LitFest attendees gathered in Johnson Chapel on Friday, March 1, to hear from Jennifer Egan, winner of a 2011 Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. Professor Martha Umphrey, director of Amherst’s Center for Humanistic Inquiry, introduced Egan as “a chameleon with literary form”—not only an innovative novelist but a short-fiction writer and journalist whose articles have frequently appeared in The New York Times Magazine.
Indeed, after Egan read from the opening chapter of her most recent novel, Manhattan Beach (longlisted for a 2017 National Book Award), much of the evening focused on her versatility as a writer. Jennifer Acker ’00, editor-in-chief of Amherst’s literary journal The Common and author of the forthcoming novel The Limits of the World, asked Egan about some of the structural differences between Goon Squadand Manhattan Beach. “It was really such a pleasure to get back to old-fashioned storytelling and the skills that requires,” she said of the latter book, which is more chronologically linear than the former. Manhattan Beach’s main character is a woman, but Egan more often writes from male characters’ perspectives, because, she said, “I love the feeling of being delivered out of myself, out of my own life, into another world.”
Acker also spoke with Egan about her apparent fascination with gangsters and criminals (Egan’s grandfather was a police officer); her practice of typing nonfiction on a computer but writing fiction out longhand (the rough draft of Manhattan Beach reached 1,400 pages); the writing group she’s been meeting with since 1989; and the difference between journalistic interviews and oral histories.
Egan, who is now working on a companion book to Goon Squad, believes in continually challenging herself as a writer. “Whenever I feel like I’m developing a path of least resistance, I resist it,” she said, “because that’s how you get better.” –Katherine Duke ’05
“Writing is a form of concentrated thinking,” said Brandon Hobson, speaking Johnson Chapel on Thursday, Feb. 28 with fellow 2018 National Book Award finalist Jamel Brinkley and host Rebecca Carroll. In a conversation that was far-ranging—taking in the current cultural climate, publication hurdles for writers and lived experience versus written work—the notion of writing as a way to think through a problem was one that the three authors returned to repeatedly. As Hobson noted—following the evening’s preliminaries, in which he read from his novel Where the Dead Sit Talkingand Brinkley from his short story collection A Lucky Man—“The joy of writing is trying to really capture as much emotion as I can in that early draft.”
Brinkley noted that in his writing, his early focus is on language, as plots aren’t always as clear to him during initial drafts. “I try to get the sentences right from the beginning because everything else is so mysterious and unknown to me,” he said. Pressed by Carroll on how he finds a balance between authentically displaying characters affected by toxic masculinity and critiquing that masculinity—a frequent theme in his work—Brinkley said that an author must widen a story to see outside the frame of the life on display: “The story has to be smarter than its narrator or its protagonist.”
Nodding in agreement, Carroll turned to the audience. “Does that make sense to y’all? The story has to be smarter than the narrative. That’s dope.” –Rachael Hanley
A Story that Never Gets Old
Capping off LitFest was a robust conversation in Johnson Chapel on Saturday, March 2, between two science journalists, Elizabeth Kolbert and Charles C. Mann ’76, hosted by Atlantic Editor at Large Cullen Murphy ’74.
Kolbert is a New Yorker staff writer and two-time National Magazine Award winner. Her most recent book, The Sixth Extinction, won a Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2015. Mann is the author, most recently, of The Wizard and the Prophet. His previous books include the New York Times best-seller 1493 and its award-winning predecessor, 1491. He’s also a correspondent for The Atlantic, Scienceand Wired.
Environmental changes caused by human activity—both now and in the past—was one theme of the conversation. “Globalization is as much biological as it is economic,” argued Mann, explaining that European diseases carried across the Atlantic decimated Native communities that had long been clearing land through fire and agriculture. That resulted in the reforestation in North America, he said, which in turn led to Europe’s “Little Ice Age” from 1550 to 1880.
Both writers talked about their path to becoming science journalists. Kolbert covered New York politics for years, but shifted her focus to climate change because she was “looking for a story that would never get old.” Mann majored in math and biology at Amherst and moved to Europe after graduation, working as a sports reporter in Rome. Back in the United States, he became a freelance magazine writer.
Murphy asked how the two journalists measure success. “If you’re in the business because you want to change the world, you’ll probably be disappointed,” Kolbert said. Her actual goal: “To change the conversation.” –Emily Gold Boutilier
Amherst’s annual literary festival is sponsored by The Common, the Center for Humanistic Inquiry and the Emily Dickinson Museum. It is made possible by the generous support of the Croxton Lecture Fund, established in 1988 by William M. Croxton ’36 in memory of his parents, Ruth L. and Hugh W. Croxton.