Adjunct Professor of English Anne Greene serves as the director of Wesleyan’s writing programs, the director of Wesleyan Writers Conference, and an organizer of the Russell House Series. After teaching three class sessions in a row, she sat down with The Argus to discuss her favorite books, her thoughts on writing, and the writing programs on campus.
The Argus: What have you read for pleasure recently that you have enjoyed?
Anne Greene: I’m reading James Wood’s “How Fiction Works.” Have you ever seen that book?
A: I don’t think so.
AG: It’s wonderful. It’s tiny. It’s all about time and character, and how you experience fact in fiction and detail in fiction, and what makes characters seem to be real. It’s absolutely fascinating. I was reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s “The Lost,” which is stunningly depressing but very beautiful. Most of what I read is focused on my class, so I mainly read collections of essays and short stories.
A: Is there a collection that you read recently and particularly liked?
AG: “O. Henry Prize Stories” from 2008 is a beautiful collection. It has a beautiful story in it by Edward P. Jones [called “Bad Neighbors”] and one called “On the Lake” by Olaf Olafsson. There’s a really interestingly structured story by Lore Segal called “Other People’s Deaths,” which manages to be incredibly funny. I read food writing, and I read lots of science writing because we’re developing new science writing courses.
A: Were you interested in science writing before you decided to integrate it into the curriculum?
AG: No, I’m indebted to [Associate Professor of Earth & Environmental Sciences] Suzanne O’Connell…for getting me involved in science writing. She invited me to a conference where I worked with colleagues of hers, and it’s absolutely fascinating. I think it’s wonderful that we can start offering science writing courses.
There’s another book you would like called “The Tiger’s Wife” by Téa Obreht. It’s a wonderful novel with a fantastic element in the middle. It’s quite beautiful. If you like writing dialogue, you can look at the stories of Richard Bausch. They’re wonderfully funny in their dialogue, and usually they’re also heartbreaking.
A: Which books do you enjoy teaching the most?
AG: Anything I’m reading, really.
A: So the books that you read for pleasure and the ones you read for your courses overlap?
AG: They overlap all the time. I like teaching books that have an interesting structure because it’s fun to talk about. It’s fun to be introduced to designs in literature that wouldn’t be clear to you right away, like braids, for example. In a book called “Still Life with Oysters and Lemon” by Mark Doty, the gap between the two threads of the essay is fairly easy to see. There are passages about Dutch still life paintings that seem very formal and analytical, and in the beginning [of the book] there is a gap between them and the passages about the writer’s personal life.
A: Have you read anything recently that you didn’t like?
AG: There are a fair number of pieces of writing in progress that are not exactly delightful. I read work that isn’t ready for publication, and it’s always interesting to see what it’s trying to do. I don’t think it’s quite fair to say that there’s anything one doesn’t really like. There’s always something interesting in any given piece of writing.
A: Can we talk a bit about the Russell House Series?
AG: The series has been running for a very long time and brings to campus an unusually broad range of writers. I think this semester’s series is fairly typical. We have a number of very established, award-winning writers coming to speak like Colum McCann, who wrote “Let the Great World Spin,” and Tom Perrotta, whose work is in film. On the other hand, we’ll have other writers like Siddhartha Deb, who is less well known but absolutely fascinating.
If you look at the program, you can see that it really is, as always, made up of distinguished writers and new voices. Adina Hoffman, for example, who went to Wesleyan, writes about various aspects of her experiences living in the Middle East as well as here. Louis Menand, by contrast, is someone whose work you see regularly in The New Yorker and [who is] an important cultural critic. Lydia Davis, a modernist fiction writer, is also very well known. Heidi Lynn Staples is less well established but absolutely fascinating, and Eileen Myles’s work is more varied than anyone else’s. She writes fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, and opera libretti.
A: How do the writers get chosen for the Russell House Series?
AG: A number of professors who teach writing work together and assemble a group of writers who meet our various needs. All of us assign selected writers’ work in our own courses. I’m assigning the work of Adina Hoffman, Louis Menand, A.J. Verdelle and Nikky Finney, Tom Perrotta, and Colum McCann. My colleague and I are both assigning Lydia Davis.
We’re bringing to campus people who serve the needs of our courses as well as imagining that a much broader audience will be excited to hear these people speak. It’s a fun series to work [on] collaboratively. It’s nice that we have this extraordinarily beautiful building to offer the series in and that it has such a long-running tradition.
A: How long has the series been around?
AG: I would say more than 30 years. It’s remarkable. Wesleyan has a very long tradition of bringing distinguished writers to campus to teach and to speak. It’s normal now to think of writers as being in universities, but that was not always the case. In part because of Wesleyan University Press and Wesleyan Writers Conference, Wesleyan has always been a place [to which] writers think to come. A very distinguished writer named Richard Wilbur taught here for many years and was a writer in residence. Also, a writer in residence named Paul Horgan was the first person to win a Pulitzer Prize in two different genres: history and fiction. He taught here 35 or so years ago.
A: Have you been involved in any other writing-related programs on campus?
AG: Oh, heavens yes. At the new Shapiro Creative Writing center, there are informal creative writing workshops. Amy Bloom, our writer in residence, has table talks every week. The writing workshop has its busiest office over there. The 48-Hour Magazine project was mounted there two weeks ago. It was fantastic, and we’re just about to do the print edition.
There are wonderful new journalism courses. Barbara Roessner from Hearst Media is here this semester teaching Techniques of Narrative Non-Fiction. She brought in a journalist from Hearst who covered the Newtown shootings to talk about what it was like to work on a project like that. It was very moving. We have all these new opportunities in writing and new writers teaching in the English Department.
A: What are your goals for writing at Wesleyan?
AG: One goal is to develop funding for a permanently enlarged array of courses that would serve the creative writing concentration and the writing certificate, which is a new arrangement that’s like a minor in writing. It would be nice to have funding to continue offering the Translating Science course and other science-writing courses, the Israeli Literature course, and courses in writing about the arts. For example, there’s a course in writing about film for modern media and we’d like to be able to continue that. We’d like to expand the journalism offerings because they’re enormously popular, and [we’d like] to teach Writing Historical Narratives again. It would be wonderful to keep all the courses that we’ve added experimentally.