By the Book: Writers don’t just write; they also talk

11/19/2011 4:00 AM |

One of the best things about going to the New York Library Association conference in Saratoga Springs a few weeks ago was the chance to listen to the writers R. David Lankes, Lewis Lapham and Chris Bohjalian.

R. David Lankes is a professor at the Syracuse library school and his books and talks are mainly of interest to the profession, so his talk, “Publisher of the Community: New Librarianship Unencumbered by our Stacks,” was riveting. He posits a future in which libraries are places to learn, create and collaborate, not consume and check out.
He said, “The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities,” which may sound radical, but reminded me of when I was researching the origins of our library in Greenport. Back in the 1800s, there were various “improvement societies,” often run by a clergyman, whose members met monthly to share something of their experiences or talents. There were dramatic readings, poetry recitations, musical entertainments, travel talks and skits with costumes. A shared collection of books was an outgrowth of that community impulse that still informs much of what we do at libraries, but, according to Mr. Lankes, the sheer volume of books, shelves and stacks we have accumulated limit the time and space we can give over to community collaboration and knowledge creation. Something to think about and one reason that for some of us, the advent of e-readers is not completely terrible news.

Then I got to listen to Lewis Lapham, author of numerous books, most recently ‘Pretensions to Empire,’ who was for many years the editor of Harper’s Magazine and now edits Lapham’s Quarterly, A Magazine of History and Ideas. He is an aristocratic septuagenarian whose talk was not projected as a PowerPoint. He actually had the screen turned off, then sat and read his talk, written in his own hand, from a yellow pad, A bit of a self-described Luddite when it comes to technology, and the kind of thinker with a grasp of history that inevitably seems mostly bleak, he proved most genial and animated in the Q&A session after the talk.

I was predisposed to like Chris Bohjalian because I liked his first book, ‘Midwives.’ He talked about his new book, ‘The Night Strangers,’ which is doing pretty well despite the fact that it features ghosts instead of vampires (the ones getting all the attention these days). He talked about the two things that sparked the genesis of the novel. One was a nailed-shut door in the cellar of a house in rural Vermont that he and his wife had bought; the other was the news account of the successful emergency landing of a commercial plane in the Hudson River by Captain “Sully” Sullenberger.

In “The Night Strangers,” Mr. Bohjalian imagines the life of a pilot who attempts a similar emergency landing on Lake Champlain, but through no fault of his own fails in the attempt, and some of the passengers on his plane die. Bohjalian felt that in order to write the story as well as he could, he needed to experience a crash landing into water. He convinced the people who train National Guard pilots in Connecticut to let him do a training with them that, in a recreation of an airline cabin, involved being dunked into a huge tank, upside-down, restrained by a five-point harness with 38 seconds to unharness himself and swim toward a door. I guess I’ll have to read the book to see if I think the effort was worth it and how all that leads to ghosts and a mysterious cellar door.

One doesn’t have to travel as far as Saratoga Springs to hear writers talk about their work. Local libraries, including my own, make an effort to connect authors with readers on a regular basis. This fall, Floyd Memorial had a double reading featuring local authors Jackson Taylor and Terese Svoboda. I have already written in this column about Taylor’s debut novel, ‘The Blue Orchard,’ a fictionalized account of his grandmother’s life in Harrisburg, Pa., where she was the trusted white assistant to a powerful and politically connected black physician who performed abortions when it was illegal to do so. It’s a terrific book and Mr. Taylor did a lot of strenuous research of his own. Over 10 years, he talked to family members and spent time in Harrisburg libraries and courthouses, all while holding down a full-time job.

Terese Svoboda was recently featured on the NPR show “All Things Considered” talking about ‘Bohemian Girl,’ her fourth published novel, which is being widely hailed as a true American picaresque, part Huck Finn, part “True Grit” and a wholly original answer to Willa Cather’s iconic “My Antonia.” Listening to her read a bit from the beginning, where young Harriet has been sold as a slave by her father to settle his gambling debt with an eccentric Pawnee Indian who has an obsession with building mounds, you hear how Ms. Svoboda’s ability to manipulate language and characters propels you into a dark and strange side of the Western frontier.

Most recently, we hosted Tom Clavin, a journalist and nonfiction writer from Sag Harbor. He talked about his 2007 book, ‘Dark Noon: The Final voyage of the Fishing Boat Pelican,’ which recounts the tragedy that took place in 1951, when an overfull party fishing boat out of Montauk capsized and lost two-thirds of its passengers.

He also talked about his most recent book, ‘Last Men Out,’ co-authored with Bob Drury. You may remember a photograph of a helicopter on top of a building with a long line of people on ladders climbing up toward it. The erroneously captioned photo was widely believed for 36 years to be the last helicopter out of Saigon atop the roof of the U.S. Embassy. In fact, it was a photo of a CIA chopper on a nearby building the day before the final evacuation. When the “last” helicopter left Saigon, there were 11 Marines left on the roof of the embassy. Mr. Clavin masterfully told us the story up to a cliff-hanging moment of suspense, so that the whole audience was on tenterhooks, wanting to know what would happen next.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.