On February 29, 2020, Jesmyn Ward visited Amherst College to headline LitFest and host a masterclass with students. The below interview is adapted from her public conversation with The Common’s Editor in Chief Jennifer Acker.
[JA]: I think what comes through so clearly in that passage are all of the details of that property and all the norms of the community. So I want you to just tell us a little bit more about this place you’ve created, Bois Sauvage. Tell us what this place is like, and why it’s a fictional place, because it is very much inspired by your home.
[JW]: When I came up with the idea of creating a fictional town that’s based on my hometown, one of the reasons I wanted to do so was because I felt like the place where I’m from is so small that it would be harder to write about if I didn’t transform it. Sometimes I feel like the Bois Sauvage that I write about is this idealized version of my hometown, and not my hometown. Even though Sing, Unburied, Sing takes place in 2016-2017, I feel like Bois Sauvage is the idealized version of DeLisle, my hometown, from maybe in the 1980s when I was a child, when it was even more rural than it is now. Both DeLisle and Bois Sauvage are small rural places where community is very important, where families have been living for generations, because everyone knows everyone and everyone knows everyone’s history. I think part of what I’m trying to communicate or explore in Bois Sauvage is this idea of community and what community looks like in a place like that, and how a community can help its people survive in very specific, particular ways. I think I am also trying to convey the beauty of that area and that region.
Jesmyn Ward on writing honest novels with good titles, inhabiting ghosts, and learning to love Faulkner
Joseph O’Neill is an Irish and Turkish writer who grew up in the Netherlands, practiced law in England, and now lives in New York City while teaching at Bard College. His novel Netherland won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award and was praised by President Obama. O’Neill’s novel The Dog was nominated for the 2014 Booker Prize. He is known for sentences that are both precise and extravagant, that build on each other to undulating and dazzling effect. His work is founded on a bedrock sense of humor, and a healthy sense of the absurd is never far away. And yet his novels and stories are never merely funny; they are also rich excavations of character and observations of modern life. This keen eye, alongside evident empathy and wit are on display in his first collection of short stories, Good Trouble, which was released in 2019 and has been called “an essential book, full of unexpected bursts of meaning and beauty.” This conversation is adapted from O’Neill’s visit to Amherst College this winter.
Mark your calendars! For the fifth year, The Common is preparing for LitFest, a weekend of events to recognize and celebrate contemporary literature. In conjunction with the National Book Awards and Amherst College, The Common will celebrate extraordinary voices such as Jesmyn Ward, Susan Choi, Laila Lalami, and Ben Rhodes.
LitFest will be held on the campus of Amherst College from February 27th through March 1st. For more details, visit the LitFest website. But first, read on for recommendations from the participating authors.
Recommendations: Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward; Trust Exercise by Susan Choi; Battle Dress by Karen Skolfield, and The World as It Is by Ben Rhodes.
Here it is, the final Friday Reads of the decade! This month, we’re sharing the audiobooks that have entertained and challenged us this year. If you’d like even more listening material, check out The Common Online’s Poetry Recordings here.
Recommendations: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett; The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks; Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt; All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Wednesday, November 13, 4:30pm The Center for Humanistic Inquiry Frost Library Amherst College Free and open to the public
Join The Common and the Amherst College Creative Writing Center for a reading and Q&A with author Joseph O’Neill, hosted by TC Editor in Chief Jennifer Acker. This event is part of the Amherst College Creative Writing Fall Reading Series, which includes several readings around the town of Amherst.
A conversation with Joseph O’Neill, hosted by Jennifer Acker
With July well underway, we’veput together a list of transportive pieces that encapsulate the spirit of summer—the dust above the country roads, the coolness of the waterfronts, the anticipation of autumn, and of course, the sticky, melting sweetness of ice cream. Take a trip through space and time with these summery selections.
Ross Gay is the author of the poetry collections Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award and a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Books Critics Circle Award, Bringing the Shovel Down, and Against Which. In February he published his first book of prose, The Book of Delights. At the 2019 AWP Conference in Portland, OR, The Common’s editor in chief, Jennifer Acker, and Translations Editor, Curtis Bauer, sat down with Ross over lunch to talk about his latest book, which has led him to realize his life’s work.
JA: It seems to me that your two recent books, the Catalog of Unabashed Gratitudeand The Book of Delights,werewritten in a similar vein and in a similar spirit, even just from the titles. One of the things they’re both doing is thematically trying to draw attention to joy and delight. I wonder if they were consciously part of the same project, different outlets for a similarimpulse?
“Clarity isn’t an exciting virtue, but it is a virtue always.” I repeat this maxim to my students, and it runs through my own head with even greater frequency. It comes from Good Prose, a guide to writing and editing excellent nonfiction, co-written by Tracy Kidder and the late Richard Todd, who passed away on April 21.
On the Friday of LitFest, Amherst College’s annual literary festival, The Common Editor in Chief Jennifer Acker sat down with Jennifer Egan, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, among other accolades, to talk about crime, place, and “timely” writing. This is an edited version of that live interview from March 1, 2019.
Resisting the Path of Least Resistance: An Interview with Jennifer Egan
It’s that time again—The Common and Amherst College will be hosting the fourth annual LitFest at the end of the month. For three days, February 28th to March 2nd, award-winning authors, poets, and critics will descend on Amherst to read, discuss, teach, and celebrate great writing. This year the lineup includes two National Book Award finalists, two Pulitzer Prize winners, and a New York Times bestseller. View the full list of participating writers and a calendar of events here.