Written by Dolores Kazanjian O’Brien Friday, 12 June 2009 08:04The Port Washington Friends of the Library (FOL) recently hosted their 40th annual Book & Author Luncheon. The event, held at the Clubhouse at Harbor Links, featured two award- winning writers: Jayne Anne Phillips and Tony Horowitz.
Phillips, whose most recent book is Lark and Termite, talked about how fiction is written. Cautioning, “Of course, it is different for every writer,” she went on to describe her particular approach. She said, “I seem to need a deep, years-long involvement.” (Her latest novel was nine years in the making.) She added, “I never plan what I write. Stories occur to me in the first line, then I follow it to the next line, and then the next. It is always a surprise for me.”
Phillips added that her novels and stories often start with an idea or an image from real life. Lark and Termite, for example, was inspired by (among other things) a 30-year-old memory of a boy sitting on a chair with his legs folded underneath him, a sketch given to her by a friend, and a photograph of a railroad tunnel in Korea during our war with that country. Other inspiration has come from recollections of the ‘60s and post-‘60s generations, memories of summer camp, and even letters that her grandmother wrote when she (her grandmother) eloped. Phillips started as a poet, and her work is filled with colors and sounds and word pictures. She said, “Some of my favorite writers are failed poets.”
Phillips is a professor of English and director of the MFA Program at Rutgers University’s Newark campus. She has won a Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction (1980) and an Academy Award in Literature (1997) by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She is the author of three other novels, Motherkind, Shelter, and Machine Dreams, as well as two collections of stories: Fast Lanes and Black Tickets.
Tony Horwitz was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 1995 while working as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal for a series on working conditions in low-wage America. Also at one time a staff writer for The New Yorker, Horwitz said he revels in the luxury of now being a full-time writer.
The idea for his most recent book—A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World—came to him when he had a visit to Plymouth Rock. He commented with his typical dry wit: “I was surprised it is so small. The locals refer to it as the ‘Plymouth pebble.” Horwitz realized that, despite his depth and breadth of education, knowledge and experience, he actually knew very little about the history of the exploration and colonization of the “New World.” Realizing that this was most likely true of many, if not most, Americans, he embarked on this work with the intention of “extending the notion of American history.”
In researching the book, Horwitz visited all the historic sites, from Newfoundland (“a place only a Norseman could love”) to Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean. He said, “I am a journalist. I like to go where it happened.” He shared fascinating, and often funny, snippets of information about the explorers. He reminded us that the history of exploration began over a thousand years ago with the Vikings, that Columbus never set foot anywhere in North America, and that the French had a religious refuge in Florida 60 years before the Pilgrims. He called the story of John Smith and Pocahontas “pulp nonfiction,” pointing out that she was only 10 years old at the time. He also asserted that the Anglo connection was not “manifest destiny” in fact, he said, “At one point it seemed unlikely that it would become an English colony.” Horwitz clearly both admired the early explorers and was appalled at some of the atrocities they committed. In answer to a question about this, he said, “We journalists are trained to ‘show, don’t tell.’ It is still important to recognize that they [the explorers] really changed history. You don’t have to approve what they did.”
Other books by Horwitz include Baghdad without a Map, Confederates in the Attic, and Blue Latitudes. He has been a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and a visiting scholar at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.
Both authors enthralled the audience with readings from their works.
One of the many interesting questions was whether each of the writers had tried the other one’s genre. Phillips has, in fact, written nonfiction and found it interesting and in some ways easier—“The story’s already there.” Horwitz said that he has never tried fiction, but that his wife, Geraldine Brooks, author of several historical novels, “went over to the dark side.” In response to a query about how he injects humor into his books, Horwitz replied, “I don’t know. I find humor in the historical.” Some people get all pious about it. Humor gets people to turn the page; it makes history go down easier.” Another audience member wanted to know how Phillips saw the “millennium” generation going into the fine arts. She agreed that it was a concern, and said, “Our job is to help them understand how layered and rich language is. Language is subversive; there is no other art so deep. It is a layered, mysterious secret. If we can convey that they will go on writing and reading books.”
Following the luncheon there was a raffle, and both authors remained after the formal presentation for book-signing and informal conversation.