Saturday, March 20, 2010


Fiction writer Thisbe Nissen was the 19th Zale writer-in-residence, visiting Tulane in both the fall and spring semesters of the 03/04 academic year. (She fell ill with the flu during her first visit, in October, so returned in February to meet with students again.)

During her two-part Zale residency, Thisbe Nissen led interactive workshops, was interviewed by the then Dean of Newcomb College, Cynthia Lowenthal, and gave a public reading from her short story collection. The writing workshop involved roaming the city and campus to search for texts to serve as as “portals for fiction and poetry” once the workshop reconvened. During a publishing workshop, Nissen gave advice on applying to MFA programs, and sending out work to literary journals: she talked about how to deal with rejections and acceptances, and how to write a proper cover letter.

Her first short story collection Out of the Girls’ Room and Into the Night (1999), published not long after she graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop, established Nissen as a writer to watch. She followed this with two novels, The Good People of New York (2002) and Osprey Island (2005), both of which explore the complications of relationships in New York – the first in the city itself, the second in a Long Island beach location. (Nissen herself is a native New Yorker.)

Nissen – who is also coauthor of the book The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook: They Came, They Cooked, They Left (But We Ended Up with Some Great Recipes – recently accepted a position teaching creative writing at Western Michigan University.


Is there a better setting to explore teenage angst, sexual frustration and friendship struggles than a Northeast boarding school? Probably not, which is exactly why Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, published in 2004, affords us a shocking and at times depressing glimpse into the pretentious, hostile environment that Holden Caulfield knew all too well sixty years ago.

Sittenfeld – who was Zale writer-in-residence in 2006 – was raised in Cincinnati, but jumped at the opportunity to attend Groton School, a prestigious boarding school in Massachusetts that some believe serves as the setting for her debut novel. While Sittenfeld’s experience in New England may have been the impetus for her first published full-length project, she developed her talent as an undergraduate student in creative writing at Stanford University, followed by a stint at the Iowa Writers Workshop, where she earned her MFA. While at Stanford, Sittenfeld was chosen as a “Woman of the Year” by Glamour Magazine, but she wasn’t a stranger to national attention: she won Seventeen magazine’s fiction writing contest in 1992 – at the age, naturally, of 17.

Sittenfeld has published two more novels. The Man of My Dreams (2006) traces the path of a young woman, Hannah, as she negotiates high school and Tufts University. In 2008, Sittenfeld caused a stir with her critically acclaimed, best-selling third novel, American Wife, which is inspired, in part, by the life of then First Lady Laura Bush. Sittenfeld lives in St Louis, and is a regular contributor to NPR, as well as The New York Times and the Washington Post. Look for Prep on the big screen some time soon: Paramount Pictures have optioned the rights to the novel.

Joanna Kauffmann: ANN PATCHETT

After her most recent publication, an essay based on her 2006 Sarah Lawrence graduation speech entitled, “What Now,” bestselling author Ann Patchett admitted in an interview with USA Today that she asks herself that question every time she finishes a book. The answer, for Patchett, has been various awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2002 for Bel Canto; fellowships, such as a Guggenheim Fellowship for her third novel, The Magician’s Assistant; and national and worldwide recognition— Bel Canto sold over a million copies in the United States, and was translated into thirty languages.

Patchett, who served as the Zale writer-in-residence in 1999, has published five novels in her career—The Patron Saint of Liars, Taft, The Magician’s Assistant, Bel Canto, and Run. Though they cover a wide span of topics, Patchett is unafraid to admit that there is a common thread between them. “I have one theme,” the author recognized in an interview with “A group of strangers thrown together.” To Patchett, plot is when “you’re going along, it’s fine, then everything turns upside down; people band together, sacrifices are made, there’s passion, there’s loss, there’s a journey, and at the end you cut a hole in the boat and you come out into the light.” It’s a formula that has worked for Patchett over and over, as with each book, her reputation grows.

Patchett is also the author of one work of nonfiction, a memoir entitled Truth and Beauty: A Friendship, which explores Patchett’s relationship with writer Lucy Grealy. Grealy, author of a memoir, Autobiography of a Face, died in 2002 of an accidental drug overdose. As Patchett explains in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, her memoir was a way to “sit shiva for a year…going over the good times we had together, because things ended on a very bad note, I think it gave me all the time I needed to feel terrible and to celebrate her.”

In addition to her own work, Patchett has been a part of other literary projects as well. In 2006 she served as editor for Best American Short Stories, and she has written for numerous publications, including The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine and The New York Times Magazine.

Hailed as one of the best of her generation, Patchett’s unique writing continues to show the strength and courage that makes her worthy of such praise.


Julie Orringer, the 2006 Zale Writer-in-Residence, knows how to make writing breathe underwater. Her dramatic voice is wholly penetrating and swift, as an interviewer for Powell’s Books website notes, “Orringer’s sentences practically cartwheel down the page.” Despite the harsh environments that her characters are often placed in. They are sentences that never lose their buoyancy.

Orringer was born in Miami in 1973, but was raised in both New Orleans and Ann Arbor, Michigan. Though Orringer looked to pursue career in medicine, she moved toward studying English after hearing a lecture by author Denis Johnson. She graduated from Cornell University and received an M.F.A. from the acclaimed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In 1997 her short story “What We Save” won the Smart Family Foundation Award of the Yale Review, and in 1998, “When She Is Old and I Am Famous” won the Paris Review’s Discovery Prize.

After she was awarded the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, Orringer wrote a story collection, How to Breathe Underwater (2003). The nine stories document tragedy or awkwardly painful circumstances, especially among young women transitioning from childhood to adulthood; many explore the struggle to stay afloat in transitional periods. As Donna Seamen of The New York Times Book Review commented, “even the grimmest of these stories conveys, along with anguish, a child’s spark of mystery and wonder.” The book received several awards, including the San Francisco Chronicle’s Best Book of the Year.

Orringer’s debut novel, The Invisible Bridge, will be released in May 2010. Set in Hungary and Paris, the eagerly awaited novel chronicles the lives of three brothers whose lives are devastated by war.


I discovered Ellen Gilchrist by accident on my parents’ bookshelf when I was ten or so, and promptly had her book taken away from me. After my mother had spluttered her shock and dismay that I was reading something so age-inappropriate, I smuggled “Victory Over Japan” back into my fifth-grade bedroom. It follows that I have somewhat of an attachment to Rhoda and her escapades: a fond memory of illicit reading, done undercover(s) with flashlight in hand.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Gilchrist about her experiences as Tulane’s 20th Zale Writer-in-Residence and Distinguished Tulane Mellon Professor in the Humanities. During her semester at Tulane, she taught once a week, commuting from Ocean Springs, Mississippi and sometimes staying in a “tiny and cute” apartment near campus. The theme of the writers’ symposium which she hosted was “A Sound Mind and a Sound Body” – Gilchrist lived up to this sentiment by inviting her yoga teacher from Ocean Springs to give a group class on Newcomb Quad.

Though the New Orleans weather was unkind at times (“Class was on Thursday,” Gilchrist said, “and it was always raining. The parking lot would always flood”) Gilchrist was enthusiastic about her stay, relating anecdotes of “beautiful parties” thrown for her by President Scott Cowen. She was taught how to use a computer by a “very patient” assistant, who introduced her to the joys of Wikipedia as it was just beginning.

Gilchrist focused on her teaching while at Tulane, preferring to write on the coast or at her home in Fayetteville. She doesn’t underestimate the importance of revision: “Writing is re-writing,” she said, offering her input when I told her I would send her a copy of this post. Her most recent book, a collection of autobiographical essays entitled The Writing Life, promises more of this no-frills advice.

It was comforting to know that even for Gilchrist, the perfect sentence does not always spring fully formed onto the page. Much like her conversation, Gilchrist’s work is honest, and along with this honesty comes a healthy dose of wry humor. One of the aspects I admire most in her writing is its frankness, especially in dialogue. I was enthralled from the very first sentence of Victory Over Japan: “When I was in the third grade I knew a boy who had to have fourteen shots in the stomach as a result of a squirrel bite.” How could you resist a line like that?

Numerous articles have been written about Gilchrist’s work, and even a book, which includes examinations of her female characters. The book’s author, Margaret D. Bauer, suggests that Gilchrist’s best portrayals of women are her 1950s Southern debutantes; after reading about Rhoda, you’ll see her point. Bauer explores the ambition of Gilchrist’s female characters, who, pursuant to social standards of the 1950s, were educated only in order to obtain “that MRS degree,” in other words, to help attract a doctor or lawyer. Bauer posits that women at the time had to fight against society in order to succeed; she notes, however, that Gilchrist’s female characters chiefly face the opposition of their families/male relatives. She cites Gilchrist’s story “Revenge” as an example—while Rhoda seems triumphant at the end of the story, it is really Gilchrist who triumphs in her accurate and moving portrayal of the limitations placed on Rhoda.Gilchrist went on to write even more successful and acclaimed stories about women, including her account of Anna Hand, who defies all female behavioral conventions in The Anna Papers.

Because I didn’t read Ellen Gilchrist’s works when I was ten the way I read now, after almost three years of creative writing education, Bauer’s insights opened up a lot of new connections for me. I’ll definitely be re-reading Victory Over Japan—this time sans flashlight.