Category Archives: Upper School

Editor Andy Ward Closes Writers’ Workshop Series

Editor Andy Ward at the final Writers' Workshop Series presentation
Editor Andy Ward at the final Writers’ Workshop Series presentation

Paul Kalanithi, a promising young neurosurgeon, wrote a poignant opinion piece in the New York Times in 2014 about receiving a diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer. The article struck a chord with readers and was one of the most viewed and shared that year. Fielding multiple offers from publishers, Kalathini sought advice from Andy Ward, a book editor friend-of-a-friend. Ward told Kalanithi to get a literary agent, and to send a book proposal. A year later, the proposal arrived. Those 20,000 words, roughly 80 pages, Ward said, were “the best I’ve received in all my time in publishing.”

Kalanithi’s book When Breath Becomes Air quickly topped the New York Times best-seller list for nonfiction when it debuted in 2016, and spent 13 weeks on that list. It has sold a million copies and has been translated into 34 languages, including Mongolian.

Ward was on campus recently for the final installation of Williston’s 2016-17 Writers’ Workshop Series. He spoke about shepherding Kalanithi’s 20,000-word proposal toward a finished manuscript, telling the 60 audience members (students, parents, and members of the public), “I ended up acquiring a book that asked what it is to live a meaningful life.”

Ward has edited many books in his seven years at Random House, where he’s editor-in-chief of nonfiction, and he found that while Kalanithi’s memoir had great literary merit, its editing presented unique challenges. For one, Kalanithi died suddenly and unexpectedly three months after providing Ward with a first draft. Aside from the considerable grief this caused, there was the logistical puzzle of what to take from Kalanithi’s writings and how to put them together in a way that would be true to the author’s voice and intent.

Ward met with Kalanithi’s widow Lucy, and pored over the doctor’s writing, at first paralyzed by the responsibility. After moving past that initial block, however, Ward was able to follow the “map” left by Kalanithi toward a work of nonfiction about which New York Times critic Janet Maslin said, “I guarantee that finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option.” This praise helped topple the final potential difficulty: marketing the book without the benefit of its author. The reading public flocked to Kalanithi’s simple and moving prose.

“These are questions we all face,” said Ward in explaining why the book has universal appeal. The success is “a testament to Paul, who’s asking us to reckon with these questions.” Defying expectations, the book isn’t a downer. “There’s something anti-depressive about the book, once you get past the idea that it’s about death.”

Ward called When Breath Becomes Air “beautifully written, utterly clear, with a sense of urgency.” Kalanithi, ever the seeker, studied literature and philosophy before turning to medicine, and this seems to have given him the capacity to explore mortality with great insight. Ward seemed to be stirred by emotion at the end of his talk when he read the author’s note to his then-infant daughter. Amplifying that personal loss is the loss to humanity as a whole. “The saddest thing,” Ward said, “is that we won’t get to read more of Paul as a writer.”

Speaker Fort to Students: Ask Questions, Pursue Justice

20170117_Nyle-FortThis Martin Luther King Jr. Day, speaker Nyle Fort had a message for Williston Northampton School students: Don’t be taken in by the feel-good “lullaby” that usually passes for celebrating the legacy of Dr. King, which he called, “a sweet song sung by defenders of the status quo to keep us asleep.”

The third Monday in January has come to be associated with community service projects to honor the late civil rights advocate. Fort said he didn’t want to diminish the idea of service. However, he quoted Dr. King who said, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

In that vein, Fort asked students to look critically at their country. Why do we have poverty, war, injustice, he asked. Why does the United States have 5 percent of the world’s population, and 25 percent of its prison population? Why, of the 2.7 million incarcerated people in the U.S., are 1 million black, even as sociologists who study crime say that blacks and whites commit crimes at similar rates?

He illustrated this last problem: As a PhD student at Princeton University who commutes from a housing project in Newark, he’s seen police in his mostly poor black neighborhood stop and frisk people (including him) and arrest others for petty drug crimes. Meanwhile, at Ivy League Princeton, he’s seen students use illegal drugs at parties with no judicial consequences. “Why are they not arrested?” he asked.

‘Love Tells the Truth’

Fort said he is points out shortcomings like these in our society because he loves this country. His mother would tell him the truth, he said, if his outfit wasn’t quite right, because she loved him and wanted him to look his best. “Love tells the truth,” he said. For the same reason, he confronts “the ugliness and the nastiness that sits at the heart of this democracy.” He cited author James Baldwin as someone who loved America so much he criticized it, demanded it become its best. Likewise, Fort says, he, a minister, criticizes the Christian church for turning a blind eye to slavery, and the black Christian church for denying women the chance to be pastors. Both institutions have treated poorly members of the LGBT community, he said.

Photo courtesy of Ms. Davey
Photo courtesy of Ms. Davey

Fort described Dr. King as someone whose mythical reputation approaches that of Santa Claus. However, King, the man, was anti-imperialist and a Democratic Socialist. He was in favor of universal employment and he disapproved of the Viet Nam war. These stances made him less popular near the end of his life, but he kept struggling for justice. Fort said it is important that we don’t look at someone like King as a messiah. There will be no messianic figure to create a just world, Fort said. And he paused, driving home the point: We all have to act to transform the world into what we want it to be.

Fort took questions from students. Prompted by one audience member’s question, he named some texts that informed his activism. They are:

  • “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin, an author who Fort said humanized black people, not flattening them into one monolithic entity
  • “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
  • “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination” by Robin D. G. Kelley
  • “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander
  • “Beloved” by Toni Morrison

An international student asked how to take these concepts to other countries. Fort reminded her that Dr. King was thinking globally and traveled the world to bring a message of universal human rights.

Fort also has trotted the globe (from Ferguson to Israel and Palestine) carrying this message. He has spoken at various academic, cultural, and religious institutions including Harvard University, University of Amsterdam, the Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz Center, and the historic Riverside Church. His writings are featured in several academic presses including Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy and Socialism and Democracy, as well as various popular media outlets including The Guardian, HuffPost, and The Root, where he made its 2015 100-most-influential list.

Recently, Fort joined 300 grassroots leaders from around the globe to participate in the Vatican’s III World Meeting of Popular Movements (WMPM).

Fort is pursuing a doctorate in Religion and African American Studies at Princeton. He received a B.A. in English from Morehouse College and a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary.

Activism Always

In his final moments at the podium, Fort reminded students to fold activism into whatever profession they choose. There’s room for making the world better no matter what you do, he said. “If you’re a doctor,” he said, “be a doctor who serves underserved people.” After he finished, students gave him a sustained standing ovation.

Students seemed to respond positively to his visit. A crowd surrounded Fort at the conclusion of his address, asking questions and sharing stories. One student was heard to say, “That was the coolest thing I ever heard!”

Advisors will hold follow-up discussions with students during advisory meetings this week to carry the conversation forward.

Book Editor Andy Ward Closes out Writers’ Workshop Series

Andy Ward
Editor Andy Ward will be on campus on January 23 to discuss books, writing, and editing.

The Writers’ Workshop Series will conclude with a bang, as Andy Ward, editor in chief at Random House, visits campus on January 23. Ward’s booklist includes Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham and the 2016 New York Times best-seller When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Before coming to the world of books in 2009, he spent almost 15 years as an editor in magazines, first at Esquire, then at GQ. Ward’s talk will be held in the Dodge Room of the Reed Campus Center at 7 p.m., and is free and open to the public. A master class with Williston students will follow at 8 p.m.

English Teacher Lori Pelliccia coordinates the series and leads the Writers’ Workshop honors-level English class that examines the work of the visiting presenters.

“Last year, the students in Writers’ Workshop referred back to the advice they received from the visiting authors time and time again,” she said. “I know this year will be no different. Each speaker’s unique experiences and talents will surely inspire our student writers as they explore and develop their craft.” 

Williston Student Presents $2,750 Donation to Riverside Industries

Nisa Zalta and Char Gentes of Riverside Industries address a student assembly
Nisa Zalta and Char Gentes of Riverside Industries address a school-wide assembly

At an assembly on November 29, student council president Natalie Aquadro ’17 presented a donation of $2,750 to two representatives of Riverside Industries. Students then got to hear about an organization based near the school’s campus in Easthampton that for 48 years has been working for adults with developmental disabilities.

Char Gentes, president and CEO, and Nisa Zalta, director of community relations, projected a series of photographs of clients at their jobs, and enjoying programming including music, art, farming, and yoga. They spoke to students about how adults of all abilities have the right to work, volunteer, learn, and play.

“When each of us can be ourselves, we all live a more rich and full life,” Zalta said.

The donation represented 5 percent of the proceeds earned at the student café, the StuBop, in the 2015-16 school year. Each year, the student council votes to donate those proceeds to a charity, and last year, the council chose Riverside.

The organization provides individualized services combining life-skills development, rehabilitation, and employment options for more than 230 adults living with developmental disabilities from 33 towns in Hampshire, Hampden, and Franklin counties.

As she introduced Gentes and Zalta and handed them a check, Aquadro, who is from Northampton, said, “Thank you for all the great work you are doing in our region.”

Williston has had a working relationship with Riverside for many years. At various times, the school has employed clients for housekeeping, dining services, and grounds positions. Recently, Riverside held a Windows of Opportunity Campaign and Williston contributed $15,000 over a three-year period.

“The work Riverside Industries is doing benefits the community on multiple levels,” said Head of School Robert W. Hill III. “Williston is delighted to support this organization.”

Steve Bloom Talks Hollywood, Drama in Third Writers’ Workshop Presentation

Screenwriter-turned-novelist Steve Bloom discusses films and dramatic structure.
Screenwriter-turned-novelist Steve Bloom discusses films and dramatic structure.

Steve Bloom, screenwriter-turned-novelist, talked about his days writing for Hollywood studios, fighting to get credit for a film (“You live and die by your credits.”), working with actors (“They’re all maniacs! They want to be in every scene.”) and his transition to writing his first novel, the young adult book, The Stand-In. He was the third of four presenters in the 2016-17 Writers’ Workshop Series.

Bloom said he got the idea for The Stand-In 10 years ago at a soccer game, when the father of one of his daughters’ friends lamented that the girl was stood up for a prom date after she had already bought her fancy dress.

Bloom worked the idea into a script about a cash-strapped high school senior who needs money for tutoring to raise his SAT scores so he can get into the college of his dreams, Columbia University. The character ends up hiring himself out to wealthy parents whose daughters need dates for social events.

After shopping the script around to studios and getting no nibbles, Bloom decided to turn the screenplay into a book. Ironically, once he found a publisher, a studio came knocking, and he was hired to transform his novel into a screenplay. He found that, in the act of writing the novel, he got to know his characters more deeply, making for a more robust screenplay than he had at the outset.

Students in Lori Pelliccia’s honors-level Writers’ Workshop class and in Andrew Shelffo’s English class attended the public forum, and asked questions about Bloom’s writing process and his stint in film school at the University of Southern California. He quit law school to follow his dream, but never saw it as an artistic imperative, he said, more like a way to make a living. “I hated law school. And I knew the vocabulary of film,” he said, describing a particular love for classic movies of the 1930s. This was the 1970s, after all, when films like The Godfather, Star Wars, and Five Easy Pieces were just starting to turn filmmakers into household names.

Bloom’s first hit was 1985’s The Sure Thing, a “John-Hughes-esque” road movie about a young man, played by John Cusack, who travels across the country for a romantic hook up, only to be trapped with a former crush that he eventually falls for. Bloom said the set up provided a “unity of opposites,” an ideal environment for drama, which is composed of conflict, to thrive. He went on to write scripts for Tall Tales, Jack Frost, and James and The Giant Peach.

He told students today’s opportunities for screenwriters are in television, where fully developed characters and story arcs outclass the mainstream Hollywood blockbusters coming out of major studios.

Bloom followed the presentation with a master class for students in the Writers’ Workshop class. The final Writers’ Workshop presenter will be Random House editor Andy Ward, whose booklist includes the bestsellers When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi and Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl.