Category Archives: Uncategorized

Remembering P.D. James

PD_James_CologneI am late in weighing in on the death of P.D. James, whom I knew in two ways — as a devoted reader of her Adam Dalgleish novels and as a colleague in a writers conference in Key West many years ago. I remember that, walking to a panel discussion, she took my arm and said, “Please call me Phyllis.” Well then, OK. It was the sort of intimacy Phyllis created with her loyal fans, which number in the millions worldwide.

In the memoir courses that Suzanne and I teach, we often refer to the work of P.D. James. Yes, she was a novelist, and one who erroneously was often relegated to the Mystery category. But her narratives, if memoir writers are paying close attention, teach all writers how to build story and reader anticipation.

For example, in A Certain Justice, she begins the narrative with a reference to a lawyer who will be murdered at her desk several weeks later. There is no reference at all to this heinous act for dozens of pages that follow, a construction that invites the reader to be suspicious of each new character introduced, and to search for motives to a crime not yet committed.

Because murder is at the heart of her work, Phyllis, along with other masters such as Ruth Rendell, are relegated to a category of fiction not exalted for its literary merit. But both of those writers (Rendell is still cranking out books), in the end, succeed in exploring the mysteries of human nature. As James herself said, “What the detective story is about is not murder but the restoration of order.” Which is, of course, the goal of almost all meaningful prose.

A Week With Roya in Italy

  A few years ago, the director of Fairfield University’s MFA in creative writing called me into a meeting on Enders Island, where we held our residencies. He’d also summoned fellow faculty member Roya Hakakian. Each of us had been scheduled to deliver writing seminars in about thirty minutes’ time. Michael C. White told usContinue Reading

Goldfinching: Four Ways to Experience a Masterpiece

The endurance course titled “The Goldfinch,” Donna Tartt’s modern 784-page masterpiece, tests the standard of making every word count. I won’t argue here that she did. The ending alone — a long discourse on the Meaning of Something or Other — may inspire a reader to ask, “I’ve come call this way for this?” OnContinue Reading

Klinghoffer and Artistic Freedom Die

If you write fiction, nonfiction, poetry or any combination of these, the recent tragic aria sung at the Metropolitan Opera House should make you shiver. Those of us who create for a living already face sufficient obstacles – the demands of the work itself and the fickle nature of the marketplace immediately come to mind.Continue Reading

25 Books I Love To Hear (Part 1)

I listened to my first unabridged audio book in 1989 while commuting. In all over the last 25 years, though that commute ended long ago, I’ve heard more than 200 novels, memoirs and nonfiction books. Brilliant actors such as Henry Strozier, Barbara Rosenblatt, Simon Vance, George Guidall and John McDonough have made great books jumpContinue Reading

Fearing a Poet’s Power

Ricky Greenfield died last month. He was an accomplished businessman who, steadfast in his intolerance, became my literary benefactor. And for that I remain grateful. Many years ago, Greenfield bought the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, a weekly that circulated around the state and once — in the golden age when people actually read newspapers — hadContinue Reading

Make Lunch, Write a Book

How do books come about? The most common way is when a writer gets an idea and then slaves over that idea for anywhere from ninety days (the remarkable achievement of memoirist Carlos Eire, in “Waiting for Snow in Havana”) to a decade (Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding”) or more. Another method of creation:Continue Reading

The John McPhee Reader

John McPhee’s work appears in nearly every writing class I teach. I offer it as a prime example of the carefully constructed and compelling narrative, though I have little interest in the subjects he writes about. I was never curious, for example, about the geology of the Grand Tetons or the intricacies of cattle brandingContinue Reading

Writing, Italian Style

They’ve gone. They’ve packed their laptops, narratives and memories of a week together on the Amalfi Coast. Here, they read and critiqued (with love) each other’s work. They laughed and cried and hugged and, when parting, swore to stay in touch. We all ate meals so irresistible it seemed we could raise funds for theContinue Reading

Writing LBJ

An hour before the curtain of “All the Way” at the Neil Simon Theater, two middle-aged women walked past the marquee and saw the oversized photograph of Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Baines Johnson. “Look,” said one. “It’s Mr. White. I didn’t know he was on Broadway.” Referring, of course, to Cranston’s breakout role in “Breaking Bad”Continue Reading