Big Picture: Writers worth seeing this spring

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Times Union Studio shot of Entertainment Editor Michael Janairo for his upcoming Unwind “Big Picture” Arts Column, shot on Wednesday, June 16, 2010, in Albany, NY. (Luanne M. Ferris/Times Union)

The New York State Writers Institute recently released its spring schedule, but in thinking about writers coming to the region this spring, my first thought goes to Darin Strauss.

His books include the memoir “Half of Life” (2010), in which he recounts how he killed a classmate in a car accident and its aftermath, which won a National Book Critics Circle award, and his 2001 debut “Chang and Eng” (2001), a fictionalized account of the famous conjoined brothers.

It was because of that book that I first heard Strauss give a talk in the common room of a dorm at Skidmore College. I was a student at the New York State Summer Writers Institute, studying with Marilyn Robinson and Russell Banks, and he was one of the alumni with a success story – the publication of his first novel. He said he had worked on the novel at the Writers Institute at Skidmore, and was especially impressed with the sharp-eyed Douglas Glover, who at that time would read manuscripts from students and offer a one-on-one critique that was both thrilling and terrifying.

What I remember best was how Strauss responded to the question of what it was like going from a writer working away, often alone, to having published a book. He said something like, “You know the saying, ‘the quiet before the storm.’? Well, it’s like the quiet after the quiet.”

That kind of humorous take on the life of a writer made that moment special. The notion that publication doesn’t lead to fame and glory may have been a letdown for some of the aspiring novelists in the room, but what his answer said to me is that writers may not get that much reassurance from the outside world, even when a book is published, which makes the process of writing, the “quiet,” all the more important. It is moments like those that can arise during a reading or other public event, such as the ones offered by the New York State Writers Institute.

But Strauss isn’t part of the Writers Institute’s spring season. He’ll be appearing on Feb. 9 at The College of Saint Rose as part of its Frequency North reading series. It’s sort of like the edgier sibling to the more established Writers Institute, though Strauss’ connection to both may make the distinction moot, especially since Strauss will also be part of the Summer Writers Institute as a faculty member teaching intermediate fiction writing from July 16 to 27. Tuition for the two-week program is $1,320), and more information is available at

The spring season at the Writers Institute begins Feb. 2 and ends April 18, and includes 16 visitors. Here are five that I think are must-see events:

  • Adam Johnson: Sure, it’s Valentine’s Day, but that shouldn’t keep you from this event. Johnson’s latest novel “The Orphan Master’s Son” (2012), is set in North Korea and exposes what life is like there with prison camps, orphanages, economic misery, routine corruption and palaces for the bureaucratic elite. 4:15 p.m. seminar, 8 p.m. reading, Tuesday, Feb. 14. Both events in Assembly Hall, University at Albany.
  • John Sayles: The Schenectady native and filmmaker of such works as “Return of the Secaucus Seven” (1979), “Lone Star” (1996), “Honeydripper” (2008) and “Amigo” (2010), about the Philippine-American War, is also an author. He’ll read from his latest novel, “A Moment in the Sun” (2011), a 955-page epic of American history set in America, Cuba and the Philippines. Why am I interested in this? I just don’t think there’s enough written about the Philippines. 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27, Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, UAlbany. With a 4:15 p.m. lecture in Assembly Hall.
  • Robert Nickas: Nickas is a curator and art critic who published a survey of abstract painting, “Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting” (2009). The book, which weighs 6½ pounds and costs $75, was called “a useful tool in forming a sharper, broader sense of what is going on in the world of abstract painting” by Roberta Smith in The New York Times. So if you have looked at a contemporary abstract painting and wondered, “What’s going on with that?” this event is for you. 7 p.m. Monday, March 26. University Art Museum, Fine Arts Building, Uptown Campus
  • Lauren Groff: In 2008, Groff came out with the surprise bestseller, “The Monsters of Templeton,” which was set in a fictionalized Cooperstown in which a graduate student of archaeology digs up dark secrets. Her latest novel, “Arcadia,” is about a utopian community in upstate New York that fall apart. It has already garnered praise from another acclaimed writer of fiction set upstate, Richard Russo, who said of ‘Arcadia’: ‘‘It is not possible to write any better without showing off.” 4:15 p.m. seminar, 8 p.m. reading, Tuesday, March 27. Both at Assembly Hall, Campus Center, UAlbany.
  • Anne Enright: Her most recent novel, “The Forgotten Waltz,” is a story of desire and drama in everyday life. The Washington Post said of the 2011 novel: “It’s so beautifully written that you could read it once just for the dazzle of the prose, then start over for the content.” Reading and McKinney Award Ceremony, 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 18, Biotech Auditorium, Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies Building, RPI, Troy

Readers on writers
I asked readers on the Times Union Facebook page and my own page (you can like the Times Union page at and you can subscribe to my profile at if they attend writers’ events. Some responses:

  • Sandra Catalfamo: Only if I know the writer.
  • Alisa Costa: I was fortunate to attend a Writers Institute event with Margaret Atwood many years ago. I had heard of her, but never read a thing. She read from her book “Cat’s Eye” and I knew I had to read the book. She is now my favorite author.
  • Deb Foster: I go to bookstore readings and signings. I also plan them as part of the Curiosity Forum at Hubbard Hall & Battenkill Books. It is almost always a great time, with new insights provided by the authors. I think many people go because it’s just nice to be read to and as adults we rarely get that.
  • Beth Kilanoski: I love to attend readings if I know the writer. I love to hear their work in their own voices and then get insight into their writing process.
  • Amy Halloran: I love to see writers reading and discussing their work. I don’t get to as many events as I’d like, but I am so happy these resources are here.

For more Big Picture columns, click here.


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