Volume 12, Number 1
- Jane Hamilton: When Madeline Was Young by Charmaine Cadeau
- Jane Hamilton: An Interview with Jane Hamilton, by
- Richard Russo Writers Institute Appearance 10/19/2001, Evening Reading
- Richard Russo: Russo Returns to Upstate Pride and Paradox, by
- Jane Hamilton: Everyday Epics, for Best-selling Author Jane Hamilton, Home is Where the Novel is, by Colleen Sentar
- Elizabeth Wong: Serious Comedy, by Charmaine Cadeau
- Andrea Barrett: New Novel a Return of Sorts to Mountain Air, by Paul Grondahl, Staff Writer, Albany Times Union
- Tom Perrotta: Author's Writing Life Plotted by Novel Twists, by Paul Grondahl, Staff Writer, Albany Times Union
- Tom Perrotta: An Interview with Tom Perrotta, by
- Good Fences Make Good Neighbors by Kathyrn Lange
Jane Hamilton: When Madeline Was Young
By Charmaine Cadeau
The humanist William Hazlitt writes, “Grace is the absence of
everything that indicates pain or difficulty, hesitation or incongruity.” Jane
Hamilton's fifth book argues for the triumph of grace in a small family's
response to a past tragedy.
Hamilton's captivating novel, When Madeline Was Young, chronicles
the lives of the Maciver family from the 1950s to the present day. Renee
Graham from the Boston Globe writes, “...it's a quiet
novel more given to gentle realizations than shattering epiphanies.” Carrie
Brown, a reviewer for the Washington Post, similarly discovers “...in
the apparently flat line of a good life a vital and absorbing human drama.” A
departure from the heart-wrenching plots in Hamilton's bestselling novels The
Book of Ruth and A Map of the World, this latest
book is closest to the theme of the strength of family offered in her
fourth novel, Disobedience.
When Madeline Was Young takes us within an ordinary domestic
family landscape where the extraordinary capacity for altruism becomes
the means for healing discord. Using the Macivers as a microcosm,
Hamilton questions our assumptions about impasse in mainstream American
culture; she creates unity between caregivers and their charges, wives
in the aftermath of divorce, and left- and right-wing politics from Vietnam
to Iraq. Told from the point of view of the middle-aged Timothy “Mac” Maciver
who is busy raising his own children, the book offers a reflection on
his experience growing up in an atypical family.
The novel begins with the young Mac's discovery that Madeline, who he
believes is his older sister, is in fact his father's first wife. Madeline,
after suffering from irreparable brain damage incurred during a bicycling
trip early on in her marriage, is left with the cognitive ability of
a young child. She remains under her husband's care even after
he marries her nurse, Julia. The matriarch in the Maciver family, Julia,
devotes her life to the care of Madeline along with her own children,
Mac and Louise. Mac recollects that his “parents had absorbed
Madeline's tragedy into everyday life so seamlessly it was unimportant
to dwell on the circumstances” (Hamilton 12).
“Hardly the stuff of soap opera” (12) from Mac's perspective,
his awareness of the complexities of his family is broadened through
the challenging points of view posed by his cousin Buddy and Aunt Figgy. These
characters complicate the goodness of the Macivers, and the naiveté of
Mac and Louise. Buddy and Figgy's voices lend dimension to Hamilton's
key themes of infantilizing the sick, the difference between servitude
and service, and the sometimes misguided drive to protect others. The
worldly Buddy, for example, a natural leader within his peer group, is
given access to the secrets of adults, fights bullies, and eventually
becomes an officer in the army. Mac, on the other hand, is gentle
yet sheltered, having little apprehension of the darker side of the human
spirit. This impacts his ability to sense danger, and perhaps to
fully understand the motivations of his parents in caring for Madeline,
the issue that drives the plot.
Rather than probing into Mac's motivations for delving into his parents'
hearts, the limitations of perspective and memory are front and center
in When Madeline Was Young. The narrative point of view
is impeded by the novel's vast number of secrets, the title character's
memory loss, uncertainties that can never be settled, and competing versions
of events. Mac's narrative suggests that assembling the facts of
his family's history is less important than the cumulative effect of
the climate in which he was raised.
Nonetheless, family experience doesn't establish the course of one's
life. Hamilton forges space for chance, choice, and accident. One
of the mechanisms that highlights this is her use of doubles to highlight
contrast: between Madeline and Julia Maciver as types of wives, Figgy
and Julia as mothers, and Buddy and Mac as young men. The most engaging
pairing is Madeline coupled with Mikey O'Day. Madeline and Mikey's
relationship most poignantly draws our attention to issues surrounding
the nature of love— to what extent are the relationships between
other people ever really knowable?
Hamilton's body of work looks at the nexus of courage and responsibility
in the space of familial and romantic love. The privacy of those
her narrators observe is less important than the intervention of outsiders
in plots where foresight leads to saving grace. Like When Madeline
Was Young, The Book of Ruth (1988) also interrogates the
function of love between two characters that seem strikingly unaware
of the potential consequences of their union. Although some of
Ruth's family members have reservations about her marriage to Ruby, their
concerns are unspoken, the results tragic. Hamilton continues to
explore the trope of consequence in A Map of the World (1994),
where locating blame in the aftermath of catastrophe is problematic;
while the central character Alice is babysitting, a child accidentally
drowns. The novel fluctuates between Alice's guilt and the potential
for salvation. Her third book, The Short History of a Prince (1998),
departs from the heady rural dramas of the first two books, offering
instead a subtle love story of a former dancer, Walter. Disobedience (2000)
explores clandestine romance as a teenage boy grapples with his discovery
of his mother's affair.
Hamilton's The Book of Ruth notably won the PEN/Hemingway Award
for First Fiction. A Map of the World received the New York
Times Notable Book of the Year Award. With The Short History
of a Prince, Hamilton earned the Publishers Weekly Best
Book citation, the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, and a nomination
for the Orange Prize. One of Oprah's Book Club authors, Hamilton is adept
at exploring forgiveness from a range of perspectives; When Madeline
Was Young demonstrates her breadth of vision and adroitness as a
Charmaine Cadeau is a doctoral student in the University at Albany’s
English Department and a graduate assistant at the Writers Institute.
An Interview with Jane Hamilton
Reprinted with permission from The Sunday Gazette, September 16, 2007
was during Jane Hamilton’s sophomore year at Carleton College in
Northfield, Minnesota, and she was in a campus store to buy a pack of
Doublemint gum, when she overheard her poetry professor, Keith Harrison,
say that she would one day write a novel.
the time I had only written two short stories for his class,” she said
in a recent phone interview from her home in Wisconsin, “and the real
potency of what he said was that it was not said to me. I had overheard
it. It would not have had the same power if he had said it directly to
day Jane Hamilton has gone on to become a major contemporary fiction writer
with five highly-acclaimed novels. ‘The Book of Ruth’(1988)
was the winner of the PEN/Hemmingway Award for First Fiction, and her most
recent book ‘When Madeline was Young,’ (2006) has just been released
in paperback. She will read from the book on Tuesday at 8 p.m. at Page
Hall at the University at Albany’s downtown campus as part of the New
York State Writers Institute series.
my professor say that had a real impact on me,” she said. “It
helped in those early years when I was struggling as a writer and getting rejected.”
also had another teacher at the same time who silenced her. “I
must give him equal credit,” she said. “He made all of us
in the class feel stupid, so I sort of went underground and was smart to myself. I
did my own writing and didn’t show anyone especially him. The lesson
I learned from that teacher was that ultimately I really should only write
that writing has always been a difficult process for her. “The
first draft of every book is never fun for me,” said Hamilton. “That’s
when I try to give the story some sort of shape. I always have a certain
fear that I won’t get to the end of the story and after all that work
there will be nothing to show of it.”
happen to her once right around September 11th of 2001. “I had
been working on a book for four years,” said Hamilton, “and after
911 happened it just seemed so frivolous to be writing a family drama set in
a small town. So I just threw the book away. It was actually
For a few
months Hamilton did no writing at all. “A certain amount of time
had passed since 911,” she said, “and as a nation we were released
back in to some sort of normalcy. That’s when I began to think
of writing again, and I wanted to find some way to write about war.”
feels our current war has many similarities to the Vietnam War, And the
Madeline book felt more germaine than the novel I had thrown out.”
Madeline was Young’ is the tale of a newly married woman who is brain-damaged
in a cycling accident, and who is ultimately taken care of and treated as the
child of her husband and his second wife.
got the idea of writing this story after seeing Adam Guettel’s musical ‘The
Light in the Piazza,’ based on the novella written by Elizabeth Spencer,” said
Hamilton. “I read the novella, and I couldn’t stop thinking
about this brain damaged American woman married to the Italian from Florence. My
novel grew from Spencer’s story.”
also wanted to write a story filled with characters who are good people. “After
reading ‘The Corrections,’ I felt that Jonathan Franzen had
now written the last word on family dysfunction,” she said. “The
Macivers are very good people through and through, very giving, but I also
loved the character of Aunt Figgy who was always so skeptical that anyone could
ever be so inherently good.”
also gave her a forum to write about war and politics. “I loved
writing those family discussions about such meaty issues,” said Hamilton. “It
allowed me to sort through some of my own feelings, but now I’m writing
something short, just a piece of fluff, and I’m having a great time.”
she began as a short story writer her forte now seems to be writing novels. “Every
now and then I kick out a short story,” said Hamilton, “but most
of them are not fully-fledged stories. I often take parts of them and
use them in novels.”
the breadth and depth of novels, but she’s worried about the future of
the novel since very few people are reading them today. “I went
to a bookstore recently and felt it was my responsibility to buy every single
novel there,” laughed Hamilton. “Since the novel came along
people have been predicting its death, but it just keeps on going.”
to beginning writers is to read Francine Prose’s book on reading and
writing. “That book is filled with everything a beginning writer
needs to know,” said Hamilton, who also believes writers should only
write for themselves, “…and they should never tell anyone specifically
what they’re writing. It puts too much pressure on you.”
Jack Rightmyer is a staff writer for The Gazette Newspapers.
Richard Russo Writers Institute Appearance 10/19/2001 Evening Reading
Edward Schwarzschild: It’s a pleasure to be here, and it’s
a pleasure to be working at the Institute and the University. I’m
excited to be here this afternoon introducing today’s guest. One
story I’ve come across about Richard Russo is that a few years
back, not all that long ago, he was in graduate school working on a Ph.D.
in English at the University of Arizona. His doctoral dissertation was
on the early American novelist Charles Brockden Brown. I don’t
want to disparage Brockden Brown’s work. He’s the author
of such classics as Wieland and there is certainly much interest
in books like that. In Wieland for instance, there is a father
who dies apparently of spontaneous combustion, and there is also an incredibly
wily ventriloquist who lurks around fulminating evil from the shadows.
Yet, it’s still not surprising to me that Richard Russo one day
looked up from his research long enough to realize that the graduate
students in creative writing were having a lot more fun than he was;
it seems at that point we lost a Charles Brockden Brown scholar, but
gained a novelist. That’s a career change we should all be thankful
for. It’s a career change that has given us five wonderful novels: Mohawk, The
Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool, Straight Man,
and most recently Empire Falls.
Russo has also been working in Hollywood lately on a screen adaptation
of Nobody’s Fool and on a screenplay for another Paul
Newman film, Twilight. The adaptation for Nobody’s
Fool was nominated for an Oscar. His work has been celebrated as
brilliant, comic, and wise, full of passion, haunting power, and insidious
charm. His novels have all of that and more. Russo himself is probably
the most incisive reader of his work, and he got to its center, I think,
when he said, “I want that which is hilarious and that which is
heartbreaking to occupy the same territory. Because I think they very
often occupy the same territory in life, much as we try to separate them.”
Russo escaped the world of Brockden Brown, but he has done his time in
academia; most recently he was a professor at Colby College, and he definitely
knows the world of colleges and universities as the laugh-out-loud-funny Straight
Man makes abundantly clear. If you haven’t read that book
you have a treat in store for you. More than that though, Russo seems
to have a keen understanding and appreciation of the act of learning.
In a recent commencement address he told the graduates that education
is like “entering a witness protection program, you come out a
different person with a different identity, and that’s all part
of the American dream.” Much the same can be said of the experience
of reading a Russo novel, except I would change the word “different” to “better.” We
come away from places like Mohawk, and Railton, and Empire Falls as better
With each novel we are offered a few hundred pages of Russo’s protection.
We get to spend time with the likes of Miles and Max, Tick and Janine,
and The Silver Fox, and we can’t help but emerge from their world
as fuller, wiser, and more hopeful human beings. In the end what strikes
me as most hopeful in Russo’s world is how individuals can be saved
by being known, by letting themselves be known, and by trying with all
their hearts to know others. That’s not to say that dreams aren’t
often dashed as Russo shows even the simplest ones are extremely difficult
to achieve. What we have can be taken away, what we desire can be denied
us over and over again. Miles Roby learns this and much more in Empire
Falls, but he also learns how we can be saved and made strong by
someone who knows us; who can call our name with love and compassion,
and remind us where we are. Maybe that’s a Brockden Brown legacy,
some form of ventriloquism, but not at all evil. Richard Russo knows
the voices that we need to hear in this world, and we’re incredibly
fortunate that he continues to share his talent and skill with us. I
am pleased to introduce Richard Russo.
Russo: Thank you. The truly chilling Charles Brockden Brown moment in
my life was at a MLA convention. I had gone to a job interview, I believe
I had perhaps one job interview that year, not more than two, I never
had more than two. I was just finishing up with my Ph.D. and I was interviewing
at one of the California colleges, and I don’t think I realized
that at least two of the MLA charter flights would have had to have crashed
on the way home in order for me to get this job. But at any rate, I was
sitting across the room from a senior professor who had read one of the
chapters of my dissertation and said, “well, if you get this job
we want you to know that you will be our man on Charles Brockden
Brown.” That’s how writers are born.
(Russo reads from Empire Falls).
Donald Faulkner: I’ll try to field questions for Richard here,
although I’ll probably end up being redundant. Thank you for such
a great reading that was wonderful. Ok, questions, comments, incantations,
personal thank yous?
Question: What is the difference between mill towns in upstate NY and
mill towns in Maine?
Russo: Precious little. One of the things that I’ve noted in living
in Maine is that towns like Empire Falls, people are always asking me “where
is Empire Falls really?” and I say “pick a town in Maine
that’s inland 30 miles anywhere and you’d have a pretty good
model for Empire Falls.” The thing that’s a little bit different,
I think, between mill towns in for instance the Mohawk Valley region
that I have written about in some length, and also in central Pennsylvania,
and a lot of mill towns in Maine is that a lot of the mill towns in Maine
are geographically closer to prosperity than some of the towns in the
Mohawk Valley region and central Pennsylvania where I placed Railton.
There is a good deal of wealth in Maine, but it’s along a very
narrow strip that extends about five miles, at the most, inland from
the coast all the way up. Once you get much farther inland than that
you can just see the economy begin to die. But people in those mill towns
in Maine seem to be aware that prosperity is so close. People who live
in those towns are able to drive within half an hour and see people from
Massachusetts, and Connecticut, and people with wonderful summer homes
up and down the coast of Maine. It’s all very present. In my novel Nobody’s
Fool I had a situation in which I had a town like Ballston Spa,
and a town like Saratoga Springs to contrast that; the unlucky town with
the lucky town. That’s very much this kind of situation in Maine.
There’s a lot of poverty there, but it’s really cheek-by-jowl
with a lot of prosperity but it’s just all connected to the water
in some way.
Question: Do you use Sacred Heart Church as a model for churches in
Russo: Well, Sacred Heart Church has a very deep connection to my psyche;
having been an altar boy there for so many years. It is still in some
ways in my mind the church, and when I write about Catholicism
as I do from time to time even in this most recent book Empire Falls,
that’s kind of always the church that’s in the back of my
mind I suppose. Sometimes I’ll describe it in a way like I did
in The Risk Pool that’s fairly close to Sacred Heart Church,
and sometimes, as in Empire Falls, I’ll change the physical
attributes of it, but very often in my mind that’s kind of what
I’m thinking about. Sometimes in this book for instance, in Empire
Falls, the town of Empire Falls is kind of rescued in at least a
small way at the end of the novel, I don’t think I am ruining anything
for any of you who might not have read this book yet. There is a kind
of renaissance at the end of this book that takes place in the town,
a kind of rescue that’s effected. I had a chance to make use of
things that I’ve seen happen in various other places: a mill that
gets converted into a brew pub, a church, Saint Catherine’s in Empire
Falls gets converted into a series of condos; we’ve just seen
those things happening. There are things that a writer who is keeping
his eye open just sees and stores and at some point or another finds
a use for.
Question: Did you easily make the transition from growing up in a small
town to moving to a large city?
Russo: No, with great difficulty actually I think. I still live in a
small town. I still love small towns. I was talking about this last night,
for a while when I was in college and I was returning home to Gloversville,
New York for the summer I would usually be working with my father in
one way or another. Sometimes doing road construction, sometimes tending
bar, whatever it was to do. I became most aware then of the fact that,
of something like the witness protection program, I became very aware
of living in both worlds, and ironically, really not belonging to either.
When I went off to school I learned that my language had to change; the
language of the classroom was not the same as the language of Nick’s
Tavern in downtown Gloversville. I would have to change my language in
order to speak to people, and of course when you change your language,
you change to a certain extent your identity. It’s not just a tool.
It changes who you are to a degree. What I wouldn’t have suspected
at the time was that the opposite was also true. After spending a year
in the academy, learning how to talk the way people talk in the academy,
then to return home to do the kinds of work that I was doing in the summer,
required me to once again learn a different language. The language I
was speaking at the University of Arizona would have been, and was, greeted
with great derision in the bars and on the roads. What I had a deep sense
of was being I suppose a hypocrite in both worlds, and of really belonging
to neither. It has however, been the best thing that could possibly have
happened to me as a writer because (my summer employment) these are the
people who continue to challenge my imagination, to be the people that
I care most about. Learning to live in both worlds has allowed me to
enter that one, I think ultimately, a little bit more deeply.
So, the transition was difficult for a while, but certainly worth it,
at least to my way of thinking. It must be; I keep coming back to it.
Question: Did you have fun writing about academia in Straight Man,
and what did you think the reactions of professors would be?
Russo: I had a ball, as I hope you can tell from reading that book.
That’s the book of mine that was most a lark. I had a wonderful
time from start to finish writing that book. It has some dark undercurrents
to it; it’s a book that is at least as much about middle age as
it is about the academy, but I did have a ball. I had labored in the
academy for a long time, and I had lots of stories; I think I used maybe
five percent of my academic stories in that novel. What was really surprising
about it was the reaction to it because I thought when I was writing
that book that I was burning bridges. I thought in a strange way that
once this book came out I would never again be welcome on any university
campus, anywhere. Immediately after it was published I started getting
more invitations then I had ever had before to speak in colleges and
universities. I discovered that it wasn’t even people in other
departments who wanted to bring me there to make fun of the English department;
even that I could have understood. But actually it was the English department,
in most cases, that wanted me to come and speak to them, and in some
way I must have validated some experience, or some frustration, or something.
So it’s a book that has found a home in the academy. The only thing
I can say is that almost everybody in every English department I have
ever visited since that book came out have told me how much they love
that book, and how much they recognize their colleagues in it. I’ve
never heard anyone say yet that they’ve recognized themselves.
Question: I have teenage daughters and your portrayal of that age is
so real, how did that come about in your writing? Do you have any advice
on how they can better get through that time in their lives?
Russo: I’m so sorry (laughter), it’s a tough age. The only
thing I can say is that you do get through it somehow. I shamelessly
used their (my daughters) high school experiences, at least as a jumping
off point. My daughter Kate as a matter of fact, who is now a college
sophomore, was coming home from high school and I knew she was unhappy
in this school. My older daughter Emily had a wonderful high school experience
with great friends. I knew that Katie was unhappy in school and she would
come home, and for a long time I was asking her, “What’s
going on in school?” and she would be reluctant to say much about
it. But she started talking to me one night about this one girl in her
class, and after dinner I said “come on” and we went into
the den where I write, and I would ask “what was that one sentence
you told me about this girl?” She said, “well . . .” and
told me something and I typed it out. I started asking her questions,
and in about 15 minutes we had a short paragraph about this girl. The
next night as we were having dinner I said the same thing, “let’s
go in and tell a couple more lies about this character” who ultimately
turned out to be Candice in Empire Falls. So, we went back and
we wrote a little bit more, and we added a little dialogue, and we got
a little bit of a scene going. This went on for about a week, and by
the second week she was saying “let’s go in and
write a little bit about Candice tonight.” For quite a while we
continued to just write, and sometimes we would use what had happened
that day, sometimes we would invent something completely that seemed
to fit Candice’s character, and it went on for a long time. She
survived, that’s the end of that story. Sooner or later you look
up and they’re in college, and generally that’s a better
Question: Max Roby is a character that no one will ever forget. Is he
based on people you knew, or is he an original creation?
Russo: I don’t think there is any such thing as an “original
creation.” What people have said, which I think is true, is if
you start at the beginning of my work each of my books has had at least
one kind of rogue male in there. Starting off with Dallas Younger in Mohawk,
and Sam in The Risk Pool, and Sully in Nobody’s Fool.
I guess Straight Man kind of skips that. But I think Max is
a little bit older, and a little bit less charming, although he is a
pretty charming character, more so than some of those earlier freedom
loving rogue males that have found there way in one fashion or another
in Russo fiction. They derive from a lot of things from my own personal
experience. We’ll leave it at that (laughter).
Question: Do you have an idea of where the book is going to end, or
do you let the characters guide you as you write?
Russo: I will sometimes have a vague notion of where I might be headed,
but since I’m as often wrong as right, especially at the beginning.
I think that my books tend to be long; I’m not smart enough to
figure them out whole, so I try to entertain myself as I’m writing.
I like to write books in the same way that I read them in order to find
out what’s going to happen, and as long as my characters are entertaining
me I try to follow their lead as much as possible. This novel for instance,
the first chapter of this novel did not get written until I was about
two thirds of the way through the book; that is the prologue in which
C.B. Whiting decides to go to war with God. That was written very late,
and it was only when I wrote that chapter (the beginning chapter), that
it suddenly dawned on me where I might be headed at the end. So, that
was about two thirds of the way through the book where I discovered both
my beginning and my ending; that’s not atypical for me at all.
John Irving always said, “what kind of an idiot would begin a long
journey without knowing where he was headed.” John Irving I think
probably is capable of visualizing his novels whole before he
writes the first word, but not I.
Question: Do you have any advice for those of us raising children? And
do you feel that you have improved as a writer over the years?
Russo: We have very good friends of ours who come to ask us advice because
they have younger children, and they’re always asking us advice. “What
did you do?” “How did you handle this?” and all that.
We say, “we don’t remember, it was just too awful, we’ve
repressed it.” What was your first question again?
Question: Do you feel that you have improved as a writer over the years?
Russo: Well, you assume something not in evidence. You ask, how have
I gotten better as a writer? I’m not sure that I have. I like to
think that I’ve learned a few tricks over the years. The Risk
Pool still has a real place in my heart. It was written when my
father was dying, and it has a deep emotional connection to me still.
This book does too, partly because of things we’ve been talking
about. This book is born of a father’s fear and it will always
be a book in which I think of my daughters at a certain time in their
life. So it’s got a real rich emotional connection to it. Unlike The
Risk Pool, this is a book that strikes me as one with a much larger
social context for the events to take place within. It’s a novel
that deals with several different generations of a couple of families.
The past is as important as the present. I had to do an awful lot more
research for it because there was an awful lot more that I didn’t
know that I had to know; I had to read a lot of geology about rivers
and how their courses might be altered and that sort of thing. There
was just a lot that I didn’t know. This book seems to me to be
probably a book that I wouldn’t have known how to write earlier,
because it was just in some way bigger than I would have known how to
tackle earlier. So, maybe that means that something has happened throughout
the course of that. There’s a wonderful book about art that has
most of what you’d need to know about art in it; The Horse’s
Mouth, about a painter named Gully Jimson, who at the beginning
of the beginning of the book is painting wonderful paintings that are
hanging on peoples walls. By the end of the book he’s an old man.
By the end of the book he’s contemplating the sides of battleships
for his canvases, and I feel a little bit like Gully at times, because
it feels to me like my books are just getting bigger, and bigger.
Question: I have heard rumors that there is talk about another film
project with Robert Benton in the works?
Russo: Well, we are in negotiations right now with Paramount to do Empire
Falls, and Robert Benton is in negotiations to direct. Benton
and I have become very good friends. We did Nobody’s Fool together
of course, and then Twilight also together. It’s been
some years now that we’ve been looking for another project to
do together, and we’ve got this and one other that we’re
going to be working on together. Not many writers have been as fortunate
as I have. As a matter of fact, I was going to say there’s one
other writer in the room who has been pretty fortunate here tonight,
but then it occurred to me Mr. Kennedy that I don’t know how
fortunate you feel about Ironweed (laughter). I liked it.
Russell Banks I think has been fortunate, but for the most part there
are very few writers who have been treated anywhere near as well as
I have with that movie, Nobody’s Fool. I thought it
was just marvelous.
Question: I represent a Public Library in the Finger Lakes Region and
wanted to tell you that all of your books are local favorites.
Russo: Thank you.
Question: Would you consider writing about the phenomenon of small towns
being overrun by “trophy homes?”
Russo: Well, the quick answer is yes of course, because what I write
about more than anything else, people always talk about me as a writer
of place. What I am more than anything else is a writer of class, and
really that’s what you’re talking about there. So, in one
fashion or another, I suspect I will be up your way soon.
Question: Did you intentionally want to leave the parentage of David
Russo: Several people have asked me that, and the quick answer to that
I think is no. If it gets paid off; I’m not sure that that ever
gets paid off actually. Readers tend to think about David’s parentage
because the timing is such that you wonder who David’s father might
actually be. If there’s any payoff to that in the novel it’s
that phone call between Miles and his father in which Miles says to him, “you’re
pretty confident for a man who was gone all the time,” and Max
says to him, “is Tick yours?” And Miles knows that it is.
So, the same thing applies to Max, he knows that David is his son. I
agree with you that the timing is such that it seems almost an invitation
to wonder if he might be Charlie Whiting’s. It’s probably
regrettable actually. I regret it as I discuss it (laugher).
Question: What books, or authors, have influenced you most as a writer?
Russo: The most important books for me before I was a writer, that I
now realize as a kind of mid-career writer were important to me were
first and foremost Dickens, because of those great big canvases and the
importance he placed on minor characters. I think that influence in my
work is pretty clear. Then that group of twentieth century and nineteenth
century realists. Twain is very important to me for the way he undermines
conventional morality, it’s very important to me, certainly in Huck
Finn. Steinbeck is important to me. It was Cannery Row that
taught me to write from an omniscient point of view, which is now, kind
of my default mode in writing a novel. Willa Cather, and of course F.
Scott Fitzgerald and The American Dream is certainly something
that I think was formative in my reading, and finds its way into my writing.
Hemingway too, but a little bit less so. Those are the big guys.
Question: Did writing Mohawk and The Risk Pool help
you come to grips with growing up here?
Russo: I would rephrase the question, and just tell you a short story.
The first novel that I wrote, which was blessedly unpublished, was a
story that was set in Tucson, Arizona, where I was doing my Ph.D. and
MFA work at the time. It was set in Tucson in the present, and it was
about a fairly elderly woman. I gave it to my mentor to read, and what
he said to me was exactly what I did not want to hear. He said there
was really only one brief, about forty page, section of this novel that
really came to life. It was a flashback that was told about this mill
town in upstate New York. As for the rest of it he said, “Number
one, you write about Tucson like you’re a tourist there,” which
of course I was, and he said, “This woman’s life was really
interesting back when she was living in this other place,” and
maybe that’s where the novel really was. He was right, because
that town was Mohawk, and that character was Anne Grouse as
a younger woman. I think what those books did was to tell me, in some
fairly fundamental way, who I am as an artist. Which may or may not have
anything to do with coming to terms with growing up in Gloversville.
Thank you all so much. Thank you.
(Transcribed by John McDonald 09/21/2007)
Russo Returns to Upstate Pride and Paradox, by
Reprinted with permission from the Albany Times Union, September 30, 2007
Richard Russo returned to his hometown of Gloversville recently for
the first time in several years.
He drove from his home in Maine to join relatives at a family gathering to commemorate
the life of his mother, who died a few months ago. Any time he passes through
those parts, he can't help himself from making a detour past Thruway Exits 23
"There's a lot of Russo sweat in those exits," recalls the 58-year-old,
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, who has set three of his seven novels in a fictional
upstate town not unlike Gloversville.
As a college student, Russo returned home from studying American literature at
the University of Arizona and spent summers toiling at the back-breaking work
of highway construction in the Capital Region. It turned out to be sweet labor
for Russo, who was reunited with his estranged father on the Thruway crew.
Jim Russo was a skilled glove cutter in the leather factories of Gloversville,
like his father before him. Then Russo's dad was laid off, drank too much, split
with his wife and lost contact with his family. He roamed the country, making
a living on road crews.
Father and son repaired their strained relationship some while carving out highway
ramps, but so much went unsaid that it wasn't until he published "The Risk
Pool" in 1988 that the author worked out on the page some of his complex
feelings about his father -- who died of lung cancer while Russo was writing
"My dad took pride in road work and always liked to talk about how much
sweat we put into those Thruway exits," Russo recalled. "That pride
and self-respect lifted him. I worry that we've lost that in America. We've outsourced
the jobs, and we've also lost the pride and self-respect that went with making
Richard Russo has been called the poet laureate of blue-collar America. His big,
open-hearted, old-fashioned narratives have been compared to the finest storytellers
in the rich vein of American realism: John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis,
After leaving upstate New York behind in his last three fictional works, Russo
returns to familiar terrain in "Bridge of Sighs," his most ambitious
novel to date.
The name he gives the place this time is Thomaston, N.Y., although Russo describes
it in ways similar to Mohawk, the thinly veiled Gloversville where he set previous
Russo writes of Thomaston: "Some have suggested that the owners of the old
tannery, having exterminated everything in a living stream and poisoned the people
along its banks, should all be behind bars, and they may be right, but it's worth
remembering that this same tannery sustained our lives for more than a century,
that the very dyes that had caused the Cayoga to run red every fourth or fifth
day also put bread and meat on our tables."
It's that fundamental paradox in the rise and fall of the American manufacturing
empire that Russo plumbs with rare grace and deep pathos.
In his latest novel, Russo writes from the perspectives of three main
characters who form an unrequited romantic triangle across a span of
50 years, multiple generations, and intertwined lives between Thomaston
and Venice, Italy.
Russo chose Venice for good reason. Like the novel's principal narrator, Lou
C. Lynch (nicknamed "Lucy"), Russo is a homebody who prefers not to
"My wife dragged me kicking and screaming to Venice eight years ago, and
I fell in love with the great food, the labyrinthine canals, the lack of cars," he
said. "I decided I've got to set a story there."
Venice's watery milieu of canals and lagoons gave Russo the thematic connection
he wanted in a novel that spans the Atlantic.
"There's a rich history of Venetian waters being suspected of polluting
the populace," Russo said.
"I also didn't want the story to feel so narrow and claustrophobic of being
only set in Thomaston, so I moved it halfway across the world, so I could explore
that theme of a kid who leaves Thomaston and a kid who stays," he said.
Russo dedicates "Bridge of Sighs" to Gary Fisketjon,
his editor at Knopf for Russo's last three books. Fisketjon gave Russo his break
by publishing Russo's first novel, "Mohawk," in 1986 and then moved
to a different publishing house. David Rosenthal edited the next three Russo
novels before the author and Fisketjon were united.
"I've been fortunate to have worked with two of the best editors in New
York," said Russo, who spoke by phone from a hotel in New York one day last
week at the start of a book promotion tour that will bring him to the New York
State Writers Institute's visiting writers series at the University at Albany
"Gary is a wonderful line editor, and we work on a book sentence by sentence.
He's one of the few editors left who's so hands-on," Russo said. "He
helped me trim the manuscript and make it stronger."
Returning to Gloversville in person as he's done to speak at a high school commencement
or to join a fundraising drive to save the local library is an unsettling experience
for the author. There's no resemblance to the place he's visited so fully in
his fictional imagination.
"I've told a different set of lies in every book about my hometown and embellished
it and re-arranged the geography and history so much that I feel a strange dislocation
when I go back," he said. "I see ghosts when I return, and it's a little
On the screen
Russo alternates novel writing with work as a screenwriter. He's
written a half-dozen screenplays, including "The Ice Harvest" and an
adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Empire Falls." Billy Bob
Thornton is scheduled to star in and direct "Citizen Vince," Russo's
latest screenwriting project. He's also got two others on the shelf awaiting
a green light.
Russo recently formed a production company, so he can option books he hopes to
adapt for the big screen.
"Hollywood is producing mostly action movies and comic books nowadays, and
there's not an awful lot of good work coming out of the studios," he said.
"I haven't done a movie yet that was a bad experience, but it makes more
sense at this point to try to generate my own projects that interest me," he
said. "Screenplays are still fun for me because it's mostly dialogue, it's
easy for me and it's kind of a lark. Writing novels is lonely work and screenwriting
is collaborative, which makes me more social."
Writing screenplays also leaves him hungry to get back to the long form of the
novel. "I can open up my writer's toolbox and use all the tools on a novel," he
said. "I can be digressive and expansive and self-indulgent. Screenplays
are small and spare, but novels are a big, broad canvas where I can blow the
Up in Maine
Russo lives in Camden, Maine, a polished and upscale coastal town. He walks downtown
and writes most mornings at cafes. Locals call him Rick. He and his wife, Barbara,
have been married for 35 years. She's a Realtor and is active in civic work,
including serving on the board of trustees of a nonprofit alternative high school
They have two grown daughters: Emily, who is events manager at the Odyssey Bookshop
in Hadley, Mass., and Kate, a painter finishing an MFA at the Slade School of
Fine Art in London. Both will be getting married in the upcoming year.
As he sets off to promote "Bridge of Sighs," Russo's friends have choice
words for him.
"This had better be a big book, Rick," say these parents, who speak
from experience about picking up the tab for their daughters' weddings.
Staff writer Paul Grondahl is the author of "Mayor Corning: Albany Icon,
Albany Enigma," which was published in paperback this month by SUNY
Press. He can be reached at 454-5623 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Everyday Epics for Best-selling Author Jane Hamilton, Home is Where the Novel is.
By Colleen Sentar
Best-selling American novelist Jane Hamilton writes in an orchard farmhouse in Rochester, Wisconsin, where she lives with her husband and their two children. The story goes that while on her way to a job in the New York publishing industry she made a pit stop in Wisconsin, fell in love with the land and the rural life, and has remained there ever since. Hamilton and her husband, Bob, have an apple orchard in Racine County, where her office overlooks the grounds. She writes all her novels on her typewriter and, once she is finished, reads each novel out loud to her husband. She described her normal day as writing from about 7:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. or noon, taking a break for lunch, and returning to her writing later in the day.
Hamilton shared those glimpses of her life and more during a seminar she gave at SUNY Albany on Tuesday, September 18, as part of the New York State Writers Institute Visiting Writers Series. The question-and-answer event was attended by SUNY Albany students who had read Hamilton’s novel Disobedience for their upper-level English class Contemporary Writers at Work, as well as by community members interested in Hamilton and her work. Hamilton was engaging, witty and forthcoming in her responses to her interested audience and the questions they put to her on topics ranging from her writing habits to her Amazon.com reviews to why she has stayed in Wisconsin for so long: “Well, my husband’s work has been in his family for generations and it’s not like you can just pick up and move an orchard.” Writers, she added, can write anywhere. And though Hamilton said she hasn’t come up with an answer for questions about just what makes Midwesterners somehow “different,” she loves where she lives and wouldn’t change it if she could.
Jane Hamilton was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on July 13, 1957. She is the youngest of four siblings and began writing when she was in the first grade. Her first short story titled “Heather in the Wind” is still a title she is proud of. Both her mother and her grandmother were writers so she thought it was what she was supposed to do. Although she was told not to do it as a profession, Hamilton always knew that she would have writing in her life. She continued to write all throughout school and attended Carleton College in Minnesota, where she majored in English, graduating in 1979. Hamilton was discouraged when she was not accepted to any graduate level writing programs, but she kept at it, spending several years after college working as a freelance writer while writing and sending out short stories.
That persistence paid off: Jane Hamilton’s first published works were short stories. In 1982, a summer intern at Harper’s Magazine saw one of her stories and passed it along to a senior editor who accepted the piece. “My Own Earth” and “Aunt Marj’s Happy Ending,” two of her short stories, were published in Harper’s Magazine in 1983. “They helped me make [“My Own Earth”] a much better story and that was a great start,” said Hamilton. Because of that, Hamilton was able to find an agent for The Book of Ruth, published in 1988 by Random House. During her nearly two decades with Random House, Hamilton has only had two editors, and has been very pleased with both. After The Book of Ruth came A Map of the World (1994), The Short History of a Prince (1998) and Disobedience (2000). Hamilton worked for about three or four years on Disobedience and said that “it was a wonderful writing experience because it just rolled right off my tongue.” Throughout her career, Hamilton has heard so many times that “‘all women writers write about adultery’—but I wondered if all women writers really did write about adultery.” So, when writing Disobedience, she thought she would put a spin on the adultery tale by having the child find out about the infidelity instead of the spouse. Hamilton felt that to see the phases of life and gender relations through a seventeen-year-old boy’s eye was “humbling and amusing.”
Hamilton wanted to write a book about a son who was keenly perceptive and had a particularly wry humor, characteristics that made her love the narrator and main character of Disobedience, Henry Shaw, who struggles with his discovery of his mother’s affair. Though Henry is not based on Hamilton’s own son, she loved writing Henry—for his sense of humor, for his love for his mother, though extreme, and for his teenage sorrow. “There is nothing quite like it because it is deeper than any other stage of life,” said Hamilton. “Teenagers feel powerless and vulnerable. They need to distance themselves from what they love to find out about themselves.” Hamilton loves that time of life. Even though she finished writing Henry Shaw almost a decade ago, she still misses his humor.
Three Bad Women, One Bad Novel
Disobedience is a domestic novel, but that set-up “is just a land mine,” Hamilton said. “Every happy family is on the brink all the time of becoming unhappy. They flee away from one another as much as they want to hold on to each other.” The reality, Hamilton believes, is that the greatest tragedy is human relations and Disobedience falls under that category, though she prefers the phrase “the great home epic.”
After Disobedience, Hamilton started writing a novel about a librarian in a small town going through a psychotic break. Even before 9/11, Hamilton knew the book was “dead on arrival,” but afterward, realized even more how frivolous the story line was.
While doing a reading from that novel, titled Three Bad Women, at Hope College, Hamilton thought it was the worst thing she had ever written. But in undertaking one last draft of the work, she vowed to herself that she would make it the best failure ever written. She would read the novel out loud to herself and feel sick, thinking “I should go to nursing school and do something useful.” Hamilton even read it to her husband, who slumped in his chair, but told her that “it has potential.” She had no greater joy than when she made the decision to pack the book up and leave it behind.
After four years of writing and re-writing Three Bad Women, thinking it would get better, she wrote When Madeline Was Young, and also wrote a little book right behind it in “37 seconds!”
“I do not know how it all works,” said Hamilton about the mysteries and magic of writing. “It is amazing how you can go from having something so bad one minute and then something remarkable the next.” Although Hamilton is known as a best-selling author who has written major, award-winning works, she doesn’t think of herself as a sophisticated reader because she just reads for pleasure. She writes her novels to absorb herself in another world.
As Hamilton explains it, there are no hidden meanings in her novels, just “psychological depth.” She thinks that readers are getting hungrier for novels with psychological depth because many movies and TV shows are so glib, stupid and unoriginal. But it was precisely that psychological depth that attracted Hollywood to Hamilton’s novels. The Book of Ruth was adapted for television in 2004, following the success of the film adaptation of A Map of the World in 1999.
“They wanted to boil down the plot and wanted to take the high road and make a semi-art movie,” said Hamilton, regarding A Map of the World. “It is difficult to put all of the content into two hours, but they did a good job. The actors were great, and some scenes, like the one where the grief stricken wife is smoking and crying at the same time, somewhat ridiculous, showed slight flaws in the book. The funny thing about movie people is that they feel they are doing you the ultimate favor by showing ‘the true meaning’ of the novel. But,” Hamilton added, “there is nothing like a book.”
When Hamilton began writing A Map of the World, she knew the ending and the last line. She had to write four distinct novels to get Alice Goodwin, the main character, out of trouble, finding, in the end, that Alice’s life was really about marriage and forgiveness, not the responsibility of a child’s death.
Hamilton has some things in common with Alice Goodwin (mother of two, wife of a Wisconsin farmer), but when asked which of her characters Hamilton feels she could relate to the most, she said, “Well, in order for me to write and form characters, I have to relate to all of them. When writing a novel you get so deep into it that when it is done the characters feel like long lost dead relatives. However, in a certain way I am like Walter from The Short History of a Prince because I wanted to dance, too, but I had no talent.”
Hamilton says that some events and characters in her novels were taken directly from her first-hand experiences: the drowning of a child in the beginning of A Map of the World was based on a little boy that she knew around her son’s age who drowned in his family’s swimming pool. “The death haunted me and I knew it would eventually come through in my writing,” said Hamilton. The one character who, Hamilton admits, she “lifted straight from life” was her cousin’s daughter who is grown now, but who as a youth was a fantastic Civil War re-enactor—just like Elvira in Disobedience. “She was just too good a character. I had to.”
Hamilton also enjoys the pleasures of research. She visited Vermont for the setting of part of Disobedience, which she categorized as “Wisconsin perfected,” and fell in love with it. Research has also taken her to New York City to see the ballet for The Short History of a Prince, and to the “Bloody Pond” and battle ground in Shiloh, Tennessee, for another part of Disobedience. Hamilton even visited a local jail for A Map of the World so she could accurately describe Alice’s experiences. “I resisted writing the whole legal thing but then I realized I had to,” she said. “So I called my county supervisor and got a tour of the jail in order to visualize it accurately. And then the characters fell into the setting.”
Hamilton’s works typically deal with relationships between family members struggling with moral or emotional issues. Her protagonists often learn to overcome their respective dilemmas and experience growth as individuals as a result, as opposed to becoming tragic figures. Most of Hamilton’s work is set in, or features, the Wisconsin countryside, something she attributes both to her love of the country and her Midwestern upbringing.
Critics of Hamilton’s work have admired her for her insight into the human psyche, her compelling presentation of themes like suffering and forgiveness, her realistic portraits, and for the stimulating atmospheres of daily Midwestern life consistent in her novels, especially as experienced by women. Even though feminine perspectives dominated her early novels, Hamilton took up male points of view in The Short History of a Prince, Disobedience and When Madeline Was Young. Critics have promisingly compared her novels to the works of Sue Miller and Jane Smiley and her narration of Henry Shaw, the main character in Disobedience, to that of Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. As far as critics comparing Henry to Holden, Hamilton thinks that even though they are both deeply disturbed by the ordinary tragedies of daily life, “Holden is more troubled.” Reviewers have also praised her efforts to create characters with endurance and sensitivity, like the main characters in The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World.
Some critics complain that Hamilton’s novels can be too melodramatic, comparing her plots to TV soap operas. Those who support Hamilton feel that the nuances of her language, her voice, and the subtle shades of meaning conveyed in her portrayals of her characters outweigh thoughts of unoriginal plots. “Amazon reviews can be crushing and mean,” said Hamilton. “When you are criticized it is hurtful, and when you are praised you cannot believe it is good. It is an odd thing, but sometimes lovely because there can be many pleasurable aspects to reviews.” Hamilton refuses to read certain critiques, but realizes how important reviews are. She has written about other writer’s works, such as Alice McDermott’s After This, which Hamilton reviewed for The Washington Post.
The Once and Future Jane
Hamilton has published five novels, which have garnered many honors and awards. Her first novel, The Book of Ruth, won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award, the Wisconsin Library College Association Banta Book Award, and was an Oprah Book Club selection in 1996. Her second novel, A Map of the World, was an Oprah Book Club selection as well, in 1999, and went on to become an international best seller. The Short History of a Prince won the Heartland Prize for Fiction. Hamilton’s fourth book, Disobedience won a School Library Journal Adult Books for Young Adults Award, and The Washington Post declared Hamilton’s fifth and most-recent novel, When Madeline Was Young, “her most distinguished work so far.”
Hamilton said she has several manuscripts “in the drawer” at this time. It’s likely she will continue to pen her best sellers for many years to come. “I never thought I would have ever gotten published or have a life from writing,” said Hamilton. “I feel lucky that the pieces fell into place.” After several successful novels, Hamilton’s life has not changed very much and she continues to write from her apple-orchard farmhouse. She is completely grateful that she is able to write every day. “I hope I never have to get a real job,” she said.
Hamilton has recently completed her sixth novel.
Further Reading about Jane Hamilton on the Web:
Random House Author Spotlight: Jane Hamilton
Amazon.com: Books by Jane Hamilton
The New York State Writers’ Institute: Jane Hamilton
Wikipedia: Jane Hamilton
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620
or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.
Colleen Sentar is a student in ENG350 (Contemporary Writers at Work) which focuses on the work of authors in the Writers Institute's Visiting Writers Series.
Elizabeth Wong: Serious Comedy
by Charmaine Cadeau
Serious comedy. This paradox in the subtitle of Elizabeth Wong's Kimchee and Chitlins just as easily describes the dominant aesthetic in her playwriting. Drawn to polarized social and political issues, Wong, a native Los Angeles playwright, uses humor to combat the failures of communication brought about by media bias, prejudice, and cultural difference. As Peter Ustinov once suggested, “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.” Wong's keen wit is disarming, leaving us open to the deeper social criticism within her plays.
One discovers in Wong's writing a polyphony of voices; often, there isn't a dominant ideology or a singular truth. For Wong, the movement toward understanding each other is a movement toward greater complexity and moral ambiguity. For example, Kimchee and Chitlins offers us two very distinct endings, one harshly realistic, the other, wistful; in The Happy Prince (a dramatization of Oscar Wilde's short story), the title character makes the ultimate sacrifice for social equity, but nonetheless fails; China Doll imaginatively explores the experiences of Anna May Wong, the first Asian-American Hollywood actress. Anna May Wong is presented as being a woman ahead of her time who is nonetheless constricted by the racism she faces in the entertainment industry.
To date, Wong has penned eight full-length plays, seven short plays, and seven plays for youth. Her most recent works include Dating and Mating in Modern Times, The Love Life of a Eunuch, Quick-Draw Grandma, and Freedom to Bare Arms (and Asses). Wong's plays can be read as reactions to significant personal and political events, ranging from sexism in the working world to particular histories (such as the 1990 boycott of a Korean store in Brooklyn, the event that inspired Kimchee and Chitlins). The journalistic impulse behind her plays such as Letters to a Student Revolutionary and Kimchee and Chitlins ties to an overarching concern in her work for social justice.
Before turning to playwriting, Wong studied journalism at the University of Southern California and worked in the field for ten years. She accounts for her decision to leave her full-time work as a journalist in the 1980s because of her disillusionment with the media: “Coverage of the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign, the whitewashing of racial issues engendered by his candidacy, had infuriated me and put the final nail on my journalism career” (Perkins & Uno 310). Nonetheless, her interest in journalism is perhaps the same as her interest in playwriting: to tell untold stories.
She attended the Tisch School of the Arts in 1989, and by 1991 Letters to a Student Revolutionary was produced Off-Broadway. Letters is charged with Wong's perceptions of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June of 1989, and is perhaps the most autobiographical of her works. Paralleling the correspondence between her main characters, Wong herself had exchanged letters with a young Chinese woman from 1984 to the time of the student revolution. On watching the Tiananmen Square coverage, Wong recounts:
I sat in front of the television set and was horrified by what I saw....I felt a kind of
overwhelming connection because I was Chinese, or I thought I was Chinese....
I felt it on two levels.... One, I was aghast and appalled that a country could destroy its
own children.... But on another level ... being Chinese American, seeing people who
looked like me, really made me feel endangered in some way...The things happening in
China made me reflect on what is happening here in America and whether I, as a
Chinese American, had any power to speak out and move my government. (http://www.fb10.uni-bremen.de/anglistik/kerkhoff/ContempDrama/Wong.htm)
The friendship she developed through exchanging letters and her experience of witnessing the revolution is the impetus behind Letters.
Letters begins with an accidental meeting between two young women. Bibi, a Chinese-American girl, meets Karen while away on vacation. Following Karen's lead, the two women become pen pals and the body of the play follows this epistolary framework to address issues such as national identity, democracy, and women's relationship to politics. Bibi, for instance, like Wong, is a first generation Chinese immigrant and works for a paper. Bibi questions the efficacy of the work she does as a reporter, noting “You know, Karen, I keep thinking that if I write about this stuff, maybe something would change, get better...I don't know. I'm doing the best I can, right?” (304) In this question, we can perhaps detect a note of what motivates Wong as a writer: activism and optimism.
Another of her major works is The Love Life of a Eunuch. This play exemplifies Wong's interest in pulling history into the present, as she does in her adaptations (like The Magical Bird) and complex, temporally shifting works (like I am from Schilda). In The Love Life of a Eunuch, a young farmer poses as a eunuch to gain entrance into the palace where his love has been taken to serve as a concubine. Like the central characters in Letters, Tiger becomes torn between personal needs and broader political conflict.
Wong's vast accomplishments include the 2007 Tanne Foundation Award, and a nomination in 2004 for the Princess Grace Playwriting Award for The Love Life of a Eunuch. In the fall of 1991, Wong held a writing fellowship at Yaddo. She has worked as a writing instructor at various places, including the David Hwang Institute, Bowdoin College, and the University of Southern Maine. Her diversity as a writer is demonstrated by the fact that she wrote for the television series “All-American Girl” (1994-1995), and for a Disney Studios project “Colors United.” Despite these forays into television media, Wong notes, “My biggest love in the theatre, which in the words of Joyce Carol Oates is 'the highest communal celebration of being.' I love sitting in the dark. I love waiting for the curtain to rise. I love the magic that unfolds the mystery” (Perkins & Uno, 311).
Charmaine Cadeau is a doctoral student in the University at Albany’s
English Department and a graduate assistant at the Writers Institute.
New Novel a Return of Sorts to Mountain Air
by Paul Grondahl, Staff Writer, Albany Times Union
Reprinted with permission from the Albany Times Union, October 28, 2007
While living in Rochester, author Andrea Barrett sought the tonic of the Adirondack Mountains.
She and her husband spent a lot of time in the High Peaks camping, hiking and cross-country skiing.
Frequently passing through Saranac Lake, she became fascinated by the compound of 19th-century cottages with wide porches that had been a tuberculosis sanitarium where the sick took “the cure” of mountain air and rest.
But she got sidetracked teaching creative writing and finishing other short stories and novels. There were also additional demands and distractions after winning a National Book Award for “Ship Fever” in 1996, a 2001 MacArthur “genius grant” and being named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2002.
Barrett, who appears Thursday in Albany as a guest of the New York State Writers Institute, finally returned to her earlier interest in the concluding story of her 2002 collection, “Servants of the Map.” Titled “The Cure,” that story explored the era of
public TB sanitoria in the Adirondacks.
Barrett was planning to expand that story into a novel and had begun research as a fellow at the New York Public Library’s Center for Scholars and Writers in midtown Manhattan. Her first day in the fellowship was Sept. 10, 2001.
Barrett and her husband, Barry Goldstein, a structural chemist researcher—the couple met as science majors at Union College in Schenectady in the early 1970s—had just relocated to Brooklyn for her yearlong fellowship.
“I had just dropped off our dog and was going to the subway when I heard a very loud noise, which turned out to be the first plane hitting the Twin Towers,” Barrett recalled.
The novel she was planning to write about the TB epidemic and the Adirondacks suddenly felt small and insignificant after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Out of paralysis
“I didn’t write for the better part of that year,” she recalled. “I could still do research, but I couldn’t write. I lost sight of the fact that there was any point in writing. I just didn’t find meaning in making a novel.”
Barrett stayed put in the library for the entire year and eventually worked her way out of her writerly paralysis.
The result is her recently published novel, “The Air We Breathe,” which takes place in 1916 at the Tamarack State Sanatorium for the Treatment of Tuberculosis set in the fictional Adirondack community of Tamarack Lake. The patients are working-class immigrants from the New York City area.
Barrett writes: “After the cities from which we’d come, this looked to us like wilderness. Rivers, mountains, wild geese honking. The air meant to cure us pouring antiseptically through the woods. The Adirondacks were new to us, and we were shocked to learn that
Canada was so near. The snow shocked us, too, along with the dark winter days and the heavy mist that sometimes blanketed the fields.”
Finishing “The Air We Breathe” was a struggle for the 52-year-old author for reasons beyond 9/11 trauma.
“There is such a thing as over-researching and too much information, and that was part of my problem with this book,” she said.
“I got so thoroughly captured by the subject and fell into the research so deeply that I was lost in the history and couldn’t find the thread of the story,” she said.
In the end, after hours spent poring over the archives at the Saranac Lake Free Library and in numerous other libraries, she went back to the basics of storytelling and dropped the immense architecture of her prodigious historical research.
“I just turned my back on all my files of research, didn’t look at that for a while and just started with my character’s voice,” she said.
Barrett majored in biology at Union College, and her fiction plumbs the intersection between the hard reality of science and the emotional terrain of her character’s inner lives.
In her 1916 narrative that focuses on the TB epidemic, she draws upon larger themes of infectious disease such as AIDS and long-simmering class divisions in America.
“The analogy of the early years of the AIDS epidemic is similar to TB, which was so widespread and dreaded because there wasn’t an effective drug until the 1940s,” she said. “There’s also an overlay with the anti-immigrant hysteria after 9/11 and the fear
of the other during the TB epidemic.”
Barrett also explores the contrast in quality of treatment between TB patients who were wealthy, compared to those who were poor or working-class.
“I think we’re as divided by class as we ever were,” she said. “We’re just more hypocritical about it and we pretend it isn’t an issue when it is.”
Barrett came to Union College as a 16-year-old high school dropout and has often praised admission officials who took a chance on admitting her in 1971.
She finished her bachelor’s degree in biology in three years, graduating at 19. She aborted a Ph.D. program in zoology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst after one semester to concentrate on writing.
“I’m not a quitter. I’m actually incredibly stubborn,” she said. “In high school, I couldn’t find anything I was interested in. I loved my time at Union and feel lucky they let me in. In graduate school, I thought I could do it, but I turned out to be just awful at
A family tree
At the end of “The Air We Breathe,” Barrett includes a dense, multigenerational family tree of related characters she’s written about in multiple books and stories.
“It had been growing for 10 years on a big piece of construction paper in my study,” she explained. “I didn’t know it was going to connect up or that I’d come back to these characters, but it’s fun for readers who know the earlier books.”
As for her severe shyness in speaking in public, there’s nothing like book promotion tours to cure her.
“Some of that just got beat out of me,” Barrett said. “The people who come to my readings and book signings are readers. I know the news about publishing is bad, but I’m still meeting a lot of people who like to read.”
Paul Grondahl can be reached at 454-5623 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All Times Union materials Copyright © 2007 Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) a division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y
Tom Perrotta: Author's Writing Life Plotted by Novel Twists
by Paul Grondahl, Staff Writer, Albany Times Union
Reprinted with permission from the Albany Times Union, November 25, 2007
Tom Perrotta was in the zone, reworking the second draft of a screenplay of his newly published novel, "The Abstinence Teacher," and entering the home stretch as the film was nearly ready to begin shooting.
"Now, we're in limbo," said Perrotta, who laid down his pencil on Nov. 5, as requested, and joined other striking members of the Writers Guild of America in the bicoastal job action.
He was adapting his novel for the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the filmmakers who made "Little Miss Sunshine," which won two Oscars and was nominated for best picture.
Perrotta will read from and discuss his new novel, an examination of suburbia, sex education and the evangelical movement, and answer questions about the strike and other vagaries of the writing life on Thursday when he visits the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany.
"I think the writers have every reason to strike right now, because they were burned in this same way over new media before and they don't want to get cheated out of their share again," said Perrotta, who lives in Belmont, Mass., a Boston suburb. He's been a WGA member since 2000, and his screenwriting credits include adaptations of his own novels "Election," "Bad Haircut" and "Little Children."
Because of family obligations, Perrotta, 46, a father of two, has been unable to walk a picket line in Los Angeles or New York, yet feels both a sense of solidarity and disconnect from the strikers. He's not expecting much empathy from the general public, since experienced screenwriters can earn a mid-six-figure payday on a script.
"I was drawn to screenwriting because it does pay well, compared to novels," he said. "The writers' strike is a little bit like professional athletes trying to make their case about being paid more."
Perrotta has had the luxury of choosing to write scripts as a default option between novels. His typical pattern is to spend two years on a novel and then take a year's hiatus in which he writes a screenplay or two.
He's not sure how to fill this unexpected downtime.
"If the strike goes on much longer, I might try to get some freelance magazine assignments or write some short stories," he said, adding he's reluctant to start a fresh novel that he'll have to lay aside when the strike ends and he has to return to the screenplay. A novel requires his full attention, and he tries to work on that and only that once he's under way.
Coming up with a new idea for a novel is a mysterious process for Perrotta. "I don't feel I have a huge amount of control about what I write about," he said. "It's not like I have 10 great ideas I'm sitting on. I'm lucky if I come up with one idea I find galvanizing enough to want to sit down in a room by myself for a year and a half."
Perrotta is also mindful of becoming typecast. Some reviewers of "The Abstinence Teacher" pegged him as the novelist of suburban angst who pits his characters against hot-button social issues of the day, mentioning "Little Children" (2004) and its focus on a desperate housewife's affair with a stay-at-home dad and "The Wishbones"(1999), a portrait of a Jersey wedding band guitarist who traversed suburbia's adulterous cul-de-sacs.
"It becomes a challenge as you get a body of work behind you that you try to write something that will startle people and challenge their expectations of you as a writer," he said.
Stretching his craft
Perrotta felt he was stretching his craft in "The Abstinence Teacher" by writing about Christian evangelicals, a group foreign to him. Although the terrain is once again suburban New Jersey (where he grew up), he delves into the culture wars after his main character, Ruth Ramsay, a single parent and high school sex ed teacher, tells her students that oral sex can be enjoyable. This touches off a battle royale between the Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth church and the town's liberals.
Perrotta knows the milieu. He and his wife, Mary Granfield, a stay-at-home mom and former journalist, have two kids: Nina, 13, and Luke, 10. Both play soccer. Perrotta coaches. Amid the household swirl, he waits until the kids are off at school or shuts the door to his study and goes to work.
"A novel is such a massive undertaking, you'll never get it done if you don't go at it hard every day," he said.
Perrotta shares his own tortuous path to literary success with writing students.
"I've had an old-fashioned career because I wrote three books before I got one published, did some ghostwriting and worked at some bad jobs early on," he said.
"I tell students that it's really all about persistence and it takes however long it takes," he said. "Talent is not the most important thing. You need a spark of talent, but mostly you need to figure out what you have to say and what you have to say it. It's a long path, but a rewarding one if it's the thing you have to do."
Perrotta credits one of his writing teachers, Tobias Wolff, in the graduate creative writing program at Syracuse University, with helping sharpen his skills.
"He was an inspiring teacher and an exacting one, particularly in terms of language," he said. "His sentences have tremendous energy in them and they're precisely designed. He taught me my sentences had to be better. He was a really decent and kind man who had very high standards and he urged me to rise to meet them."
Before he hit literary pay dirt, though, Perrotta endured stints as a night proofreader of World Tennis, Tobacco Retailer and other specialty periodicals, clerk in a surplus storage facility and garbage collector.
"All those jobs were part of the process of becoming a writer," he said.
In fact, he wrote a novel, which was never published, about sanitation. It focused on a garbage man who won the New Jersey lottery, but his family fell apart in the aftermath.
"The guys on the garbage crew were really good guys. They had a certain dignity and they were a lot of fun," he said. "I loved listening to them. They were great storytellers, and their best stories were about trash that smelled so bad it made a garbage man throw up."
Paul Grondahl can be reached at 454-5623 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
All Times Union materials Copyright © 2007 Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) a division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y
An Interview with Tom Perrotta
Reprinted with permission from The Daily Gazette, November 26, 2007
As a struggling author in his early thirties, Tom Perrotta spent quite a bit of time as a stay-at-home dad. "I was writing but not finding much success," he said recently in a phone interview from his home in Belmont, Massachusetts. "Success always seemed just out of my reach, and it's something that many of the characters I've created have also experienced."
As an undergraduate at Yale, Perrotta studied with author Thomas Berger, and then for three years in graduate school at Syracuse University with author Tobias Wolff. "These were smart, articulate writers," said Perrotta. "They were writers I really respected and what helped me was to see up close how these writers lived their lives."
He learned some literary tricks from them, but most importantly he learned what it was like to make a living as a writer. "They both took their writing very seriously," said Perrotta, "and this helped me tremendously when my own writing wasn't going very well."
For a while he worked as a creative writing teacher at both Yale and Harvard, and thought he was destined to be an academic for the remainder of his life, but the creative pull of writing his own stories kept nagging at him, and his big break came in 1994 when at the age of 33 his collection of short stories titled 'Bad Haircut' was published to great reviews but few sales.
"I wanted to be a writer since I was in high school," said Perrotta. "Since I was only about 5'6" I knew I wouldn't get too far as an athlete, and I tried to play the guitar, but I didn't have any musical ability. In high school I was finding success as a short story writer in our school literary magazine, and years later after getting my story collection published, I was motivated to work on a novel.
He actually worked on three novels. One of them has never been published, and two of them 'The Wishbones' (1997) and 'Election' (1998) eventually found their way to a publisher. 'Election' even became a hit movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick.
His most successful book has been 'Little Children' (2004), which was featured on numerous "Best Books of 2004" lists, including The New York Times, Newsweek and People Magazine. The New York Times even dubbed him "an American Chekhov." 'Little Children' also became a successful film starring Kate Winslet, and the film earned co-writers Tom Perrotta and Todd Field a 'Best Screenplay' Oscar nomination.
His most recent book "The Abstinence Teacher" has just been released and is receiving rave reviews. It follows the relationship of Ruth Ramsey, a high school sex education teacher, and Tim Mason, a born-again ex-addict and youth soccer coach. Perrotta has just completed the book's screenplay, which has been optioned for a film to be directed by Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris, the team behind the indie hit "Little Miss Sunshine."
On Thursday he will read from the book at 8 p.m. at the Campus Center Room 375 at the University at Albany's uptown campus. The film "Little Children" will be screened on Friday at 7 p.m. at Page Hall at the university's downtown campus, and Perrotta will offer commentary and answer questions immediately following the screening.
Perrotta has heard all the stories about how horrible Hollywood treats writers, but he's had a wonderful experience with the two books of his that have been filmed. "One of the reasons screenwriting has always been fun for me is that I get to skip what's difficult for me such as scene setting," he said. "When I'm writing a novel I sometimes feel like I work for days and days till I get to the fun part where the characters are talking."
He feels his ability to write good dialogue has always been with him. "I think I somehow developed this unconsciously," said Perrotta. "I learned a while ago that good musicians have a natural sense of rhythm and sound, and I have that when I'm writing dialogue. If I'm reading a book and the dialogue seems off, well, I can't even keep reading it."
He will never forget the out-of-body experience he had when he showed up on the movie set to watch the filming of his book 'Election.' "It was amazing to see this world I had created come to life. There were over one hundred people who had come together to physically reproduce this imaginary world. It felt almost God-like."
He can write a screenplay very quickly, but a novel allows him to explore more complex issues. "In 'The Abstinence Teacher' I wanted to try and figure out the Christian right. They are such an incredible force in this country, but here I live just outside Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I must admit I honestly never meet these people."
Perrotta feels that writing this book has made him much more sympathetic and less judgmental of the Christian right. "I found out a long time ago that most people want more in their lives than what they have," he said. "Most of us don't have the job we want. Our marriages are imperfect, and we have dreams of a more glorious life somewhere else. When I created Tim, the born again Christian, and Ruth, the sex educator, I saw two characters with many weaknesses, but these flaws make them more human and hopefully more likeable."
For Perrotta the fun of writing a novel is to see what develops between the characters. "I saw Tim as this forty year old guy with long hair, sort of desperate, no longer doing drugs, who has found religion, and Ruth, who believes adamently in what she does. I saw the two of them coming together after a youth soccer game when Tim had the entire team say a prayer."
When he started the book he didn't quite know where these characters would take him. "That's the fun part of writing," said Perrotta, "watching these characters say something or do something that totally surprises me."
Jack Rightmyer is a staff writer for The Gazette Newspapers.
Good Fences Make Good Neighbors
Reprinted with permission from Metroland, where this article first appeared (Metroland Vol.30, No. 50)
The “jointure” between Fence magazine and the New York State Writers Institute aims to build literary community and kindle the sparks of creativity
By Kathryn Lange
Peering from the window of a cross-country flight, the Earth can appear to be carved into a kind of irregular jigsaw puzzle by fences. Fences: a means of separation. They define territories, ownership, belonging. They divide backyards, cow herds, and countries. Fences: a means of protection, of keeping in or keeping out. We fortify them against invaders. We keep our prisoners behind them, our snarling dogs. To fence is to fight, be it a playful exercise or a duel to the death. “On the fence” is a position of indecision or neutrality. For each practical definition of fence, there is at least one metaphoric counterpart in that poetic realm of image and idea. We fortify our fences. We wall out the frightening, the challenging, the new. We tremble when we see, in the distance, a girl perilously balancing along the log-lengths of a fence, making a playground of that curious boundary between “known” and “other,” her white dress billowing behind her like a cloud. It is that plurality of meaning that led Rebecca Wolff to title her eclectic, norm-challenging literary journal Fence. And it was the image of Rebecca, teetering bravely on that divide, that made New York State Writers Institute director Don Faulkner want to support her.
Over the last 10 years, Fence has developed a national reputation for literary excellence and content that simultaneously respects and defies tradition. The independent press, which now includes Fence magazine and Fence Books, has been run for a decade by founder and publisher Wolff as an unpaid labor of love—often out of her own living room.
The New York State Writers Institute, housed at the University at Albany, has been designated by the Library of Congress as a “national treasure.” Their ever-blooming Visiting Writers Series brings some of the top writers in the country to Albany and Saratoga for readings, lectures and workshops. The Institute has one of the most extensive video archives of contemporary writers and writing in the country.
And now, the two organizations have joined forces in a partnership they have dubbed “the jointure,” maintaining their independence, but pooling their creative resources.
Fence Magazine Inc. finally has a home, and Wolff, an office and a salary for her work. According to Faulkner, “She gets stability, predictability, an actual job. You can only go so far living on your imagination and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.” In turn, Faulkner says, the Institute and the University have a strong literary ambassador in Fence, a new learning opportunity for students, a stronger foothold in the New York City publishing world and, perhaps most important to Faulkner, an influx of creative energy. “Sometimes,” he says, “when there’s a good creative force and energy and spirit, things happen. I’ve come to know that over the years. You just put talented and creative people together, and these little sparks start happening that you really can’t expect. I guess you could call it planning for spontaneity.”
The institute was created as a literary center for the state, with a mandate to be “a milieu for established and aspiring writers to work together to increase the freedom of the artistic imagination,” and “to encourage the development of writing skills at all levels of education throughout the state.” Faulkner recites their mission and smiles impishly. “We’re just doing what they told us to.”
Sitting in her new office at the Writers Institute, already surrounded by mailing bins full of unread manuscripts, Wolff shakes her head lightly, as if to clear her mind. “I still pinch myself, almost literally. I have to stop sometimes. I just can’t believe this has really happened.”
The daughter of a freelance editor in New York City, Wolff had the curious childhood dream of growing up to be an editor. “I was probably eight,” she recalls. “I remember telling my father that I was going to edit Seventeen magazine.” That passion followed Wolff throughout her career. As an undergraduate student at Bennington College, she and a colleague resurrected the school’s literary magazine, Silo. She finished her undergraduate work at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and worked on the Iowa Revue while she attended the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. After taking a couple of years to relax on Cape Cod, writing and working at the local health food store, Wolff went back to graduate school at the University of Houston, where she landed a job as the associate editor of the literary journal Gulf Coast.
It was largely Wolff’s experience in Houston that inspired her to create Fence and gave her the wherewithal to make it a reality. “The experience in Houston was singularly frustrating because I felt that they were passing over all the really good work and publishing all the really boring work. At the same time, I was learning the mechanics of publishing a journal as well, how to run one, how to run a non-profit. That was a big part of my job.”
Unhappy in Texas, Wolff decided to move back to New York City. And she decided to start a literary journal called Fence. “I had an idea about what that meant to me,” she says. “It had to do with ambivalence and ambiguity. That was what I felt there wasn’t room for in the work that was being published. I felt like editors were only responding to work that was very clearly defined and couldn’t really handle any sort of ambivalence expressed in the writing.
So, in 1998, Wolff founded Fence magazine, a biannual journal of poetry, fiction, art and criticism, with the stated mission of “redefining the terms of accessibility by publishing challenging writing distinguished by idiosyncrasy and intelligence, rather than by allegiance with camps, schools or cliques.” She charged $2,000 of the magazine’s start-up costs on her personal credit card, funding the rest with benefit readings, parties, and a portion of her salary from her secretarial job at an architecture firm.
The investment was a huge one for the young writer, but Wolff had a strong poetry background, experience publishing literary journals, and a fiercely passionate determination to make it happen. “I talked to everyone I met about it,” she remembers with a gentle smirk. “I mean, I really obsessed about it, beyond your average project. I had a completely one-track mind.”
Fence grew beyond Wolff’s expectations. The first issue was a collection of solicited writing from grad-school colleagues and established writers who represented the magazine’s intended aesthetic. Today, Fence receives thousands of electronic submissions each year from all across the country. In 2000, Wolff launched Fence Books, which began holding two annual book contests: the Motherwell Prize, open to women writers for their first or second book, and the Fence Modern Poets Series, which is open to anyone. Fence Books also has published two novels and subsequent poetry collections written by previous prizewinners. No longer just a magazine, Fence has become an independent press.
As thrilled as she was about the explosion of her literary dream, Wolff was struggling to earn a living as a freelance editor, raise a family and keep Fence financially afloat. She had to step back from the editorial responsibilities, and focus on the funding and logistics of the magazine. “It was right around the time that my son was born that it started to get extremely difficult to make money, raise a family, and do this ‘labor of love’ thing that I wasn’t getting paid for. It was a total mess basically.” So she started looking for an organization to join forces with. “I talked to a lot of MFA directors,” she says. “I was on the job market too, so I put myself up as a package with Fence. The problem was, in hindsight, that English departments don’t have a lot of money, and they’re usually fairly embattled, politically speaking. . . . Perhaps Fence was a bit too controversial to fit into something like that.”
Creative reflections: Rebecca Wolff holds a copy of the latest issue of Fence, the cover art hangs behind her.
Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen
But the Writer’s Institute, which remains an independent entity within its University affiliations, seems a perfect fit. Just over a year after Faulkner and Wolff first met for lunch in the UAlbany Patroon Room, the “jointure” is complete: The first copy of Fence published in conjunction with the Writers Institute is in hand. The cover of the double issue features Heartland, by artist Lane Twitchell. Twitchell’s huge cut-paper and acrylic polymer-on-Plexiglas pieces are currently exhibited in the University Art Museum, which served as a fitting backdrop for the recent party to celebrate the magazine’s debut. Woven throughout the new issue are images of ancient Chinese shadow figures. The original shadow figures, intricately cut from calfskin, also are part of the Museum’s current exhibition.
Wolff plans to continue featuring art from the University Museum in Fence. She describes the previous art selection process as “somewhat random,” and is thrilled to draw on the knowledge, resources and “curatorial genius” now available to her.
The partnership already is sparking in other ways. The Writers Institute and Fence collaborated on programming for the Associated Writing Programs annual conference. Wolff hopes to develop a course on publishing literary journals, which is a rare offering. University undergrads are currently interning at the magazine, an opportunity that both Wolff and Faulkner plan to extend to graduate students. Fence has launched a newly expanded Web site, and Wolff has had the time to invest herself again in the editorial content of her magazine. “This issue really has my stamp,” she says, bouncing her fist on her desk to punctuate her mark. Wolff also is preparing to publish an anthology this summer. Best of Fence: The First Nine Years will feature selections by the genre editors from the magazine’s last decade, and an essay by each editor. “Almost an oral history,” she says, of the magazine’s evolution—a transformation that continues to unfurl.
Wolff favors “the idiosyncratic, the savantish, the other.” If she represents the revolutionary, the unexplored, then Faulkner represents the wonderfully familiar. Bearded and bearlike in tweed, settled in his office chair—books have overflowed the shelves and pile in stacks around the room—Faulkner speaks of writing with a warm and gentle passion. “The bell rings,” he says, quoting Gertrude Stein’s measure of good writing. “That’s how you know. The bell rings. Something just kind of goes off. Something hits you. You live your life, you cultivate your sensibilities, your respect your own sense of judgment and taste, and then you can trust yourself to be a judge of good writing.”
He speaks of the area’s literary life with quiet joy. “We do our summer program at Skidmore. There’s Yaddo. So much is happening down Hudson way. The Millay Colony is nearby, into the Berkshires, MASS MoCA. You get this feeling, there’s a clustering that’s starting to go on, and this is part of it.”
Faulkner, who taught at Yale for many years before taking his current position with the Institute, repeatedly echoes his belief that creativity and learning are contagious. As a teacher, he says, “It was not so much that I was able to impart great wisdom to these people, but what I could do was create an environment where they could catch fire. When you see good writing, especially if you’re working with the person, you have that sense of something, just, combustible. It bursts into light, and it’s a marvelous thing. Sometimes that alone makes life worth living.”
Asked about his hopes for the future of the collaboration, Faulkner chuckles, “a Literary Empire!” quickly adding, “good energy, good times, a deepening of the sense of pleasure and accomplishment in literature. The future is wide open. That’s what’s so great about it. We’ll figure it out as we go along. It’s a little bit of building the boat while you’re sailing it, and that’s OK.”
“What’s really happening,” he concludes, “is that it’s getting people to look at writing, to look at literature. To feel themselves a part of a cause, or a movement, or at least a sensibility that’s greater than themselves. That, to me, is one of the definitions of community, and to be able to build community with all this effort, to me, that’s really what it’s all about. That’s why we’re here.”
Kathryn Lange is the Associate Editor of Metroland.