Authors on Stage
Thirty Years of Literary Insights
Diane Speare Triant writer and photographer
The authors on Stage program, one of greater Boston’s most anticipated literary happenings each spring and fall, is celebrating its 30th year of showcasing noteworthy writers. Sponsored by the Wellesley College Alumnae of Boston for booklovers of every definition, the library benefit attracts bibliophiles eager for literary discussion or those simply curious to hear about newly published works. Flocking two hundred strong to the Wellesley College Club, attendees enjoy a lively morning of talks, autographing, and author-audience chat.
Each program features three current writers selected by a winning formula devised decades ago by the Authors on Stage founder, Janice Hunt of Needham: “one author you do know, one author you should know, and one author you will know.”
“The subject matter and authors are carefully thought out, so there is rarely a sense of repetition,” says Lia Hunt Zylstra, Vice President of London’s Folio Society and the event’s moderator. “The authors speak with a combination of intellect, passion, and humor that inspires us to listen and learn.” As a result, National Book Award winners such as Julia Glass and Tracy Kidder have taken the stage beside celebrity authors such as Stephen King and Dennis Lehane, with every variation in between.
“At Authors on Stage, you may discover a famous museum director like [the late] Thomas Hoving unveiling a dramatic quest for antiquities from shady characters in mysterious parts of the globe,” observes the program’s co-chair, Jean Canellos of Weston. “Or you may find a gentler voice like that of Reeve Lindbergh drawing you into a quieter world where the pleasures of nature nurture the soul and guide the mind.”
Whether you are partial to novels, biographies, how-tos, memoirs, short stories, poetry, cookbooks, or mysteries – all have characterized the Authors on Stage run.
Inspiration and Motivation
A distinguishing feature of the program is that the presenters are discouraged from reading book excerpts, but invited, instead, to address the myriad factors entering into the genesis of their work. Co-chair Carole Ely of Dover particularly enjoys this “behind-the-book” aspect of the event. “I am enthralled to listen as the authors share their writing journeys and personal stories,” she says. “The weaving of life and writing – how the muse flows or not – is fascinating.”
Indeed, many authors focus their comments on this question of inspiration and motivation. Matthew Pearl, whose book The Dante Club brings together 1400s and 1800s history in a literary whodunit, found his by a move to Boston. “I grew up in Florida,” he said, “so I was in shock at Boston’s rich history. It was my source of motivation for writing the novel.” Memoirist Da Chen, on the other hand, credited filial duty with inspiring his charming Sounds of the River, a story of leaving a tiny province for Beijing in post-Cultural Revolution China. “I wrote in order to be a good son,” he told the audience. “My parents gave me love, and I, by writing about them, gave them immortality.”
Novelist Gregory Maguire’s driving motivation for his trilogy Wicked, Son of a Witch, and A Lion Among Men – stories which expand upon L. Frank Baum’s iconic characters – grew from a childhood constraint. “I had a strict upbringing,” he said. “I was allowed to go to the library, but could only watch TV a half hour per week – and the annual telecast of The Wizard of Oz!” The anticipation of this rare treat kindled in him a fascination for Oz that burns bright in his adult fantasy novels.
For John Mitchell, growing up in a region with a strong sense of place inspired his “setting-centric” writing. “Where you come from influences who you are,” he explained. “My parents and their friends would sit on our porch on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and tell stories to the slow pace of their rocking chairs.” Such evocations now infuse his work. The Paradise of All These Parts, the natural history of Boston that he showcased at Authors on Stage, defines the city through the stones, trees, and rivers that lace through it.
Other authors offer up quirky details of their lives. “There is Mystic River author Dennis Lehane, revealing that he used his downtime from writing to moonlight as a valet at the Ritz,” Zylstra recalls, smiling. Or James Fixx, explaining how his father – convinced that a name should properly be a noun, not a verb – added an extra “x” to their surname. And what audience regular could forget Yale’s writer-in-residence, Anne Fadiman, confessing that she used a bacon strip for a bookmark?
Selecting a Genre
The majority of writers, though, choose to enlighten listeners on the craft behind working in particular genres. Pulitzer Prize finalist and Wellesley native Adam Haslett, for example, explained his preference for the short-story form in introducing his collection, You Are Not a Stranger Here: “You can have an entire experience of a life captured in a single reading; you can raise the stakes quickly and put in great emotional force which would not come out in a novel until the end.”
Sue Miller, in describing the building blocks of fiction, told the largely female audience, “A novel is essentially about trouble. You always need a dragon for the character to get past.” Agatha Award winner Katherine Hall Page noted that while adhering to such fiction-writing conventions, a successful mystery writer must simultaneously offer readers an engaging puzzle.
“In The Body in the Sleigh [a brainteaser set at Yuletide in coastal Maine], I want you to pit your wits against me,” she said. “In addition to writing a believable story, I have to play fair with you. At the end you should be able to say, ‘All the clues were there.’”
Memoirist Alix Kates Shulman, who chronicled her altered life after her husband sustained a traumatic brain injury in To Love What Is: A Marriage Transformed, explored the art of memoir writing vis à vis novel writing. “In a memoir, the writer has a pact with the reader not to make anything up,” she explained. “Otherwise the technique is the same as in fiction-writing. I [choose to] write a memoir rather than a novel if I think readers will benefit from knowing it’s a true story. ‘If I survived this experience,’ a memoir suggests, ‘so can you.’”
The Singular Art of Biography
The many biographers who take the stage offer insight into their intricate art of writing about others. To begin, most have grappled with deciphering and distilling thousands of pages of primary source material. New York Times science writer Dennis Overbye, for example, in crafting Einstein in Love – an examination of a young Albert Einstein and the degree to which his first wife might have contributed to his theories – sorted through 45,000 of the physicist’s unpublished letters locked up for decades in Princeton; Diane Middlebrook, in writing Her Husband, a biography of poet Sylvia Plath’s abusive spouse, Ted Hughes, tackled 180,000 archival items made available following Hughes’ death in 1998 (another carton is sealed until 2023, per Hughes); and Boston Globe Editorial Page Editor Peter Canellos, the editor (and a writer) of Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy, analyzed 50 years of the Globe’s coverage of the late senator to craft his biography as both “a political story and a personal tale of redemption.”
As for the skill-set behind the genre, Valerie Martin addressed the biographer’s need to magnify the subject’s inner life for the reader, so that the work transcends the strictly historical into the personal. To achieve this “close-up” view in her own rare work of non-fiction, Salvation: Scenes from the Life of St. Francis, Martin fractured the timeline. She depicted St. Francis in a series of 31 vignettes, beginning at his death and continuing chronologically backwards to his youth at his moment of conversion – as she put it, “going from the darkness to the light.”
And Newtonian Megan Marshall, whose 2005 triple biography, The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, was 20 years in the making, similarly spoke of the biographer’s responsibility to subjugate her voice to that of her subject. Marshall, herself, had the formidable task of interweaving the voices of three distinctive subjects: Mary, a diligent reformer and wife of the great educator Horace Mann; Sophia, a fragile painter married to celebrated novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne; and Elizabeth, a brilliant thinker instrumental in both the Transcendental and kindergarten movements in America. “It is the sisters’ actual words that make the story come alive,” Marshall said of the Salem-raised siblings. “It is important that the biographer’s voice be strong enough to carry the story, but not so strong that it overwhelms the subject. It’s part of the biographer’s trick of going from the record of a life to the story of a life.”
Marshall ended her talk with a clue to 19th century frugality, uncovered as she read through thousands of the Peabody sisters’ letters and journals archived in California, New York, and Boston.
“Many of the letters were cross-written – apparently to save on postage,” she disclosed. “The sisters filled up an entire sheet with writing, then turned it 90 degrees and wrote back across their own handwriting!”
It is just the sort of literary tidbit that has kept Authors on Stage audiences packing the house for three decades.
Diane Speare Triant, a writer in Wellesley Hills, is a founding member of the Authors on Stage committee.
Other local committee members: Kathie Clay, Jackie Livingston, Gina Wickwire, Jenny Zannetos, all of Wellesley; Co-chair Jean Canellos, Anandi Ebsworth, Alison Randall, Dorothy Robbins, all of Weston.