BY KATHRYN KYSAR
The Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University packed its sloping seats to the ceiling with an adoring audience waiting to hear Margaret Atwood.
After a presentation about the historical 1887 building, AWP executive director David Fenza awarded the George Garrett Award for Outstanding Service in Literature to Allison Joseph, creative writing program director at Southern University Illinois Carbondale.
There was a brief introduction and then Atwood, a small woman in her 70s dressed simply and stylishly in black, took the stage.
Atwood peered over the podium with her inquisitive arched eyebrows and halo of hair. Using sharp red reading glasses that matched her lipstick and scarf, she dutifully read her “craft lecture,” but there was one problem: Atwood had not studied craft, as there were no creative writing classes when she was in school.
Instead, she told us about the essays she wrote in high school that were graded on punctuation and penmanship; she remembered the poetry society at her college where earnest writers sat in a circle sharing their poetry and her later excursions in her black turtleneck to the Tuesday night poetry readings at a beatnik coffee shop in Toronto. Atwood’s writing process was simple: she read and wrote and read and ripped and read and wrote again.
Unfortunately for us, she did not talk about her more recent writing endeavors. I hungered to hear about her research methods for books like "Oryx and Crake," or how she decides to take on complex structural challenges in books such as "The Blind Assassin."
Her presentation was short, less than thirty minutes, but thrilling and satisfying. In the lobby, a few lucky folks who had won a lottery got their books inscribed. The audience scattered into the brightly lit streets, returning to hotel rooms or heading to the nightly AWP dance party, local bars, or late night readings.
Jaimy Gordon and Rebecca Skloot read in the ornately decorated Grand Ballroom at the Chicago Hilton.
The room was mostly full. I was there to hear science writer Skloot, the author of brilliant nonfiction best-seller "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks", which tells the complex and sad story of a poor black woman whose fast-growing cancer cells were used without her permission to forward medical science.
Skloot’s presentation was expertly put together: two excerpts framed a talk about the book’s ten year-long creation process. Here are some of the more enlightening tidbits: she expects creative nonfiction to read like fiction be verifiably true. (See Katy Read’s previous blog about this creative nonfiction definition debate.)
To attain the structure for her book, she wove three story threads together. She first studied braided novels but later turned to movies like "Fried Green Tomatoes." Ultimately, the movie "Hurricane" provided the structure for the book.
Skloot spent three days detailing the movie’s organization onto index cards then spread the cards over a big bed, placing her story chapters upon them. Skloot’s father is a well-known fiction writer, and when she was a child, he would make dinner reservations in the name of his novel’s characters to build his books. She learned from him to extensively document details of rooms, clothes, and people.
Skloot discussed the difficulties of race and entitlement and perspective when telling Henrietta Lacks’ story, and how the topics she writes about were all things she was obsessed with as a teenager. (She was first interested in HeLa at age sixteen.)
Finally, she outlined her foundation for Henrietta Lacks’ grandchildren and relatives that provided educational and health care funds. After the presentation, I hurried into the book signing line to invite her to speak to a consortium of community colleges. Though Skloot was delightfully polite, she is sadly booked up until 2014. We may not be seeing her in the Twin Cities anytime soon, which made this event all the more special.
Kathryn Kysar is the author of the poetry books "Dark Lake" and "Pretend the World" and editor of "Riding Shotgun: Women Write About Their Mothers." She served on the AWP Board of Directors from 2007-2011.
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