On Tuesday, Feb. 19, Vassar College Writer-in-Residence Jenny Offill spoke in Taylor Hall on her experiences writing both adult and children’s books. Professor of English on the Helen D. Lockwood Chair Amitava Kumar introduced the talk with an anecdote of how he boarded the Metro-North from Poughkeepsie, with the aptly-titled book “Department of Speculation” in tow, and found firm grounding on the Grand Central platform as a changed man. The book was nominated for the Pen/Faulkner Award, the Folio Award and the Los Angeles Times First Book Award—all three of which Kumar quipped it deserved—and was named one of the ten best books of the year in 2014 by the New York Times.
In an interview, Kumar addressed what tasks writers-in-residence undertake and how Offill can contribute to campus. Kumar indicated that the writer-in-residence is at Vassar for three weeks each spring, visiting classes and commenting upon students in senior creative writing classes’ works. Vassar has hosted Pulitzer and National Book Award recipients, including Lydia Davis, Jhumpa Lahiri and Colson Whitehead. “The writer-in-residence is a writer of eminence,” Kumar summarized Kumar relinquished the podium and Offill made her way to the stage, a small book in hand. She thanked him and readjusted the mic, visage appearing from above the wooden stand. Offill, a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, began with a personal meditation about how she secret-
ly skulks around college campuses because of how beautiful she finds them. She transitioned to noting how writing is a daunting task—a long-sought formula on how to properly execute it is impossible to pinpoint. Likewise, she related how she often read the Paris Review’s interviews with distinguished writers in her undergraduate years. One author fixated himself upon writing for at least 20 minutes a day, whereas another would only do so during sporadic bursts of inspiration. Ironically, the writing’s appearance or form may change but the task is, itself, elusory.
The lecture opened up to a question-and-answer. An audience member asked what all those in proximity wondered: What was Offill’s preferred methodology? She tries to write a little bit every day. What was it like to write children’s books? Well, she began writing them before she had children and discovered that the task almost demanded that one be able to read upside down.
Offill then produced the aforementioned book, her newest work entitled “American Weather,” and began to read from the pages: It is the story of a woman struggling to be a loving mother to her son attending a school she feels alienates them both, a sister to her recovering addict brother and a wife racked by knee pains who is nevertheless there for her husband. A true family woman. Like her last book, “American Weather” examines family relations impacted by external circumstances as much as internal ones. Kumar elaborated upon this assessment: “What I like very much in Jenny’s writing is the mixture of fact and fiction. We got a taste of that in her reading, where there’ll be a reference to a study done or an archaic fact that will then be tied into a story.”
Following the reading, Offill signed copies for all: residents who trekked to campus, students enamored with a book unfamiliar to them before a fateful creative writing course and members of the Department eager to further discuss Offill’s inspirations. Those who had a chance to dine with Offill afterward in the Alumnae House were struck by her honesty about life before publishing her first book.
Leanna Faimon ’22 reflected upon the lecture, stating, “I am taking Creative Writing with Professor Molly McGlennen right now, and I came to the reading because I wanted insight into what professional writing requires. It was funny to see that anything, even the college campus we walk through… can serve as inspiration.”