LitFest 2020: A Celebration of Words and Writing

— Photos by Maria Stenzel and Jiayi Liu

LitFest 2020 brought distinguished authors and editors to Johnson Chapel--illuminated in purple for the occasion--for a weekend-long celebration of words and writing, from fiction and nonfiction to poetry and spoken-word performance.

a collage of six authors, men and women

This festival featured, from left, 2019 National Book Award winner Susan Choi and finalist Laila Lalami; memoirist and former Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes; 2017 NBA winner Jesmyn Ward; poet Karen Skolfield; and book editor Andy Ward ’94; among others.  (Bonus: Hear 5 students read from 5 LitFest authors.)

LitFest crowd in Johnson Chapel

The book-loving crowd in Johnson Chapel included students, faculty, staff, alumni and local community members.

Susan Choi,  Laila Lalami and Judith Frank

Judith Frank, Amherst’s Eliza J. Clark Folger Professor of English (at right), led an evening conversation with writers Susan Choi (left) and Laila Lalami (center). Choi read an excerpt from her novel Trust Exercise, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2019, and Lalami read from The Other Americans, a finalist for the award that year. 

Questions from the professor and from audience members delved into the authors’ use of different narrative perspectives, the role of anger or rage in their writing, the reasons various groups put their members through actual “trust exercises,” what it means for a work of fiction to be labeled “political” and the concept of an “ideal reader.”

When Frank asked about taking editors’ suggestions in revising their novels, Lalami said she “spent a week weeping” because she had to throw much of a draft away, but she ended up being “so grateful” for the guidance. Choi recalled her editor telling her, “I think there’s an unswept corner”—meaning that Trust Exercises needed to wrap up differently. “I wrote four endings. By the time I got to the fourth, was like, ‘It’s this corner!’” Choi said. “It was a very clean house by the end.”

Jesmyn Ward and Jennifer Acker

2017 National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward (left), in a conversation with Jennifer Acker ’00, founder and editor-in-chief of Amherst’s literary magazine The Common, spoke about the themes of surviving and thriving that run through her novels set in a fictional Mississippi town feeling the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“I think a lot about my parents, grandparents and great grandparents … of how more difficult their lives were because they were black and because they lived in Mississippi, attempting to survive in the ’50s and ’60s,” Ward said, adding, “I think about everything that they had to endure and how they still had joy, how they still expressed themselves creatively.”

“So that is what gives me hope,” Ward continued. “I would feel as if I were disrespecting them and not honoring their legacy if I did not acknowledge the role that hope played in their lives.”

Riley Caldwell-O’Keefe and Karen Skolfield

Riley Caldwell-O’Keefe (left), director of Amherst’s Center for Teaching and Learning, hosted a conversation with poet Karen Skolfield, whose book Battle Dress won the 2018 Barnard Women Poets Prize. Frost in the Low Areas won the 2014 PEN New England Award in poetry and the First Book Award from Zone 3 Press. The poet laureate for Northampton, Mass., for 2019–2021, Skolfield is a U.S. Army veteran who teaches writing to engineers at UMass Amherst.

Ben Rhodes and Andy Ward

“This guy’s a unicorn,” enthused Random House publisher Andy Ward ’94 (right), gesturing to Ben Rhodes (center), author of The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, which Ward edited. Most books by political figures are score-settling, as-told-to affairs, Ward explained. But Rhodes, who has an M.F.A. and was a speechwriter and foreign policy adviser for President Obama, captured the scene from the inside “with a writer’s sensibility.”

Rhodes called Andy Ward a unicorn too: “At our first meeting, Andy did not ask me, 'What are the 10 juiciest scandals you have?' He wanted me to write the best book possible.”

Cullen Murphy, Ben Rodes, and Andy ward

Rhodes and Ward answered questions from Cullen Murphy ’74 (left), editor-at-large at The Atlantic and former chair of Amherst’s board of trustees. They spoke about their editing and writing processes and values and shared reflections on their vulnerabilities, careers and mentors. Ward’s father was a speechwriter for the late Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas), and Ward said his first-year English 11 intensive writing course was a life-changer. Rhodes recalled what it was like to be at the historic secret negotiations to open Cuba and to strike the Iran nuclear deal. He also revealed that he and Obama text each other almost every day.

The editor-author conversation was held in memory of the editor and writer Richard Todd ’62. Todd, who died in 2019, was a longtime editor at The Atlantic and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, where he had his own imprint. Murphy published a memory of Todd in The Atlantic; it was printed and handed out to the audience at Litfest. Wrote Murphy: "We had both gone to Amherst College—where he had written his thesis on Emily Dickinson—and I knew, as aspiring young editors and writers for 50 years have known, that Dick was one of those people who were ever willing to reach out a hand."

LitFest audience members in Johnson Chapel applauding

LitFest 2020 was sponsored by Amherst's Center for Humanistic Inquiry, whose director, Darryl Harper ’90, is front row, third from right; The Common magazine, whose editor, Jennifer Acker ’00, is front row, far right; and the Emily Dickinson Museum. It was made possible by the 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.

Ben Rodes and Laila Lalami

Crowds lined up to have books signed by Rhodes, left, and Lalami.

Karen Skolfield with students during a master class

Karen Skolfield with students during a master class

Inside the Emily Dickinson Museum, Susan Choi offered a masterclass to Amherst students. “I’m always the reader that I’m trying to please,” she said later, during her talk with Frank and Lalami in Johnson Chapel. “And I’m hard to please.”