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.”
This 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.”
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.”
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, 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.