:06 AM  

Jen Nadol said:

I've often thought that, too: that I'd like the author to just come out and explain what they meant, but then I wonder if I'd just wind up disappointed!

Anonymous,  3/9/10, 8:08 AM  

Jen Nadol responds to Robin of M.T.B:

Thanks, Robin!

Julie 3/9/10, 8:11 AM  

Great guest post! My husband is from Reading and I always wondered about that pagoda!

Anonymous,  3/9/10, 8:11 AM  

Jen Nadol responds to Julie:

Funny! Not a big place, I wonder if I know him...
I drove up to the Pagoda last time I was in PA, thinking maybe I'd go in (it's been YEARS) but it was actually being used for a M. Night Shamalyan (sp?) movie shoot. Next time...

Michelle 3/10/10, 7:24 AM  

Jen is my kind of girl! Symbolism was entirely lost on me as well. I also tend to be more of a straight-forward reader so books by straight-forward writers appeal to me so much more than those that hidden meaning I'm meant to puzzle out.

Also, loved her recounting of Libba Bray's comments. It's refreshing to see people embrace the subjectivity that reading truly brings to people's lives.

I'll definitely be adding this book to my TBR!

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