Celebrating the written word: Amherst College LitFest brings top writers to campus to inspire new ones

  • Novelist Jennifer Egan, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” speaks at Amherst College’s LitFest 2019 on March 1. Image from Facebook

  • Science writer Charles C. Mann of Amherst first began to think seriously of writing as a career when he took writing classes at  Amherst College in the 1970s. Image from Facebook

  • Jamel Brinkley, is the author of the short story collection “A Lucky Man,” a 2018 National Book Award finalist in fiction. Image from Facebook

  • Williamstown nonfiction writer Elizabeth Kolbert, a 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner for her book “The Sixth Extinction,” speaks at LitFest 2019 on March 2. Image from Facebook

  • “Where the Dead Sit Talking,” a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award for fiction, is a Native American coming-of-age story set in Oklahoma. 

  • The Boston Globe calls Charles C. Mann’s most recent book, “The Wizard and the Prophet,” a “stimulating, thoughtful, balanced overview of matters vital to us all.”

  • “Manhattan Beach,” Jennifer Egan’s most recent novel, won the 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.

  • Brandon Hobson, author of the novel “Where The Dead Sit Talking,” speaks at LitFest Feb. 28. Image courtesy Amherst College

Staff Writer
Published: 2/20/2019 4:38:07 PM

The literary tradition at Amherst College runs deep indeed. From students who have gone on to great success as novelists, journalists, poets and screenwriters, to faculty whose resumes have included Pulitzer Prizes and other prestigious awards, the campus has proved to be a fertile setting for fine writing.

Want to talk poets? How about Amherst professors Robert Frost and Archibald MacLeish, who racked up seven Pulitzers between them? Then there’s the late Richard Wilbur, Amherst class of 1942 and later an Amherst professor who won two Pulitzers and was the American Poet Laureate in the late 1980s.

You want writers? There’s a long list of graduates who later penned bestsellers and acclaimed literature and nonfiction, from the children’s author P.D. Eastman to legal thriller writer Scott Turow (“Presumed Innocent”). The 1980s produced an especially rich crop: Ted Conover, Chris Bohjalian, Dan Brown, Harlan Coben, and the late David Foster Wallace. And let’s not forget screenwriter/film director David O. Russell (“The Fighter,” “American Hustle”) and screenwriter Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockvich,” Ever After”).

To help celebrate that literary tradition, the college will host its fourth annual LitFest, from Feb. 27 to March 2, as several established and up-and-coming writers come to campus to talk about their craft. The list includes Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan (“A Visit From the Goon Squad”) and two finalists for the 2018 National Book Award in fiction, Jamel Brinkley and Brandon Hobson.

Also part of a series of readings, conversations, master classes and book signings is Charles C. Mann, the acclaimed popular science writer who’s not only an Amherst graduate (class of 1976) but an Amherst resident. Looking back on his time at the college, where he studied math and science but also took creative writing classes, Mann says he’s not surprised Amherst has produced so many good writers.

“I benefited from some fabulous teachers, and I got a well-rounded education from a great liberal arts college,” he said during a recent phone call from his home. Growing up in a small town in Washington state, he added, he’d been given to believe that writers “were these great, God-like beings, kind of unapproachable … but at Amherst I realized that they were in fact people, and that I might be one, too.”

Jennifer Acker, the lead organizer for LitFest 2019, is also the editor of The Common, the bi-annual literary magazine published at Amherst since 2011. Acker says LitFest began first as a collaboration between the journal, the college and the National Book Foundation, which presents the annual National Book Awards and also brings nominees of those awards to colleges to speak (that program is called National Book Awards on Campus).

“We really liked the idea of having those writers come here, but we also thought we could expand on that,” Acker said during a recent phone call. “And bless her literary soul, [Amherst President] Biddy Martin was very quick to offer her support.”

LitFest, which began in 2016, includes a talk that Acker leads with a “headline” writer — past guests have included Zadie Smith and Junot Díaz — as well as discussions with poets, nonfiction writers, editors and literary critics, and the National Book Award nominees.

This year, Egan, whose most recent book is the 2017 novel “Manhattan Beach,” will do a reading and take part in a discussion with Acker and audience members on Friday, March 1 at Johnson Chapel.

On Saturday, March 2, also at Johnson Chapel, longtime Atlantic Monthly editor and writer Cullen Murphy (Amherst class of 1974) will host a discussion on science writing with Mann and Elizabeth Kolbert, the veteran New Yorker writer (and Williamstown resident) who won a Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2015 for her book “The Sixth Extinction.”

Acker said nonfiction writing has always been a big component of LitFest but that this year planners wanted to focus on science writing, both as a nod to the college’s new science building “and the concern about climate change and the environment.”

Building ‘literary community’

Acker says planning for the next LitFest begins not long after the previous one ends, a reflection in part of the challenge of attracting notable writers who have busy schedules and other invitations to speak. For her, this also involves extensive reading of an author’s work, as well as reading or listening to interviews with writers.

Also part of the planning process is the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, which will host tours of the museum on March 1 and 2 as part of LitFest.

Above all, Acker said, the literary festival is designed to give students an opportunity to meet writers of diverse backgrounds and styles “to help inspire them and to highlight Amherst as a ‘writing college.’ ” In addition, said Acker, LitFest, where attendance has doubled (from 850 to 1,700) in the last two years, is also aimed at engaging the larger Amherst community “which is a literary town that places a lot of value on diversity.”

Among the speakers this year are Rebecca Carroll, a writer and an editor of special projects at WNYC New York Public Radio; she often addresses issues of race and blackness. Meantime, Jamel Brinkley has already won the Ernest J. Gaines Award, which recognizes new African-American fiction writers, for his short story collection, “A Lucky Man.” And Brandon Hobson, the other National Book Award nominee (for the novel “Where The Dead Sit Talking”) coming to campus, is a member of the Cherokee Nation.

Charles Mann has been a longtime contributor to Atlantic Monthly, Science and other magazines, and his most recent books — “1491,” “1493,” and “The Wizard and the Prophet” — have won acclaim for their lively writing and fresh examination of topics such as science, trade, agriculture, population growth and the environment.

But as an Amherst student, Mann first honed his writing skills in fiction.

“I wanted to be a mathematician, but I’d also enjoyed writing when I was growing up,” he said. However, his high school guidance counselor, he added, had “assured” him that there was no viable way to make a living as a writer. At Amherst he took creative writing with the late novelist Robert Stone, a two-time Pulitzer finalist whose tough-minded novels such as “Dog Soldiers” (a National Book Award winner), “A Flag for Sunrise” and “Damascus Gate” were often set against a backdrop of conflict, such as the Vietnam War. Mann said he learned much from Stone — not just about crafting good sentences but in thinking more broadly about a career in writing.

“He was tough but encouraging,” said Mann. “He also really instilled in me this sense that as a writer, you needed to take it very seriously — writing becomes a pointless exercise if you don’t try your best.” That, he added, was one of his key take-away lessons from Amherst.

As it happened, Mann says he eventually “backed into journalism” but found it a pretty good place to be. “You’re given a license to poke around in different places, to do research on interesting things and ask people questions, and they pay you for it!” he said with a laugh.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

To see a full schedule of events at LitFest 2019 and profiles of the speakers, visit amherst.edu/arts/calendar/litfest. Most events are open to the public, and all are free.


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