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.
Celebrating its 20th year, the Writers’ Workshop Series continues with a slate of authors who write in a variety of genres. Our first visitor to campus will be Madeleine Blais P’00, ’04, one of the founders of the series, and a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and University of Massachusetts professor. She is the author of “The Heart is an Instrument,” a collection of journalism, and “In These Girls, Hope is a Muscle,” chosen as a finalist in the category of general nonfiction by the National Book Critics’ Circle and cited by ESPN as one of the top 100 sports books of the 20th century. Her essays have been widely published. She joins us on Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. in the Dodge Room of the Reed Campus Center.
Arriving on campus on Nov. 6, Timothy Donnelly is the author of two books of poetry, “Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit,” and “The Cloud Corporation.” Donnelly’s poems have been published in anthologies such as “Joyful Noise: An Anthology of American Spiritual Poetry,” as well as magazines and journals including Harper’s, jubilat, The Nation, and The Paris Review. Donnelly is an assistant professor and director of undergraduate creative writing at Columbia University. He is also the poetry editor for Boston Review. His talk will be held at 7 p.m. in the Grubbs Gallery of the Reed Campus Center.
Colum McCann is the author of six novels and three collections of stories. Born and raised in Dublin, he has been the recipient of many international honors, including the National Book Award for “Let the Great World Spin,” and an Oscar nomination. His work has been published in more than 35 languages. He is the cofounder of the nonprofit global story exchange organization Narrative 4, and he teaches in the MFA program at Hunter College. He will be on campus for two days, working with students and teaching classes, starting Nov. 10. He will not give a public appearance.
After graduating from Spelman College, Nic Stone mentored teens and lived in Israel before returning to the U.S. to write full time. Having grown up among people with a wide range of cultures, religions, and backgrounds, Stone strives to bring these diverse voices and stories to her work. She is the author of the forthcoming Dear Martin (Crown Books for Young Readers), which received 4.62 stars out of five on Goodreads. Stone will present at 7 p.m. on Jan. 23 in the Dodge Room of Reed Campus Center.
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.”
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.”
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.