American Novelist Jamaica Kincaid Concludes Winter With the Writers Series

February 22, 2008

Jamaica KincaidThe 68th season of Winter With the Writers, A Festival of the Literary Artscame to a close Thursday, Feb. 21 with American novelist Jamaica Kincaid. Her first book, At the Bottom of the River,was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award and won the Morton Darwen Zabel Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Following, she published her first novel, Annie John. Other major works include Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam and Tulip, Autobiography of My Mother,and My Garden (Book). Her latest book is Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya.

Jamaica Kincaid was born in 1949 in St. John’s, Antigua. As an only child, she maintained a close relationship with her mother until the age of nine, when the first of her three brothers was born. At the age of 16, with a growing ambivalence for her family and a rising contempt for the subservience of the Antiguans to British colonialist rule, Kincaid left Antigua, bound for New York. After working for three years and taking night classes at a community college, Kincaid won a full scholarship to Franconia College in New Hampshire. However, after a year of feeling “too old to be a student,” she dropped out of school, returned to New York and secured a job writing interviews for a teenage girls magazine.

It was at this time that Kincaid drew the attention of the legendary editor of The New Yorker,William Shawn. She became a staff writer for the magazine in 1976 and a featured columnist for the highly visible “Talk of the Town” section of the magazine for the next nine years.

A visiting professor at Harvard University, where she teaches creative writing, Kincaid is at work on a new novel, See Now Then. The book is about a family in the small village of North Bennington, Vermont.

During the public talk, Kincaid read from her book, Talk Stories, a collection of her columns from her early days at The New Yorker. The reading was followed by an interview with Philip Deaver, director of Winter With the Writers. During the interview, Kincaid talked about the autobiographical elements to all of her stories, how she found her voice by writing about her past and how her interests and knowledge in other areas intertwine and become part of her writing.

During the interview, Kincaid offered advice to young people to follow their passions. “I say to young people today not to be afraid of being poor, of doing something wonderful and following it wherever it may lead you.”

She also shared, “I had to find my freedom because I was just 16 when I got to America and I was afraid and homesick, but I was determined to write. I think I found my voice through writing about my past. Everything I write is autobiographical. But I do not at all feel like I have put myself down on paper enough for anyone to really know me. I don’t even know myself well enough. I write autobiographically to explore, not to expose myself.”

An avid gardener, Kincaid says her writing has been influenced by her work in the garden, just as her gardening has been influenced by her writing. She also urged the writers in the audience to read extensively, not just fiction, but any area that captures their interest and gives new knowledge. “Reading keeps your mind open and allows you to learn about new things,” Kincaid said. “I always want to know about things, where they come from. Don’t be vague, know the background of what you are writing about. Reading is the most essential thing. There is much to be learned from knowing the ways of the world.”

Winter With the Writers Features Claire Keegan

Claire KeeganThe Winter With the Writers series continued Thursday, Feb. 14, with short story writer Claire Keegan. She gave a reading and was then interviewed on stage by Phil Deaver, Winter With the Writers director and writer-in-residence.

Keegan’s stories have won numerous awards: the William Trevor Prize (judged by William Trevor), the Kilkenny Prize, the Olive Cook Award, the Tom-Gallon Award, the Martin Healy Prize, the Maculay Fellowship, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. She was twice awarded the Francis MacManus Award and was also a Wingate Scholar.

Her first collection of stories, Antarctica, was a Los Angeles Times Book of the Year, won critical acclaim, and was translated into Chinese, Italian and German. Her latest collection, Walk the Blue Fields, was published by Faber & Faber in 2007 and will be published by Grove/Atlantic in the U.S.

Keegan was raised on a farm in County Wicklow, on the southeast coast of Ireland. She came to the event from Villanova University where she is serving as Heimbold Professor of Irish Studies. Keegan participated in a master class with Rollins students earlier in the day... “a master class our students will not soon forget,” Deaver said.

Keegan read the title story from her latest book, Walk the Blue Fields, and interacted with the audience while doing so, laughing with them at amusing passages and interjecting comments on parts of the story. Later while being interviewed, words that came up frequently were quiet and dark, and Keegan explained that her approach to writing is to dive into the unsaid, the trouble in people’s lives and to try and make sense of the passing of time.

“I am interested in the unspoken things in life,” Keegan said. “We say very little in our lives, much of what we think is unspoken, and I feel the Irish in particular leave a lot unsaid. We are known for our humor but I think that is a device to push aside further probing. Our humor is one of the reasons we are such good story writers.”

When told that many of her stories seem dark, Keegan explained that her stories are about life‘s journeys and the hope that comes after struggle. “I don’t see myself as a dark writer, I see myself as a lively writer,” Keegan said. “I think death is taboo in our society, which makes no sense to me. We are mortal beings. Time makes sense of our lives and of writing. Who’s life is not challenged? That is what I write about.”

As a short story writer, Keegan believes in the power of rewrites and following a story wherever it will take you. She went through 30 drafts of the story Walk the Blue Fields in seven months. “I never know where a story is going,” Keegan said. “If I did, I’d never write it. I’ve developed a faith in patience, in some point you’ll feel something that is real and authentic and the story you think you are writing becomes the story you must write.”

Keegan ended the interview with advice to young writers. “Believe in your imagination,” Keegan said. “I truly believe if you thoroughly imagined another person’s life you couldn’t harm them. You come to a place of understanding, not criticism. You need to read carefully and listen to what the language you’ve written says to you. Never enforce an idea on your writing.”

“Writing is very troublesome,” Keegan said. “I am interested in trouble.”

Winter With the Writers Features Mark Jarman

Winter With the Writers Thursday, Feb. 7, poet Mark Jarman conducted a master class for students in the afternoon, and in the evening he gave a reading and was interviewed. During the public talk, Jarman read more than nine poems from his latest book of poetry, Epistles, just out from Sarabande Books. He was then interviewed on stage by Phil Deaver, Winter With the Writers director and writer-in-residence.

Philip Deaver and Mark Jarman
Mark Jarman (right) with Winter With the Writers Director Philip Deaver

Jarman’s awards include a Joseph Henry Jackson Award for his poetry in 1974, three NEA grants in poetry (1977, 1984, 1992), and a fellowship in poetry from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for 1991-1992. His book The Black Riviera won the 1991 Poets’ Prize.Questions for Ecclesiastes was a finalist for the 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry and won the 1998 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets and The Nation magazine. He is also the author of two collections of essays on poetry, The Secret of Poetry (2000) and Body and Soul (2002).

During the interview, Jarman talked about his belief in what makes contemporary poetry great, his start at a young age to practice and hone his craft, and his belief that poetry must be an impulse that always drives a person.

Called a “ferocious young lion of poetry” by Deaver, Jarman began his habit of practicing writing poetry every day his senior year of high school. He was encouraged by his modern literature teacher who recognized the talent in his poetry. “He told me, you will not be taking this class, you will sit in the teacher’s lounge instead and write poetry and then show it to me,” Jarman said. “It was my first taste of what criticism was really like, and it was where I developed my writing habits and learned not everything that flowed from my pen was perfect.”

At 27, Jarman and his friend Robert McDowell founded a magazine called The Reaper to share their views of what they believed contemporary poetry should be. “We believed every poem should have some story to tell,” Jarman said.”And we wanted to make poetry more accessible and more popular because at the time it was becoming more esoteric.”

Jarman encourages young poets to find a technique for writing that works for them. He can sit down and write every day, most often at night before bed when inhibitions are down, and then again in the light of day to review what he’s written the night before. “Everyone is different and has to find what works for them, but I definitely believe you have to have a technique and you have to practice your craft,” Jarman said.

“I think the poet writes to be read, for a love of doing it,” Jarman said. “But also when they are finished, they want their poems to be read."

"Writing poetry is an impulse you get at a young age, and to keep at it you have to need to do it,” Jarman said. “You find that out by having a willingness to persist in your writing. There are many people who are very talented but they eventually give up because they didn’t need to write. Poetry is a craft that takes all your life.”

Winter With the Writers Features Michael Cunningham

Michelle Bernier with Michael Cunningham
Rollins student Michelle Bernier with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham

Winter With the Writers kicked off Thursday, January 31, with novelist, short story writer and screenwriter Michael Cunningham. In the afternoon, he conducted a master class for students and in the evening, he gave a reading and was interviewed. During the public talk, Cunningham read a passage from his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours and a short story entitled A Wild Swan. He was then interviewed on stage by Philip Deaver, Winter With the Writers director writer-in-residence.

Cunningham’s work has won him a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Michener Fellowship from the University of Iowa. Two of his novels, A Home at the End of the World and The Hours, were adapted into feature films, and his novel Flesh and Blood is currently being adapted into a miniseries for Showtime.

Michael Cunningham and Philip Deaver
Michael Cunningham (left) with Winter With the Writers Director Philip Deaver

During the interview, Cunningham spoke about his journey from a being a child who had little interest in reading to being a student in college who knew writing would be what he wanted to pursue, even though at first he felt like an imposter. “I was embarrassed about applying for graduate school, I felt like a freak,” Cunningham said. “But I went and it was great for me. What mattered most was the other students I met, people I loved and respected, who were deeply intelligent and who believed that writing an intelligent sentence was the greatest thing they could spend their life on.”

He also discussed the lessons he has learned through the years as a writer and offered advice to all writers, especially newer ones. “I learned that nothing you ever do is going to be enough, but you have to hand in a work that you can say is the best possible version of what you can do at that time,” Cunningham said. “It is hard to fully prepare yourself for the years of work writing takes, for the mornings and nights when you think I’m a fool. Probably a little more important than talent is that you have to be the one who pushes yourself to continue. Little is more important to a writer than tenacity.”

Even through the struggles and hard work, Cunningham encourages young writers to believe in their gifts. “The writing of fiction implies a belief in the future,” Cunningham said.

Learn more about Winter With the Writers at Rollins

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