More than 1,400 bibilophiles gathered in March for the College’s second annual literary festival. It included conversations and book signings in Johnson Chapel with 2016 National Book Award fiction finalists Chris Bachelder and Jacqueline Woodson, internationally renowned author Zadie Smith and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. “With this literary festival,” said Professor Martha Umphrey during the three-day event, “we hope to generate an intellectual and aesthetic energy that reminds us all of the invaluable place the humanities and arts have—and must continue to have—in a world we all want to inhabit.” Today more than ever, she said, we need the voices of writers “to depict and complicate, reflect and prophesy, revealing and refracting the beauty and ugliness and compromises of our fraught world.”
Smith began with a discussion of her novel Swing Time, which centers on two girls and their shared love of dance. She talked about creating intentionally unreliable narrators—characters “who distort the story because of envy,” perhaps—and the writing challenges she faces. “I’m often trying to find a voice that can contain lots of different people,” she said.
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Writing history “allows you to spend a lifetime looking back at the past, and it’s how your family and public figures can live on,” said the presidential biographer. In a conversation with Cullen Murphy ’74, she shared anecdotes about Lyndon B. Johnson, who compared her to his mother, and Barack Obama, who called her to talk about her book Team of Rivals. She said she chooses subjects whom she “feels enlarged by,” and that the best leaders become larger as a result of adversity.
Woodson said her novel Another Brooklyn, about four girls growing up in the 1970s, came about because she’d only ever seen Bushwick, the Brooklyn neighborhood of her youth, written about from the “tragic gaze” of outsiders. “I wanted to write a biography of Bushwick,” she said. The resulting novel explores the intense bonds of childhood and how they dissolve in adulthood.
His novel The Throwback Special is about 22 men who meet annually to reenact the horrible football injury that ended Joe Theismann’s career in 1985. At first, Bachelder said, he thought he was writing about the football play itself. “The men come each year thinking that it’s about the play, too. But it’s not. They come seeking something else.” The novel, he said, is really about nostalgia, ritual and friendship.