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Author Jim Crace awarded literary prize

By Jane Robbins Mize

This year, novelist Jim Crace, whose archive resides in the Ransom Center, has received an award of $150,000 for his fiction writing. Presented by Yale University, the Windham Campbell Prize is awarded to writers of fiction, nonfiction, and drama to financially support their literary endeavors.

 

Upon receiving the award, Crace said, “After a couple of years of creative doubt when I thought I might not write another novel but should turn instead to the theatre, I have rediscovered my passion for fiction. Stories are crowding in, demanding their space on the page. The Windham Campbell Prize at Yale gives me the independence and the confidence to take on those stories, free from everyday pressures. The timing couldn’t be more perfect. My gratitude couldn’t be greater.”

 

Crace’s writing is celebrated for its powerful style, inspired by the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez and rich with the natural imagery of imagined worlds. He is the author of 13 award-winning novels, including Continent (1986), Quarantine (1997), and Being Dead (1999). Crace has served as a Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the James A. Michener Center for Writers at The University of Texas at Austin. His most recent novel, Harvest, was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

 

To celebrate Crace’s achievement, Cultural Compass will be giving away a signed copy of his novel The Pesthouse. To be eligible to win, tweet a link to this blog post and mention @ransomcenter. If you’re not on Twitter, send an email to hrcgiveaway(at)gmail.com with “Crace” in the subject line. All tweets and emails must be sent by midnight CST tonight, and winners will be drawn and notified by Monday, May 12. [Update: This giveaway is closed, and the winner has been notified.]

 

Related Content:

Jim Crace discusses creative process

Jim Crace gives writing advice and discusses why T.H. White’s archive at the Ransom Center brought tears to his eyes

Iain Sinclair traces steps of literary heroes of the Beat Generation in new book

By Jane Robbins Mize

Writer, documentarian, and Londoner Iain Sinclair, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, has written a new book, American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light. Sinclair visited The University of Texas at Austin in 2010 while preparing for his previous project, Ghost Milk: Recent Adventures Among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics (2012).

 

American Smoke records Sinclair’s personal pilgrimage from Great Britain to the United States, the home of his literary heroes of the Beat Generation. Travelling from Hackney, London, to Gloucester, Massachusetts, the writer hoped to discover and understand the spirit of the poets and novelists who inspired his youth: Charles Olson, Garry Snyder, William Boroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Dylan Thomas, to name a few.

 

The story opens with the writer’s identification of time, place, and emotion: “It was the season of autumn ghosts, a dampness in the soul. 2011 and London had lost its savour. A good step beyond midway through my dark wood of the world, I came to America, hoping to reconnect with the heroes of my youth. The largest, the most light-occulting of all the giants, that earlier race, was Charles Olson: poet, scholar, and last rector of Black Mountain College.”

 

The scope of American Smoke extends beyond Charles Olson and Sinclair himself. Not only a memoir of his journey in the United States, the book is also a portrait of a former generation of Americans and an exploration of their legacy today.

 

To celebrate the release of American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light, the Ransom Center will be giving away a signed copy of Sinclair’s book Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report. To be eligible to win, tweet a link to this blog post and mention @ransomcenter. If you’re not on Twitter, send an email to hrcgiveaway(at)gmail.com with “Iain Sinclair” in the subject line. All Tweets and emails must be sent by midnight CST tonight, and winners will be drawn and notified tomorrow, May 2 [Update: The winner has been chosen and notified.]

T. C. Boyle papers, now open for research, show his passion for literature and literacy

By Katherine Mosley

In a contribution to George magazine titled “If I Were President,” T. C. Boyle states that as President of the United States, he would establish a litocracy, fight to change the illiteracy that has America in its grip, and replace currency with books.  Although Boyle has not achieved the presidency, he has used his roles as an author and teacher to advocate for a more literary society.  The correspondence in the T. C. Boyle papers at the Ransom Center provides evidence of Boyle’s tireless promotion of books and reading, and not just of his own (although his often hilarious promotional letters to Viking representatives and booksellers show that as well).

 

Boyle writes to one of his former high school students, Chris Finer, now a high school librarian in New Hampshire, that “My object is to fire people up about literature.”  Students in English classes from around the country send letters to Boyle, and his responses are often included in the archive. In a letter to a class at Weymouth High School (East Weymouth, Massachusetts), Boyle tells the students—half of whom intended  to enroll in junior college after graduation and half with no plans for the future—that he had not read very much as a teenager, either, but later discovered that “reading and books were my weapons against the world. I could take myself away from my life, I could learn things school didn’t teach me, I could seize power and grow into the monster I now am.  All because of reading.  And, of course, writing.”

 

Boyle encourages not only readers but also writers, from students to colleagues to strangers from all walks of life.  He praises their work, exhorts them to write, and sends blurbs to their publishers.  One reason Boyle is supportive of other authors is because as a young man, he himself had received inspiration and encouragement from older mentors, the teachers and writers whom he has referred to as “guiding lights” and “heroes.”  In 1971, he wrote to Harry Roskolenko asking for career advice and direction.  Roskolenko wrote back with praise for Boyle’s talent, contact information for a magazine editor, and especially the advice to “WRITE.” Boyle followed both Roskolenko’s advice and his example of supporting aspiring writers.

 

Related content:

Boxing Up: T. C. Boyle writes about sending his archive to Texas

 

Top image: T. C. Boyle tours the Ransom Center in 2012 with Megan Barnard, Assistant Director for Acquisitions and Administration. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

 

Please click on the thumbnails below to view larger images.

Shakespeare scholar explores the Bard’s role in American culture

By Gabrielle Inhofe

James Shapiro, Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, discusses Shakespeare in America at 7 p.m. this Thursday, May 1, at the Harry Ransom Center. A reception and book signing follow, and books will be available for sale.

 

Shapiro’s newest work, Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now, explores Shakespeare’s role in American culture.  The anthology, published by the Library of America in celebration of the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday, comprises 71 pieces from American poets, politicians, essayists, novelists, and more.  It includes works by Edgar Allan Poe, Woody Allen, Cole Porter, Isaac Asimov, and James Agee.

 

The anthology aims to show that, although America declared its independence from Great Britain, Americans have adapted Shakespeare for use in cultural expression.   In a recent interview, Shapiro said, “American history tends to be represented in a kind of clear-cut, steady march. What became clear to me through this book is the uses—disturbing and exhilarating in equal measure—to which Shakespeare has been put. People have used Shakespeare as a means to make arguments that are not easily made or expressed in this country about race, gender, war, social justice, identity.”  The full interview may be viewed in the above video.

 

The Ransom Center holds three copies of the Shakespeare First Folio and several quarto editions of the plays, along with prompt books, costume designs, and many other materials relating to productions of the plays from the eighteenth century to the modern era.

 

Related content:

James Shapiro “unravels” Shakespeare’s life

Diane Johnson’s new memoir explores her life and work

By Jane Robbins Mize

Diane Johnson’s dynamic career has encompassed a wide variety of genres, settings, and subjects. As a biographer, she has explored the lives of Mary Ellen Peacock and Dashiell Hammett. As a novelist, she has been named a finalist for both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. She also co-authored the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining. This year, Johnson has released her first memoir, Flyover Lives.

 

Johnson’s books are celebrated for their exploration of time and space and her characters for their curiosity and wit. Similarly, in Flyover Lives, Johnson discusses her roots in the American Midwest and her eventual escape to New York, California, and ultimately, Europe. The memoir provides her readers a deeper understanding of her own life and work through the exploration of her ancestry, her childhood, and herself as both mother and writer.

 

Johnson’s archive resides at the Ransom Center and contains drafts and production materials of her novels in addition to book reviews, essays, correspondence, and a variety of personal papers.

 

Related content:

Fellows Find: How Diane Johnson’s writing process evolved with her work in Victorian literature and screenwriting

 

Image: Cover of Diane Johnson’s memoir Flyover Lives.

New Tom Stoppard play to premiere next year at London’s National Theatre

By Jane Robbins Mize

In January 2015, Tom Stoppard’s newest play—yet to be titled—will premiere at the National Theatre in London. Stoppard, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, is best known for the production, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, first performed by Oxford University students in 1966. Throughout his career, Stoppard has received four Tony Awards, in addition to an Academy Award for his screenplay for Shakespeare in Love. Philosophical in nature but comical in language and presentation, his work is often described as “serious comedy.”

 

The forthcoming play is Stoppard’s first since the production of Rock ’n’ Roll by the Royal Court Theatre in 2006. The content and cast of his most recent work has been kept secret by both the writer and the National Theatre’s artistic director, Nicholas Hytner. Hytner will be directing the play during his final season with the National Theatre.

 

To celebrate this news, Cultural Compass will be giving away a signed copy of Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. To be eligible to win, tweet a link to this blog post and mention @ransomcenter. If you’re not on Twitter, send an email to hrcgiveaway(at)gmail.com with “Stoppard” in the subject line. All tweets and emails must be sent by midnight CST tonight, and winners will be drawn and notified Monday, April 21. [Editors Note: This contest has now closed, and the winner has been notified.]

 

Related content:

The Anatomy of an Archive: Tom Stoppard

In the Galleries: “Shakespeare in Love” screenplay shows Tom Stoppard’s edits

Fellows Find: Scholar studies playwright Tom Stoppard’s wit

 

Image: Tom Stoppard, whose archive resides at the Harry Ransom Center, on The University of Texas at Austin campus in 1996.

Materials from Peter Matthiessen’s archive on display in Ransom Center’s lobby

By Alicia Dietrich

To honor acclaimed novelist, naturalist, and wilderness writer Peter Matthiessen (1927–2014), the Ransom Center is highlighting materials from his archive in its lobby.

 

Matthiessen was born in New York City to a well-to-do family and educated at Yale. Determined to pursue a writing career, Matthiessen moved to Paris where he became one of the founders of The Paris Review, which, he later admitted, he invented as a cover while working briefly for the CIA. In his 45-year career as a writer, Matthiessen produced more than 30 works, winning National Book Awards for The Snow Leopard (1978) and Shadow Country (2008), a one-volume revision of a trilogy of frontier Florida novels published in the 1990s. In writing to the Ransom Center about Shadow Country, Matthiessen confessed, “I was dismayed to find upon opening the finished product at long last that it was still unfinished.”

 

Matthiessen’s rich archive was acquired by the Center in 1995, and materials were added in succeeding years. It includes manuscripts, correspondence, journals, and professional files that span his writing career and include fiction, nonfiction, and essays, often in multiple drafts.

 

Writer James Salter, whose papers also reside at the Ransom Center, paid tribute to Matthiessen in The New Yorker.

 

The materials in the lobby are on view through April 27.

 

Photo of Peter Matthiessen by Jesse Close.

Biographer mines Ransom Center’s collections to uncover “The Unknown Henry Miller”

By Alicia Dietrich

Arthur Hoyle’s recent biography The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur was recently published by Skyhorse/Arcade. The biography recounts Miller’s career from its beginnings in Paris in the 1930s but focuses on his years living in Big Sur, California, from 1944 to 1961, during which he wrote many of his most important books, including The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, married and divorced twice, raised two children, painted watercolors, and tried to live out an aesthetic and personal credo of self-realization. While researching for the book, Hoyle visited the Ransom Center, and he shares some of his findings below.

 

Three collections at the Harry Ransom Center deepened and enriched my research as I wrote my recently published biography of Henry Miller, The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur.

 

The Barbara Sandford papers contain Miller’s letters to his long-estranged daughter Barbara, with whom he reconnected in 1954 when she wrote to him in Big Sur from Pasadena, where she was then living. Through Miller’s letters to her and her replies to him, held by the Special Collections Department at the UCLA Research Library, I was able to track the path of their renewed relationship as it unfolded over the next dozen years. The correspondence reveals Barbara’s growing dependence on her father and his attempts to steer her into a satisfying and self-sufficient life.

 

The Alexander B. Miller collection contains Miller’s letters to Renate Gerhardt, the editor and translator whom Miller met in 1960 while visiting his German publisher Ledig-Rowohlt in Hamburg. Miller fell in love with Renate and hoped to make a life with her in Europe, an intention that led him to agree to the U.S. publication of Tropic of Cancer by Grove Press. The correspondence exposes the desperate lengths to which Miller went to hold onto Renate. Her replies, also held at UCLA, show her to be a sensitive but calculating woman who understood why a domestic relationship with Miller was not feasible for them, and who saw opportunity in Miller’s continued longing for her.

 

The third collection (Henry Miller collection) contains Miller’s letters to Emil White, the man who served as Miller’s factotum and close friend during the 17 years of his residence in Big Sur. To Emil, Miller revealed himself candidly on a wide range of subjects—his writing, his domestic issues, his travels, his frantic and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to find a place to settle in Europe with Renate.

 

Miller’s extensive correspondence with friends, lovers, fellow artists, and professional associates is as important to an understanding of the man as his numerous autobiographical works. These three collections bring the researcher into the depths of Miller’s inner life during a peak creative period.

 

Image: Cover of The Unknown Henry Miller by Arthur Hoyle.

Q&A With Julia Alvarez

By Gabrielle Inhofe

Acclaimed novelist, poet, and essayist Julia Alvarez speaks about her life and work with University of Texas at Austin professor Jennifer M. Wilks in a Harry Ransom Lecture this Monday, March 31 at 7 p.m. in Jessen Auditorium at Homer Rainey Hall. A book signing and reception follow at the Ransom Center. This lecture is presented by the University Co-op and co-sponsored by the 2013–2014 Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies (TILTS) Symposia: Reading Race in Literature and Film. Alvarez’s archive resides at the Ransom Center.

 

In an interview with Cultural Compass, Alvarez shares her thoughts on women in the literary canon, cultural identity, and more.

 

Stories about men are considered universal, but stories about women are often considered “women’s fiction.” What do you think can be done to change this trend? How have your books centering on female protagonists been received with regard to this?

 

We’ve made a lot of progress. In my own lifetime as a writer, now over 40 years, I’ve seen a sea change in interest in authors of ethnic/racial/gender diversity—both as a writer in what gets published but also as a writer in the academy in the curriculum, the books departments select for their core readings.

 

That said, we are still living in the shadow of that old canonical/gated understanding of what constitutes classic, serious fiction. The travails and writing by men, mostly white, with some exceptions. Women’s novels are often considered lite fair. (Is there a male version of chicklit denomination?)  What was Samuel Johnson’s comment about women preachers? “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Well in many quarters, this was also the attitude toward women’s writing.

 

So, even though many of the most admired and serious American novelists and poets now come from other traditions, ethnicities, races, and many of them are female, that old mentality is there, like a gas we breathe and don’t even know it. Still it was daunting to read the op-ed in New York Times Book Review, two years ago, by Meg Wolitzer, “The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literacy Fiction for Men and Women.”

 

Additionally, it’s not just that women’s fiction isn’t taken as seriously, [or] reviewed as often, but also the default characters and plots of serious fiction are still those of the mainstream culture. So often when I write about a Dominican American family, it’s assumed this has to be my story. Why? Because otherwise I’d write about a John Cheever family in Connecticut? (I love John Cheever’s fiction, but those aren’t the stories I have to tell.) It’s as if our characters are only allowed limited minority fiction status—often there are courses just in this area, an infusion of fairness into an otherwise distorted canon! It’s a curious and often unconscious set of assumptions and expectations about who gets to have their stories told. Of course, I know this, too, is changing, but as Wolitzer cautions us, we ain’t there yet.

 

If I may take it a step further into personal experience: when I wrote In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) I told the story of the dictatorship seen for the first time from a female point of view. I heard from my friend, Dominican historian and author Bernardo Vega that he introduced Mario Vargas Llosa to the novel, and MVL got very interested in the dictatorship and subsequent “democratic dictatorship” by Balaguer. His novel, La Fiesta del Chivo (The Feast of the Goat) (2000), is often cited as the seminal work of fiction about those years. I admire the novel, and none of this is MVL’s “fault.” Just the way critics and even readers have these unexamined assumptions. Good for you for bringing up the question and forcing us to see these assumptions are still out there.

 

What can be done to change trend? My response is to keep writing. Spike Lee once said the only way to be avoid being flash-proof is to keep doing your work.

 

Attitudes/assumptions change slowly, over time, probably not during my watch, but if I don’t do my part, change won’t happen at all.

 

 

Many people categorize you as a Latina, Dominican, or bicultural writer. How would you like to be perceived as a writer?

 

I like the quote, attributed to Terence, the Roman playwright, “I am a human being, nothing human is alien to me.” That could well be the motto of literature. It’s how I would ultimately want to be remembered: one of the storytellers from my specific “tribe,” but telling the stories to all of us. We are all feeding the same sea, as Jean Rhys put it, as we come down and flow into it from our different mountains and landscapes.

 

After all, one of the things literature teaches—and why I gave myself to this “calling”—was that I recognized that this was the one place where the table was set for all. All the wonderful stories, poems are our legacy as part of the human family—our communal treasure chest, but in order to access it, of course, you need to get the key, that is, education, learning to read, having the time and opportunity to claim your legacy.

 

For so many years, I felt denied entry into that world of serious American literature (as Langston Hughes noted in his wonderful little poem, “I, too, Sing America”) so that when I finally was published I claimed my LATINA voice, my traditions, my culture with a vengeance. Often it was because I sensed that I needed to make a space and place for other kinds of stories on the shelf of American fiction. But as I get older, what’s important to me is that these terms describe the sources of my stories, my history, my traditions, but that they shouldn’t be used to limit my subjects, or limit my readership to only those in the tight circle of my own culture or background. Again stories are about the big circle, the gathering of the different tribes of the human family. Getting down into ethnic/racial bunkers of literature totally negates what they are about.

 

 

Which of your works means the most to you, and why? Which one was most difficult to write? The most fun?

 

Oh dear, that’s like asking a mother to pick a favorite child! Each work has taught me things I needed to learn—about technique/writing, about history/characters/situations I was curious to understand. So, each one was meaningful to me at the time.

 

I suppose writing the Tía Lola books for young readers was the most fun, just because Tía Lola is such a sassy, fun-loving tía. I’d catch myself eager to start the writing day, wondering what trouble she’d get into, and as the author, how I’d get her out of the fix she was in, or had gotten me into.

 

That said, on a good writing day, any book I am laboring on is “fun,” and even those fun books are difficult to write if I want to get them right. Let’s face it, good writing is hard work. I have this one quote about revision/writing by James Dickey that I like to share with my students:

 

“It takes an awful lot of time for me to write anything. I have endless drafts, one after another; and I try out 50, 75, or a hundred variations to a single line of poetry sometimes. I work on the process of refining low-grade ore. I get maybe a couple of nuggets of gold out of 50 tons of dirt. It is tough for me. No, I am not inspired.”

 

I guess I wouldn’t go that far—of saying I’m never inspired. But at the end of the day, the inspired piece of writing and the one that took 50 tons of dirt to get to a single nugget of golden writing—they have to be indistinguishable from each other.

 

Most meaningful? Always the writing I’m currently working on because that’s the cutting edge, the material or technique or character that I’m trying to understand, to serve, to get down on paper.

 

A little rambling, I know, but as the quote ascribed both to Twain and to Pascal (the problem with Internet searches!): “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

 

Image: Photo of Julia Alvarez by Bill Eichner.

Q&A: New book explores Lord Byron’s canine companions through full-color illustrations of “man’s best friends”

By Jane Robbins Mize

“dogs! or Men! (for I flatter you in saying
That ye are dogs—your betters far)”
—“Don Juan,” Canto VII. Verses 1–2

In August, Geoffrey Bond released the full-color coffee table book, Lord Byron’s Best Friends: From Bulldogs to Boatswain & Beyond. Bond, both a Byron and Newfoundland enthusiast, currently resides at Byron’s childhood home, Burgage Manor. In his introduction, he writes, “Byron and his contemporaries are a continuing source of interest and discovery—he must surely have spawned more English Literature PhD’s than any other poet!” Yet, Bond’s book provides a unique perspective on the celebrated poet by including not only a biography of Byron himself but also an illustrated appreciation of the many canines that accompanied him throughout his career and life.

 

Below, Bond discusses his work while writing Lord Byron’s Best Friends and explains why Byron’s readers ought to, when considering the poet, appreciate both the man and the “man’s best friends.”

 

How did the Ransom Center’s Lord Byron collection enhance your knowledge and aid in your preparation for this book?

 

The Ransom Center has been extremely generous to me in allowing me to show fully illustrated for the first time and in color, Elizabeth Pigot’s unique book [The Wonderful History of Lord Byron and his Dog] created at a time when [Lord Byron] was living here with his mother in Burgage Manor, which is, of course, now my home. So enamored are we and many others of the Pigot book that we are going, this year, with the consent of the Center, to produce it as a stand-alone book for children wrapped around with some additional material. The work by Pigot shows—in a unique way—Byron’s love of animals and, of course, his first great Newfoundland, Boatswain.

 

What significance do you believe “The Wonderful History of Lord Byron and His Dog” holds in the book at large?

 

I was aware of the Pigot book and had seen the odd illustration from it from time to time but never seen it in its entirety.  To Byronists it is, of course, a very well-known piece of work and, of course, seminal in Byron’s early oeuvre when he began writing and publishing poetry while living here in the small town of Southwell in Nottinghamshire. I have written separately on the genesis of Byron’s poetry, which was not as many people think, sitting and writing at Newstead Abbey where in fact he did not spend very much time. Between 1803 and 1808 when he was at Harrow School and Trinity College Cambridge, he spent much of his holiday time here at Burgage Manor, which his mother had rented.  Byron could not go and live at Newstead Abbey until he was 21 years of age as he was what we call under English law a “Ward of Chancery.” He therefore began his writing, his juvenilia, here in Southwell and went to the nearby market town of Newark-on-Trent for Mr. Ridge to publish his first books of poetry. Elizabeth Pigot was rather like an elder sister to Byron, one of his few platonic friends, and greatly encouraged him in his writing, hence my emphasis on Southwell combined with the printing of his books in Newark being the genesis of his poetry.

 

You write in the epilogue, “I have an extensive Byron library and have read much about the poet as well as a great deal of his poetry. However, my studies of his relationships with animals, dogs in particular, have given me a greater insight into his personality and increased my understanding of the man.” What particular aspects of Byron’s character have been revealed to you throughout your research for Lord Byron’s Best Friends?

 

Nobody has ever written before specifically about Byron’s love of animals in general and dogs in particular, and what the book brings out is that Byron, as many people knew, found personal relations difficult, [that] he had a very stormy childhood, and that dogs gave Byron what he craved emotionally: undivided attention and unconditional love, far more than people had ever realized.  There have been references to Byron’s love of animals and dogs from time to time in a wide variety of publications about him, but never concentrated comment before and certainly never with illustrations.