Students in Sarah Sawyer’s Writers’ Workshop English class have good taste in literature. When acclaimed Irish-born writer Colum McCann visited last week, he asked them to name their favorite books. They listed an impressive array of titles, from J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; from Sherman Alexie’s Flight to Homer’s Odyssey.
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.”
In her talk at the Grubbs Gallery on September 23, author Joan Wickersham offered to break down the minutiae of two of her books, about suicide and love, respectively.
“If you’re a writer, that’s what you want to know: How did a book get written?” she said, adding that, “both were messy subjects and very structured books.”
The first of the two, The Suicide Index, took Ms. Wickersham 11 years to write in part, she said, because the initial finished version was a novel, a “very polite, dead book.” So when she began to edit the material, Ms. Wickersham found herself throwing out every chapter.
“I was trying to treat suicide as a conventional story,” she said, shaking her head.
What emerged instead—once she had disposed of the idea that she could take her father’s suicide and turn it into a novel—was a series of fragments that the author then arranged alphabetically, imposing a form of order on a chaotic experience.
The best ideas and strangest rhymes come to her when she is half asleep said poet Mary Jo Salter on November 11 during her Writers’ Workshop Series lecture at the Williston Northampton School.
Madeleine Blais, co-founder of the Writers’ Workshop Series, likened Ms. Salter’s poetry to “the gift of water from ice,” in her introduction of the John Hopkins professor. Ms. Salter was the fourth and final speaker in the 16th annual series.
“She takes the moment that is utterly forgettable and turns it into something utterly memorable, which is to say her words are shapeshifting and miraculous,” said Ms. Blais.
Sixteen years ago, authors Madeleine Blais P’00, ’04 and Elinor Lipman P’00 combined forces to create the Writers’ Workshop Series, a long-running lecture series that invites fiction and non-fiction writers, playwrights, journalists, and poets to speak to students and to the general public.
On Monday, November 5, Ms. Blais introduced her fellow co-founder by first listing several of the renowned authors that had visited the Williston Northampton School since the series began in 1998: Wally Lamb, Arthur Golden, Anita Shreve, Tracy Kidder, and Nikky Finney, among others.
“There are two things all of these authors have in common,” Ms. Blais said. “They are all performing at the top of their game… And they’re all personal friends of Elinor’s, who she talked into coming to talk to you.”