The Facebook event, beginning with an inviting “Join us for a fiction reading on Tuesday” heralded the opening of March fourth’s event hosted in Suffolk University’s Poetry Center. The readers, both gaining continuous acclaim, were authors James Scott and a previous fiction teacher at Suffolk, Laura Van Den Berg, whom I had the pleasure of getting to know during her course. The event gathered many of Suffolk’s writers, some listening and taking notes, as well as some of Suffolk University’s professors in the writing department, including Quentin Miller, Wyatt Bonikowski, who hosted the event, and Professor Fred Marchant, director of the creative writing department itself.
Bonikowski’s introduction began with the awards, acclaim, and publications each author had gathered throughout the years, with Scott having received awards from the Sewanee writers Institute, the New York State Summers Writers Institute, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, as well as others. Van Den Berg has achieved such recognition as being in the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, The Best American Nonrequired Reading (2008), and has her most recent collection of short stories, The Isle of Youth, from which she read, listed in Oprah’s spring reading section as one of the top ten books of 2013.
Scott began, reading selections from his novel The Kept, the story of a midwife and her young son before the turn of the twentieth century, who embark on a revenge plot to redress the murder of their family. His selection began simply, mixing in an intricate form of adjectives, action and plot, describing the protagonist, Elspeth Howell’s walk back to her house to find what had happened, jumping to the twelve year old Caleb, waiting in hiding with his gun pointed out a small nook in fear of the murderers’ return. In the third selection his soft, yet emphatic prosody continued while the silence of Elspeth and the twelve year old son were deafening as in almost a stupor wander Caleb finished his cigarette and tossed it into the river; a boy forced to grow up and become who he must too soon.
Laura Van Den Berg’s piece came with a different tone. “Acrobat” of The Isle of Youth, begins with the jarringly poignant, the unordinary expressed ordinarily: “The day my husband left me, I followed a trio of acrobats around the city of Paris.” She read in a bouncy and energetic voice, and introduced the piece in a similar way, saying “I will only read about half the story, because if I read the whole thing I’d have you here all night.” And the story is just that. On a trip to Paris to try to save their marriage (clearly unsuccessful), her husband leaves and she follows the group, watching them perform, and continues to follow them into a restaurant where at last they confront her and invite her to a party. The sparseness of her work evinces exactly what it must, where in her own words, the protagonist is always trying to push something away that she inevitably can’t. Both the work and her sometimes lively, sometimes calmed reading express this. The trio invites her to an acrobat party, and Van Den Berg ends in the stories middle, perhaps for suspense, fitting for a pause, or perhaps a part of her personality on only the door to the party where she “followed him inside.”
Knowing Laura Van Den Berg and the impression I had of James Scott from the reading and even beforehand, the question and answer segment was most interesting, to see the two next to each other laughing and telling stories, how Laura did not know much about and couldn't do the entirety of research on Antarctica as she had initially planned, but still wrote a story about it in her acclaimed book. And speaking of research, the biggest source for his historical fiction was, out of all things, a Sears Catalogue from the era. That was how he determined the many aspects of the novel, such as the style of clothing, house appliances, goods kept around the home, and even Caleb’s gun mentioned in one of the passages. One evening at a dinner party Scott attended, after the meal the host came back downstairs with a gun, and said “do you like it?” Scott was, well, silent, and the host continued “it’s the gun from your book, the one Caleb had” and Scott responded “well okay, is it loaded?”
Above all, the interesting aspect was their idiosyncrasies being exposed, as people. How James tends to shuffle and shift his weight when he reads, his sense of humor, or simply Laura’s buoyant personality. And they wrote about things as divorce and murder. Or the fact that Van Den Berg had said she did not know much about Antarctica, and a story entitled “Antarctica” is in her acclaimed collection. To continue passed what this means goes into the bounds of the intricacies of the human condition, the mind, and how they all infinitely intermingle with what literature is, and that’s what Suffolk has to offer.
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