Black Writers Ponder Role and Seek Wider Attention · 2010-03-22
Felicia R. Lee [The New York Times]
The 10th National Black Writers’ Conference begins on Thursday at Medgar Evers College in New York, an anniversary that prompted Walter Mosley to remember his first conference, in the 1980s. He was just one of many unpublished, struggling writers who showed up, he said. An editor had passed on his first novel, about the detective Easy Rawlins, with the rationale that the publishing house already had a black detective novel.
“Terry McMillan said you have to sell books out of the trunk of your car,” Mr. Mosley said.
But in the age of President Obama, when successful black writers can be found across genres and a Nobel Prize winner, Toni Morrison, can be tapped to be the honorary chairwoman of the event, do black writers still need a conference to call their own?
In interviews, many black writers and editors, and others in the book world said yes. Black authors are part of the broader society’s struggles with the legacy of discrimination and exclusion, they said, and often need a more strategic approach to getting their work promoted, reviewed and sold.
The conference, expected to attract 2,000 people, is a chance for writers to study and celebrate one another and for readers to hear writers presenting their work and dissecting social and literary themes. Over four days of workshops and discussions, the participants can also grapple with issues like the value of black sections in bookstores, the paucity of black editors in publishing and how to expand the list of black writers taught in schools.
“Is a black writers’ conference still necessary? Absolutely,” said Mr. Mosley, an author of dozens of books of all kinds who has since retired the best-selling Rawlins series. “Black writers are still facing all kinds of questions about the world they live in and the battle they’re up against,” he said. “This is a chance for us to pay attention to each other and not take on the values of the broader society.”
But some in the book world worry that conference attendees end up talking mostly to themselves. “I respect the ability of the Medgar Evers conference to build community,” said Martha Southgate, a novelist whose most recent book, “Third Girl From the Left,” was published in 2005. “But what I struggle with is that it should be beyond our community.”
In 2007 Ms. Southgate was part of a racially mixed group of writers, editors and booksellers who dreamed up theringshout.com, a Web site devoted to literary black writers and the idea that they belong at the center of the American literary tradition, with readers of all kinds.
“We need cross-pollination,” said Lawrence Schiller, a film producer, director and writer who was a founder of the Norman Mailer Writers Colony in Provincetown, Mass. Mr. Schiller, who is white, asked Brenda M. Greene, the director of the conference and executive director of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, for help in finding a black writer to teach at the Mailer colony.
The conference is a step in raising the visibility of black writers, Mr. Schiller said, but those writers also need to be “part of the bigger picture”: better represented at other conferences, on the curriculums of graduate writing programs and community colleges and more widely read by young nonblacks.
Ms. Greene said the conference, which she believed was the largest event of its kind in the country, helped achieve those goals.
“We are shaping and helping to redefine what constitutes literature and making sure that our voices are heard,” she said. “Without these conferences, you don’t even know who is out there,” she added, noting that bookstores and schools often offer a limited menu of black writers.
The wide-ranging conference includes tributes to Amiri Baraka and to Toni Cade Bambara, who died in 1995; panels on topics including “the black writer as literary activist” and “politics and satire in the literature of black writers”; and sessions exploring the influence of phenomena like hip-hop, war and the Internet on black writers. The conference also features writing workshops for students in elementary, middle school and high school.
In addition to Ms. Morrison, who is to be honored at a reception on Saturday night, writers expected to take part include the novelists Colson Whitehead, Bernice McFadden, Victor LaValle and Breena Clarke; the poets Sonia Sanchez and Staceyann Chin; and authors whose work crosses genres, like James McBride, Thulani Davis, Kevin Powell and Touré.
With all the changes and challenges in publishing, said the writer Linda Villarosa, a former executive editor of Essence Magazine who teaches writing and journalism at City College, this conference is needed now more than ever.
“We need to get the heads of all the mainstream publishers there to explain — and it doesn’t have to be angry — how the business model works and how to get more of our books published,” she said. Among her concerns: the rise of racy “street lit” books, the small number of black editors at publishing houses and the way books by black authors are pigeonholed in stores.
Mr. LaValle, whose 2009 book, “Big Machine: A Novel,” was critically acclaimed, said he retained a sense of optimism because the publishing industry always lags behind popular culture.
“The shock of Terry McMillan is that they didn’t know there were millions of black and white readers interested in the lives and heartaches of upper-middle-class black women,” said Mr. LaValle, who teaches fiction writing at Columbia University.
Black writers, like all writers, have to keep doing “something new and surprising,” he added. President Obama represents that originality both as a political phenomenon and in his two best-selling books, Mr. LaValle said. “The shock to the vast reading public is, ‘I understand this dude,’ ” he said of Mr. Obama’s work. Christopher Jackson, an executive editor at Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, said the work of contemporary black writers is increasingly informed not just by race but by “a million other things.” He is on a conference panel for agents, writers and publishers.
“Historically, black literary work has had to appeal to the expectations and desires and aesthetics of people who aren’t black and that’s an additional hurdle,” Mr. Jackson said, adding that other writers also deal with unconscious bias of many kinds. Still, he said, “some of the most imaginative, lovely and interesting writers today are black.”
Lynn Nottage, who won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2009 for “Ruined,” about women in a brothel in war-torn Congo, said the conference could foment debate about the idea that black writers constitute a niche market and that the best ones would eventually find wider attention. “We are not a niche,” she said.
One reason getting attention can be hard is that “there are next to no African-Americans at influential publications reviewing theater and books on a regular basis,” Ms. Nottage said. “We are evaluated and critiqued by people outside the experience. Perhaps there is some resistance to penetrate the issues we’re dealing with.”
Mr. McBride, best known as the author of “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother,” said he did not especially like going to writers’ conferences. But, he said, he planned to be at Medgar Evers on Saturday because it was good for established writers to meet young writers.
“James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston opened the door for me,” Mr. McBride said. “If I can help someone, all the better.”
How Noman Mailer’s house became a writers’ colony · 2009-08-08
Sue Fox [The Times]
For 60 years the novelist’s Cape Cod house was his writing retreat, now it is home to a thriving writers’ colony, thanks to his family and friends
In late May, 2007, I flew to Provincetown, Massachusetts, to interview Norman Mailer at his home. Aged 84, he was not in great shape physically. This was one of the last interviews he would ever do. In October he survived a six-hour operation to remove scar tissue on his lungs. A week later he had more surgery, which left him unable to speak and barely able to write. Four weeks later, on November 10, Mailer died in Mount Sinai Hospital.
Since 1948, when his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, was published, his was one of the great voices of postwar American literature. The voice may be silenced, but his house in Provincetown has now become a writers’ colony, created to nurture the development of future generations of writers. It is a fitting tribute to a man who helped many writers, reading manuscripts, making comments and sometimes sending them to his agents and publishers.
John Buffalo Mailer, 31, youngest of the nine Mailer children, is also a writer of plays, screenplays and journalism. “Pop was my best friend, but you knew not to disturb him when he was writing. At 84, he still had a work ethic like very few people — treating his writing like a regular 9 to 5 job. You check in every day and go to work. I’ve inherited that. Pop was a Luddite. He didn’t even know how or have any desire to turn on a computer. I understand why he didn’t embrace technology. I hate cell phones and the way my generation has this obsession with staying connected. One of the best pieces of advice Pop gave me about writing is to learn how to say something once. Most young writers say the same things different ways. You have to choose the best. The house in Provincetown is a magical place to write. I have so many memories — those books and conversations — the thousands, maybe millions of words. My father’s presence in the house is still very strong and it doesn’t get any easier to visit.”
The writer and film producer Lawrence Schiller, founding executive director of the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, was a close friend of the author. He collaborated with him on five projects, including The Executioner’s Song and Oswald’s Tale. “During Norman’s first week in Mount Sinai, one of the nurses said nervously to him, ‘I’d like to write’. Norman asked what she was doing that weekend. She told him she would be going sailing with her boyfriend. ‘So when you get home, write about your weekend,’ he told her. ‘Bring it to me and I’ll take a look at it.’ The following week when Schiller visited Mailer in the ICU, he found him, pencil in hand, editing some text. “The same nurse was sitting by his side, her back to the window, listening in awe to his every word as he went line by line through the typed pages she had given him. Finally he handed over his corrections. She just sat there reading his notes over and over . Norman, tubes and IVs stuck all over his body, went back to reading the paper. The groundwork for the writers’ colony continued to be laid without anybody saying a word about it. It was one of Norman’s dying wishes that the house be used this way. Given the current recession it’s probably the most daunting project I’ve undertaken, but this is the best way to preserve his legacy. All we can do is inspire people.”
The founding president of the colony is the academic and writer John Michael Lennon, Mailer’s longtime friend and neighbour, who was commissioned by the Mailer estate to write the offical biography.
Mailer and his wife, the artist and writer Norris Church Mailer, had been coming to Provincetown since 1983. The house is now part of the town’s cultural heritage. Great chunks of Mailer’s 30 books were written in the attic study. He told friends that Provincetown had become for him what Key West and Cuba were for Ernest Hemingway. As he grew physically frailer, life in Provincetown was easier than in New York for the old lion, which is how Mrs Muhammad Ali referred to Mailer at his memorial service. “The last time Muhammad and Mr Mailer met they were like two old lions who had lost their roar,” she told the audience in a packed Carnegie Hall.
It was a perfect description of the writer I had expected to be intimidating, but who, close up, was gracious, funny and gentle. Sitting in the living room of the place he loved most, Mailer was surrounded by photos of grandchildren (11 and counting), and paintings by Norris and two of his daughters. “When I was young, I used to say, ‘I’m never going to get married. I’m never going to have children. So I end up married six times with nine children. I’m very close to my kids. The grandchildren give me pleasure.” John Buffalo told me, “By the time I came around, I think Pop was more ready than he’d ever been to enjoy being a father.”
When I met Mailer, his whole life seemed indelibly etched into his face, but he was still far too handsome to be sitting there, wearing his old man’s velour slippers, sipping a glass of tea. But he had a bad cough and the tea was soothing. The view of the Atlantic Ocean from the windows was breathtaking. But Mailer, since macular degeneration had been diagnosed, had to avoid bright sunlight and so sat with his back to the ocean. “It’s OK. This is my town. I’ve been coming here since I was l9 and looking at the view for 65 years. The beauty never distracted me from writing. Now I can only look at it for five minutes at a time.”
The controversial Pulitzer prize-winning writer told me something they never teach in creative writing classes. “It’s very bad to write a novel by act of will. I can do a book of nonfiction work that way — just sign the contract and do the book because, provided the topic has some meaning for me, I know I can do it. But a novel is different. A novel is more like falling in love. You don’t say, ‘I’m going to fall in love next Tuesday, I’m going to begin my novel.’ The novel has to come to you. It has to feel just like love.” This summer, the house in Provincetown is once more alive and noisy with the sound of writers. There are workshops and scholarships, seminars and the Mailer Fellows programme. Students are housed in condos across the street; they are given stipends and bikes. “Good writing leaps off the page,” Schiller says. “So the process has to be competitive and heartbreaking because many more people apply than we can possibly take.”
Although students do not live in the Mailer house, visiting writers and lecturers may stay there. Mailer’s study has been kept just as it was when he was writing. Throughout the year there will be other events, including the first Norman Mailer Writers Colony fundraising dinner, which takes place in October.
Norris Church Mailer, who has written her own book about life with Norman, A Ticket to The Circus (published next year), says she envies the writers their freedom to come to Provincetown to spend time at the Writers Colony. “I did everything in the house, took care of the bills, the insurance, the children, whatever you can think of, and Norman wrote. I wrote too, or painted when I had an odd moment free. I’d loved to have gone to a place where all I had to think of was writing a book. I would have been much more prolific. The students who go there will be part of a house that has myriad ghosts of books written and paintings painted there, which is a good thing. Most of the children also worked in the house on their screenplays, plays and artworks. There are good vibes from children laughing and running through the rooms, and echoes of dinner parties with famous, intelligent guests who had rousing conversations. There used to be a ghost in one of the bedrooms. I could tell when she was there by a lovely perfume, like an elderly lady’s dusting powder, but I think she decamped for greener pastures.”
Norman and Norris had separate daily routines when they were working. “We ate breakfast at different times and read the newspaper for much of the morning then went up to our shared studio on the third floor. There was a door between us so we each had privacy. Norman worked on his old wooden chairs with the cushions that were moulded to his body after years of sitting on them. Views were important to us both. He needed to be near water and we had two of the best views I’ve seen anywhere — the Provincetown Bay and the skyline of Manhattan from our house in Brooklyn. But neither of us wanted to look into them all the time while we worked. Norman had curtains that he closed during the day. We had lunch at different times, but at six o’clock we would meet downstairs and have a glass of wine and a nice dinner and talk. That’s not to say we never spoke during the day, of course we did, but we, Norman especially, needed a lot of alone time to think and write. Neither of us were depressive — not that we were cheery all the time — but if we had a fight it was over immediately. Nobody spent time sulking.”
Over the last few years of Mailer’s life, while he was writing his last novel, The Castle in the Forest, Dwayne Raymond, Mailer’s assistant, worked closer with him than anybody else. By the time Raymond came into the family, Norris was already struggling with her own serious cancer surgeries. He took over the cooking as well as myriad research and literary tasks. He has written a beautifully crafted, intimate memoir of their time together, Mornings with Mailer: A Recollection of Friendship, also to be published next year.
After Mailer died, Raymond went back to the house, “The house is empty now,” he wrote to me at the time, “so I stop to check on it nearly every day. I take a breath and feed on the odour of books and dust and hint of No 2 pencil that still lingers in this attic.” Raymond still lives and works in Provincetown. He describes driving past the Writers Colony on Commercial Street now as “feeling like going by a university hall fondly remembered. When I closed up the house for the last time, I balanced that loss by touching Norman’s desk and magically hearing his gravelly greeting of ‘Good morning, pal.’ There was more to being in his study than merely sensing his ghostly presence: his oils, his cells, melded with the old wood desk as he worked. He left a part of himself there, literally, as he struck the edge of it with his hand while he wrote — distilling the rhythm of his style. My hope is that the legitimacy of what occurred up there in the study is not mislaid in lieu of the legend. More than Norman Mailer’s accomplishments should be celebrated in this literary outpost; the precision of his character should be lauded also. If not, then perhaps the untold millions of words he rutted from his core to boost our minds might collapse into just so much dust on distant library shelves.”
Inaugural NMC Fellow, Rachel Cantor, Releases Two Books with Melville House · 2013-01-18
NMC Workshop Alum and Playwright Present a Stage Reading of Play Developed at Colony · 2013-03-28
NMC Workshop Alum Awarded Pushcart Prize · 2013-05-23
The number of awards and publications from Mailer colony writers is growing!
NMC workshop alum, Steve Adams, was recently awarded a Pushcart Prize! The essay was workshopped in J. Michael Lennon’s creative non-fiction summer workshop and caught the eyes of many. His award winning essay, “Touch,” which describes the writer’s relationship with a cancer stricken masseur, was originally published in the Spring 2012 issue of the literary journal The Pinch. The essay will also be reprinted in the 2014 Pushcart Prize Anthology.
In addition to his recent Pushcart, Adams has also received Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers and The Bronx Writers’ Center “Chapter One” Contest. Steve Adams, both a writer and writing coach, explores not only non-fiction, but playwriting, fiction, screenwriting and poetry as well. His dedication is an inspiration to us!
Way to go, Steve!
Norman Mailer Center Gala · 2013-09-26
The Huffington Post mentioned our Annual Benefit Gala!
Other publicity sources include: