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William Kennedy Writes the Next Chapter of the New York State Writers Institute

ALBANY, N.Y. (January 15, 2016) – As William Kennedy prepares to celebrate his 88th birthday on Saturday, he does so with a clear vision for the future of the New York State Writers Institute (NYSWI) in mind.

Kennedy, professor of English and the Institute’s executive director, won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Ironweed, and is the author of eight novels in the Albany Cycle. He is working on a new novel, finished a play six months ago, plus a screenplay for his novel Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, and has a project in the works to adapt Ironweed to the stage.

Among his many creative works was founding the NYSWI, a literary gathering place that has grown into a force that attracts renowned and up-and-coming writers from around the world. More than 1,250 writers – Nobel prize winners, Tony, Oscar, and Pulitzer winners – have graced the University with their presence at NYSWI events, which have long been free and open to the public.

Many years ago, Kennedy offered $75,000 over five years, from his MacArthur Foundation fellowship, to Bob Donovan, chair of the English department under the condition that he use this money to bring in writers and not fix broken sidewalks with it. Vincent O’Leary was president.

“O’Leary thought it was a wonderful idea,” said Kennedy. “He said, ‘Let’s do something grand.’”

O’Leary matched the funds. The first author to visit was Saul Bellow in 1984.

In some ways, the concept of the Institute stems from a party in 1976 when English Department Chair John Gerber asked Kennedy to invite E.L. Doctorow to campus to read from his blockbuster novel Ragtime, and Doctorow, Kennedy’s first editor, accepted. Gerber also asked if Kennedy could give a party at his home for Doctorow and the department. But Gerber could offer only $25 to cover the party’s cost. Kennedy put his head together with Tom Smith, the professor of English who helped develop the Institute (and who read a book a day.)

“We had substantial party know-how,” said Kennedy. “My wife cooked a huge batch of spaghetti and Tom made a tub of punch – vodka and ginger ale. It was a great party, the faculty, my students, a lot of writers and wannabe’s. We emptied the tub.”

Hunter Thompson, another friend, was in Saratoga and came to the party around midnight. He walked in the back door as Doctorow was going out the front door. The party was regenerated and went on until 4 p.m. the following afternoon.

“I’ve come to think of that party as the beginning of the Writers Institute,” said Kennedy. “Doctorow, Thompson, faculty who taught their work, aspiring writers, forty or so people who cared about literature – a casual meeting where people could talk to serious writers, ask questions, and get straight answers.”

In 1984, after Bellow’s visit drew a thousand people and a lot of press coverage, Gov. Mario Cuomo signed legislation creating the new organization as the New York State Writers Institute, and giving the Institute another $100,000. The list of writers of every stripe who have visited in its more than 30 years of existence is staggering -- Seamus Heaney, Frank McCourt, Garrison Keillor, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Margaret Atwood, Russell Banks, William Styron, Studs Terkel, Gregory Maguire, Gloria Steinem, John Updike, John Irving, Bill Bryson, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Edward Albee, Jon Lee Anderson, Stephen Sondheim, Rita Moreno, Harold Bloom, August Wilson, Merchant and Ivory, Maurice Sendak, Toni Morrison, Michio Kaku, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Junot Díaz, Costa Gavras, Isabel Allende, David McCullough, Spike Lee, etc.

Today the Institute continues to benefit the community as well as University at Albany students. The English department sponsors a course in which undergraduates read the work of many of the semester’s visiting writers, and attend the events while the writers are on campus. Acclaimed authors Lydia Davis and James Lasdun offer classes and workshops in fiction writing to the community.

This spring’s roster of visiting writers is an example of the quality literary talent that regularly visits the University at Albany. No fewer than seven Pulitzer Prize winners are scheduled to read: playwright and UAlbany alumnus Stephen Adly Guirgis; novelist Richard Russo; business journalist Charles Duhigg; fiction writer Steven Millhauser; the new New York State poet Yusef Komunyakaa; and non-fiction writer Sheri Fink. Also, Kennedy will give a talk and slideshow on his work.

Despite the University budget cuts of 2008 that took away much of the funding used to attract and host prestigious writers, Kennedy and his lean staff keep finding new ways to forge ahead, and to communicate the best in literature to a public that increasingly looks to its mobile phone for news instead of reading a printed newspaper.

“We will continue all we have ever done in a different way, and we will have a new avenue of communicating to the world,” he said.

Kennedy envisions turning the Institute into a digital operation, giving it a greater presence on the Internet and making use of its treasure trove of tapes of literary giants over the years.

“We have recordings or videos of all these extraordinary figures in literary history,” noted Kennedy, adding 40 to 50 of these conversations with visiting writers are accessible on YouTube.

“The writers want to be where they are appreciated and that has always been a secondary reason for their visiting,” said Kennedy, sporting a dapper suit and subdued gold tie with purple polka dots. “They know we sell a lot of books for them, and reach an articulate and educated audience. Writers often tell us we are one of the best stops they’ve ever made on a book tour.”

Friends of Writing has been formed to raise financial support. And Kennedy recently wrote his first letter to a large audience seeking donors from among the Institute’s supporters in the community. Staff members are building relationships with academic departments to bring in writers who speak to business student about business, and to history students about history.

To make a donation to the New York State Writers Institute in honor of William Kennedy’s birthday and his efforts in transforming the region into a celebratory center for the writing arts, go to: www.albany.edu/giving/nyswi.

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