Wednesday, November 18, 2009

25th Anniversary Celebration Updates

The work of the Institute has been all-consuming of late, and to note that we haven't posted since early October is, well, an embarrassment, both of silences, and of riches. Sometimes it's wonderful to have so many things going on that you can't stop to whistle at them.

On November 16 we celebrated our 25th anniversary with a highlight film and remarks by Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York who signed the establishing legislation for the formation of the NYSWI into law, and Doris Kearns Goodwin, biographer/historian who has appeared at the Writers Institute six times since its inception.

Visits prior to that, by Richard Russo, Lorrie Moore, Don DeLillo, Russell Banks, Henry Louis Gates, and others (celebrations of Rumi, and Jazz history included), will be chronicled in due course. Sometimes it's better to be living than to be blogging!

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

UAlbany Community Day to Feature a Variety of NYSWI Events

This is a great weekend to visit the University at Albany. On Friday, the University honors alum and gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk.

On Friday evening, UAlbany and the Writers Institute welcomes Krugman, a New York Times columnist and winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Economics. Krugman has been called “the most important political columnist in America” (Washington Monthly), and “the most celebrated economist of his generation” (The Economist). Recent bestsellers include The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008 (2008), The Conscience of a Liberal (2007), and The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century (2003). Krugman’s lecture, part of the Visiting Writers Series, will be at 8 p.m. in Page Hall on the University’s downtown campus.

Saturday is the second annual Community Day, and includes a special presentation by Writers Institute Founder Bill Kennedy and Director Don Faulkner, who will provide video highlights of a quarter century of prize-winning authors, poets and filmmakers who have visited UAlbany. That’s at 2 p.m. in Fine Arts 126.

At 3:30 p.m. in the Recital Hall of the uptown campus you can catch a film screening of Gus Van Sant’s Academy Award-winning film MILK.

At 8 p.m., the University hosts Soldier and statesman General Colin Powell, USA (Ret.), the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Persian Gulf War and U.S. Secretary of State from 2001-2005. Powell gives the inaugural address of the University’s World Within Reach Speaker Series. He will speak on "Diplomacy: Persuasion, Trust & Values,” at UAlbany’s SEFCU Arena.

And don’t forget about the Writers Institute’s 25th Anniversary Celebration on November 16th at Page Hall. Joining us will be special guests Governor Mario Cuomo and biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin.

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Writers Institute fall 09: the 25th Anniversary Season, with a schedule update

In what Writers Institute Director Donald Faulkner has called "the most difficult series I've organized and one that I'm most proud to present", the New York State Writers Institute offers its 25th anniversary season. As ever, most events are free and open to the public.

In an important update from the recently published series brochure, the Oct 26 co-sponsored event with the Archives Partnership Trust will feature Henry Louis Gates, Jr. James McPherson, previously announced, will not be able to attend.

The website will provide details, but consider this partial list of writers for the fall series:

Douglas Blackmon, current nonfiction Pulitzer awardee in nonfiction for his "Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II" on Sept 24.

Joseph O'Neill, novelist and author of the PEN/Faulkner Award-winning "Netherland" on Sept 29.

Rita Moreno, winner of an Oscar, a Tony, a Grammy, and an Emmy. She will speak on her life in theatre on Oct 7.

Paul Krugman, Nobel Laureate in Economics, and weekly columnist for the New York Times, on Oct 9.

A celebration of Writers Institute friend Frank McCourt in a dramatic presentation of "Teacher Man" on Oct 13.

Novelists Lorrie Moore and Richard Russo in their first joint reading on Oct 15.

Novelists Russel Banks and Don DeLillo talking about their mentor Nelson Algren on Nov 6.

And the actual celebration of the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Writers Institute on Nov 16 with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and former governor Mario Cuomo who signed the legislation creating the Writers Institute 25 years ago.

Many other events and festivities will be listed on our website, and additions will follow.


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Monday, July 20, 2009

William Kennedy on Frank McCourt

William Kennedy remembers his friend, Frank McCourt

[Note: This material is ok to quote in other materials and sites, but only with a link and reference to the New York State Writers Institute website:]

A recollection of Frank McCourt


Frank McCourt may be dead, but I don’t think so.

He grew up and old with death, a frequent visitor to his family and to his neighborhood in Limerick; he wrote about it in unforgettable fashion in his book ‘Angela’s Ashes,’ and he had been looking at it eye-to-eye for the past five years.

We were friends for twenty-five years and he came to Albany too many times to count, three times to the New York State Writers Institute, the last time in 2006 when he drew crowds close to 2,000, with 500 or more turned away. We had gone to Ireland and Saratoga and Cuba together and we would see him in New York when it wasn’t raining.

In July 2005 I was en route to Manhattan and got this note from him saying it was uncertain whether we’d get together, for he was in physical trouble: “The divil came in the form of melanoma on the leg. I had two dramatic incisions and the PET scan now says I’m fifty-fifty in the clear.”

Fifty-fifty, not great odds. My wife, Dana, and I saw him and his wife, Ellen, a few months ago after their return from Tahiti where he had suffered the seizure that sent him into horrible pain; and he had to endure it in Tahiti for three days as a hostage to Air France, which couldn’t find him a seat on any US-bound planes. Back in New York his doctors found the spinal fracture that was torturing him and the brain tumors that were going to kill him. He was thin and uncomfortable when we talked, but in usual form, speculating on whether 2009 was really the optimum financial year to die, as far as his heirs were concerned.

I met him first on January 4, 1984, when he and his brother Malachy and a dozen other writers, literary critics, talkers, and drinkers came to Albany for lunch. This was a Friday, and the formal monthly meeting of the First Friday Club, an event which then Governor Mario Cuomo took note of by issuing a Proclamation declaring the first Friday of January hereafter to be ‘First Friday Day’. By odd coincidence one of Mario’s speechwriters, Peter Quinn, soon to become a novelist, was a First Friday Club member.

The club had been formed to promote mid-day drinking while talking, and perhaps eating, by members, and on this day in 1984 I heard Frank McCourt talk for the first time and I was convulsed. A luncheon in Albany carried on from noon until 4 p.m., when Frank called a taxi to take him to the train to New York where he had a heavy date. But, when the taxi came, Frank was telling a story and someone sent the taxi away and Frank was forced to keep talking until six-thirty when the next train left. I never laughed so hard for so long and Malachy and the other First Fridayites were also responsible for much of it. I told a few stories and passed muster and became a club member.

I learned that the club had been founded on the basis of a novena in the Catholic religion: that if you receive communion on nine consecutive first Fridays you will die in a state of grace and go directly to Heaven. This was slightly modified by the club to assure members that whoever came to lunch nine Fridays in a row would be guaranteed a bartender at his deathbed.

On March 4, 1996 Frank sent me a letter:

“Do you realize it’s 12 years since the First Friday Club pilgrimated to your side at an Italian restaurant in Albany? That you’ve published a number of books since then while the rest of us, Peter Quinn excepted, sat on our arses and talked about writing books?

“I, meself, couldn’t stand it any longer, so I wrote a book and I’m sending you a copy for perusal and, perhaps, a blurb note. That’s if you like the book, of course; if you don’t like it we have a special place for the negative notes and it’s usually not on the book jacket.

“I haven’t seen you in ages … Will we see you ever again at a F.F. gathering? Your membership is not in danger. First Fridayites are like Mafiosi – once you’re in the only way out is the grave.”

So I gave a blurb to the book, which he called ‘Angela’s Ashes’ and I said he was a wizard and that his writing about his boyhood and poverty and family pain in Limerick was as real as a stab in the heart, and I said its language, its narrative grace were that of a fine novel, which is the highest praise I can offer to a prose work. Frank had taught school all his adult life after he came back to this country (he was born here in 1930), and he only began writing with fervor after he retired in 1987. In time the book took shape and it was snatched up in 1996 and Frank’s life changed.

“Nothing happened to me till I was 66,” he said.

But then it happened with skyrockets. ‘Angela’s Ashes’ won rave reviews from the critics, was a New York Times number one best-seller for a year and on the list for two years; it sold four million in hardcover, millions and millions more in England, Ireland, Germany and everywhere else too. It won the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle Award, it became a movie, and Frank became one of the most famous people on earth. We were in Ireland in 1999, a rural town north of Galway, walking along and someone said, ‘Frank McCourt?’ and Frank said yes, and the man said I loved your book and someone else stopped and said it’s Frank McCourt, and then you couldn’t walk on the sidewalk with all the Frank groupies. Frank turned up in all the gossip columns, the talk shows, the celeb circuit. He dined with royalty and movie stars, was in demand as a speaker on cruises and even became writer-in-residence at a posh London hotel, a plum assignment the likes of which I’d never heard of before. When he had dinner with Bill Clinton people would ask, “Who’s that guy sitting with Frank?”

His talent was singular – in the spoken word as well as his writing, a master raconteur. Every word he uttered could be comic, if he wanted it that way, and he usually did. ‘Angela’s Ashes’ reads like a novel (as do his two subsequent books, ‘’Tis’ and ‘Teacher Man’) but he called it a memoir and so it became; and its form and style loomed with such excellence and success that the memoir has become the form of choice for a legion of authors ever since. Frank had been trying for years to turn his old diaries into a novel but couldn’t make it work. Then he found a voice that sounded like the child he remembered being and he let the boy talk, and the talk captivated the world.

Listen to Frank the boy watching Protestant girls going to church. “I feel sorry for them, especially the girls, who are so lovely, they have such beautiful white teeth. I feel sorry for the beautiful Protestant girls, they’re doomed. That’s what the priests tell us. Outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation. Outside the Catholic Church there is nothing but doom. And I want to save them. Protestant girl, come with me to the True Church. You’ll be saved and you won’t have the doom. After mass on Sunday I go with my friend Billy Campbell to watch them play croquet on the lovely lawn beside their church on Barrington Street. Croquet is a Protestant game. They hit the ball with the mallet, pock and pock again, and laugh. I wonder how they can laugh or don’t they even know they’re doomed? I feel sorry for them and I say, Billy, what’s the use of playing croquet when you’re doomed?

“He says, Frankie, what’s the use of not playing croquet when you’re doomed?”

Frank was very good on doom. But I don’t think it’s in the cards for his big book. That silver-tongued kid from Limerick is still in very good voice, and I believe he’ll be talking to us for years down the road. Doom may lurk out there for the Protestants, but not for Frank McCourt.


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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Frank McCourt

We mourn the passing of our good friend, Frank McCourt.

Keep posted to the website and the blog for further statements.

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Monday, June 29, 2009

On Michael Jackson, Margo Jefferson talks about MJ February 2, 2006; from the Writers Institute Archive

Margo Jefferson, talking about her book “On Michael Jackson” (Pantheon, 2006)
2/2/2006 (transcription from an archive interview at the New York State Writers Institute)

My take on Michael Jackson—well the Michael Jacksons, there are a number of them—is that it interests me as a writer, as a critic, to write about people, experiences, artists, art, and cultural phenomena that arouse strong feelings in me and that often arouse competing [feelings]. It’s a little bit like what a novelist means when she or he will say, “The characters took over. I didn’t quite know what they were going to be doing.” That can happen when you are encountering a singer, a dancer, a novel, a movie, any kind of thing. The conversation between you and it takes over, and you don’t know how that collaboration will end up. Well, who is better for this than Michael Jackson?

I first wrote about him in 1984, partly because (like so many people here, I’m sure) I had been a big fan. I was 20 or 21 in 1969 when he and his brothers first had an album. They were adorable. He then turned out to be a major performing talent, one of popular cultures great entertainers. He will be remembered as an original dancer, a crack singer, and just one of these performers who has this incandescent self-containment.

When I approached him in the 80s, we were already—“we” meaning observers, fans, dissenters—engaged in questions like: “Who is he? What is going on?” You know, his skin was lightening, it was said he had a skin disease in which pigment changes, half the people in the world didn’t believe him, he was starting to feature some make-up, was feminized and yet engaged in this elaborate masculine crotch-clutching drama in his videos. So the first piece that I wrote was actually an attempt to challenge the tendency on all of our parts, including mine, to be very sociological. We wanted to say, “This is all about racial self-hatred. He’s probably gay, and he doesn’t want to admit it.” I just decided that I could not pretend that this was not unsettling. The fact is: this is a sophisticated artist who lives by borrowing, by appropriating, all sorts of styles. What’s that great line from “I’m a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”… “How do you live? I steal.” And that’s what performing artists do all the time; Michael is a master at it.

And secondly, we’re living in the era of (and Michael was a little ahead of them): Madonna, who is being paid everyday for these capsulated self-transformations, and the artist Cindy Sherman, whose work I’m sure a lot of you know. She would photograph herself in all sorts of scenarios, insert herself in classical paintings. Let’s think about transformation itself: this remaking the self as art object. This is not completely satisfying to me. Madonna, whether you cared about her or not, always seemed completely in control of what she was saying and what she was doing. With Michael, there was this curtain, often, between what he said and what he did. You know: “Well, honestly, I just had two operations on my nose,” and you think, “this is not possible.” So there was still this child [in him] who would say, “No, this is just the way things are,” and there would be this adult who was rather relentlessly, and with a curious kind of stubborn valor, transforming himself before our eyes into something—something that he had to know many people were very rattled by—and he was going to do it anyway. So there was a mystery that intrigued me.

And finally, American mass culture since the 20s has been the most powerful in the world. That is terrifying and interesting. Michael Jackson for about 20 years was probably the most powerful entertainer in pop music. And pop music, along with movies, is the mass culture forum that is at the center of world culture. So this was formidable.

When I started talking about this with an editor, about five years ago, one crucial impulse was, “You know, he looks like he’s about to self-destruct in some way or another. What about a short book that gives him his dues as an artist, [a book] that reminds people of all the innovations, of what it still there on film, and puts him in context with many aspects of our culture? Let’s do that before he self-destructs.” Then a friend of mine said that as usual, Michael was ahead of us.

And then when I had gone on to do other things, the second round of sexual molestation charges came, and the editor called me and said, “Look I still want the book. We have to, obviously, take the trial and all of that into account.” That was now part of this cultural landscape, this fantasia, that includes fantasies and dramas of racial and gender transformation, sexualization of children—and by that I mean on several levels. Michael, sexualized from the age of five by American and by world culture, the sexualization of child stars: Michael is from that generation of Brooke Shields, Tatum O’Neil, Michael Jackson, little Jodie Foster, and the little perky children on TV, the Brady Bunch. There was a cultural obsession. And then there is our horror at the emergence of facts about the sexual abuse of children, and again, in that classic American popular cultural way, the way we turn it into a form of entertainment. I’m thinking particularly of a show I watch a lot, “Law and Order: Sexual Victims Unit.”

All of that was very interesting to me, and the fact that he contained so much of entertainment history in his body; [his] videos, which really are short films, make their postmodern way through so many landscapes: horror films, old fashioned romances, Peter Pan, Edgar Allen Poe, all of that. You can find so many styles in his work. To me, he seems the end-product of one hundred years of our wildly complicated, ever-moving popular culture, made more and more complicated by the fact that it is now a 24-hour, 7 day a week, multi-media pastime obsession information industry. Oh, and of course our obsession with making ourselves over, from body dysmorphia, plastic surgery: he’s always there. We’re here with our obsession, and he’s already there or he’s about to be.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Fall Plans for the NYSWI 25th Anniversary

The Writers Institute Fall 2009 season will be a celebration of of the 25th Anniversary of the organization.

Here's one teaser item on the list:

Oct 15 Richard Russo and Lorrie Moore.

Each will be reading from newly published work. Lorrie Moore's novel A Gate at the Stairs is her first in more than a decade.

Richard Russo's new novel, That Old Cape Magic, continues his mediation on place, family, and marriage.

Both books are wicked good.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Annette Gordon-Reed Wins the Pulitzer

Annette Gordon-Reed, who visited the New York State Writers Institute on March 4, 2009, has received the Pulitzer Prize in history for her newest book, The Hemingses of Monticello. In awarding the prize, the panel of judges called the book "a painstaking exploration of a sprawling multi-generation slave family that casts provocative new light on the relationship between Sally Hemings and her master, Thomas Jefferson." Visit our video archive for clips of Gordon-Reed's presentations in Albany.

Other Writers Institute visitors named as finalists for Pulitzer Prizes this year include poet Frank Bidart , who read last April from his prize-nominated volume, Watching the Spring Festival (2008), poet Ruth Stone, novelist Louise Erdrich, and UAlbany Music Professor Don Byron, who performed on saxophone and clarinet as an opener for our evening event with filmmaker Spike Lee. Recent visitor Dava Sobel served as a judge for the prize in General Nonfiction.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

PEN World Voices Event Cancelled

The PEN World Voices: Festival of International Literature, scheduled to take place on Tuesday, April 28, 2009, has been cancelled due to scheduling difficulties. More information about future programming possibilities with PEN will be posted in the near future.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Steven Bach (1940-2009)

We note with sadness the passing of film scholar Steven Bach who was a guest of the Writers Institute twice in the last two years.

Bach was both a leading film industry insider and film historian. As head of production for United Artists, he was centrally involved in the making of “Raging Bull,” “Apocalypse Now,” Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” and dozens of other films. He was the author of four “New York Times” Notable Books, including “Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl” (2007), “Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart” (2001), “Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend” (1992), and “Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists” (1985). The “Los Angeles Times Book Review” called “Leni,” “Brilliant. … A compulsively readable and scrupulously crafted work . …” Writing in the “New Yorker,” Judith Thurman said, “First-rate . . . [a] richly fleshed-out portraiture and social history.”Steven Bach taught Literature and Film at both Columbia University in New York and Bennington College in Vermont.

See our blog entry on Steven Bach's April 2007 visit and a video excerpt from his visit in October 2008 and also his visit of April 2007.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Irish Writers from the Video Archive

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, we offer you some video clips of Irish writers who have graced our stages, including John Montague talking of his friendship with Samuel Beckett, Kate McCafferty about her right to speak for others who are forgotten, recent New York gubernatorial candidate Malachy McCourt (pictured right) singing "Cockles and Mussels," and Frank McCourt about envying the ducks.

Other writers include Anne Enright, Roddy Doyle, Peter Sheridan, Paul Muldoon, Fintan O'Toole, Eamon Grennan, Colum McCann, Colm Toibin, Frank Delaney, Daniel Cassidy, Paul Durcan, and Oscar Wilde's only grandchild, Merlin Holland.

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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Horton Foote: A Remembrance

We are saddened by the passing of Horton Foote, whose uniquely American voice defined a lyricism in drama that is irreplaceable.

We remember the quiet, gentle power of his persona. During his visit to the Writers Institute in 2006 we presented a reading of his one act play, "Blind Date." We were so anxious to please a writer we admired that our initial rehearsal was clumsy and he soothed us in a calm, melodious voice, reminding us to relax and trust the material. Horton was all about trust. He trusted his roots, his muse, and all the lives around him that he transformed into stories that embraced the complete range of human value on the canvas of small- town American life. He asked the timeless philosophical questions: How do people carry on? Why are they so keen to survive? Why doesn’t life break the human spirit? What’s the difference between those who survive and those who don’t? His art was a quest to explore those questions and celebrate how we suffer catastrophic change and soldier on. His writing allowed us to observe our struggle at a distance, to appreciate it, laugh at it, and weep over it. We miss his voice especially as we attempt to cope with his absence.

It is rare for someone in the world of theatre and at his level of success to be universally acknowledged for personal grace, compassion, sincerity and generosity towards his fellow artists. He has never lost touch with his own apprenticeship and unfailingly showed his genuine interest in and support for those attempting to follow in his impossibly large footsteps. It was, quite simply, a privilege to be in his presence.

- Langdon Brown, Writers Institute Fellow and Director of Authors Theatre

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Annette Gordon-Reed Rescheduled for March 4th!

The events with 2008 National Book Award-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed have been moved forward to Wednesday, March 4, 2009 (previously scheduled for Feb. 24). Note that the locations for these events have changed as well (see below).

March 4 (Wednesday)
Seminar — 4:15 p.m., Standish Room, Science Library, Uptown Campus
Reading — 8:00 p.m., Page Hall, 135 Western Ave., Downtown Campus

Annette Gordon-Reed has been called, “one of the most astute, insightful, and forthright historians of this generation” (Edmund Morgan, New York Review of Books). A Professor of History at Rutgers and Professor of Law at New York Law School, Gordon-Reed is the author of The Hemingses of Monticello, winner of the 2008 National Book Award. The book tells the stories of multiple generations of Thomas Jefferson’s secret slave family. Her earlier works include Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997). Writing in the New Yorker, historian and critic Jill Lepore called the earlier book, “[A] tour de force. . . . a devastating brief on standards of evidence in historical research.”

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Updike Redux with Audio

Let us take a moment to remember John Updike, one of the Writers Institute’s first visiting authors, a writer who created extraordinary literature from the ordinary stuff of American life.

Updike delivered the Institute’s inaugural Herman Melville Lecture on the Creative Imagination on Thursday, April 25, 1985 in Page Hall on the University at Albany’s downtown campus. The title of his presentation was “Creativity and Response.”

We are delighted to feature 24-year-old audio excerpts from the Updike event here on our website:

Introduction by William Kennedy.
Updike on editors, publishers and state funding for the arts.
Updike on the relationship among writer, reader and genre.
Updike's humorous take on the creative imagination.
An excerpt from Updike's 1959 story, "The Happiest I've Been."
Updike on sin.

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Monday, February 9, 2009

Forbidden Love, Civil War, Horrible Death and Other Things Irish…. Frank Delaney Comes to Albany

Frank Delaney, veteran Irish radio and television broadcaster, is the author of the “New York Times” bestseller, “Ireland: A Novel”(2005), a fictionalized retelling of the myths and historical traditions of his native land. “Publishers Weekly” said, “A sprawling, riveting read, a book of stories melding into a novel wrapped up in an Irish history text…. The stories utterly captivate this rich and satisfying book.” The “Washington Post” reviewer said, “History, legend, memory and myth come seamlessly together in Frank Delaney’s wonderfully engaging new novel….”

Set in the 1920s, Delaney’s newest novel is “Shannon” (February 10, 2009), the story of a troubled American priest who returns to the Ireland of his ancestors to heal his wounded spirit, only to be caught up in a bloody civil war. “Kirkus Reviews” called it, “A rousing tale of forbidden love, civil war, horrible death and other things Irish…. a fine adventure in storytelling. A well-crafted, satisfying work of historical fiction, as are all of Delaney’s novels; respectful of the facts while not cowed by them, and full of life.”

Frank Delaney will speak at the New York State Museum, Wednesday, February 11, 2009 at 5:30 p.m. in the Carole Huxley Auditorium. Cosponsored by the Friends of the New York State Library.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Notable Reviews for Evaristo's Novel of "Whyte Slavery"

Blonde Roots, Bernardine Evaristo's couter-historical novel about the slave trade in reverse is receiving superlatives in the American and British press.

Publisher's Weekly called it an "astonishing, uncomfortable and beautiful alternative history." The London Times called it, "astonishing... brilliant."

Former Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown addresses the novel's playful treatment of "body issues" in the London Telegraph: She's tall, slim, blonde and blue-eyed. So of course the heroine of Bernadine Evaristo's new novel has body issues. She could have her nose flattened, her skin darkened and get some kinky black hair woven on to her ugly blonde roots. But she's trying to respect her body the way it is: "Europane".

Writing in the Washington Post, Ron Charles said, "My only complaint about Bernardine Evaristo's alternate history of racial slavery is that it's 150 years late. Imagine the outrage this clever novel would have provoked alongside Harriet Beecher Stowe's incendiary story or Frederick Douglass's memoir! But now, amid the warm glow of 21st-century liberalism, with our brilliant black president, what could we possibly learn from a new satire of slavery?... Plenty."
Evaristo will visit the Writers Institute on Thursday, February 5, 2009.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Blonde Roots" Becomes a Canadian Bestseller

Blonde Roots, Bernardine Evaristo's new counter-historical novel about Black Africans enslaving White Europeans has just arrived on the MacLean's Top Ten Hardcover Fiction list.

Evaristo will visit the Writers Institute on Thursday, February 5.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sue Miller to Visit Monday, February 2, 2009

Sue Miller will speak about her new novel, The Senator’s Wife (2008), about the private troubles of a political marriage between a hero of progressive causes and his shy, retiring wife.

"...Miller plays her hand in a masterly fashion. Shock, deceit, desire and despair come together at once in a way that feels simply like fate.... I saw in Miller what her fans have always seen: a clever storyteller with a penchant for the unexpected and a talent for depicting the bizarre borderline acts, the unfortunate boundary crossings and the regrettable instances of excessive self-indulgence that can destroy a world in a blink." --Judith Warner, New York Times

View the press release.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"Ugh! Who would want to be caught reading that kind of trash?"

Sue Miller discusses the stigma of "women's literature" in a delightful 2002 profile in the UK Independent:

"Jonathan Franzen's discomfort at being taken up by Oprah and women readers opened up some intelligent American journalism about the schisms between male/female; high art/low art – 'womens' books' as opposed to serious books written by men," she says. "There's this whole notion, dominant in the 19th century, that writing novels was a pretty low art form, created for the daughters of shopkeepers to read."

Miller, who has been teaching an undergraduate class in creative writing at Amherst College, breaks into a hilarious grimace. "Ugh! Who would want to be caught reading that kind of trash?

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A "Federal Writers Project" for the New Great Depression

State by State, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey is a timely tribute to FDR's Federal Writers Project, a program that gave a variety of employment opportunities to writers during the last Great Depression. 50 writers present chapters on each of the 50 states.

Jayne Anne Phillips is the necessary author of the West Virginia chapter. Other authors who have been guests at the Institute include Susan Choi writing about Indiana, Rick Moody on Connecticut, Louise Erdrich on North Dakota, Ha Jin on Georgia, William Vollmann on California, Susan Orlean on Ohio, Dave Eggers on Illinois, and Tony Horwitz on Virginia.

Last but not least, the book features an Afterword on Washington, D.C. by Edward P. Jones.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

New Writers Institute Video Postings on You Tube

The NYS Writers Institute has posted a run of short video clips of recent visitors.

The materials are unvarnished, without setup. The idea is that you, the viewer, can eavesdrop on a conversation, or stumble upon an author presenting work.

The mix is eclectic, by design. A few poets, an historian, a filmmaker, short story writers, musicians, novelists. Anne Enright, Garrison Keillor, Li-Young Lee, Mary Gordon, Andre Dubus III, Frank McCourt, Major Jackson, etc, etc. A fun clip of One Ring Zero covering a Paul Auster piece. Frank Bidart talking about his first book. Garrison Keillor remembering the encyclopedia. Daniel Cassidy on Irish slang. Marie Howe on the Star Market.

There are too many of clips of authors simply reading their work on the web. We think it's more interesting to talk with them.

There are 18 clips up now, but they will rotate, and there will be more to come. Just a sample of one of the richest audio-video archives of contemporary literature.

Stay tuned.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Poet W. D. Snodgrass Dies

Though trees turn bare and girls turn wives,

We shall afford our costly seasons;
There is a gentleness survives
That will outspeak and has its reasons.
There is a loveliness exists,
Preserves us, not for specialists.

--W. D. Snodgrass, "April Inventory"

Pulitzer Prize winning poet W. D. Snodgrass (1926-2009) died this week at his home in Madison County, New York, east of Syracuse. See Bob Hoover's obituary of the Pittsburgh native in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Summer Writing Workshop for High School Students

In summer the song sings itself....--William Carlos Williams, "The Botticellian Trees"

The New York State Writers Institute is pleased to announce the 2009 New York State Summer Young Writers Institute for high school students, which will take place July 19-25, 2009 at Skidmore University in Saratoga Springs, New York. The Summer Young Writers Institute is a not-for-profit, New York State-funded summer program for gifted writers entering 10th, 11th or 12th grade in September, 2009. The program, which offers workshops in poetry, prose and screenwriting, is open to both public and private school students who reside anywhere in New York State.

The New York State Summer Young Writers Institute permits student writers to interact with published writers, practice craft and meet other young writers from around the state.

Our website features an application, a brochure and a financial aid application.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fiction Resurgent!

" After years of bemoaning the decline of a literary culture in the United States, the National Endowment for the Arts says in a report that it now believes a quarter-century of precipitous decline in fiction reading has reversed.... Among its chief findings is that for the first time since 1982, when the bureau began collecting such data, the proportion of adults 18 and older who said they had read at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the previous 12 months has risen." -- Motoko Rich, The New York Times

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Friday, January 9, 2009

Jayne Anne Phillips Event Press Release


Jayne Anne Phillips, major American novelist and short story writer, author of fiction rooted in her West Virginia girlhood, will discuss her work on Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 8:00 p.m. in the Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, on the University at Albany’s uptown campus. Earlier that same day at 4:15 p.m. the author will present an informal seminar in Assembly Hall, Campus Center, on the uptown campus. The events are sponsored by the New York State Writers Institute and are free and open to the public.

Albany, NY – Jayne Anne Phillips, author of fiction rooted in her West Virginia girlhood, “stepped out of the ranks of her generation as one of its most gifted writers,” averred Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, adding that “Her quick, piercing tales of love and loss [show] a keen love of language, and a rare talent of illuminating the secret core of ordinary lives with clearsighted unsentimentality.”

Phillips is the author most recently of Lark and Termite (2009), a novel about the members of a West Virginia family struggling to survive during the 1950s at the time of the Korean War. The characters include Lark, a teenage girl forced by circumstances to assume the responsibilities of womanhood, and Termite, her profoundly disabled younger brother who, despite his impairments, enjoys a vivid inner life. The novel also follows the experiences of Termite’s father, Corporal Robert Leavitt, amid the carnage and turmoil on the Korean peninsula.

In advance praise, novelist Junot Díaz called the new book, “extraordinary… luminous… It is an astounding feat of the imagination… the best novel I've read this year.” Alice Munro said, “This novel is cut like a diamond, with such sharp authenticity and bursts of light.” “New York Times” reviewer Michiko Kakutani called the novel “intricate” and “deeply felt” and described the characters as “so indelible, so intimately drawn, that they threaten to move in and take up permanent residence in the reader’s mind.”

Phillips’ earlier books include the short story collection “Black Tickets” (1979), and the novels “Machine Dreams” (1984), “Shelter” (1994) and “MotherKind” (2000).

Phillips’ first novel, “Machine Dreams,” tells the story of how a West Virginia family weathers the major events of the 20th century, from the Great Depression to the Vietnam War. Novelist Robert Stone said, “‘Machine Dreams’, in its wisdom and its compassionate, utterly unsentimental rendering of the American condition, will rank as one of the great books of [the] decade.”

“MotherKind” explores the spiritual education of a woman who must become the caretaker of her terminally ill mother during the early months of a young marriage and after the birth of her first child. The “Time” magazine reviewer said, “A passionate but indirect evocation of loss . . . Phillips concentrates on the day-to-day details of ordinary existence suddenly afflicted with extraordinary pressures and the conflicting tugs of joy and grief.”

Jayne Anne Phillips is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Bunting Fellowship, a Howard Foundation Fellowship, and both the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at
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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Lark and Termite gets a rave from Kakutani in the Times

"Jayne Anne Phillips's intricate, deeply felt new novel reverberates with echoes of Faulkner, Woolf, Kerouac, McCullers and Michael Herr's war reporting, and yet it fuses all these wildly disparate influences into something incandescent and utterly original."

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Ann Savage of Edgar G. Ulmer's "Detour" Dies

Ann Savage, inventor of the '40s femme fatale role, died on Dec. 27th at the age of 87. Savage is the star of Detour, Edgar G. Ulmer's classic low-budget 1945 film which (along with Ulmer's Bluebeard) will kick of the New York State Writers Institute's 2009 Classic Film Series. In the film Savage plays a woman who blackmails a luckless hitchhiker, played by Tom Neal. Detour is widely considered to be the film that defined her career.

The New York Times:
“It’s actually a showcase role,” [her manager] Kent Adamson said. “Neal and Savage really reversed the traditional male-female roles of the time. She’s vicious and predatory. She’s been called a harpy from hell, and in the film, too, she’s very sexually aggressive, and he’s very, very passive.”

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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Jayne Anne Phillips pays homage to The Sound and the Fury

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.
It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

--William Shakespeare, “Macbeth,” Act V, Scene v

Jayne Anne Phillips pays homage to fellow Southerner William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury in her remarkable new novel, Lark and Termite (January 2009), the story of a West Virginia family struggling to survive at the time of the Korean War. Both novels feature four points of view, stream-of-consciousness narratives, and mentally impaired characters with special gifts of vision and understanding.

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Lorraine Adams said, “Phillips reinvigorates and transforms the Faulknerian infrastructure. Female voices, not the chorus of brothers Jason and Quentin, dominate in Lark and Termite…. While Faulkner chronicled the decay of the South through its men, Phillips adumbrates the nobility of Appalachia, of Korean refugees, of the least of us, by taking us into the “shaky territory” of women….”

Note: Fiction writer Jayne Anne Phillips will visit the Writers Institute on Tuesday, January 27, 2009. She will hold an informal workshop at 4:15 PM in Assembly Hall, Campus Center, on the University at Albany’s uptown campus, 1400 Washington Ave. In the evening, at 8 PM, Phillips will read from and discuss her new novel Lark and Termite in the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center on the uptown campus.

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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Spring 2009 Visiting Writers Series to feature Jayne Anne Phillips, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Alex Gibney

The Spring 2009 Visiting Writers series will feature an exciting line-up of writers distinguished in a variety of fields, including fiction, poetry, history, science writing, literary criticism, drama and screenwriting. Details will be announced shortly.

Here’s a glimpse of what you can look forward to in the coming months….

Jayne Anne Phillips, author of fiction rooted in her West Virginia girlhood, has been called one of the most gifted writers of her generation (Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times). Phillips is the author most recently of Lark and Termite (2009), a novel about the members of a West Virginia family struggling to survive during the 1950s at the time of the Korean War. The characters include Lark, a teenage girl forced by circumstances to assume the responsibilities of womanhood, and Termite, her profoundly disabled younger brother who, despite his impairments, enjoys an intricate inner life. In advance praise, novelist Junot Díaz called it, “extraordinary… luminous… It is an astounding feat of the imagination… the best novel I've read this year.” Alice Munro said, “This novel is cut like a diamond, with such sharp authenticity and bursts of light.” Phillips’ earlier books include Black Tickets (1979), Machine Dreams (1984), Shelter (1994) and MotherKind (2000).

Annette Gordon-Reed has been called, “one of the most astute, insightful, and forthright historians of this generation” (Edmund Morgan, The New York Review of Books). A Professor of History at Rutgers and Professor of Law at New York Law School, Gordon-Reed is the author of The Hemingses of Monticello (2008), winner of the 2008 National Book Award. The new book tells the story of multiple generations of Thomas Jefferson’s secret slave family. Earlier works include Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997), which Jill Lepore called, “[A] tour de force. . . . a devastating brief on standards of evidence in historical research.” Gordon-Reed also coauthored Vernon Can Read! (2001), the autobiography of civil rights leader and Clinton confidant, Vernon Jordan.

Alex Gibney Documentary Film Series
We will host a visit by Alex Gibney, major documentary film director, in association with a screening of three of his major films: Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008), a finalist for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance; Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), which received the Academy Award for Best Documentary; Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), which was nominated for the same Academy Award. Gibney also directed The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002), and is currently at work on Freakonomics (2009), based on the bestseller by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Gibney served as executive producer for the Iraqi war documentary No End in Sight (2007), an Academy Award contender, and served as series producer under Martin Scorcese for the 2003 PBS series “The Blues.”

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Saturday, January 3, 2009

Jayne Anne Phillips: “Teaching Shoots Writing in the Head”

Many writers confess to a love-hate relationship with teaching, a near-polar ambivalence. On the one hand, teaching appears to occupy—in a total, exclusive, and painfully distracting fashion— a part of the brain that is necessary for writing. On the other hand, teaching is a deeply satisfying and rewarding activity, one that keeps not only the writer, but also civilization itself, alive.

Jayne Anne Phillips, a beloved teacher and writer-in-residence at Boston and Brandeis Universities for many years, had this to say about the pressures of teaching in a 1998 essay that appears in the collection Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction (1998), edited by Will Blythe:

“[T]eaching shoots writing in the head. Sometimes the writer lives on afterward, blinking to say what he wants. But it's like when you stop smoking: the writer quits teaching, and the lungs pick up in ten weeks, the brain relearns its functions. The writer is an autonomic nervous system, a heart that won't stop pumping.”

Ten years later she has succeeded in striking an impressive balance between competing professions. The architect of a newly-created creative writing program at Rutgers Newark that The Atlantic calls, “one of the most exciting in the country,” Phillips has also completed— despite the demands of her first full year as director of the program— a major new novel, Lark and Termite (January 2009).

Note: Fiction writer Jayne Anne Phillips will visit the Writers Institute on Tuesday, January 27, 2009. She will hold an informal workshop at 4:15 PM in Assembly Hall, Campus Center, on the University at Albany’s uptown campus, 1400 Washington Ave. In the evening, at 8 PM, Phillips will read from and discuss her new novel Lark and Termite in the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center on the uptown campus.

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Friday, January 2, 2009

Writers Institute to kick off Spring 2009 Classic Film Series with Edgar G. Ulmer Double Feature

Working with very small budgets, Edgar G. Ulmer developed a reputation for “spinning straw into gold” during his career as a director on “Poverty Row,” the Hollywood name for the short-lived, independent studios of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. We present two of his best short features, each of them shot in only six days.

DETOUR (United States, 1945, 67 minutes, b/w)
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Starring Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake
Hailed by some as the best “B movie” ever made, Detour follows the bad luck of a musician who hitchhikes from New York to L.A., only to find himself trapped in a web of murder and intrigue. Critic David Thomson has called the film, “beyond remarkable…. a portrait of hell, and brilliantly done.”

BLUEBEARD (United States, 1944, 70 minutes, b/w)
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Starring John Carradine, Jean Parker, Nils Asther
This enduring cult classic features a Parisian painter and puppeteer who murders his models after he paints them. A recent review in Time Out London called the film, “a triumph of mind, eye and talent over the matter handed him by a [tight studio] budget.”

J. Hoberman, Village Voice film critic:

"One of the most versatile and resourceful filmmakers in movie history, Edgar George Ulmer (1900-1972), worked in a bewildering variety of genres, countries, and languages. Ulmer was born in what is now the Czech republic and raised in imperial Vienna; originally a student of architecture, he broke into the film industry as a teenager and, serving mainly as a set designer, shuttled back and forth between Berlin and Hollywood through the early ‘30s. After directing a highly successful horror film, The Black Cat, for Universal in 1934, Ulmer relocated to New York City where for five years he directed an assortment of independent “ethnic” features—including a quartet of Yiddish-language talkies that have since become classics. (Jewish, but not Yiddish-speaking, Ulmer worked with many of the leading actors and writers of New York’s Yiddish theater.) In 1941, Ulmer returned to Hollywood. There, among many other low-budget genre films, he made the quintessential film noir, Detour in 1945; his last movies were produced in Europe."

"An underground auteur, largely unrecognized during his lifetime, Ulmer has since taken his place among cinema’s legendary figures—an inspiration for the French new wave and a precursor of the American independent film movement, as well as an innovative and unique stylist in his own right."

Note: The films will be screened on Friday, January 30 at 7:30 PM in Page Hall, 135 Western Ave., on the University at Albany's downtown campus.

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