What makes New York State worthy material for the writer's imagination? New York State has been fertile ground for the imagination since the early 19th century, capturing the interest of writers as diverse as James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving, Edith Wharton and Walt Whitman, Dorothy Park and J. D. Salinger. As early as 1846, Edgar Allen Poe wrote in an essay called "The Literati of New York" that the state's authors "include perhaps one fourth of all in America, and the influence they exert on their brethren [is]. . .extensive and decisive." Four award-winning writers discuss how they have used the history, landscape, and popular culture of New York as their muse for crafting some of the best contemporary fiction in America.
photo credit: Marion Ettlinger
Russell Banks makes his home in New York's Adirondack mountains. His most recent novel is Cloudsplitter (1998), which People Magazine called "Massive, startlingly vivid, morally and intellectually challenging. . ." Cloudsplitter tells the story of martyred anti-slavery activist John Brown, who lived in North Elba, an historic free Negro community in the Adirondacks. The novels takes it name from New York's highest mountain, Mount Marcy, called "Cloudsplitter" by the native Algonquin. Banks' most recent story collection is The Angel on the Roof (HarperCollins, 2000), which contains 37 years worth of selected stories. The New York Times said, "For all its harshness, The Angle on the Roof is studded with surprising, hard-won acts of tenderness and decency, which feel more like operations of earthly grace than projections of authorial sentiment." Banks has received Guggenheim, Fulbright and NEA fellowships. Two of his novels have been made into films: Affliction (1997), which earned James Coburn the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1999, and The Sweet Heareafter (1997).
photo credit: Joyce Ravid
Novelist and shorty story writer Mary Gordon was born and raised in Long Island City, New York. Her work evokes the Catholic melting pot of New York's outer boroughs as well as the rarefied world of Manhattan academia. Francine du Plessix Gray, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called Gordon, "her generation's preeminent novelist of Roman Catholic mores and manners. . ." Gordon's more recent works include The Shadow Man (1996), a memoir of her self-hating and secretive Jewish father; Spending: A Utopian Divertimento (1998) which follows the adventures of financially independent New York artist and single mother Monica Szabo as she searches for a compatible male companion; and Seeing Through Places: Reflections on Geography and Identity (Scribner, 2000), a close examination of the places that have shaped the author and her fiction, including Long Island City, Columbia University and the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
photo credit: Marion Ettlinger
William Kennedy has described himself as "a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place [Albany, New York], and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs for the life of the soul." Kennedy is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ironweed (1983), and more than a half dozen other novels set in Albany, New York, including The Ink Truck (1969), Legs (1975), Quinn's Book (1988), and The Flaming Corsage (1996). James Atlas said in Vogue magazine, "What James Joyce did for Dublin and Saul Bellow did for Chicago, William Kennedy has done for Albany, New York. . .His cycle of Albany novels is one of the great resurrections of place in our literature." Kennedy is founder and director of the New York State Writers Institute.
photo credit: Jerry Bauer
Meg Wolitzer, an expert social observer, writes about contemporary relationships and city life in Manhattan. Her most recent novel, Surrender, Dorothy (Pocket Books, 2000, ISBN 0-671-04254-8), recounts the experiences of three friends who have shared a house on Long Island's eastern shore every summer since college as they come to terms with the death of a fourth friend, Sara, who has been killed in a car accident. The New York Times reviewer said, "There is an appealing delicacy to Wolitzer's writing and a skillful exploration of the almost invisible neuroses of the people passing through her pages. . .She is a witting and likable writer with a tenderhearted critical awareness of the lighter-than-air quality of her characters." Wolitzer's earlier novels include, Friends for Life (1994), This is My Life (1992), This is Your Life (1988) and Sleepwalking (1982). She is a recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and her short fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories 1998 and The 1999 Pushcart Prize.