At the History Center Tuesday evening, Marianne Wiggins kept a standing-room-only crowd amused with an energetic talk, mainly about her 2003 novel, Evidence of Things Unseen.
The well-known novelist, who now teaches at USC, has more recent work, but this crowd wanted to hear about Things Unseen, partly because it's one of her best-known novels, and partly because the narrative, an unusual personal perspective on the dawn of the Atomic Age, is set in Knoxville and Oak Ridge. The talk was organized by the Knox County Public Library, which has been focusing on authors with regional connections--even those whose connections are mostly theoretical, like Wiggins, who had never visited Tennessee until this week.
She was charmingly apologetic about the book's minor but sometimes comical geographical inaccuracies, admitting that she wrote it when she lived in London, basing most of her research into the setting on what she found on the Internet. She said her memories of her mother's home in Virginia were to blame for why she described Knoxville's oldest house, Blount Mansion, as a "Greek Revival" house on a hilltop, because that was how she always pictured Southern "mansions."
Wiggins said her intent was to write about one of the 20th century's most dramatic stories, that of the development of the atomic bomb. Knoxville, with its associations with TVA and Oak Ridge, became a "nexus" of American history and a "central engine" for her narrative, which spans the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. After outlining several errors, she admitted, in a tone of wry understatement, "I have to say I think I would have profited from a visit here."
A question about changes in media prompted her to consider the strengths and weaknesses of online publishing. She prefers print, she said, because she prefers to be paid for her work, but sees potential in the uninhibited nature of the Internet.
"This is a moral issue for me," she said, talking about freedom of speech. "I was married to Salman Rushdie during the fatwa." The intake of dozens of breaths suggested that perhaps many in the audience didn't know that fact, but she was. When the novelist of Satanic Verses was marked for death by Ayatollah Khomeni, he and Wiggins were newlyweds. Their marriage lasted five years, almost all of it in hiding, much of it spent in a house in Wales, accompanied by four British-government bodyguards. She lived in Britain for 15 years in all, and retains some British vowels in her unusual accent.
She prefers to be known as a novelist than as Salman Rushdie's ex-wife, though, and seems to be succeeding at that. By the end of her talk, though, the audience seemed to like her more than they would have if she had been merely accurate in her portrayal of Knoxville. They bought about 75 of her books. She spent an hour cheerfully signing them.
Wiggins wasn't the only writer in Knoxville this week who's had encountered difficulties with the Iranian government. Berlin journalist Henryk Broder spent two nights at the Oliver. The controversial author is one of Europe's most outspoken voices against Islamic extremism, and for stronger action against Iran's Ahmadinejad. He was in Knoxville, partly just because it was between Emory University, where he gave a lecture, and Charlottesville, where he was visiting friends. Though most of his writing is political, he occasionally takes a break to write a travel piece, and he was doing that here, writing a travel story about Knoxville for the German daily Die Welt. Watch for it in February. It will be in German.
We're not sure what he'll say. He seemed interested in much of what he saw here, enjoyed his stay at the Oliver Hotel and especially relished a reuben at Pete's. He visited Union Avenue Books and the Sunsphere, and seemed especially fascinated with the Bijou Theatre and the visually eclectic 100 block of Gay. But walking down Church Avenue, he remarked, "What is the problem with American cities? There are some very nice parts, and then there are these deserts." He was gesturing at a large surface parking lot. "Why do Americans use so much of their cities just to park their cars?"