Writers Institute stands tall at 20

By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer
First published: Friday, April 30, 2004

Over the course of two decades and three different locations on the University at Albany campus, the New York State Writers Institute has never had to wallpaper or add a fresh coat of paint.

Their walls are plastered with framed, autographed poster portraits of more than 800 visiting writers it has hosted in the past 20 years. That includes eight Nobel laureates, a couple dozen Pulitzer Prize winners and scores of authors who though virtually unknown at the time of their initial visit have gone on to achieve resounding acclaim.

Starting with Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison, who kicked off the series in 1984, the posters-as-wallpaper motif has spread, multiplied and morphed like some sort of literary ectoplasm.

Scanning the writerly visages is like flipping through a world atlas -- Isabel Allende, John Montague, Constantin Costa-Gavras, Nadine Gordimer, Derek Walcott, Xue Di, Chinua Achebe -- and a visual rewind of two decades of luminous, spellbinding conversations on the literary craft.

"Someone early on said we were 'multiculturalism without the pain,' recalled founding director William Kennedy, who started the Writers Institute with a small amount of seed money he took from the MacArthur "genius" grant he had just won.

"We were trying to be entertaining, to fill a vacuum in Albany and to challenge the traditional notion in the academy that living writers were not worth teaching, or shouldn't be taken seriously," Kennedy said.

Top drawer

Through the tenacity of its staff, funding from the state Legislature and a fiercely loyal following, the Writers Institute has grown into the nation's pre-eminent literary series.

"It's the best I've come across in the country -- top-drawer," said Russell Banks, the author of "Cloudsplitter," "The Sweet Hereafter" and other novels and short stories.

"It provides an essential, two-pronged function for both readers and writers," said Banks, of Saratoga Springs, who has read his work at the Writers Institute on several occasions. "It enriches readers (and) brings writers into contact with a well-read, informed audience. That's very gratifying for a writer."

The fledgling, nameless literary group initially worked out of the English department office of Kennedy's close friend, Tom Smith.

"It started out low-key and casual, and we just put our heads down and went forward," said Albany author Jeanne Finley, the first staffer. "We were crammed into Tom's office and all of a sudden we had 1,200 people for Saul Bellow and turned hundreds away for Toni Morrison. We went from dreaming about literature to crowd control in a few months."

In 1985, the organization was formally named by the state Legislature, began receiving annual state funding and selected a state author and poet as part of its official mandate.

"As a university, it was one of the first times we totally engaged the community in a way that elevated the spirit and enriched those who came into contact with it," said outgoing UAlbany President Karen Hitchcock.

Free and open

The Writers Institute has brought the world of great literature to Albany's doorstep. Not to mention 400 classic movie screenings. And 250 additional readings during the Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.

And for 20 year, its events have always remained free and open to the public.

"All kinds of average Albanians who might have thought this was 'Smallbany' have had their horizons broadened by the wonderful opportunities the Writers Institute has provided to the community," said Assemblyman Jack McEneny, D-Albany, a frequent attendee.

Like other longtime fans of the writers' series, McEneny has vivid memories of hanging out out at Ristorante Paradiso in Albany after readings, and enjoying a nightcap with the likes of Shelby Foote, Frank McCourt and John F. Kennedy Jr.

"It's one of the greatest cultural resources in the Capital Region," said William Patrick, a Troy poet, screenwriter and teacher who has been a writer-in-residence at the Writers Institute three different years. He joined the New York State Summer Young Writers Institute at Silver Bay on Lake George in 1999. He estimated he's attended at least 200 events in the series, and counts Stephen Sondheim, Billy Collins, William Styron and Tobias Wolff among his favorites.

"There hasn't been a writer of note in the last 20 years who hasn't come through, and I've got so many vivid memories of their appearances over the years," said Joe Gagen of Albany, a filmmaker and longtime friend of Kennedy's. Gagen and his wife, Vera, threw parties at their house early on for nonfiction master Gay Talese, director Hal Ashby and others.

"I remember sitting across from Ray Carver at dinner, and he was so funny and lovely and a little off-center," Gagen said. "And I was thinking that he seemed the embodiment of his stories more than any other writer I'd met." Carver died of cancer in 1988, a few months after his reading in Albany.

Greatest hits

There is a greatest-hits quality to the roster of the writers' series, subjective and personal.

Who could forget John Updike, apologizing for a stammer, reading a brilliant, 30-page formal lecture on Herman Melville?

Or Norman Mailer and Mary Gordon nearly coming to blows over a discussion of feminism and writing?

Or David Sedaris riffing on his eccentric family and making the audience laugh so hard that 600 people were on the verge of wetting their pants?

After one decade of growing and expanding its programs, Smith, the midwife to Kennedy's notion, died after a heart attack on Sept. 26, 1994, at the age of 63.

Eugene Garber, UAlbany emeritus English professor and a fiction writer, was brought in as acting director to help run day-to-day operations.

"The staff was grief-stricken," Garber recalled. "Tom was a genius. Nobody could fill his shoes."

Garber followed the template that Smith set in place and was the beneficiary of the organizational skills of loyal staffers, including assistant director Suzanne Lance and Judy Axenson, administrative assistant and Web master.

"Just trying to manage the archives after 20 years is overwhelming," said Lance, who rides herd on a room overflowing with thousands of hours of audio, video and typed transcripts of nearly every visiting artist.

"We never dreamed it would become this big," said Axenson, whose Web site generates over 100,000 hits a month. Contributors include Kevin Hagopian, a film scholar and lecturer at Penn State University, who writes the commentary on classic films.

A certain maturity

Donald Faulkner, hired as director in the fall of 1995, had run a writers series at Yale and took the Writers Institute to the next level.

"I think after 20 years we've emerged from childhood and adolescence, and have achieved a certain maturity," Faulkner said. "We're recognized now as a cultural treasure. We offer the most consistently compelling set of cultural programming in the region."

A new project for Faulkner will be to serve as general editor for an upcoming series of themed anthologies based on author interviews in their archives. The first of eight planned collections will be published by the State University of New York Press beginning next year.

Along the way, the Writers Institute hasn't forgotten to nurture aspiring local authors, said Mary McCarthy, president of the Hudson Valley Writers Guild.

"They support local writers and have been helpful to our organization in many ways," said McCarthy, including a boost with the recent publication of a collection of work by local writers.

Richard Russo, a Gloversville native and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Empire Falls," has visited the Writers Institute a few times and considers it a pleasant homecoming.

"I've traveled a lot for readings, but the Writers Institute is the top of the heap," said Russo, who lives in Camden, Maine. "It's a class operation in every aspect."

Russo said his emotions after a visit to Albany are different from what he has felt in other cities.

"I go to read at some places and when I leave, I'm thinking, 'That was awful. I'll never go back there again,' " Russo said. "After I've been to the Writers Institute, I'm thinking, 'Man, that was fun. I hope I'm invited back.' "


Founded: spring 1984

First visiting writer: Saul Bellow

Visiting writers (1984-2004): more than 800

Classic Film Series screenings: 400, plus 42 mini-festivals

Panel discussions/performances: 45

Major conferences: 18

Writers-in-residence: 25

Source: New York State Writers Institute

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