“The writing life is a secret life, whether we admit it or not. Writers focus perpetually on the half-seen, and we live in the dim or glorious shadows. …” – From essay “Outlaw Heart” by Jayne Anne Phillips
A master of tension, character and connection, author Jayne Anne Phillips will be the first speaker in the University of Houston-Victoria/American Book Review Spring Reading Series.
|Photo by Elena Seibert|
|Jayne Anne Phillips|
An award-winning poet, short-story writer and novelist, Phillips will talk from noon to 1 p.m. Jan. 27 in the Alcorn Auditorium of UHV University West, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St. The public is invited to attend the free event, and light refreshments will be served.
Phillips’s strong, personal characters in her latest book, “Lark and Termite,” resonate with readers and critics alike. It was a finalist for the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2009 Prix de’Medici Etrangers Prize. Reflecting on her 30-year career, Phillips said reading is the only art form where empathy plays a major role.
“It’s the only medium where the reader can soak in what the character sees, hears and feels and make that experience his own,” Phillips said. “Reading encourages empathy, and I don’t think any other art form involves that opportunity. That is why I encourage my students to read and why it is so important as a form of guidance, history and dialogue.”
“Lark and Termite” is set in the 1950s in West Virginia and Korea. Its pages spill family secrets, describe the effects of war on its central characters and relate the bonds between its characters.
Phillips has garnered critical acclaim and racked up awards since her debut book of short stories, “Black Tickets,” was published in 1979. The writer said early praise from major media and well-known authors inspired her, but she knows writers are only as good as their last work.
“The praise was very encouraging, especially for a young writer. But at the same time, I think writers have to have a real separation in their minds between their work and the response to their work,” Phillips said. “For good or ill, a writer’s contract is with her material itself, not with the reader.”
Now dividing her time between Boston, New York and New Jersey, Phillips draws much of her writing inspiration from her native Appalachia.
“I grew up in a small town where there was a sense that everyone knew everyone else’s stories, but no one was allowed to talk about those stories,” she said. “There is a real sense of history and of place, but also a huge sense of secrecy or privacy. It’s part of our Welsh ancestry; there is a strong oral storytelling tradition, but people edit themselves based on what’s acceptable.”
Her characters reflect that tension and the conditions in which they live.
“I write a lot about consciousness of self, and how it works, and how the boundaries between one person and another might be broken down or loosened,” she said.
The past five years have seen Phillips creating, then directing, a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program at Rutgers University in Newark. She took the job in 2005 with the charge of designing a new program.
“It’s doing very well,” she said. “We began accepting students in 2007, and we are able to draw from Manhattan’s large talent pool.”
Thomas Williams, an ABR associate editor and chair of the Humanities Division in the UHV School of Arts & Sciences, said Phillips will kick off the ABR Spring Reading Series with her immense talent and personal style.
“Once again, the reading series is blessed by a visit from a writer of the first order,” Williams said. “Jayne Ann Phillips is a stylist without peer and a creator of characters as real as the people around you.”
Other writers for the Spring Reading Series are:
Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Feb. 9 – A poet, writer, photographer and painter, and recipient of several fellowships, Griffiths’ literary and visual work has been widely published in journals, magazines, anthologies and periodicals.
Kate Bernheimer, Feb. 17 – Bernheimer has published novels, stories, children’s books, creative nonfiction and essays on fairy tales and has edited three fairy-tale anthologies. The founder of “Fair Tale Review,” she is a writer in residence at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.
Beverly Lowry, March 10 – Lowry is a Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts award winner and has served as president of the Texas Institute of Letters. The author of seven novels and two nonfiction works, Lowry was a former instructor at George Mason University, and she now resides in Austin.
Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, April 21 – Hinojosa-Smith specializes in life and literature of the Southwest, and was the first Chicano author to receive the prestigious Premio Casa de las Americas award. He has devoted most of his career as a writer to his 15-volume “Klail City Death Trip” series.
Authors who are part of the Spring Reading Series attend roundtable discussions with UHV faculty and students, make classroom visits to area schools, give lectures open to the community, and go to receptions hosted by Friends of ABR patrons while they are in Victoria.
ABR is a nonprofit, internationally distributed literary journal that is published six times a year. It began in 1977, moved to UHV in 2007 and has a circulation of about 8,000. The journal specializes in reviews of works published by small presses.
For more information about the UHV/ABR Reading Series, call ABR Managing Editor Charles Alcorn at 361-570-4100 or go to www.americanbookreview.org.