Posted in Reading, Writing

The Writing Show’s Voldemort Panel

James River Writers’ Writing Show

At Thursday night’s Writing Show–Tall, Dark, and Creepy?: Writing a Believable Villain, author John Milliken Thompson thanked James River Writers for scheduling the event between natural disasters. Despite the pre-Irene showers, a crowd of about seventy-five gathered in the pavillion of the Richmond Childrens’ Museum to hear Thompson, author of The Reservoir,  Katherine Neville, author of The Eight, and Alma Katsu, author of The Taker, discuss villains–both their own and others.

The show’s host, writer Meriah Crawford, an Assistant Professor in VCU’s University College as well as a private investigator, referred to the authors assembled on stage as the “Voldemort Panel.” Along with Voldemort, the panelists discussed Hannibal Lechter, another villain known to more movie-goers than readers. Neville observed that what drives The Silence of the Lambs isn’t the search for Buffalo Bill but the character of Hannibal Lechter. Thompson noted his affinity for villains like Wickham of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a character who isn’t evil incarnate but who is deeply flawed. Katsu bemoaned the tendency for some writers to provide motivation for every villian’s actions: It’s a zombie, come on, she said.

Though villains dominated the conversation, the panelists and the host also addressed the importance of the writing habit, of returning to the desk every day. That’s a challenge for all three panelists, who are currently promoting new books. In the words of Thompson, promoting a book is like a wedding ceremony: You want to share your love of the writing with everyone, but then you’re ready to go back to the part that you do in private.

Posted in Reading, Teaching

Discussing VCU’s Summer Reading

The Other Wes Moore (2010)

This morning I met with twenty-five first-year students to discuss  The Other Wes Moore, VCU’s 2011 Summer Reading Program selection, as part of Welcome Week. Though classes don’t begin until tomorrow, the students I met with today–and the other members of the freshman class who met with other faculty, administrators, and staff during  Welcome Week discussions–engaged in an academic conversation similar to the ones that they will  encounter in their Focused Inquiry classes.

I was impressed by the number of students who were willing to express their ideas both in small-group and large-group discussion. (Our one-hour session included both.) I attribute the high level of participation in part to the nature of the  Welcome Week Summer Reading sessions, giving students the opportunity to engage in an academic discussion that isn’t led by someone who will evaluate their performance and record it in a grade book. Instead, the sessions offer an introduction to and preparation for the academic conversations that they will encounter later  in the classroom.

Several of the students I met with today mentioned the lines that were repeatedly addressed in the session for discussion leaders that I attended on August 15: “The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his ” (xi).

Those lines from Moore’s introduction also appear on the jacket–part of the book that’s the work of the publisher, not the writer. Wes Moore mentioned that fact when he spoke with the Focused Inquiry Faculty yesterday in a meeting interrupted by the earthquake. After we evacuated the Hibbs building, Moore generously continued to speak with the faculty while we stood on Shafer Court, awaiting news. In his discussion–both both pre and post-earthquake–Moore focused not on the lines that lend themselves to book-jacket blurbs, but on the crucial roles of  the people in his life–relatives, role models, and mentors–who, in his words, “kept pushing me to see more than what was directly in front of me, to see the boundless possibilities of the wider world and the unexplored possibilities within myself” (179).

The earthquake prevented Wes Moore from addressing the freshmen at convocation yesterday, but his words have spoken to many of the students I met with today. And their willingness to consider differing opinions about his book shows that they, too, are willing to see beyond their own experiences to the wider world.

Posted in Social Media, Theatre

An Online Dating Musical

FTP’s Hearts on Line, August 14 and 15, 2011.

If you saw Hearts on Line last Sunday or Monday, you were face to face with characters pursuing relationships that began without face-to-face contact. I’ve been thinking about that since I saw Monday night’s performance, which I almost didn’t see.  I was one of the last people ushered to the section of folding chairs set up for the overflow crowd.

Live theater has far less cultural impact than the Internet now, yet  the staged reading of Hearts on Line played to sold-out crowds on both nights of its run at the Firehouse, August 14-15.

Playwright Rebecca Jones, Marketing Program Coordinator for VCU’s School of Business, depicts online dating with humor and insight, and the successful run of her show at the Firehouse attests to the value of black box theater as a venue for reflecting on our increasingly digital lives–if we’re willing to unplug for an evening.

Posted in Reading, Writing

River City Reads: “Ashes to Water”

Ashes to Water (2010)

Last night at the office of Richmond’s Frontier Project, on the corner of East Franklin and 20th Street, writer and actress Irene Ziegler  met with readers to discuss her mystery novel Ashes to Water:  the July-August selection for Richmond’s city-wide book club co-sponsored by Chop Suey Books and River City Reads. Rather than reading a long passage from her work–as many authors do–Ziegler alternated short excerpts from Ashes to Water and Rules of the Lake, its prequel, with reflections on writing and anecdotes from her life growing up in Pre-Disney, Florida.

As an author who is also an actress, Ziegler possesses an awareness of audience that many writers lack. When an author reads an entire chapter, even the best listeners are likely to lose their way. One image captures our interest, we linger with it, and never catch up to the narrative that’s unfolding. Ziegler encouraged the audience to write about what scares us and recounted how Francine Prose offered the same advice to playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. Following her advice,  he wrote Rabbit Hole, which received the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2007.

Read more about Ashes to Water in the blog post for August 9 and on Irene Ziegler’s website.

Posted in Reading, Teaching

“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)

This afternoon, I met with several of my Focused Inquiry colleagues to discuss Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the holiday reading that will bridge UNIV 111 and 112.  Though students won’t read the novel until December or early January, I will address it–at least briefly–when they study Art Spiegelman‘s In the Shadow of No Towers on September 13 and 15, following the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

I have taught In the Shadow of No Towers in the spring semester for the past two years but  thought it would be worthwhile to consider Spiegelman‘s graphic memoir of the days that followed 9/11 on the days that follow the tenth anniversary.

On page 7, Spiegelman writes: “My ‘leaders’ are reading the book of Revelations.  . . .  I’m reading the paranoid science fiction of Phillip K. Dick.” Why does Spiegelman want us to know what he was reading–and what our leaders were reading–in the days following 9/11? What does he want to tell us? Those are a couple of the questions I may pose in class on September 13 or 15–and perhaps again in January when we study “the paranoid science fiction of Phillip K. Dick.”

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is new to me–I have just begun reading it–so I don’t know yet how I will approach it in class. My tentative plans include  incorporating a study of excerpts from the graphic novel adaptation from Boom Studios and concluding the semester with a study of Blade Runner, Ridley Scott‘s film adaptation–or perhaps, more accurately, his re-imagining–of the novel.

Posted in Reading, Teaching

“The Other Wes Moore”

The Other Wes Moore (2010)

This morning I attended a meeting that brought together some of the VCU faculty, staff, and administrators who will lead discussions of The Other Wes MooreVCU’s 2011 Summer Reading Program selection–during Welcome Week, August 21 – 28. Each of us will meet with a group of first-year students and their Resident Assistant  to discuss Moore’s book, which chronicles the lives of two young men from Baltimore, born within a year of each other and bearing the same name, one of whom, the author, became Johns Hopkins‘ first African-American Rhodes Scholar; the other of whom will spend the rest of his life as an inmate at the Jessup Correctional Institution in Maryland. In his introduction, Moore writes: “The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his ” (xi). Several of the meeting’s attendees referred to those lines, including the woman sitting next to me, who turned to me before we began and asked: “Do you think it’s true?” I didn’t have time to respond–much less formulate a response–before the meeting began in earnest.

Though I haven’t finalized my plans for the discussion that I will lead on August 24, I know that I will ask the students to consider those lines from the introduction, the “moments of decision” (xi), when they could have chosen different paths, and the impact of mentors in their lives.

In Chapter Seven, Wes Moore recounts how his mother “sensing [his] apathy toward reading” (130), bought the teenage Wes a copy of Mitch Albom’s The Fab Five: “I was riveted by that book. The characters jumped off the page, and I felt myself as engulfed in their destiny as I was in my own. I finished The Fab Five in two days. The book itself wasn’t what was important–in retrospect I can see that it was a great read but hardly a great work of literature–but my mother used it as a hook into a deeper lesson: that the written word isn’t necessarily a chore but can be a window into new worlds” (130-131).

I hope that The Other Wes Moore will serve as a hook to deeper lessons as well.

Posted in Reading, Teaching

Half-Southern Detroit, “The Help”

The Help (2009)

In today’s story reporting Philip Levine’s appointment as Poet Laureate, NPR excerpted a 2005 interview in which Levine said that the Detroit of his youth “was probably half-Southern. And every Sunday morning you could turn on these guys [preachers on the radio]—both white and black—and they would belt out language like I never heard. I loved it.”

Along with the announcement of our new Poet Laureate from half-Southern Detroit, today brought the release of the film adaption of Kathryn Stockett’s best-seller The Help. Between thoughts of a half-Southern Detroit, I tried to imagine what I will say to students in my Southern Literature class when they ask why Stockett’s novel, or an excerpt from it, isn’t on the syllabus. I agree with Janet Maslin’s assertion that “[i]t’s a story that purports to value the maids’ lives while subordinating them to Skeeter and her writing ambitions.”

But the cultural impact of the novel, and now the film as well, tells me that  The Help needs to be part of our classroom conversation, even though it won’t be on the syllabus. In David Edelstein’s  review of the film on Fresh Air  today, he observed that “[s]ome of Stockett’s critics have gone so far as to say she actually romanticizes domestic servitude by depicting black nannies’ genuine love for the white children in their care. They also say the novel is full of stock characters that reinforce classic African-American stereotypes like the ‘sassy’ maid and the shiftless, abusive husband.”

And what is Edelstein’s take on it all? He said: “My view of this controversy is easily stated:  ‘I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.’”

I don’t know either, but I do know that The Help will be part of our classroom conversation—perhaps along with half-Southern Detroit.

Posted in Reading

Front Porch Reading at Topsail Island

Foreground: Pelican under repair; Background: Front porch, where I repaired to read Ashes to Water.

On vacation at Topsail Island, June 4 – 8, I read Ashes to Water, the July-August selection for Richmond’s city-wide book club sponsored by River City Reads and Chop Suey Books. Whenever I read a mystery–which I don’t often do–I’m impressed by the intricacies of plot. What appealed to me more than the plot of Ashes to Water, though, was the novel’s sense of place. Like Irene Ziegler‘s short story collection Rules of the Lake, the novel’s prequel, Ashes to Water presents in vivid detail central Florida’s lake  country with its “grove[s] of knotty cypress knees” (274). I look forward to hearing Ziegler read from Ashes to Water on August 18.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

Belles Gone Bad, Summer Reading

VCU’s Founders Hall, site of “Belles Gone Bad,” April 26 – May 24, 827 W. Franklin St., Richmond, VA.

April 26 – May 24 found me revisiting some of my favorite writers—including Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, and Eudora Welty—with the women enrolled in Belles Gone Bad, a course that I developed for the Commonwealth Society, VCU’s institute for lifelong learning.

Elisabeth “Betsy” Muhlenfeld, president emerita of Sweet Briar College  (1996 – 2009) and Mary Boykin Chesnut scholar, joined the class for our final Tuesday-morning  meeting on May 24. Her remarks on Chesnut brought to life a woman whose incisive diary, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, offers not only one of the most important historical accounts of the Civil War years but also a document of considerable literary merit.

Muhlenfeld’s biography of Chesnut sustained me while I was icing a sprained ankle back in March and renewed my interest in the diarist, so I added Muhlenfeld’s edition of Chesnut’s novel manuscripts (UVA Press, 2002) to my summer reading list. Chesnut’s unfinished apprentice novels, The Captain and the Colonel and Two Years—or The Way We Lived Then, don’t place you in her world the way her diary so beautifully does, but they reveal how she fictionalized her life as she taught herself to write, and in her developing voice you can hear a hint of what’s to come.

Other notable summer reads include the first chapter of colleague Mary Lou Hall’s Dogs and Heroes, which received the third annual Best Unpublished Novel prize, sponsored by James River Writers and Richmond Magazine. Mary Lou read the opening of the novel at the Focused Inquiry Faculty  symposium on Friday, November 12, and I enjoyed reacquainting myself with the first chapter–in the pages of the July issue of RM–which introduces a boy named Clarence and his new friend Mona, the albino Great Dane “all white with the baby blue eyes” (66). Congratulations, Mary Lou!

Still lingering in my mind is the closing image of the writer learning to dance in the personal essay “Lady Lessons” by Lee Smith in the June/July issue of Garden and Gun. Studying with Smith in 1989 filled me with the love that Bobbie’s dancing lesson gives the young Lee. And her writing continues to delight and instruct me.