Award-winning authors Oates, Johnson speak at Lafayette library
By Lou Fancher
People might think the only way to gain access to award-winning authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and T. Geronimo Johnson is to read their best-selling novels and stories.
Instead, the Lafayette Library and Learning Center Foundation’s Distinguished Speaker Series provided an inside glimpse March 14 into their literary philosophies and rare, direct interaction with the writers.
Sandee Coyle, Stephanie McConnell and Rebecca Lillard, three members of a 20-year, Orinda-based book club, Wine About Books, valued the opportunity.
“She’s compelling, even in a public talk,” McConnell said about Oates. “And like her writing, she leaves so much to discuss. Her books stick with you: There’s always a dark thread, a twist. She’s not hiding anything.”
Lillard said seeing Oates in person will add to the pleasure she finds in reading her novels. “I enjoyed who she is: thoughtful, gentle, altruistic in quoting and referring to other writers.”
Coyle appreciated Johnson because the writers of color whose work she reads often stick primarily to matters of race. “He said he writes more about class than about race, and as a black writer, I think his views on a topic other than race will be interesting.”
Oates spends part of each year in Berkeley and is the author of numerous novels and short-story collections, the newest of which is “Beautiful Days.” Berkeley-based Johnson grabbed the attention of the literary community in 2015 with his prize-winning second novel, “Welcome to Braggsville.” Oates and Johnson spoke in Lafayette to a sold-out audience of approximately 150 people. Their conversation with moderator and Bay Area author Joseph Di Prisco honored Oates as a Simpson writer-in-residence and Johnson’s winning in 2017 the inaugural $50,000 Simpson Family Literary Prize in a project that supports midcareer writers of fiction. The Simpson project includes, in addition to the residency and annual prize, education outreach initiatives. It is a partnership between the library and UC Berkeley’s English Department.
Asked by Di Prisco to reflect on the place of libraries in their lives and in culture, Oates referred to libraries as akin to churches or cathedrals. Beginning and continuing from her childhood growing up in a rural community, a library to her was a place of wonder, almost mythological.
“I have a fantastic, mystical feeling about libraries,” she said.
Johnson highlighted libraries as a symbol or statement of how much a culture honors knowledge and the exchange of ideas. He contrasted two schools he attended years ago. One library was in the center of the school and “you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing it, like a community center.” At the other, with the library in a corner that formed an architectural cul de sac, Johnson said it was easy to overlook. The structural realities of libraries, he suggested, reflect community values.
A topic writers are most often asked about — the inspiration for their work or desire to write — drew a variety of replies. Oates attributed the storytelling impulse to love of language, the thrill of creating unique text or literary forms and something “inborn in the human psyche.” Applying craft to “a whole scroll of thoughts” that she said is constantly in our minds causes a neutral entity like a book to become purposeful. With well-chosen words, the annihilation of a planet or a grand love story can be told.
Johnson said that assuming control of a narrative is powerful. He mentioned President Donald Trump’s tweets as a contemporary, abbreviated example. His amazement at the preciousness of life and curiosity about people who are held back from actualizing their potential exists “like electricity” in his mind. The education he received and attributes to his parents’ hard work is a weighty responsibility. But learning with time, study and practice to control form instead of waiting for divine inspiration to write, he experienced as “bam, the roof came off the building.” Even so, he suggested granular, line-by-line scrutiny of sentences after the first draft is complete will help writers to avoid trying “to frost a cake that’s still batter in the bowl.”
Addressing appropriation — when writers of one race or culture create stories and characters based in a race or culture other than their own — Johnson said students he encounters are overly cautious.
“They shy away from writing about what they care about because they’ll be accused of co-opting.”
He encourages them to write about what they are afraid of and said, “Literature is the machinery of empathy.”
As for consciously deciding to be professional writers, they didn’t. Oates recalled being creative and “writing” stories in the cradle and “nobody stopped me.” Similarly, Johnson said his path through school provided foundation and he “just never stopped being a writer.”