Saturday, November 10, 2007

In Homage and Appreciation of Norman Mailer: A Re-Posting of an NYSWIblog: Norman Mailer Visits the Institute on May Day: A Note by William Kennedy

A Re-Posting of a blog item from May 3 07 [In Memoriam Norman Mailer]

A note by Donald Faulkner to precede a note by William Kennedy:

To re-state a phrase I have used elsewhere on this site, We had us a time.

I was intending to blog some reflections on Norman Mailer's Institute visit and asked Bill Kennedy to share some quick takes with me. His response captured the time brilliantly, so I offer a tip of my hat and post it as presented to me. And I offer due thanks to him for sharing more than random thoughts. Indeed, this more like the old fashioned Talk of the Town piece The New Yorker used to post. We welcome the the tone and spirit of the offering. We'll write some other stuff on the event and the day, but this gets it just right.

Norman Mailer in Albany.

In an Esquire magazine interview Norman gave a few months back he said that physically, he was failing. And he does walk with canes because of the punishment his knees give him (especially when he has to climb four flights to his apartment in Brooklyn). Also he developed asthma about a year or so ago, and he did have a heavy by-pass in recent years. So I asked him, What about this failing? And he said "it's only the extremities," and that was accurate. He flew up to Albany in the afternoon from New York, sat still for an hour's interview at the Hampton Inn -- on devils, god, incest in Hitler's family, the non-fiction novel, the novel as history, the novelist vs. the historian, his approach to Hitler being maybe the most challenging of all his historical undertakings. (Though Ancient Egypt consumed more years). Then he socialized at the Kennedy digs on Dove Street, tossed back a couple of rums with orange juice, headed straight for the Green Room at Page Hall where he sat in the gloom alone for maybe half an hour -- which he always does -- to sharpen his focus on the next word; and then he emerged onto Page's bright stage (after checking the size of the audience -- 600? at least, which he liked). And then he went full-tilt at the reading from his novel, 'The Castle in the Forest,' followed by forty minutes of questions, carrying it off with zest, wit, and the unveiling of his new persona (new for many in the audience). The new Norman Mailer (the old one was an atheist for 45 years) now believes in god, the devil, associate devils -- one of them narrates his novel -- and the new Norman also has less fear of death for he now accepts the concept of reincarnation; and also of God, who haunts so much of his work. He now sees God as an existentialist who fails in his creations maybe as much as he succeeds (dinosaurs were a disaster). He will do one more gig this month and then go back to Provincetown where he will focus on a new collection of essays -- on theology -- he's now reading William James and Niebuhr, among many others. Nine or so essays are already written. He will also return, most seriously, to the ongoing challenge that his research on Hitler created for him. He has a vision of following the Fuhrer through maybe 1932, but then there's the war, the holocaust, the bunker, and it could easily be a trilogy. What will he do with it all? He'll try to figure it out up on the Cape. He's very mindful of the shortening of time for him, but it hasn't stopped his imagination from moving forward as it always has -- with vitality and originality. Also, when leaving the restaurant after a late supper, he was asked would he come back to Albany. "Oh yes indeed," he said, and then with a bit of a wink, "god willing."

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Monday, November 5, 2007

Andrea Barrett Visits

Andrea Barrett visited the Institute last week. Langdon Brown, Institute Fellow, delivered a fine introduction for her, and she then went on to give a powerful reading from her new novel, "The Air We Breathe."

Here's Langdon Brown's introduction:

It’s a pleasure to welcome back to the Writers Institute tonight’s guest Andrea Barrett, a writer who involves us like no other in the joy of discovering the world around us. She is a remarkable weaver of tales that treat readers to imaginative journeys through our natural universe in the company of vivid characters whose thirst for understanding about that universe and the mysteries of their own emotional lives leaves us quite dazzled by the complex implications of each moment of every human life. Critics have long celebrated her special gift for connecting the passion for scientific discovery with the more familiar literary preoccupation of romantic passion, but this idea can only be the start of appreciating the craft and skill that defines a writer who celebrates humanity’s passions in so comprehensive a fashion as to approach exegesis. In reading her we become alert to possibilities we were unaware of, to connections between people and the natural processes of the world around them, to the mysteries of people’s connection to their families, to those they love and to those with whom they compete and toil. This is nowhere more evident, it seems to me, than in her elegant depiction of relationships carried on despite barriers of time and space and the mystifying threads that bind two beings separated as, for example, Max and Clara in Servants of the Map. The paradox of the quest for self and its relationship to the quest for love cannot be depicted with more transparency or more shattering honesty than it is in this writer’s hands.

Critics, in attempting to describe her work, repeat words like engrossing, stylish, detailed, uncanny, intelligent, devastating, provocative and stunning. I would return to words like affinity and wholeness though to attempt to touch the special nature of this work for me as a reader. Just as her stories and novels connect one to the other through shared characters and heritage, the writing allows us to sense affinities between separated eras, disparate ideas, natural phenomena, world political movements and brings us back always to the bond between individual humans, a bond indelibly etched by her writing in the unforgettable interactions and conversations between her characters. The reader’s experience of these characters and their lives is enriched by the skillful manipulation of point of view including in her latest work one of the most democratic narrative strategies I can think of. This technique gives the reader the gift of receiving information the way the characters do, or in a sense, the way we do in life, not simply or reliably or from a single source. I imagine that this reading experience must recall something like that enjoyed by the first readers of Ibsen, who accomplished something similar in dramatic writing. In fact, I find that when I recall an earlier work like Ship Fever, for instance, I find myself remembering it more in the shape and form of real events than I do those from literature.

In the obligatory preemptive eulogy required of introducers I note with admiration that critics and award dispensers have been generous and wise in recognizing Andrea Barrett’s work. She received the National Book Award for her 1992 collection of short stories titled Ship Fever. Her 2002 Servants of the Map was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and its title novella was anthologized in Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Awards volume. She received a 2001 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, a 2003 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was a Guggenheim Fellow and a Fellow at the Center for Writers and Scholars at the New York Public Library.

In her new book, The Air We Breathe, we are transported to a richly imagined version of our very own Adirondacks, specifically Saranac Lake reborn and fictionalized as Tamarack Lake, where tuberculosis patients counter the boredom of their rest cures with gossip and a weekly discussion group promoting the intrigue and betrayal leading to the story’s central catastrophe. Hanging over the characters are the threatening events surrounding the First World War and the United States’ involvement in that conflict. When these events reawaken and encourage dangerous attitudes toward ethnicity and immigrants, the larger world crashes in on the small community and changes it and its inhabitants forever. In this as in other work Ms. Barrett stimulates thoughtful reflection on troubling and very current issues without moralizing or sentimentalizing. Her transparent prose and deft handling of character and incident permit an oddly serene contemplation of the most disturbing and turbulent events while permitting, or perhaps insisting, on our reflection on our own world and the cyclical catastrophes we visit upon ourselves without mercy. In this work as in earlier writing she engages and synthesizes lyric, epic and dramatic modes in a compelling story-telling form that allows us access to profound and private levels of mental experience. This is perhaps nowhere more true than in her shattering depiction of the human compulsion to gossip, the damage wreaked by such behavior and the strangely serene manner in which we move on from the havoc thus wreaked. One phenomenon among the many tonight’s guest subjects to her wise and thoughtful pen. Please welcome back to the Writers Institute Andrea Barrett.

Langdon Brown
November 1, 2007

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

What a Week!

What a run! Start off the week with novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, followed by playwright Elizabeth Wong, followed by Nate Mackey, Nat'l Book Award-winning poet, followed by a live-accompaniment screening of Pabst's "Pandora's Box," followed by a great conference in the Adirondacks, organized by Littap, Just Buffalo, and NYSCA, the New York State Council on the Arts.

This current session is still going strong with a reading by Russell Banks and Chase Twichell.

Because of the the slow autumn, this is peak leaf weekend in the Adirondacks, and there's nothing better than to sit at Blue Mountain Lake. Simply gorgeous. Many thanks are due to Laurie Dean Torrell from Just Buffalo, and the lovely, most graceful Kathleen Masterson, head of the literature program at NYSCA.

So many wonderful people met, and a special salute to the New York State Council on the Arts' new chief, Heather Hitchens.

But the best thing of all was to be reunited with old friend Bob Holman, one of the best friends that literature could know. Cheers to you, Whole Earth Bob!

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We had a great time with the remarkably talented Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has quickly become the best-known Nigerian novelist after the master, Chinua Achebe (in whose house she grew up - a university house leased to her parents after Achebe left for another teaching post). What synchrony!

The head of the region's Nigerian civic organization rose from the audience to salute her for making Nigerian-Americans proud. It was a touching moment.

We also talked with Michael Janairo of the Albany Times Union. He had done a fine preview feature-interview with Chimamanda and has posted some more of his interview materials on his Books Blog, A Conspiracy of Smart People

We salute him on his enthusiasm and good work.

There is also a remarkable website on Chimamanda's work:

It is managed by a Belgian librarian and is without doubt the most comprehensive website I've seen on a contemporary author. If you go to the site, note that all of the bibiographic citations are hotlinks. A remarkable effort.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Lessing, eh; kudos for Lydia Davis, Kany and Jonathan Spence

We were surprised and, well, underwhelmed by the choice of Doris Lessing for the Nobel. Well, we're happy for anyone who succeeds, but geez. There was a time when "Golden Notebook" and Simone de Beauvoir's "Second Sex" were de riguer reading for women as well as men trying to find their way through the sexual politics of a couple of generations ago. But Simone was poorly translated and misunderstood, and Lessing read as though she were poorly translated until one realized she had written in English. This is a lot like the William Goldman choice - maybe the Swedish Academy gets better translations than what appear in the original.

More important to us is that Lydia Davis, Institute Fellow, was nominated for a National Book Award. Now there's a writer.

Today was an Institute "long day" - in co-operation with people at our host, the University at Albany, the Institute organized a double visit by Kang Zhengguo and Jonathan Spence.

This was a homerun hit: Mr. Kang's "Confessions," a window onto the world of China in the heinous Cultural Revolution (which Jonathan Spence described as neither cultural nor revolutionary) is a landmark of writing about the time and stands with Da Chen's remarkable series of memoirs on the same period. Kang, whose English is good nonetheless worked effectively with Albany professor Jim Hargett who engaged in a translation/conversation/dialogue with Kang as Kang described his last trip to China, during which he was targeted by secret police who tried to draw him into a compromising web, and then physically tried to detain him. Kang, who was visiting his son in Shanghai barely escaped through the strange product of western influence on China's buildings: the upscale code entry system for apartment buildings that we see in New York. As he scuffled with the secret police, Kang was able to punch in his son's apartment entry security code, enter the building, and slam the door shut on his antagonists. What was pleasurable about the presentation was that Kang chose to tell his story in Chinese with Hargett as the on-scene interpreter. Kang would go on in his native languauge with an animated and engaging story. Hargett would enunciate, "Oh my," and then translate the next section of the long tale. It kept the engaged audience anxiously waiting for the next step of the story. Good fun, a great book, and a great individual, that Mr. Kang, a man who was willing to risk serious jail-time to read Pasternak's "Dr Zhivago."

"Do we love Jonathan Spence or what?" someone said to us on the occasion of his later afternoon presentation. Spence, who exhibits the kind of cool yet passionate, cunning yet scholarly mix that has won him lauds as an educator at Yale, and numerous prizes, among them a MacArthur, was in fine form. His "Return to Dragon Mountain," an exquisite book with all of the echoes of a Calvino novel and with a hero, Zhang Dai, a man of beyond Proustian brilliance, naturally carried the day. We would venture to say that since the passing of Shelby Foote, no one has been able to write as powerful a narrative sense of history as Spence. Look at the Circles of Pleasure section of "Return to Dragon Mountain." You'll see in a heartbeat.

A salute to all mentioned here.

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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Institute Fall Series; Nobel Sweepstakes

As the Writers Institute website morphs and grows, it's clear that there's a lot of updating ahead. The Summer wasn't quite completed, and the Fall Series is already going great guns, with Jane Hamilton, Kim Edwards, and native son Richard Russo. We'll write on each, especially Russo's sense that a) he does still live in New York State, albeit in his his head, and b) that in an almost jungian projection and balancing, Russo feels the three main characters of his new novel, Bridge of Sighs, are three essential parts of his his own psyche.

But enough of that for now. It's Nobel literature laureate prognostication time, and we're amazed that punters are attracted to Ladbrokes's current odds for winning the Prize, which will be announced on Thursday, October 11, when most Americans, or Western Hemispherians, potential winners among them, will be asleep.

Philip Roth has moved in the time time of my writing from 6 to 2 to 5 to 1 to 7 to 2. He remains leader of the pack no matter that, as a writer friend says, he makes him weary of being a man (allusion to the Neruda poem). Here's the current Labrokes's list - though the list will likely change within minutes of our posting.

Our sentimental favorites include Yves Bonnefoy, Claudio Magris (has anyone in America read him?), Chinua Achebe, Alice Munro, and well, because we're fond of Aussies, Les Murray. But where are John Ashbery, or Charles Simic? Or Nurrudin Farah? In time.

The Institute has brought through more than one-third of the writers listed, but there are a number of writers on the Ladbrokes list who are either unknown to us or so longshot that it's not worth the effort of speculation (JK Rowling, Bob Dylan, etc. - no matter that writers in these part love Dylan).

Our best guess: the award is always political without being political, so it's unlikely for an American to win,but Roth is Roth. Then there's Munro (front-row Canadian), Bonnefoy, Achebe, Magris, or some Mayanmar poet who has been laboring in obscurity and pain but who will be celebrated like a record-breaking NFL undrafted free agent.

Here are the current odds from a european-based bunch of brokers who don't read:

Philip Roth 7/2
Claudio Magris 6/1
Haruki Murakami 7/1
Thomas Transtromer 7/1
Amos Oz 8/1
Joyce Carol Oates 8/1
Les Murray 8/1
Adonis 10/1
Thomas Pynchon 10/1
Ko Un 14/1
Yves Bonnefoy 16/1
Cees Nooteboom 20/1
Margaret Atwood 20/1
Antoni Tabucchi 25/1
Milan Kundera 25/1
Assia Djebar 25/1
Bei Dao 25/1
Don DeLillo 25/1
Hugo Claus 25/1
Jean Marie Gustav Le Clezio 25/1
Mahmoud Darwish 25/1
Peter Carey 25/1
Alice Munro 40/1
Carlos Fuentes 40/1
Eric Elmsatr 40/1
Gitta Sereny 40/1
Harry Mulisch 40/1
Herta Muller 40/1
Ian McEwan 40/1
Inger Christensen 40/1
John Updike 40/1
Willy Kyrklund 40/1
Chinua Achebe 50/1
Cormac McCarthy 50/1
David Malouf 50/1
Mario Vargas Llosa 50/1
Michel Tournier 50/1
Umberto Ecco 50/1
A. B. Yehoshua 100/1
Adam Zagajewski 100/1
E. L. Doctorow 100/1
Eeva Kilpi 100/1
F. Sionil Jose 100/1
J K Rowling 100/1
John Banville 100/1
Julian Barnes 100/1
Mary Gordon 100/1
Michael Ondaatje 100/1
Patrick Modiano 100/1
Paul Auster 100/1
Salman Rushdie 100/1
William H Gass 100/1
Bob Dylan 150/1
2007-10-11 11:00:00

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Updates on Oates, McGrath, Prose

Joyce Carol Oates read on the last days of Hemingway Wednesday night. She's JCO. What can one say?

And tonight, Thursday, remarkable Ecco Press poet Campbell McGrath read 30 haiku focused on the New Jersey coast in summer, a series of poems surrounding Miami, including one on Lincoln Avenue; and another mentioning Books and Books, the fine Coral Gables bookstore; and another reflecting Hurricane Wilma; and yet another on a toad in a garden fountain. His delightful reflection on all American poets being the children of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickenson took the subject literally, and looked at a house from the standpoint of children now fumbling through the leavings of now absent parents. McGrath is a true talent.

In the split reading, our old friend Francine Prose returned and read a nonfiction piece about a bus station that involved fiction techniques and a fiction piece, a supposedly lost letter from Felice to Kafka, written long after Kafka's death, written at the time that Kafka's letters to Felice were sold for publication. The piece, strange and funny and wondrous, was a tour de force.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Dancing in the Dark

Saratoga and the region suffered a huge power outage and the Skidmore campus, where the Summer Writers Institute is located, went on to generator backup, but that failed, and so a packed auditorium of 150 people sat patiently and enthusiastically in darkness and listened to Charles Simic heroically read his poetry by the light of some flashlights and battery powered camping lamps. Never seen any thing like it, and no one there will likely forget those marvelously odd, strangely surreal poems read, perhaps for the first time, in an environment perfectly suited to them.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Descartes and Rumford

James Miller and our old kinsman, Nick Delbanco read tonight. The former on a particular philosopher, the latter on a polymath who seems to have transcended categorization. Both historical figure, the one was presented in fact, the other in a rollicking, bawdy fiction somewhere among Richardson, Boswell, and, well Tom Jones himself, if he could write.

James Miller read from his new work on brief lives of philosophers (from Socrates and Aristotle to Kant and Nietszche). A very interesting idea, to focus biographies on the subjects least likely to admit to having lives: philosophers - seekers of truth and students of the queen of the sciences. James Miller read parts of his sections on Descartes, and we commend anyone who can lift Descartes back in to shared reality. Long we remember the Discourse on Method, and the Meditations, but Miller took us back, at least twenty years before their publications to recorded journals and diary notes that make Descartes appear somewhere between a jesuitical buddhist focused on the supreme eternal and a pre-freudian on the awareness of self and consciousness, the philosophically famous cogito.

We did not get the whole ball of wax, but Miller left us poised on a cliff's edge between Descartes's sense of meditation and dream, and Descartes sense of a divine force. One gets the impression Miller, who did after all write an intellectual study of Foucault (might there be another type?), will look at least deeper into Descartes's dreams, one of which was articulated by a voice that first said, "Yes, and No."

Nick Delbanco, a man of brightness, vivacity, and measure wrote from his finally completed effort of some twenty years, "The Count of Concord," (due in the spring of 08 from Dalkey Archive), a fictionalized life of Count Rumford, whom Delbanco described as one of FDR's choices for the three greatest Americans: Franklin, Jefferson, and Rumford.

Research Rumford on your own and you'll find that he was a very Ben Franklin-like figure, inventing things at will: from efficient stoves to elegant gardens. The historically accurate Rumford Delbanco gives us is charming, lascivious, sparkling with with and imagination. His reading was a sheer tour de force of nearly over-the-top echoes of eighteenth century purple prose that had people joyously laughing, to a point where Delbanco had to quiet them by breaking his reading mode and addressing the audience: "Look, it's the 18th century!"

There hasn't been a more delightful reading so far in the Summer Institute season so far.

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Sunday, July 8, 2007

A Conversation about Compassion and Writers

After Michael Ondaatje's reading there was a lot of talk about NANCA, the North American Network of Cities of Asylum ( Board members Russell Banks, Caryl Phillips, Carolyn Forche, and Michael Ondaatje were all on site and held an informal meeting. The Writers Institute remains very much interested in the project, and will seek to help in whatever way we can.

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Friday, July 6, 2007

A Nonfiction Night

Linda Spalding read tonight from her new book "Who Named the Knife: A Book of Murder and Memory". It focuses on a murder in Hawaii, where she was living at the time, but it also focuses on the murder's aftermath. Astonishingly.

So it was ironically appropriate that Caryl Phillips, known to us as Caz, read from his forthcoming book, Foreigners, a piece about a Nigerian homeless man in Leeds, a man who might well have been killed by the local police. Beyond that Caz read a terrifically moving piece of autobiography - in 10 chapters as he said - each about as long as the blink of an eye. But it was about as moving as a piece of work could be.

And all the way home we listened to Bruce Springsteen singing "I came for you."

Cheers to all.

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Thursday, July 5, 2007

Independence Day

Frank Bidart, as Mary Gordon so aptly said, sets the bar high. The two read together last night, 4th of July, and to be purposely trite, they created their own fireworks. Mary Gordon's story about a divorced woman and the cleaning girl who becomes her personal assistant has a perfect roundness, the projections of the woman, a writer, on to the cipher of Dillie, the girl, mark the writer's own movement through loss to re-inventing her own life. In the process the very nature of writing is put into question in a most compelling way.

Something is happening with Frank Bidart's poetry. Known widely as a writer of long poems, dramatic poems, book-length poems, Frank Bidart has turned to lyric poetry, and the power of his work has become more concentrated, so that one feels the impact of his work like a body blow. In a brief piece on Marilyn Monroe, Bidart writes: "what you came from is craziness, what your/ mother and her mother came from is// craziness, panic of the animal/ smelling what you have in store for it."

More to come.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Independence Day Greetings

Tonight, Frank Bidart and Mary Gordon read - 8pm Palamountain Hall on the Skidmore Campus in Saratoga Springs. Wonderful day here, wonderful.

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Help Us Get the Word Out

Happy Fourth!

Liz Benedict read with Katha Pollitt on the 3rd of July, and the two were dynamic. Liz, who has worked extensively with the Institute read new work and a fun piece about sex-blogging (of all things) that she published with fellow teacher James Miller in his edited Dedaelus.

We slipped away to hear Jason Moran and his post-jazz trio, who were playing in the Summer Jazz Institute.

Wow. His "Artist in Residence" on EMI is one of the best Cd's we've heard in a long while.

We've agreed that we should focus on fashion across the summer. Peg Boyers wears a beautiful Missoni shawl. Marry Gordon wears beautifully symmetrical shoes. Frank Bidart's classic black on black on black on black is well saluted, as is the fact that William Kennedy inherited his father's 200 ties.

Let us look ahead to our literary 4th of July.

Cheers to all!

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Monday, July 2, 2007

New York State Summer Writers Institute opens

For all of us July brings a bounce in spirit and a sense of the magical. But at the Summer Writers Institute (AND the Summer Young Writers Institute this week at Lake George), there is a zany sense of possibility. Writers from all over gather, talk, share their work, and enjoy the pleasure of summer in Saratoga. We will try and blog through most of the time - tonight Lloyd Schwartz stood in for Richard Howard, our traditional opener.

Tomorrow, Liz Benedict and Katha Pollitt share the podium, and from there it's a week-long race with Mary Gordon, Caz Phillips, Linda Spalding, and Michael Ondaatje.

Join us for events at Palamountain Hall on the Skidmore Campus, or consider our retreats to the Parting Glass for darts, or the garden at the Adelphi Hotel after our receptions in Case Hall, but better, don't. Let us retreat in privacy and comfort and congeniality. We will demonstrate enough of that in our readings. Welcome to the glorious summer!

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Game Ahead

As most of you know the Institute goes warp speed through July with the single most impressive run of authors that we're aware of.

But the fall season plans proceed apace and it seems worth mentioning a few highlights: Jane Hamilton, Richard Russo, Chimananda Adichi, Nate Mackey, Andrea Barrett, Chris Hedges, and Tom Perrotta among them. Follow our regular website, which is soon to undergo some exterior remodeling, to see what can be seen.

In the meanwhile the search for three new Institute faculty continues and will be soon done.

Along with our acquisition of Fence magazine this marks the largest single period of expansion in the Institute's recent history.

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Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Greetings from Paris

One always expects to meet someone on the streets of Paris. On the Rue Daguerre in the 14th Arondissement in May one could run into anyone of note - Agnes Varda maintains her atelier on the street, and Irish poet John Montague used to live many years ago at #11. The Montparnasse cemetery, just a couple of blocks over has most of the people in Paris one would want to meet: Baudelaire, Robert Desnos, Julio Cortazar, Cesar Vallejo, Ionesco, new arrival Susan Sontag, and Samuel Beckett. And so, after a homage visit to Beckett's grave it was quite a fine surprise to run into one of Beckett's last late-life companions, John Montague, and his wife, novelist Elizabeth Wassel, about twenty steps from Montague's old address.

John Montague was writer-in-residence at the Writers Institute for nearly ten years and the the totally unanticipated chance of running into him and Elizabeth, who now live in Nice was, well, stunningly grand. One could do such things on Grafton Street in Dublin before Dublin became europeanized, but running into Montague in Paris on his home street after not seeing him for six years was cause for celebration, which was conducted in due time at the Cafe Prenet on Rue Daguerre. It doesn't get any better than that.

We will post some photos of Montague and Lizzie in due course and will tell more Paris stories.

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Sunday, May 6, 2007

Lucy Anne Hurston Remembers her Aunt Zora

To launch the Region's "Big Read" of Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God," Zora's niece Lucy came to the Writers Institute to talk of the novel, her aunt, and the Oprah-produced film of the novel, a TV-movie that aired in 2005 and starred Halle Berry as Janie, a 45 year-old woman. The best that can said about the film is that it got 300,000 more people to read the novel, and to help them understand that a great work of literature involves more than, well, swinging from a chandelier.

Lucy Anne Hurston gave an embodied sense of her aunt's free spirit as she spoke with grace and forthrightness about Zora's unusual life, her celebrated blow-up with Langston Hughes, and the spirit-breaking humiliation of Zora's being called before a grand jury in a trumped-up (and quickly dismissed) sex case. Zora, who was anti-integrationist, was not well-regarded by either the white or the African-American culture of the time. From today's viewpoint one can more readily surmise that she was an ardent defender of the integrity of African-American culture and its language, and stood against the idea of a large population "trading up" to accept and become part of the dominant white American culture.

Lucy Anne Hurston noted "there's more of Zora's autobiography in 'Their Eyes' than in the autobiography Zora wrote." No matter. It is a rich, rich book. The NEA, which supports the "Big Read" program would do well to offer more under-appreciated classics of American literature. In the Region, 100 more events follow this kick-off. Lucy Anne Hurston, who has been on a steady roll of such appearances, seems to be the kind of person one would like to go fishing with off some Florida pier with suitable libations. Some good stories and some catfish could be shared.

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Saturday, May 5, 2007

Q&A with Norman Mailer

As we were going forward to post more on Norman Mailer, we encountered the most remarkable Lucy Anne Hurston who came to talk about her Aunt Zora on May 4. More about that later, but here more on, as we call him simply and with pleasure, Norman.

With gratitude we publish the following email. We should note that Prof. Zazzou noted below asked Mailer during the Q&A following his reading what he thought of James Baldwin's reaction to his early-career essay, "The White Negro." Ms. Zazzou had noted that Baldwin reacted most negatively to the essay, a fact disputed by Norman but confirmed by Mike Lennon, Mailer's archivist and biographer, happily on the scene, who quoted Baldwin on the spot. Mailer, our lion-in-not-so-much-winter-but-early-spring had noted that
he didn't think Baldwin was so negative. All the same, it was a wonderfully warm exchange, and we thank Prof. Zazzou for asking a worthy and provocative question.

Also, we should note that Mailer has a sweet habit of asking an audience member to provide him a reading copy of his book for reading that he then writes a dedication in, something that he otherwise refuses to do. The result is that people sometimes charge the stage to give him a copy "The Castle in the Forest."

Enough to set up the response that follows.

Dear Prof. Faulkner-

Last night at the Mailer event, I finally came to understand just how much Writers Institute events have meant to me. I am the woman who asked Mr. Mailer if he and James Baldwin had ever discussed Mailer's essay, "The White Negro." For years, I have said that if I ever encountered Norman Mailer, that is the question I would ask. Though I did not get an answer in the way I had hoped, I thought his reaction was interesting nonetheless! And I never thought I'd get the chance to ask! Some of my students who were in the audience last night came by my office today to tease me for being a troublemaker. Nonetheless, I was truly curious.

The afternoon workshops often conflict with my teaching schedule or reference desk duties, so I always attend the evening events. This means that I often go home and return to campus later. It has always been worth the effort. I always encourage my students to attend, and offer them extra credit even though it might have nothing to do, on the surface, with the content of my Information Literacy courses. I consider cultural literacy to be a part of information literacy. I also believe that it's obscene for students to be living on campus and miss these events.

Finally, I'd like to thank you for the diversity in your program. As a Black woman, I was thrilled to see Everton Sylvester and Edwidge Danticat; however, I was no less thrilled to see Mr. Mailer, and have him sign my book. If there had not been an elderly woman with a cane at the end of my row, that lady who jumped on stage in front of someone else might not have been so successful! Though Mr. Mailer is frail, physically, he's definitely doing fine mentally -- though his joke telling leaves a bit to be desired.:-)

Kindest regards,

Vivien E. Zazzau

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Monday, April 23, 2007

David Halberstam

A note from Donald W. Faulkner, Director:

We acknowledge with great sadness the untimely death of author David Halberstam, the best and the brightest of his generation of journalists.

We remember his deep, measured voice, punctuated always by the audible pursing of his lips; we remember his silver hair, his ample eyebrows, his glasses, his geniality. We remember his height. Most of all we remember his brilliance.

Halberstam last visited the Institute just before the fateful 2000 presidential election, on November 2nd of that year. We made a television show of his visit that was broadcast a number of times in the years following. We hope to present it on our website in streaming video in the near future.

I can remember David standing on the university podium in the early-evening dark, snow flurries flying, and his talking in a live feed with one of the area television stations. In the brightness of the camera lights, it was a delightfully disjointed experience. Not having any idea of the questions asked him – they all came into his earpiece – we puzzled at answers he provided that involved Al Gore’s chances, Yogi Berra, Viet Nam, and Eisenhower. Each question seemed as though it must have been a non-sequitur, but he answered each with grace and an elegant kind of patience.

He had his own interesting perspective on Al Gore – Halberstam worked early on in his career at “The Tennessean” - but he seemed to be fond, in then-recent elections, of the efforts of Ralph Nader, a childhood friend . As I recall the story, David was launched from the family nest during his young school days to go and live with an uncle in Winsted, CT. There he met a cantankerous classmate whose father owned a diner in the small, northern Connecticut town. Halberstam remembered the younger Nader as the only person more vocal than Nader’s father. He was able to carry on arguments endlessly. But David on that Institute visit sensed the significance of the issues at hand in the 2000 election, then only five days away, and was ready to set aside his childhood allegiances.

There are two other things I recall about him vividly, one small, the other large. The small one was that he always traveled first class, the only way, he said, to get leg room. The other was how, during the question-and-answer session after his evening lecture at Page Hall, he responded to a question about Robert McNamara and Viet Nam. I have seen great men do slow burns, but it was quite something to see the raised hackles on a tall man’s spine at so many years’ remove from the events of which he spoke. Halberstam was unforgiving and would, I thought, have damned McNamara to hell were it in his power. I think it was the only time I saw such long-held and steeped passion. But then, he spoke for a generation. He often did.

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Steven Bach Visits

Steven Bach joined us last evening for a talkback after the screening of Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”, her 1934 celebration of Hitler in one of the most skilled propaganda films ever made.

Among the things learned from Bach, author of a recent biography of Riefenstahl: Leni’s film breakthrough was that she placed the techniques of fiction film into a supposedly documentary frame (think for example of Hitler landing in a plane, heroically breaking through the clouds); that she had, since she was funded by the Nazi party, at least twenty cameramen, four of whom, said Bach, were literally the best cameramen in the world at the time. There were nine aerial photographers at least, and a number of the on-ground cameramen traveled on roller skates to get the tracking shot effect of the crowds. The film was, as most fiction films are, really created in the edit stage, and since all twenty cameramen shot unlimited footage there were massive numbers of shots to work with. What’s more, any non-German newsreel shooters (Fox Movietone, Paramount, etc.) had to sign off on a demand giving Leni access and usage rights to whatever footage they shot. That generated all told probably more footage than anyone in the history of film up until that time had shot.

Nearly 500 people turned up for the Institute screening, astonishing since the Institute felt the screening of an old Nazi propaganda film would be the last thing the public would want to see.

One of the things that got Steven Bach into writing about Riefensthal was his biography of Marlene Dietrich. Riefenstahl and Dietrich were born within eight months of each other in the same city, and the two could not have taken more different courses in their lives: Riefenstahl stayed in the fold while Dietrich renounced Nazism and became an American. So, the thing that tripped Bach’s attention to Dietrich was his access to Josef von Sternberg while Bach was a student at USC during the last year of von Sternberg’s life.

But part of the pleasure of hosting a learned and experienced cineaste like Steven Bach is the other stories he could tell. He was of course Senior VP and Head of Worldwide Production for United Artists during the time of the making of “Heaven’s Gate”, the film that Michael Cimino made after his astonishing “Deer Hunter”. Bach’s book on the subject bears a long but apt title, “Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of the film Heaven’s Gate, the Film that Sank United Artists,” and it was called by Pauline Kael the best book on American moviemaking in the conglomerate age. As Bach effectively explained in an afternoon session with us, once production began United Artists was in for a dime, in for a dollar. The enormous budget at the time, $12 million (perhaps the equivalent of $120 million today), was already irrevocably three-quarters committed once the camera started rolling. As it turned out UA would have been wise to shut down production but kept hoping against hope that something would magically change course. All other production had to be stopped in favor of this trainwreck-in-the-making.

The experience cost Bach his job in Hollywood, but he doesn’t seem to have been too troubled by that. He now teaches at Bennington and Columbia and basically says that television has left the Hollywood market competing for the attention of 18-25 year olds who producers usually underestimate by presenting explosions and car chases.

Yet regardless of failures there were magical times, among them the making of “Sleuth” a London stage play bought largely on Bach’s recommendation. It was Joseph Mankiewicz’s last film (Mankiewicz, one of Hollywood’s greats then in the twilight of his career, sued the studio because he wanted an actual intermission in the screening just as would occur on the stage, where the piece was originally performed). Olivier, just having suffered through prostate cancer, thought it would be his own last film. Bach said Olivier could never remember his lines, causing the production to do as many as 30 takes. But, he noted, as Olivier gradually got more solid with his lines, his counterpart, Michael Caine, just kept getting better and better. As it turns out Caine was meant to get first billing in the credits but graciously deferred to Oliver – a classy thing to do. A project in development involves a remake of “Sleuth” with Jude Law, and Caine in the Olivier role.

We spoke of another friend of the Institute’s, David Thomson, to whom Bach dedicated his Leni book. We decided to have Thomson and Bach on stage some time in the near future to debate some trumped-up issue about film. Steven Bach thought the idea good, save for the fact that he disagrees with Thomson over nothing save for Thomson’s love of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”

Importantly, Bach spoke of another film with which he was involved, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” from John Fowles’s novel and scripted by Harold Pinter. The book, a huge success, left producers with a casting problem not unlike that of casting Scarlett O’Hara in GWTW. The adaptation, bringing the story half into the present, and left half in Victorian times was, as Bach said, the kind of risk a studio could take then, but which it never could now.

As Steven Bach tells the tale the issue was less the casting of Meryl Streep than with casting Jeremy Irons. Irons had just completed the the first run of “Brideshead Revisited,”for British TV and which was not yet screened by PBS in the USA.. He was under contract to complete the Brideshead effort within a specific time frame but wagered everything to support the film project he believed in.

Much more to come about other times, like tales of the brilliant producer, Sol Zantz, and about Robert Wise, who gave up a great project because he misunderstood a phone call.

One thing that is irresistible to note: Zantz held rights to "Lord of the Rings" and early in the 70s was negotiating with the Beatles to star, with Ringo as Frodo. You can do the rest of the casting in your own head.

We salute Steven Bach’s visit and will welcome him upon his return.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Edward P

You have to admire someone who can keep an entire novel in his head for ten years, win a Pulitzer, and then say, "I don't want to own anything more than what I can fold up and bring in to my apartment at night." Edward P Jones visited with us this evening and we renewed an ongoing friendship. We admire him immensely.

Lots more news about the Institute's doings to come. Heady times and nonstop pleasure. Not like reading poems at your local healthfood store. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Einstein and Some Pulitzers

Walter Isaacson visited the Institute tonight in service of his new #1 bestselling biography of Albert Einstein. What is impressive about Isaacson is what he praises in Einstein: curiosity, a certain iconolclastic spirit, and the capacity to imagine. We had a good time. He's a good man.

The events were clouded by news of the disaster at Virginia Tech. Everyone was both stunned and supportive. A moment of silence was held.

Among the things that Isaacson did speak of, beyond Einstein, was his work for the recovery of his native New Orleans. This led him also to recall a shaping influence on his decision to become a writer: his meetings as a very young man with the hero of many writers, Walker Percy.

More about that another time.

The Institute notes and celebrates today's award of the Pulitzer Prizes. Quite oddly in this time of literary baited breath is the fact that finalist for the Prizes are only announced as the winners are announced. And so, as we salute Cormac McCarthy (our Founder William Kennedy's review of McCarthy's novel in the NYTimes Book Review was, we think pivotal in McCarthy's recent success, both with Oprah and the Pulitzer committee). But we would be remiss in not acknowledging the work of both Alice McDermott, a friend of the Institute's, and Richard Powers, both finalists in fiction who were saluted today as well.

The same holds on other fronts: in saluting Cynthia Tucker, we also salute Ruth Marcus. In saluting Debby Applegate, we also salute David Nasaw, poor fellow, whose brilliant Hearst biography was not even nominated by his publisher.

In poetry we salute Natasha Trethewey, but also tip our hats to finalist David Wojahn.

One of our more subtly favorite authors, Ray Bradbury, was saluted, and we invite all and sundry to read his "Green Shadows, White Whale, one of the best books we've read in a long, long while.

And John Coltrane? Well, let's salute John Coltrane - We're glad the Pulitzer committees made it into the 20th century....

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

In Memorium Kurt Vonnegut

All of us at the Writers Institute mourn the loss of one of America's great treasures, Kurt Vonnegut, who died April 11 from injuries suffered after a fall. Kurt was New York State Author from 2001-2003 and is remembered with great fondness. Our sympathies go out to his family.

Those who attended his inauguration as State Author and witnessed his lecture, "On How to Write a Short Story" saw something they will remember all their lives. He presented his lecture with great good humor and immense good will. He drew story lines on a chalkboard that a number of audience members later tried to buy. I, Director of the Institute, recall leaning over to George Plimpton who had acted as Master of Ceremonies for the event and saying, "this must have been what it was like to see Mark Twain."

Kurt Vonnegut had many ties to New York State, and in particular to Albany and its University at which his brother Bernard taught for many years (and who came up with many of the scientific ideas that supported Kurt's own imagination about things like Ice Nine). Kurt Vonnegut also had many ties to Schenectady, where he had worked as a Public Relations writer for General Electric.

Indeed, upon accepting the Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for Fiction Writing that established him as State Author, Vonnegut said:

"It is a most agreeable honor, with my 78th birthday only a few days away, that New York State should declare so publicly that I, although born in Indianapolis, am one of its own. And it is a fact that most of my published works have been created within its borders, beginning with columns I wrote for The Cornell Daily Sun, in Ithaca, where I was a member of the class of 1944. Yes, and after my service in World War Two I went to work as a publicity man for General Electric in Schenectady, and was also a volunteer fireman in the nearby village of Alplaus. GE was the inspiration for my first novel, Player Piano, and Alplaus for my fifth, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. . . .I have in fact followed in the footsteps of two other native Indiana writers Booth Tarkington and Theodore Dreiser, in coming to New York for the dynamic companionship of the nearly countless world-class artists working here."

Kurt Vonnegut was one of a kind, and he left the earth a richer place for his sojourn here. We will miss him deeply and will honor his memory.

-- DWF

photo credit of Vonnegut at chalkboard: Judy Axenson

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Recent Readings

Last week Wallace Shawn, playwright and actor, read from "The Designated Mourner" and talked about theatre, life, and the politics of culture to an overflow audience (sadly, around 50 people were turned away while others hung not only on Shawn's words but on the rafters as well).

It was the 11th annual Burian Lecture, a brilliant program instituted by Grayce and the Jarka Burian. Jarka, a force in American theatre and a major interpreter of Czech theatre (he presented Havel's first production in America). Jarka died last year. It is a pleasure to honor him.

Along the way we talked with Jake Brackman, one of Wally Shawn's classmates at Harvard. And both recalled another classmate, Terrence Malik, the filmmaker, and their collaboration on the film, Days of Heaven.

In all it was a good way to welcome spring.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Fence Jointure Celebration Continues

We had us a time.

We continue to celebrate the jointure of Fence magazine, the Institute, and the University.

Excellent readings were delivered by Fence's editor, Rebecca Wolff, and some of Fence's valued writers:

Arianna Reines, Prageeta Sharma, and Michael Earl Craig. A more diverse or illuminating reading could not be imagined.

Edward Schwarzchild, treasured Fellow of the Institute, without whose efforts the Fence initiative would never have begun, put it this way:

"I'm completely thrilled with how the stars aligned to bring this radiant journal into the university's orbit. FENCE will be an incredible presence on campus and it will inspire and instruct students at every level of their education, from undergraduate to graduate, across many departments."

A joyous dinner followed, about which more very soon. Do read the previous entry to know what the celebration is about. We will shortly post FENCE's own characterization of the inauguration.

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