After rescheduling due to bad weather, the Wednesday night Russell House Series happened to feature two major authors back-to-back over the past couple of weeks. The speakers were Irish-American novelist Colum McCann, who won the 2009 U.S. National Book Award for his novel “Let the Great World Spin,” and Tom Perrotta, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2007 for his adaptation of his novel “Little Children.” Both read passages from their newer works before taking questions from Wesleyan students and other audience members.
On March 27, prizewinning writer Tom Perrotta arrived on campus for the Russell House Series. Perrotta is the bestselling author of the novels “Election” and “Little Children,” both of which have been made into major motion pictures. He is currently adapting his most recent novel, “The Leftovers,” into an HBO series with David Lindelof (of “Lost” and “Prometheus” fame). Adjunct Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs Anne Greene mentioned that the blockbuster success of Perrotta’s novels was a key part of why he was invited to the University.
“We selected him in part because he works in TV at the moment, as well as writing fiction, and there are a lot of students who are interested in the relation between fiction writing and working for screen or television,” Greene said.
Perrotta’s novels possess literary merit in addition to page-turning appeal. Dealing with subjects like politics, social stigmas, and faith, they manage to pack pithy and stirring insights into novels that balance humanist pathos with satirical bite.
“The Leftovers,” from which Perrotta read at the Russell House event, almost sounds like a riff on the evangelist “Left Behind” series. After a totally non-Evangelical rapture causes the disappearance of a seemingly random assortment of people overnight, humanity struggles to find its footing in the wake of this bizarre supernatural occurrence.
In the passage Perrotta read, Tom Garvey, one of the main characters of the novel, assimilates into a Syracuse frat that lost one of its members to the rapture. He then befriends the frat’s resident bohemian member, who invites Tom to a grieving service at a local church that surpasses his expectations.
The cinematic impact and narrative economy of Perrotta’s prose was evident in the passage he read, as he managed to breezily and engagingly cover a huge amount of ground in the half hour allotted to the reading. He commented on the screen-ready quality his work often shows.
“I used to hear a lot from people in Hollywood, ‘Oh, your work is so cinematic. When I read it, I feel like I can sort of see the movie,’ you know?” Perrotta said. “And one of the reasons is I was writing a kind of stripped-down prose. I wrote with scenes; it wasn’t sort of voice-driven fiction. I go into character’s heads, but I tended to want to show them doing and speaking rather than really get in their heads for long periods. In a certain way, my work did work in a visual way for people who were reading it. But as a result, I started to be a screenwriter myself. My work’s changed a lot, I think in the time since then, actually in a counterintuitive way. My work has gotten I think more literary, and the language has gotten a little bit denser, the movement in time has gotten a little more complex. I think what happened was that the really tight discipline of screenplays made me realize how much freedom I have as a novelist.”
He mentioned that although he occasionally structures his novels in a manner resembling Hollywood storytelling, he has learned not to aim for filmic adaptations.
“I sort of learned the hard way when I was writing my novel ‘Joe College,’” Perrotta recalled. “Everybody said, ‘Oh, Hollywood is gonna love this. They love college stories,’ and I sort of expected that that would be a movie. It just turned out to be much too dark a college story—one of the main plots is about abortion, and nobody really likes movies that deal with that.”
Perrotta explained that this experience made him realize how difficult it is to predict a book’s cinematic chances.
“I’ve learned that it’s impossible for me to judge if a work is going to make it to the screen,” he said. “I work on whatever idea is really calling to me at that time; it’s not like I have five and can choose the most cinematic.”
McCann continued the discussion of literature at Russell House on April 3. His most famous novel, “Let the Great World Spin,” ties the real-life story of tightrope walker Philippe Petit into the lives of multiple fictional protagonists in New York City. McCann is also the author of the novels “Zoli” and “This Side of Brightness,” among others, and his work has been published in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic.
Anne Greene said that it was a gift to have him visit campus. She explained that McCann was invited as this year’s Annie Sonnenblick speaker as part of a lecture series that has been running for several years.
“It’s a great honor to have him as our speaker this year,” Greene said. “We try for the Sonnenblick lecture to have a distinguished writer come who is of particular interest to students. Colum went to dinner with students, and several of them said it was very satisfying to be able to talk to him about his work.”
After a glowing introduction from Kim-Frank Family University Writer in Residence Amy Bloom, McCann read from his forthcoming novel “Transatlantic.” Structured similarly to “Let the Great World Spin,” “Transatlantic” follows the intertwined stories of multiple protagonists making transatlantic journeys from North America to Ireland, including the visit of Frederick Douglass in 1845, the first nonstop transatlantic flight by Alcock and Brown in 1919, and the trips of former Maine State Senator George Mitchell in 1998.
Although the subject of historic transatlantic journeys captivated him, McCann said the novel was difficult to piece together.
“In some ways, I had to learn to fail with it for a long time,” McCann said during the reading.
Although he believes that a writer has a responsibility to examine the past, something he does consistently throughout his works, McCann rejects the label of historical fiction for his novels.
In that vein, McCann’s inclusion of Mitchell in “Transatlantic” required co-opting the story of a still-living person for his own purposes. Rather than worrying about misrepresenting the past, McCann said his main responsibility was to language, image, and character. McCann did reach out to Mitchell to ensure that his writing was accurate, but he said that a writer should principally be concerned with writing a good book.
In the original language of Ireland, he said, there is no linguistic distinction between fiction and nonfiction writing.
“Fiction and nonfiction are nebulous,” McCann said. “It’s all storytelling.”
Both of these lectures proved to be highly popular with students, and Greene expressed satisfaction with the writers’ honesty and generosity in discussing their writing.
“They’re both extremely open in talking about their work, and our students are wonderful in talking to writers,” Greene said. “Many of the talks are connected to my Distinguished Writers nonfiction course, so when the students from the course come to the event, they’ve read the work. They ask really good questions in the question-and-answer sessions. It seems really a good way to have students engage with writers and have the conversation turn to topics that relate to the questions students have about our own work.”