WRITERS ONLINE MAGAZINE
Volume 14, Number 1
James Lasdun, It’s Beginning to Hurt | Rebecca Wolff, The King
Three Questions By Charmaine Cadeau
James Lasdun’s collection of short stories It’s Beginning to Hurt (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and Rebecca Wolff’s book of poems The King (Norton) are the 2009 releases by NYS Writers Institute fellows. In honour of Lasdun and Wolff’s afternoon seminar and joint book launch, this article is a compilation of a discussion that took place over email between September 15th and October 23rd. Lasdun and Wolff were given each question separately, but shared their responses between rounds.
Unsure whether to title the proceedings “Different People Feel Differently” (Wolff, The King, 72) or “Chatting With Rebecca” (Lasdun, It’s Beginning to Hurt, 74), the following is simply “Three Questions”:
Question 1: I’d like to start the discussion with an observation about something your books have in common. Rebecca incorporates anxiety in poems like “His Winning Ways,” “Breeder Sonnet,” and “Anxiety Rivals.” “Raised by Wolves,” the title nodding to her last name, opens with a keen perspective on a familiar scene. Drawing in her collection’s attention to motherhood, the speaker reflects on her response to protecting her child. Here are the first three stanzas:
I was so afraid he might run into
I berated him senselessly.
For he is not even
two years old
on a cul-de-sac.
Our house lies somewhere at the end of a road.
James’s opening short story in It’s Beginning to Hurt, “An Anxious Man” also takes on anxiety—as does the piece “A Woman at the Window.” In the latter story, an Englishman visiting Manhattan for work suspects he’s being duped into helping someone, yet his sense of propriety propels him into action despite his misgivings.
It seems like the draw toward anxiety in your work comes from an interest in the moment of wanting to take something back—but having already crossed a line. I was hoping you could comment on this subject in relation to your work beyond being a theme, but instead how ‘anxiety’ relates to your sense of the work of writing. Can (should?) writing cross the line? At moments where you draw from your own experience, have you ever felt you revealed too much?
James Lasdun: It’s true—I do seem to have anxieties about the very act of writing. Something to do with both the presumption and the exposure involved. And it’s possible that the anxieties so many of my characters suffer from are basically variants on this... On the other hand, I’m anxious about plenty of other things too... I think anxiety is useful to a writer actually, because it’s an inherently unstable, dynamic emotion. To experience it is to want to do something to get rid of it, very quickly, which is as good an engine for a narrative as any other... As far as crossing a ‘line’, that’s a murky area for me. I’ve upset people by some of the things I’ve written and I understand their feelings. But I think one simply has to accept, as a writer, that upsetting people now and then is par for the course. A bleak position to take, but I can’t see any way around it.
Rebecca Wolff: Well, oddly enough I feel no anxiety at all about being revelatory or intimate in my writing with the stuff of my “life.” I’ve always felt deeply comfortable with the perhaps delusory notion about artifice being transformative, and so my very earliest poems were in the confessional mode, and I’ve moved away from and back toward that only with stylistic changes, over the years. That said I feel that the richer the artifice, the more satisfying the transformation, and there’s nothing worse than a poem or story that feels…I’ve been looking for the perfect word for this but haven’t found it…that feels untransformed. Undigested and therefore indigestible, non-nutritive.
More recently I’ve been interested in how culturally relevant the “life story” has become—I see it, optimistically, as a first possible step toward political engagement for the masses, this new-ish way in which the individual life “story” is significant and fascinating and worth absorbing. I’m thinking most positively of venues like “This American Life” and that project at Grand Central Station where people could pop into a mini recording studio and tell a story, an oral history really, and slightly less positively of blogs, and memoirs, and notably less positively of reality television, wherein the story is so fully mediated and manipulated.
Question 2: James, I’m thinking of your sense of emotion as “an engine for a narrative”—and Rebecca, of your point about narrative that is too “mediated and manipulated.” Talk a little about your writing practice, and how you see your finished work as a sort of performance. Do you write, for instance, with an audience in mind?
Lasdun: I don’t find it helpful to think of an audience when I’m writing. The few times I’ve tried I’ve become quickly lost in a labyrinth of second-guessing possible reactions. I think you just have to make sure your words are as fully, vividly, dramatically expressive of whatever it is you’re trying to say, and hope an audience finds it interesting. I think there’s a relation between the pleasure, or satisfaction, or feeling of blind luck you get when you stumble on some unexpected angle of approach or transforming ‘artifice’ (to use Rebecca’s word), and the pleasure readers might experience. I hope so, as that seems implicit in the basic contract between writer and reader. I guess I should add that as an expat quasi-Jewish Brit without deep family roots anywhere, a certain kind of writerly role—tribal bard, audience spokesperson, whatever—never seemed a very realistic option for me.
Wolff: I feel that performance is in the eye of the beholder, really. When you hear people speak of a poem “performing” subjectivity, or “performing” cultural identity, it seems to me to be another way of saying “I see the idea of subjectivity in action in there” or “I see cultural identity in there.” So in that sense I am not conscious of my poems as performances within any theoretical framework, though of course that consciousness is something that can be applied to them. That said, I do indeed write with an audience in mind, and that audience waxes and wanes in terms of specificity. Most of the time it’s a blissful cloud of audience, not too far distant in formulation from the famous cloud of unknowing, that which we cannot name or apprehend on account of its greatness. At other times the audience can get a bit uncomfortably marked, like the other day when I was writing a poem and the reflexive tic of checking in with my cloudy audience happened very early in the poem. Basically I needed to reassure myself that this was something that anyone (anyone smart, and tuned in, and perhaps a bit informed—my audience of the morning) would be interested in. So I actually found this a little bit worrisome, that I was needing to have that externalized (however imaginary) reassurance so early in the poem—sometimes I can write without this activity, and I consider that a bit freer, and the product probably more interesting rather than less. I think for me it’s a function of how comfortable I am or am not in the space of writing at the moment. The more comfortable I am the less I need to formulate my audience and have it reassure me that they like what I’m doing.
Question 3: One last volley of questions about the history of your writing in general: looking over your earlier books, what’s becoming easier for you? What’s more difficult to tackle? What’s next?
Lasdun: I feel kind of done with it [focussing on the down side], though that’s not to say I won’t do it again. I’m not that interested in the kind of hero who’s heroic. Antiheroes interest me more. (qtd from Times Union “Author of the Anxious”, Oct. 25, 2009).
Wolff: Things have really changed for me in the past few months, since I SOLD MY NOVEL (I want to get this tattooed on my forehead), which will come out in early 2011 from Riverhead. I am now officially a novelist, and ultimately have received permission from the capitalist machine to, above all things, write another novel, which I’ve been dying to do for years but didn’t feel I could until I was assured that my time wasn’t going completely to waste, or at least to the service of a cruel master (or to a cousin of the cruel master of the capitalist machine, the cruel cruel master of wasted time). So now I’m all fired up to tackle a new whopper. I’m not feeling this now as the kind of radical shift in identity I’d always feared—“Oh no, will I never write another poem again?”—but rather as a pleasing expansion, a maturation even. It does relate back to what we were saying about audience, in that my novel is very much a traditional novel (rather than a traditional poet’s novel), with a plot, characters, action, arc, etc, so in that I guess I’ve moved toward a certain degree of comfort with satisfying certain expectations.
About the Authors:
James Lasdun works as a fiction writer, screenwriter, travel writer, poet, and writing instructor. Before It’s Beginning to Hurt, Lasdun wrote two novels, The Horned Man (2002) and Seven Lies (2005), and three short story collections including The Silver Age and The Siege and Other Stories (1999). He has received many awards for his fiction, such as the Dylan Thomas Award for short fiction, the United Kingdom National Short Story Prize, a New York Times Notable Book and an Economist Best Book of the Year for The Horned Man . His short story “The Siege” was adapted as a major motion picture directed by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1998. He also cowrote two screenplays with Jonathan Nossiter, Sunday (1997)and Signs and Wonders (2002).
“A darkly brilliant tale by a writer whose last novel was ‘A Masterpiece’” — Washington Post
“Poe for the 21st Century” — Salon
Rebecca Wolff is a poet, novelist, editor, and workshop instructor. Manderley (2001), her first collection of poetry, was chosen by Robert Pinsky for the National Poetry Series. Figment (2004) received the Barnard Women Poets Prize in 2002, and was published by W.W. Norton. Her themes in The King surface in the poetry anthology she coedited, Not for Mother’s Only. She is the founding editor of FENCE Magazine and FENCE Books housed at the University at Albany.
“Wolff’s plainspoken new poetry collection is as brilliant and original as any book I’ve read by a poet in her generation.” — James Reiss
“Because of her expert treatment of a difficult topic, and because of her subtle and surprising formal decisions, Wolff’s The King feels like a major work by a major poet, owing and living up to its lineage: Plath, Rich, and Glück.” — Chris Tonelli
Excerpts from Richard Russo Appearance at the New York State Writers Institute 10/05/2007
Don Faulkner: So, here’s the $64 question, it’s the kind of standard biographical question with a little bit of a wrinkle to it. From the standpoint that you’re at now you can look back across the arc of your life and career and see a pretty straight line. Seldom is that line really straight for people who become writers. So, if you could characterize your arc and the influences that led you to become a writer.
Russo: For me, it didn’t seem like a straight line at all until graduate school when I was doing my Ph.D. work and noticed that all my friends in creative writing were having more fun than I was. So I thought, alright, I’ll take a lesson or two and see if I can do anything. When people ask me, “Did you have a great high school English teacher?” or “Did somebody tell you at some point that you had talent, and that you might want to be a writer?” all those kinds of things, none of that ever happened to me. When people ask that question, “At what point did you know you were going to be a writer?” I tend to be glib and say, “Am I a writer?” Certainly I didn’t know it until I started writing everyday, and I refused to do that. Back in high school I hated to write. I never wrote in college except for when it was absolutely demanded of me. I didn’t write letters home, even to people I loved. So there was none of that, and my instinct when people ask that question about me as a writer, is to say that there was never any indication from anybody. Yet, my grandmother, when she was alive, used to love to tell a story about me that must have been either true, or true enough. Part of it I know is true; I used to love to play--as I suspect just about every kid does--with plastic army figures, or cowboys, or whatever. I had my favorite ones and I would line them up, and when I was living at home, my parents, and then my mother, after my mother and father split up, lived upstairs, downstairs were my grandparents. I would spend a lot of time, especially after I’d come home after school, and it would always be to my grandparents’ flat. My mother didn’t get home from General Electric in Schenectady until much later, six o’clock or six-thirty, so I usually ate with my grandparents as well. I would spend time playing with soldiers, and my grandmother would be doing whatever she was doing--getting dinner ready and everything. One day she came into the kitchen, where I was playing with soldiers on the kitchen table sobbing my eyes out, and she said, “Rick, what’s the matter?” What I said to her was that I had made my story too sad. So, I don’t know, what age was I? Is there some sort of link between that kid doing what strikes me now as a fairly bizarre thing, because everybody I knew played with soldiers, but I don’t think everybody did that. Here I am, fifty-eight years old, having just written a novel called Bridge of Sighs, which is certainly the saddest book that I have ever written. I suspect that there may be some psychological link between that kid, that ten or twelve year old, and the writer I have become. But if that’s a straight line . . . the storytelling gene went dormant for thirty years . . .
Faulkner: You live in Maine, why don’t you live in New York?
Russo: Well, it’s interesting. When people ask me why I don’t live in New York I’m almost tempted to say that I do. For me, I go to Bridge of Sighs, somebody like Lucy who has not left New York, he says, “There’s no place I can walk in this town where I’m not communing with ghosts all the time.” For him it’s a very pleasurable experience; if he comes around the corner and sees his father there, that’s a very pleasurable experience for him because the ghosts are his present life. His father is an absolutely beloved figure, which is not to say that I didn’t love my father, certainly I did and love many family members who are still there. The ghosts that I encounter--on those rare occasions when I go back to Gloversville, when I’m in Fulton County, to a much lesser degree when I’m in Albany--are ambivalent, or ambiguous, whichever is the right word there. I have told so many stories about that geographical area, which now is getting crowded with fictional places that exist only in my mind; there’s Mohawk, there’s North Bath, and now there’s Thomaston, people look at me and say, “these places must be right next to each other.” In this novel Thomaston does play Mohawk in a football game. I even think of Empire Falls as kind of an Upstate New York novel. I set it in Maine, but it was another mill town and I just needed an ocean nearby--which is the only reason--I needed someplace for Max Roby to go and paint the windows shut for rich people. I was living in Maine at the time, so I did that, but I even considered that to be in the Upstate New York family of books. I’ve told so many lies about this place, I’ve invented so many things, I’ve embellished so many things, that when I go back there nothing is where I put it: it just isn’t there. I go back with these really weird feelings about it, and that’s one aspect of it, nothing is where I put it. Which is not the fault of the place, you can’t really blame Gloversville and Johnstown for existing on their own without my help.
When I was working road construction with my father, I was dividing my time and becoming more and more deeply schizophrenic. I was going to the University of Arizona, learning to speak the language of educated people, and learning a little something about the life of the mind, the life of books, and all of that. Then, every summer I would come home and work road construction with my dad, and I would have to learn a different language again. If I spoke the way I spoke in English classes, those road crew guys would have . . . I would have found myself in a wheelbarrow headed for who knows where; one of those pilings that we were building under the New York State Thruway (laughter). So, I’d get used to that language, the language of working men, the language of men like my father and all the people I knew in Upstate New York when I was working with them. I would just get used to that language and it would be time to go back to the University again, where I would have to relearn the old language.
My life since then has been a lot like that, because even though I’m not physically going back to these mill towns that I invented, or the places that they’re based on, I still feel that language gap. I’ve always had in the back of mind that there is another version of me back there sitting on a stool next to the stool that my father used to sit on. We used to work so hard, twelve-hour days, and then we’d head home from Albany to Gloversville stopping at every bar. I was a college student, I knew how to drink beer, that was one of the skills I had picked up in Tucson. But, I couldn’t drink beer with those guys. Those bottles would line up across the bar, and we’d come reeling out of one bar, and it’s amazing we didn’t kill ourselves or somebody else on this trek home. There were times at the end of the summer, about the middle of August when I’m thinking about going back, where I’m thinking to myself, what’s so bad about this life? What’s so bad about these guys, the life they lived, and I found that those barstools that were kind of uncomfortable at the beginning of the summer, they’d begun to be mine. I wasn’t quite so far behind in the beer drinking, and I was thinking to myself, am I just kidding myself? Do I want to be a college professor? Isn’t my real place right here? So when I go back now, one of the ghosts I encounter in addition to my father and all those working guys, most of them are dead now or very elderly. One of the ghosts I encounter all the time when I’m back there is the ghost of the person I was before now.
Faulkner: Of all the contemporary writers I can think of, I can’t think of a writer who writes more about work, and respects work more than you do. I think of that great poem of Philip Levine’s What Work Is. Reflect on that if you would.
Russo: . . . It was really my grandfather more than anything else that I often think of in terms of why work is important to me. He was a glove cutter, and he had come to Gloversville to cut gloves. He was on the downside of something even then, because even though he was there before the Second World War, by the time he was finished he knew that what he was doing, what he had spent his life work doing, wasn’t going to be done much anymore. The layoffs got longer every year; he worked less and less. But, he was one of the best cutters in the room, and he made less money than a lot of the others, because obviously it was piecework and you get paid for how many gloves you turn out. He was an artist. He used to look at a skin and know not just how many gloves you could get out of a skin, but cut them in such a way so that if there was a blemish in the leather it turned up either on the inside, or on a flap, or whatever. For him, cutting a glove . . . there was art involved in that; it wasn’t just numbers. Part of what you did was imagination, and he would have loved nothing better than to have an education; he was a reader and he wanted to do all those kinds of things that he couldn’t do. He looked at each skin not as money carved up into sectors, but rather as an artistic problem to be solved. That was what he was in it for, obviously he had to earn the money to put food on the table, but he actually made less money every week than some of the other cutters who simply didn’t have that goal. I often think of myself as a writer. My sense of where business, and commerce, and art intersect, I learned an awful lot about that from my grandfather without ever knowing what he was talking about. I tend to think of myself now as a craftsman in that sense; you’ve got your material in front of you, and the real question is how to use this material in a really craftsman-like way, something you could take pride in.
Don Faulkner: I’m happy to see so many of you here. It’s always a pleasant time to have Richard Russo back with us. It’s really homey, and we’re always delighted whenever he joins us. When he joins us, it’s usually because he’s added another brick to the great wall that is the edifice of his art. This novel Bridge of Sighs--I happen to have the reader’s copy of it so don’t think that you can get a paperback yet--we’ll talk about it somewhat.
Rick Russo has established himself as one of the significant voices in contemporary American literature. His other novels include Nobody’s Fool, which was adapted for the screen staring Paul Newman, The Risk Pool, which is currently being adapted for film for the year 2008, of course Mohawk, which came out in 1986. Richard Russo won the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls, which was turned into a miniseries which aired on HBO. He has also written, as some of you know from seeing the film last night, the screenplay for Keeping Mum, and also The Ice Harvest, which was a film that was out in 2005 starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton. I’m going to go ahead and say that there is a lot to talk about, so let’s enjoy our conversation first by welcoming Richard Russo.
Questioner: How much reworking do you need to do of characters that may be based on real people who may still be alive?
Russo: This is going to strike you as a rather harsh or callous answer. What I trust is that I cannot tell literal truth about anybody or anything for very long. So if I start out with a character that is based on my father, The Risk Pool is my most autobiographical novel, and anyone who knows my father recognized an awful lot of my father in Sam Hall. My father was not alive when that book was published, so that wasn’t a particular issue.
For me, the issue is really two things. One of which is that I think I’m just not capable of telling the literal truth about anybody for very long. My natural modus operandi is, if I say something in sentence one, something that’s true about a character that may have existed in real life, my natural impulse in sentence two is to lie. To improve upon the tale, to embellish the tale, to restructure what happened so that what happened in this order in real life, happens in another order in my novel. My natural instinct to screw around with a story and improve it is actually a way of protecting the characters. By the time this book comes out I will have told so many lies about the characters. For instance, in The Risk Pool, that whole novel takes place when Ned and his father live together. I’ve never lived with my father, that means that three-quarters of the novel is invented, none of those things happened. So, because none of those things happened, because they were all either invented, or embellished, or whatever, that gives the person who exists in the real world room to turn around and say, “That’s not me, this is a fictional character.” Even if somebody recognized my dad in the novel my father would say, “That lying son of a bitch never told a single true word in that novel.” That’s what I want. I really hate when you learn about a writer, and he’s told so many things that are literally true about someone who is still alive so that later on they’re embarrassed, they’re humiliated; it just doesn’t seem right. What seems worse than that is that it’s a failure of the imagination.
The other thing that I think protects, at least to a degree, is that I made a pact with myself a long time ago never to write out of revenge. When I write about these characters, even the ones that I portray--and this is just about all of them--with warts and all, I think the thing you strive for is a kind of honesty that has nothing to do with revenge; that has nothing to do with settling scores. It often has more to do with, quite frankly, just for a simple word, love. You want these portraits of people to be loving and understanding. That’s the whole idea of fiction, is to tell one lie after another until you arrive at some kind of truth.
Questioner: Because you write so well about small localities and everyday people, do you do any research or do you pull it all from memory?
Russo: I don’t do very much research. The little I do, I tend to do ass backwards actually. For Robert Noonan in this novel for instance, he’s a painter. I’m not a painter, and I’ve never been a painter. I don’t know very much about it. I wrote the novel and then gave the sections about him as a painter to my daughter and a friend of mine who is a painter. What I wanted to do is just keep me from utter absurdity. When I find a character in a profession that I don’t know much about, I tend to write it first and then go afterwards and ask, “What’s wrong with this portrait?” from someone who knows. For most of these novels, there has been almost no research to do. I’ve always felt that what you learn in the first eighteen years of your life is kind of hard wired into you, the rest is just software. Most of the people I write about are people that I’ve known so well for so long, what would I be researching? It seems to me that I pretty much know these areas, and I would be going to ask opinions of people who maybe know as much as I know, but that doesn’t seem like a very good idea.
One of the things that happens with writers though, is that with each novel you write you depend on autobiography a little bit less.
Questioner: Do you think you have a talent for producing dialogue?
Russo: Dialogue has always been my strong suit as a novelist. It is that which comes most naturally to me, I suppose, in a way. But I would also say, that back when I was teaching--I haven’t done that in a number of years now--of all the elements of fiction writing, the one that baffled students the most coming in, very often, is dialogue writing.
Strangely enough, I think it’s the one element of fiction writing that can be taught, and taught most clearly. You clear up one or two misconceptions about dialogue, and most people can write very good dialogue, pretty much right away. It’s just a very few simple rules about dialogue, and that is: you do not put information into it, you don’t say, “Come on darling you know we’re going to be late for the Roversons’ cocktail party if you don’t hurry.” Where they’re going and the fact that they’re going to a cocktail party is just information and the husband would have no reason to give such information to his wife whom already knows it. So part of writing good dialogue is just remembering that’s not where you put information, you don’t do that. The second rule is: good dialogue always conveys--more than anything else--attitude. It’s not what somebody said, it’s the attitude with which they say it. Now granted, that takes a little work, but that is often just a blinding revelation to people who are trying to write short fiction. If you can convey the attitude with which someone says something, that’s just about the only thing that it needs to do. That’s an oversimplification, but not by much. It always struck me as the oddest thing, that dialogue, which people seem to think of as kind of a mystical gift, is strangely enough, the one thing you can teach. It has fairly straightforward rules; if you can avoid two or three things, and do two or three things, you’ll write very competent dialogue.
Twenty-five Years of the New York State Writers Institute by Jack Rightmyer
Reprinted with permission from The Sunday Gazette, October 4, 2009
As a young reporter at the Times Union William Kennedy was desperately looking to meet an author, an editor, anyone involved in the publishing industry.
“In the 1960’s there was very little in this area to offer someone like me who wanted to be a novelist,” said Kennedy. “Some of the colleges brought in writers, but these talks were rarely publicized. Once I drove to Schenectady to hear an editor and writer for The Atlantic Monthly give a talk, but there were very few literary events.”
Fortunately Kennedy did indeed become a writer, a very successful writer, who would eventually win a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius” Award. As part of that award, fifteen thousand dollars for five years went to the institution of Kennedy’s choice. He chose the University at Albany where he was teaching at that time and thus began the New York State Writers Institute.
Since 1984 over 1,000 novelists, poets, biographers, filmmakers, historians and essayists have visited the Capital District and talked about their craft. Their talks have entertained audiences that have at times reached in the thousands, and they’ve done this without charging any admission.
“I never planned on starting the institute,” said Kennedy, “just like I never expected to be teaching at a university. I was only interested in being a writer.”
Kennedy describes the New York State Writers Institute as something that was dying to be created. “This was something the town wanted,” he said, “and they didn’t even know it till it happened.”
When Kennedy informed University at Albany President Vincent O’Leary about the MacArthur money, O’Leary was excited and decided to match the fifteen thousand dollars. “O’Leary said, let’s bring in some writers to the campus,” said Kennedy. “He wanted to do it right.”
In the institute’s first year there were about ten events, mostly authors who were friends and acquaintances of Kennedy. “Saul Bellow was our first speaker,” said Kennedy, “and we had over one thousand people in attendance. That’s when I knew we were on to something.”
In the early days they had no office space and no staff, but all that changed when the state legislature and Governor Mario Cuomo became involved.
“It was around that time when I became friendly with Governor Cuomo,” said Kennedy. “He had enjoyed reading my book Ironweed and had contacted me about it.”
Eventually some legislators began floating around the idea of making the Writers Institute a state-wide organization. “Mario Cuomo loved the idea,” said Kennedy, “and he asked me to be the director and in two or three weeks the legislature had created what is known today as the New York State Writers Institute. One hundred thousand dollars went along with it, and that’s how we began.”
When Cuomo signed the legislation he gave it goals and responsibilities “To conduct a broad range of educational literary activities for established and aspiring writers to work together to increase the freedom of the artist’s creative imagination and to develop writing skills at all levels of education throughout the state.”
The institute has met that goal and far exceeded expectations. A program which began with only a few events a year has now grown to more than fifty. They’ve added a film series, a fellows program, a summer writing institute at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, a young writers program also held at Skidmore, a theatre program, and they’ve also formed a partnership with the literary magazine Fence.
“What has amazed me is the quality of the audiences,” said Kennedy. “We live in a very literary area. People come to our talks who are readers and authors. They ask intelligent questions. Because of the institute people in our area can talk one-on-one with accomplished fiction writers, poets, biographers and filmmakers.”
The current director of the program Don Faulkner says one of their strengths has been their ability to grow responsibly. “All organizations need to change or they run the risk of becoming stale,” said Faulkner. “We’ve always maintained what’s worked in the past and updated newer community workshops and summer programs, and we’ve always kept our steadfast devotion to the printed word.”
Faulkner credits much of their success to the quality of the writers they’ve brought in. “We’ve had a mix of newer writers and some well-known writers like Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Frank McCourt, Don DeLillo and Mary Gordon along with so many others. They want to come to the institute because they know the audience will be exemplary,” he said. “They also know they’ll have a good time with us. We celebrate these authors and go out to eat and have fun with them. This has paid off in their presentations to the public.”
Faulkner is also very proud of the institute’s exhaustive digital archive of videotaped author readings and discussions. “We began videotaping everything when I got here,” he said. “We now have over 4,000 hours and we’re currently digitizing it to make it public as a searchable database. This is one of the best archive video collections of contemporary writers in the country, and that will sustain us and continue to legitimize what we do at the institute.”
William Kennedy has no regrets that his work at the New York State Writers Institute has taken him away from his work as a writer. ‘I’ve always enjoyed doing more than one thing at a time,” he said. “I wrote novels when I was a full-time journalist. I love the institute, and it’s never gotten in the way of my own writing. It’s actually helped me as a writer. Writing is a solitary activity, but the Writers Institute allows us to hear other artists, meet them and talk to them about what they do and how they do it, and that’s inspiring.”
On Saturday William Kennedy and Don Faulkner will present an overview of the first 25 years of the New York State Writers Institute with a discussion and video beginning at 2 pm in room 126 of the Fine Arts Building at the University at Albany’s uptown campus.
For more information contact the New York State Writers Institute at 442-5620.
LORRIE MOORE, A Gate at the Stairs By Charmaine Cadeau
Lorrie Moore’s latest novel, A Gate at the Stairs (Knopf, 2009), seems at first a quick series of light, sassy observations that skip deftly across its surface. While often falling into brief (and scrutinizing) digressions on everything from college roommates to the nature of fortune cookies, the book’s greatest feat is in the subtle, seamless way Moore takes on complex issues. Ron Charles, writing for the Washington Post, notes “The story's apparent modesty and ambling pace are deceptive, a cover for profound reflections on marriage and parenthood, racism and terrorism, and especially the baffling, hilarious, brutal initiation to adult life.”
The story is told through the perspective of Tassie Keltjin, a twenty-year-old Midwestern girl who has just moved from country-life to the city to attend university. Needing a job, the book begins with her trolling for work as a nanny in the local classifieds. Tassie, an embodiment of Generation Y’s eye-rolling-cum-malaise with the adult world, has what Jonathan Lethem dubs a “wondering and exact sensibility” (New York Times). Her observations underscore the central interest in A Gate at the Stairs with self-deceptions. The newness of Tassie’s circumstances along with her naïveté set her up convincingly to notice incongruities, both within herself and in the world around her. The book begins, for example, with Tassie wondering why the robins hadn’t migrated before the frost settled into the ground: “I did not want to think about what happened to them. Or rather, that is an expression—of politeness, a false promise of delicacy—for in fact I wondered all the time: imagining them dead, in stunning heaps in some killing cornfield outside of town, or dropped from the sky in twos and threes for miles down along the Illinois state line” (3). These ‘false promises of delicacy’ bleed into other observations as well, like that her mother places full-length mirrors next to her flower beds to give them the appearance of fullness (20), and that her forty-five year old father, who she claims is retired, but privately thinks, “What my father really was was not quasi retired but quasi drunk. He was not old, but he acted old—nutty old” (23).
Playing with the gap between public and private selves, Tassie is keenly attune to the disingenuousness of social graces. Upon first meeting her employer, Sarah Brink, Tassie ruminates, “I feared Sarah was one of those women who instead of laughing said, “That’s funny,” or instead of smiling said, “That’s interesting,” or instead of saying, “You are a stupid blithering idiot,” said, “Well, I think it’s a little more complicated than that” (21). She describes Sarah further, noting her “quasi laugh, a socially constructed laugh—a collection of predetermined notes, like the chimes of a doorbell” (23). Adding to the murkiness of all of the deliberate masks the characters wear, Moore also draws our attention to how language itself obstructs our ability to know the world; as Lethem observes, “The wrinkly recursiveness of her language seems lodged at the layer of consciousness itself, where Moore demands readers’ attention to the innate thingliness of words. This includes not only their plastic capacity as puns…but also their potential use as deliberate uncommunication.”
The consequences of protecting ourselves in these ways become graver as the novel unfolds, leading to surprising and disturbing outcomes in the closing chapters. Moore is, nonetheless, sympathetic to the work of white lies, calling candor “the cheapest and most efficient assault on hope” (13). When it does come, the brutal honesty in the novel is often more monstrous than humanizing. Yet with considerable grace, Moore’s book thinks through not only the nature of regret, but also the cost of moving on.
Beginning in the fall of 2001, 9/11 is overshadowed by Tassie’s more mundane experiences like moving away from home, first loves, choosing university courses, and living with her roommate, Elizabeth (‘Murph’). Moore captures the essence of a young college student—living within walking distance from her job, driving a Suzuki motorbike, and playing bass guitar (perhaps a wink at her own undergraduate experience when Moore played piano). But she adds dimension, as well, balancing Tassie’s memories of her parents with observations about the sort of family her employers, Sarah and Edward, create. Tassie’s job as a nanny for Sarah and Edward pulls into the novel acute critiques of the adoption industry and foster system, weaving in reflections on race and economic class. Falling precisely between wit and discomfort, Moore’s best scenes that walk this line include birth mother interviews, Sarah’s Wednesday night meetings on racial difference, and Tassie’s reflections on the limited opportunities in the small town she’s left (especially for her younger brother).
Moore’s previous books include three collections of short stories, Self Help (1985), Like Life (1990), and Birds of America. Most of the stories in Self Help were written during Moore’s MFA at Cornell University, and the manuscript was accepted for publication by Knopf in 1983 when she was 26. When Like Life followed, the story “You’re Ugly, Too” was her first to be published in the New Yorker. Many of the twelve stories in Birds of America include a child in difficult circumstances—a theme from her last published book that carries over into A Gate at the Stairs with the baby Tassie looks after, and extends to adolescents with her boyfriend Reynaldo, and her brother back home. Childhood is one of Moore’s recurring topics, especially central in her children’s Christmas book The Forgotten Helper, and the anthology she edited, I Know Some Things: Stories About Childhood By Contemporary Writers (Faber & Faber, 1992). Moore has also penned two earlier novels before A Gate at the Stairs. Her first novel, Anagrams (1986) is a playful narrative about Benna Carpenter and Gerard Maines. Cosmopolitan reviews Anagrams as "cleverly constructed and enchanting, full of funny one-liners and sharp observations about life for the over-30s. It is also, under the sparkle, deeply moving, playful and ingenious, as one would expect." In her subsequent novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994), Moore offers a portrait of friendship between Berie Carr and Sils. Edward Albee reflects, "As usual, this book is filled with wonders and startlements of language and conclusion.”
Moore was born in 1957 in Glens Falls, NY and grew up in a family of six. She received her first writing award when she 19 and Seventeen magazine published her winning story. Moore majored in English at St. Lawrence University, and after completing her degree, moved to Manhattan to work as a paralegal. In 1980, she attended Cornell’s MFA program. She is a professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she has taught for twenty-five years. Her fiction has won three O. Henry awards, six Best American Short Story Awards, and one of her works appears in Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. In 2004, Moore received the Rea award for short fiction, and in 2006, was admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Charmaine Cadeau is a doctorial student in UAlbany’s English Department and a program assistant at the Writers Institute.