Martha Frankel is a self-confessed genius at delegating, making her, if you’re a lazy sod like me, someone to avoid. However, as the executive director of the phenomenon known as the Woodstock Writers Festival, the art of being a super delegator no doubt accounts for why, in four short years, this festival is on the map.
The festival, which was started to support the survival of The Golden Notebook, a local book store, has become a highlight not only of the Woodstock calendar but of the New York calendar, attracting literary and best-selling authors writing in all genres. In addition to readings and book signings, the festival includes workshops, panels, a writing contest, evening cocktails at Photosensualis Art Gallery and a Sunday breakfast event at Joshua’s Restaurant. The 2013 festival is scheduled from April 18 through 21 and, at the time of writing, some events are already sold out. But don’t lose heart as, with the exception of the story slam, the entire festival will be webcast so everyone will be able to watch any event they like from anywhere on the globe and, with a window of 30 days in which to do so, at their leisure (cocktails not included). This initiative is taking the Woodstock Writer’s Festival from a local to an international event – links to the Festival website for the schedule, entry prices, and how to join the webcast are at the end of the article.
Among this year’s luminaries are an eclectic cast of prize-winning authors including Cheryl Strayed, Lydia Davis, Norman Rush, Carey Harrison, Ann Hood, Eamon Grennan, and Ms Frankel herself — Frankel is a recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Award and she was a Phillip Morris Fellow at the MacDowell Colony. The titles of the panels themselves are witty and Woodstocky, they include “50 Shades of Tie-Dye: Rock & Roll Story Slam,” “Memoir A-Go-Go” and the very Woodstock “Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll.” The latter is with authors Elissa Schappell, Rhoney Gissen Stanley, and Alan Light each of whom represents one aspect of the panel’s title. Elissa Schappell is the author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls, a book of interconnected short stories that delves into the lives of a variety of archetypal female characters which The New York Times said ought to come with the warning label “Danger: Contents under pressure.” Rhoney Gissen Stanley, author of a memoir, Owsley and Me: My LSD Family, lived and worked side-by-side in the lab with Owsley Stanley, one of the pioneers of the psychedelic revolution of the sixties. During their time together, he produced 1.25 million doses of LSD. Alan Light, a frequent contributor to The New York Times brings the Rock & Roll to this panel with his opus The Holy or the Broken. The book follows the journey of Leonard Cohen’s iconic anthem, “Hallelujah,” from its inauspicious beginning (it was originally part of an album rejected by Cohen’s record label) straight to the heart of popular culture and…“Shrek” (who let that happen?) – Hallelujah is one of the most performed songs in history.
On Sunday April 21, “Short Stories and Tall Tales” features two of America’s best short story writers reading from their work: Norman Rush and Lydia Davis. Rush’s short story collection, Whites, inspired by time spent in Botswana was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and his novel, Mating, won the National Book Award; his most recent novel is Mortals. Lydia Davis is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” award and an acknowledged master of the short story, some as short as a paragraph and in the case of the witty Index Entry, a story so short that I can reproduce it in its entirety (spoiler alert) right here and now: “Christian, I’m not a” [The End]. Most of her stories, which have been described as existing between poetry, philosophy and short story, stretch to two or three pages and more. This event is moderated by James Lasdun, the winner of the inaugural UK BBC Short Story prize.
One of the most fascinating areas of fiction is the Historical Novel – marrying fiction to fact and making it work. It is a genre that is also most prone to “Gotchas” so those who engage in it skimp on the research at their peril. On Sunday afternoon, Tad Richards, Carey Harrison, Charley Rosen and Ann Hood whose books, between them, have the mid-20th century covered will, no doubt, discuss this issue and other conundrums in the panel on Historical fiction. Tad Richards’s novel Nick & Jake: An Epistolary Novel, co-authored with his brother Jonathan, mixes existing fictional characters, Nick Carraway from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Jake Barnes from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, with real historical figures like Joe McCarthy, Alan Dulles, Jean Paul Sartre, and Simone De Beauvoir in a novel set against the backdrop of 1950s McCarthyism in a delicious concoction.
Carey Harrison, whose combining of historical fact with fiction will be familiar to theater goers in Woodstock (he is the artistic director and resident playwright of The Woodstock Players Theater Company), has long been fascinated by the period of World War II in which his novel Justice is set. Justice tells the story of Miri, the British/Jewish wife of a communist Italian nobleman. Her husband’s feud with the local mayor, who becomes the town’s Fascist police chief during the war, has devastating consequences for Miri’s son. Justice will be published in the US this June and in the UK in July – Harrison’s novel Richard’s Feet was winner of the Encore Prize and was long-listed for the Booker Prize. Charley Rosen’s novel The House of Moses All-Stars is about an all-Jewish basketball team barnstorming across Depression-era America, confronting prejudice and point-shaving in this “sometimes agonizing, frequently hilarious” novel (Chicago Tribune). Rosen is also a professional basket-ball coach — his latest novel Scout’s Honor about an idealistic but employer-crossed NBA scout was published last month.
Ann Hood’s first Novel, Somewhere off the Coast of Maine, follows a group of women from their late 1960s Summer-of-Love youth to the harder realities of their middle years. Her latest novel, The Obituary Writer, bookends the mid-century. The protagonist, Claire, who comes of age before the zeitgeist of that liberating summer, is stifled in a secure marriage. Claire’s story is paralleled with another story set in 1919, that of Vivien, the titular obituary writer, who struggles with the disappearance of her lover in the Great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Hood is the winner of two Pushcart Prizes and the Paul Bowles Prize for short fiction.
Other must-see events over the weekend are high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s performance-based introduction to his new book Why Knot? This takes place on Friday evening following the day-long writing workshops. On Saturday afternoon there is the much anticipated comedy panel and the poetry discussion. “Something Funny Happened on the Way to Woodstock” panelists include the legendary Bill Scheft (David Letterman), Jess Dweck (Jimmy Fallon), and Meredith Scardino (The Colbert Report). The panel is moderated by J.R. Havlan, (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart).
I recently attended a reading by Pulitzer-prize nominee Karen Russell at Bard College and was gratified to hear her credit her reading of poetry with her growth as a prose writer, “particularly at the sentence level.” I say “gratified” because I am constantly harassing my college-student daughter, a budding writer, to make time for courses in poetry. With Russell’s words in mind I encourage all budding writers, those in full-bloom, and lay sentence-lovers everywhere, to attend (or get the webcast of) the event “I Sing to Use the Waiting: on Poetry” where two innovative and eminent poets, Dubliner Eamon Grennan and NYU Professor Maureen N. McLane, will discuss writing poetry, teaching poetry, and the power of poetry to sustain us and illuminate our everyday lives. This will be moderated by Priscilla Gilman, a former Yale and Vassar poetry professor turned acclaimed memoirist.
Lastly (that I have room for at least), on Sunday afternoon, there is the Woodstock Writers Festival’s signature event: “Memoir A-Go-Go” which features Andre Dubus III, National Book Award finalist for House of Sand and Fog later made into a film starring Jennifer Connolly and Ben Kingsley – in 2011 his critically acclaimed memoir Townie was published; British-born James Lasdun, a novelist, poet and college professor brings an account of his experience of being cyber-stalked over a five year period by a former student in Give Me Everything You Have, a chilling case of life imitating art –ten years ago Lasdun wrote a well-received work of fiction, The Horned Man, on a similar theme. Among Lasdun’s many honors is the Dylan Thomas Prize for short fiction; Christa Parravani whose searing memoir, Her, chronicles her life with her identical twin sister whose untimely death threatened the author’s health and sanity. The three memoirists will be in conversation with host Martha Frankel in this penultimate event of the festival at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts. Afterwards, there will be a reception for and a reading by Christa Parravani from her memoir – this free closing event will take place across the road from the Kleinert/James at the Center for Photography at 5:30 pm. Last tip: when you go to the website, be sure to watch the promotional video made by Media 276, it’s brilliant!
The Woodstock Writers Festival runs from Thursday April 18 through Sunday April 21. Tickets for the Festival can be bought at The Golden Notebook bookstore in Woodstock or online via the Festival website. The Link to Webcast.
All images are courtesy of the authors and The Woodstock Writers Festival. Featured image, Dion Ogust.
Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. In addition to her art-making, she is also the company manager and designer for The Woodstock Players Theater Company —as the company designer she is responsible for everything from the website to the set design. In June 2013 she will direct her first production for the company: Rex & Rex by Carey Harrison. Writing credits include contributing author to Teen Life in Europe (part of the Teen Life Around The World series), and articles and reviews for this publication. Claire Lambe Art Journal