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Finding Writing Space for a Guggenheim

by Greta Petry (April 7, 2006)

Lynne Tillman

Lynne Tillman

Lynne Tillman, professor and writer in residence in the Department of English, College of Arts and Sciences, has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Tillman, a novelist, short story writer, and essayist, plans to start a new novel with the time and funding the award provides.

Tillman's fifth novel American Genius, a Comedy (Softskull Press) will be published in October. Her previous novels are No Lease on Life (1997), a New York Times Notable Book of 1998 and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Cast in Doubt (1992), Motion Sickness (1991), and Haunted Houses (1987). In addition, she has published three books of short stories, an essay collection, and two other nonfiction books.

On hearing the news, Department of English Chair Stephen North said, "The Guggenheim Foundation prides itself on 'identifying exceptionally gifted men and women whose contribution to our nation's educational and cultural well-being has been profound.' We are therefore delighted with the foundation's recognition of what English department faculty and students already knew: that Lynne Tillman belongs in that company."

Tillman joined the University at Albany as an associate professor and writer in residence in spring 2002, and was promoted to professor last year. In the spring, she divides her time between her home in Manhattan, where she writes, and teaching at UAlbany two days a week. During the spring semester, she teaches Eng 516, a graduate fiction writing workshop, and Eng 302Z, advanced writing for undergraduates.

"I am having such a great time this semester," said Tillman. "My students are really engaged. You are only as good as your students. You really need students who want to learn."

The daughter of a homemaker who painted and took art classes, and a father who designed fabrics and manufactured textiles, Tillman wanted to be a writer from the age of 8. "I loved it," she said. "I found myself in writing. The strange thing is - I did it - I became what I wanted to be when I was 8 years old."

Raised in Woodmere, Long Island, Tillman didn't think much of suburban life and chronicled her thoughts about it in her first "novel," The Suburbanites. She was 10.

With such focus and determination, did she set out to take courses in college that would lead her to her goal?

"No," she said. "As a teenager I was somewhat dissident and rebellious. I hated high school, even when I liked my classes."

Her two older sisters were out of college by the time she was thinking about higher education. "I told my father at one point, 'I don't want to go to college,'" Tillman recalled. Instead of arguing with her, he suggested career options like driving a taxi because she likes to drive, or being a receptionist because she likes talking on the phone. She ended up choosing Hunter College.

Tillman said, "I'm glad I did. I needed to be in New York City. Hunter felt less like a college because it was in the city. Park Avenue and Central Park were my campus."

Tillman loves writing though it's peculiar work.

"A writer needs a high degree of solitude and concentration, so I have to separate myself from daily life in order to write. Otherwise, I will look around and focus on how my succulent plant should be moved into the sun. Or just watch my cats, Louis, a Russian blue mix, and Chester, a tabby, sitting in the sun," she said. Tillman lives in Manhattan with her husband, David Hofstra, a bass player.

She looks for chunks of writing time, sometimes heading to the MacDowell Art Colony in New Hampshire for solitude, or, as she did with her last novel, renting an office near her apartment for eight months.

At UAlbany, Tillman shares an appointment with Lydia Davis, with Tillman teaching in the spring and Davis in the fall. Right now, Davis is on leave, and Le Anne Schreiber is teaching in the fall.

There is a visual element to Tillman's writing, perhaps instilled in her by her parents' affinity for color and design. In This is Not It, her most recent story collection, for example, each piece is prefaced by a photo of an artist's original work, which inspired the story. "This is an illuminated manuscript as precise and clear as it is associative and mysterious, as funny as it is grave, as merciless as it is profoundly compassionate," wrote Tony Kushner.

"Visual culture has always been very important to me," Tillman said. "From an early age, movies, TV, and going to museums were influences. All my electives in college were in studio art."

For Tillman, writing is hard work. "You come to a point where you know you have a talent, you recognize it. You can write. But talent just opens the door. Then, you either have to work really hard or you don't do it. It doesn't just happen. You work very hard and you teach yourself how to write," she said.

What would her advice be to a UAlbany student who aspires to be a writer one day? Read, read, read.

"It is very important," Tillman said, "to read widely and a lot. Other writers help you learn about structure, word choice, and rhythms. The history of writing is in writing. Without your having read, there will always be a great gap in your own work. As Virginia Woolf said, 'Books continue each other.' "

Choosing to make one's living from writing is not easy.

"If you want to be a fiction writer, you're not making a rational choice," she said, smiling. "You have to have tremendous desire. And persistence. No one is going to say to you, 'Go and be a fiction writer.' "

She added, "You have to be a little insane, maybe. You do this because you have to. It is a necessity for you, even though it won't necessarily make you happy."

Some of her favorite authors? "I think more in terms of individual books": from Jane Bowles, who also grew up in Woodmere, the novel Two Serious Ladies; all of Paula Fox (who, at 83, is "brilliant"); Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth; Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Henry James's The Golden Bowl; all of Jean Rhys; Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March; and Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz and The Wounded and the Saved. Her favorite theorist is Freud.


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