Screenwriter Steve Bloom will be on campus on Monday, Nov. 7, as our third presenter in the Writers’ Workshop Series. Bloom’s screen credits include James and the Giant Peach, Tall Tale, and The Sure Thing. His first book, the young adult novel The Stand-In, was published in October. The public is welcome to attend and there is no admission fee. The talk begins at 7 p.m. and takes place at Plimpton Hall, behind 19 Payson Ave.
In The Stand-In, Bloom heads back to high school, where his main character, working-class Brooks Rattigan, ends up hiring himself out as a date for wealthy classmates to earn money for a tutor so he can get into the college of his choice. Brooks navigates relationships—and the ethics of what he’s doing.
Reviewers have praised the author’s unconventional choice of using a male lead in a YA romance novel, as well as Brooks’ realistic characterization, calling the book funny and endearing.
Bloom attended Brown University and the graduate film production program at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. He lives in western Massachusetts with his wife, Jennifer, and their French bulldog Ricky.
Laura Tillman was a recent college graduate when she took a reporting job at a newspaper in Brownsville, Texas, five years after a shocking triple murder there received international media attention. In a talk during the second installation of the Writers’ Workshop Series, Tillman spoke to the Williston community and members of the public about the book, The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts, that emerged from her spending six years reporting on the tragedy.
Tillman said Brownsville is known for its poverty—it’s one of the poorest cities in the country—and for its proximity to Mexico. However its residents feel there is more to the place than these statistics would lead you to believe. As she investigated the crime, and the circumstances that led to it, she talked to numerous people in the neighborhood. She corresponded with one of the perpetrators of the crime. She also poured over court documents and crime scene photos. She would visit the building where the murders happened and let the details steep into her consciousness. The more she investigated the crime, she told the audience, the more nuanced her views became.
Students in the audience asked her a variety of questions—Did she think the murderers were a product of their environment or somehow innately evil? Did her own religious beliefs factor into her thoughts about the question of morality? And what did she learn from writing this book?
To that last question, she paused and then answered, “To trust my instincts. Sometimes you just have to follow an idea you find interesting, even if it’s not clear where it’s headed. You have to be patient and let it unfold.”
Laura Tillman joins us on Oct. 10 in the Dodge Room of Reed Campus Center. Tillman is an award-winning journalist and author whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and Pacific Standard, among other publications. Originally from Maplewood, N.J., she began her career at The Brownsville Herald in South Texas.
The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts, an investigation into the murders of three children by their parents in Brownsville—and a meditation on the human forces that drove them—is her first book.
Tillman holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College and a BA in international studies from Vassar College.
Keri Smith has made a career out of her untamed imagination. Her bestselling books—Wreck this Journal, Everything Is Connected, and The Guerilla Art Kit—inspire readers to draw, to write, to share, to explore, to explode, to tear down and shake up and start over and, in the end, ultimately, to explore and create.
But as she told the Williston Writer’s Workshop on Monday, October 3, Smith’s life, and her life’s mission, got off to a rocky start.
As a student growing up near Toronto, Smith said the system “failed her.” She missed school—72 absences one year, she said. When she wasn’t dreaming up creative ways to stay home, she went to class and recognized was that school wasn’t for her. It tamped her down, made her feel small and insignificant.
“I had an unlimited potential for creation at home,” Smith said, but school, she said, was repetitive. “I did what teachers expected.”
Doing the same thing every day, Smith said, “my imagination was crushed.” As she moved into high school, Smith became removed from her peers, and eventually tried suicide.
“I believed my failure in high school was due to a deficiency of some kind,” Smith said. “It was devastating. There was no one there to listen.”
Those whose role it was to help her along failed her as well. Her high school guidance counselor, Smith said, told her “there’d be a lot of openings for dental hygienists.” The audience laughed. “Can you imagine me? A dental hygienist?”
Smith’s life, and her path towards inspiring others as not only an author but an illustrator, guerilla artist, lecturer, and self-proclaimed “inventor,” took a positive turn when she began devouring the books on a friend’s college course list.
“I was a quest to find meaning, [to find] and explanation of what it means to be human.” To that end, she “became insatiable,” and read Tolstoy, Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, L’Engle, Salinger, the Brontes, and a host of others. “Nothing was out of my reach.”
Her own exploration was set in motion by reading. She moved to the U.S. She got married. She ended up in Troy, New York, where she began carrying a journal. Following the thought experiments posed by Albert Einstein and experimental modernist composer John Cage, Smith’s journal projects began to take evolve.
“I thought, ‘What if the journal itself became the experiment,’” she said. “What if we moved into a place of not knowing?”
“That,” Smith added, “is the goal.”
In her series of journals, which also include This is Not a Book, Finish this Book, Tear up this Book, and Pocket Scavenger, Smith provides place for what she called “happy accidents, mistakes, chance, surprise, or trying something you’ve never done before.”
The final slide in Smith’s wonderfully-illustrated presentation displayed her list of rules for a creative and inventive life. (The subtitle read: “AKA My Secret Powers.”)
The inspirational list read like an encapsulation of not just what Smith does, but who she is: Use your curiosity as a guide; Use the senses in every endeavor; Feature your weirdness; Question reality; Question everything; and the final one: Remember that you are at the helm of your own education. You can create it and tailor it to your needs.
As expected, Smith’s presentation ended with a simple, outrageous call to action. She instructed everyone in the audience to wear the stacks of tissue paper that had been hidden under their chairs. Some made tall, cylindrical chefs hats; others tied bandanas; other made capes. Smith, taking pictures of the crowd, looked delighted.
She recently was featured in a TIME magazine article titled, “Meet the Woman Trying to Save Your Kids from Their Screens.”
Smith conducts workshops based on her books and recently taught a class in conceptual illustration at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, in Vancouver, Canada. According to her website, the main focus of her work/research is on creating what the writer Umberto Eco called “Open works,” pieces that are completed by the reader/user. In 2012 she created a public art installation for the exhibition Urban Play, in Copenhagen Denmark entitled The Society for Exploratory Research. In 2013 Keri was invited to be a “Resident Thinker” for the art piece “Nowhere Island” by artist Alex Hartley for the Cultural Olympiad, along with Yoko Ono and several other interesting thinkers.
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.”
This is the 19th year Williston Northampton School has hosted the Writers’ Workshop Series—conceived by authors Madeleine Blais P’00, ’04 and Elinor Lipman P’00—in which writers and creative professionals give a talk during a public forum, then teach a master class to students who have prepared for the visit by studying the presenter’s work. The forum begins at 7 p.m. in Williston’s Whitaker-Bement Center Assembly Room. It is free and open to the public.