Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Writer's Use of History

This weekend I attended the "Tom Wolfe Lecture/Seminar" at Washington and Lee University: A Writer's Use of History, featuring Geraldine Brooks and Tony Horwitz.

Although I was looking forward to meeting Brooks and Horwitz (who are married to each other) I didn't know what to expect from the program, which is aimed primarily at W&L Alums, of which I am not one. But now I know: it was terrific. The facilities were great, the food quite good, the participants engaged and interesting, and the speakers outstanding. No complaints from me.

After introductions on Friday afternoon, the program began with a talk by Geraldine Brooks, author of March, People of the Book and several other books. Her subject was "Inventions, Conventions, and People of the Book," and she spoke about her own progression from journalist to novelist and some advice she received along the way. She also spoke about where her ideas came from for her three novels, and then went into some depth in talking about how People of the Book came to be, including a slide show of the illustrations from the book that is the "star" of the novel.

Later we convened in one of W&L's guest houses for a reception and then a lovely dinner where we got to talk with the program faculty and get to know each other better.

On Saturday morning we reconvened and this time it was Tony Horwitz's turn. His subject was "Taking Latitutde with Attitude" and it was fascinating to contrast his work, which is non-fiction, with the fiction that Brooks writes. He talked about the genre of "participatory history" and about his experience in writing a couple of his earlier books, but then spent most of his time talking about his new book, A Voyage Long and Strange, that will be released next week.

After a book signing session we met again to hear from W&L faculty member Suzanne Keen who gave a lively "critical response" to the uses of history we'd been discussing, in which she identified various "productive tensions" at work. She contrasted history with heritage, and then we considered how the distinctions sometimes blur and the culture loses track of which is which. The questions following her talk merged with the concluding panel discussion that dealt with a range of topics including the writing life.

Then there was a nice lunch and we said our goodbyes. A thoroughly enjoyable couple of days, in which I think I learned a good deal.


Mary Akers said...

Sounds wonderful!

Courtney said...

Thanks so much for blogging about this. As a W&L alum I wish I could have been there. Suzanne is a firecracker.