Montclair Literary Festival
Events at First Congregational Church, 40 South Fullerton Ave.; Montclair Public Library, 50 South Fullerton Ave.; Montclair State University, 1 Normal Ave.; Montclair Art Museum, 3 South Mountain Ave.; Succed2gether, 11 Pine St.; Montclair Film, 505 Bloomfield Ave.; East Side Mags, 7 South Fullerton Ave.; The Creativity Caravan, 28 South Fullerton Ave.
For complete list and schedule, visit Succeed2gether.org
By GWEN OREL
Many Montclairites are writers: bestselling writers, developing writers or writer curious.
Not to mention readers, who could one day be writers. Or maybe even secretly are.
Wherever people are in their writing career, this year’s Montclair Literary Festival, only the second ever, aims to provide something for them – high-profile ticketed events with bestselling authors.
Some of the authors are coming to town especially for the event. Some of them live here.
These headlining events with Meg Wolitzer, Anna Quindlen and Patti Smith are ticketed, as are some of the workshops (which are really seminars), screenings and an author cocktail party, but most events are free.
For emerging writers in all subjects there are workshops and panels on such varied themes as the #MeToo Movement, Pitchapalooza!, “reinventing the Sci-Fi/Fantasy Genre.”
Tonight, Thursday, March 15, there will be a poetry slam for middle and high school poets, and awards given for the high school short story competition, at 6:30 p.m. in the Sanctuary of First Congregational Church.
The festival opened yesterday, with a middle-school poetry slam and high school short story award winners, and runs through Sunday, March 18, when it closes with Patti Smith reading from her new book “Devotion (Why I Write),” performing with Lenny Kaye.
BIG NAME: MIN JIN LEE
Novelist Min Jin Lee’s bestselling book, “Pachinko,” a saga of four generations of Korean immigrants to Japan, has had great acclaim: not only is it a finalist for the National Book Award, a national bestseller, it’s also a New York Times Editor’s Choice and a selection of the Book of the Month Club. Lee will appear on two panels. She’ll appear in “Going Rogue: Alternative Ways to Get into Print,” at 12:15 p.m. in the YA room of the Montclair Public Library, on Saturday, Marcy 17, with Kem Joy Ukwu, Ananda Lima, Teka Lark and Brea Tremblay.
She’ll also appear in “Strangers in a Strange Land: The Immigrant Experience in Fiction” at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, at the Sanctuary at First Congregational Church, with Montclair’s Dagmara Dominczyk (“The Lullaby of Polish Girls), Nicole Dennis (“Here Comes the Sun”), and Wena Poon (“Chang’ an). National Book Critics Circle President Kate Tuttle will moderate.
Lee spoke to us from Tampa, Florida, where she was attending at the Associated Writers Program conference. She’s doing “Going Rogue” because she was asked, she said, but also, she does not have an Master of Fine Arts (MFA). “I have a kind of made-up MFA by taking a lot of wonderful classes in New York City,” she said. An MFA is necessary if you want to teach at the university level, and in some ways she wishes she could have done it, but “it’s so expensive.” And as for writers making the money back: “it’s not going to happen. To enter into a $200,000 debt for the arts is not for someone who doesn’t have much means.”
She trained as a lawyer but quit when she was 26. Along the way, she never stopped trying to be a better writer. This year she will be 50 and, she said, she never stopped focusing on craft. “Craft is something you can control. You can’t control the market, you can’t control the zeitgeist, you can’t control anything, especially publishing, the whole marketing of it. But you can control your craft,” she said.
With regard to her second panel, “Writing the Immigrant Experience,” she said that there is a moment right now internationally “there’s a whole shift in the world of diaspora. More than the Koreans, more than the Japanese, I’m interested in diaspora, what happened when people are scattered around the world from where they are from.” Identity, new, old, and changing is universal, she said. “This is a theme I think I’m going to work on for the rest of my career.” In Japan, there are families of Korean descent who have been there for four or five generations who are still considered foreign, something she described as “amazing.” She said, “I think Americans are far more welcoming of those who are ‘other.’ We all have this idea that we believe in integration of all different people. However, the experience of Asian Americans in this country has been that they are permanently seen as other and they are excluded in Western media representations in film and television.” Growing up in Queens as a Korean American, her own experience was good, she said, but that would not be the experience of many Asian Americans.
She considers her first two novels, “Free Food for Millionaires” and “Pachinko” to be the first two books in a trilogy, though they don’t share characters. Her next book will be “American Hagwan.” A hagwan, she said, is a Korean cram school. In Montclair, New Jersey there are hagwans run by Koreans, and non-Koreans attend them, she said. Her book will address the role of education for Koreans and others around the world.
“I always start out with an idea and a thesis, and then the characters come way later,” she said. That her books have done so well is a surprise to her, she said. She wrote as a child, but could never imagine being a writer, something she thought as “risky and luxurious.” She had a liver disease when she was 26, and that’s why she left the law. Being a writer would be a calmer life, she thought. Coming to a festival makes her “feel useful.” She has a dedicated sense of mission about what she does, even if the attention makes her uncomfortable. “As I get older I feel we have to get in there and argue about the stuff that’s important to us, because people aren’t going to do it for us,” she said.
WORKSHOP: YOUNG ADULT WRITER ER FRANK
Montclair writer ER Frank has written five Young Adult novels. Rosie O’Donnell made a Lifetime movie of “America” (2002) in 2009. Frank’s work has received favorable reviews in the New York Times Book Review, horn Book, Kirkus Reviews and others. She is also a psychotherapist with a specialty in trauma. Her workshop, “Writing YA Fiction,” will take place on Sunday, March 18, at 11:30 at the Succeed2gether office.
Frank participated in a panel last year in the Montclair Literary Festival, but with the workshop, she’ll be able to go deeper into audience questions. She’ll also talk about some of her successes and failures. The YA market is evolving quickly, she said. She didn’t start out to be a YA author, but when she submitted her first novel she was told that was what it was. The book was in the first person and present tense, and the main characters were all adolescents.
Whether a book is YA or adult is “elusive to define. You know it when you see it.” Frank theorized that it has to do with the “developmental stage being evoked by the characters telling the story. There’s an immediacy in the tone, voice and writing… there is not necessarily as much in an adult novel. It’s often told in the first person, present tense. Something about that immediacy is very appealing to young readers.”
Many adults read YA now, which is one reason the field has exploded. Dystopian fiction is a popular genre in YA, she thinks, because “living outside of the rules and what the consequences are is what adolescents are going through.” In their world, they must figure out which rules to follow and fight against, and “many adults are also struggling with those kinds of questions.”
YA is also evolving to be more inclusive and diverse in terms of who’s writing and also who
is represented. That’s important for two reasons: both for readers to see themselves, and to see someone else.
Her work as a psychotherapist has inspired and compelled almost everything she writes, though she would never fictionalize a story of a client.
“There are themes of human ugliness, resilience and kindness that everybody has. I find those incredibly moving and powerful,” she said. For example, in “Dime” (2014) she writes about a teenager who is forced to work as a prostitute, and though that world is not in her background, she had worked with trafficking survivors.
Like many authors, she always knew she wanted to write. Unlike Min Jin Lee, she was determined to be a professional writer from the age of 7.
“I began telling people that’s what I was going to be when I grew up,” Frank said. She even sold a poem to Seventeen magazine, but while she was paid for it, the magazine never published it. At age 28, she told her then fiancé, now husband, that she would quit to do clinical work full time if she didn’t publish by age 30. He told her to keep at it.
“I sold my first novel before I was 30. Life is funny,” she said.
But while she wanted to be a published author, she would have gone on writing even if she hadn’t been. “Something may not get published for a variety of reasons,” she said. “If one wants to get wealthy, I do not recommend writing novels.”
PANELIST: ALICE ELLIOTT DARK
Alice Elliott Dark’s short story “In the Gloaming” was published in the New Yorker in 1993, and John Updike selected it for inclusion in “The Best American Short Stories of the Century.” It had also been included in “The Best American Short Stories 1994.” A 1997 HBO movie starred Glenn Close and directed by directed by Christopher Reeve. She has written three novels, and teaches in the MFA program at Rutgers University-Newark.
Dark will appear in “The Dark Side of the Short Story,” 1:30 p.m. in the Guild Room, First Congregational Church, on Sunday, March 18. With crime writer Megan Abbott (“The Fever”) and short story writer Samantha Hunt (“The Dark Dark”) she will discuss “the fantastical, suspenseful side to the short story.
Dark said she would talk with the other authors about how they decide “what should be a short story and what should be a novel. For me, it really is about time. I generally think a story is about a very limited amount of time, even if it looks like a lifetime on the page. The actual emotional action happens in a short period of time. A novel is a long period of time, even if it’s one day in the book. It’s how much emotional time the story needs,” she said.
She loves the short story as an art form.
“It has a shape to it that is teachable and discernible to the reader. It is more like formal poetry. Novels are baggy. They can go in a lot of different directions,” Dark said.
In a novel you can skip a section you don’t like, but every word counts in a story. “It’s like a puzzle fitting it together. In a short story, skipping means the story wasn’t put together as carefully as it should be. You shouldn’t desire to skip in a story, unless you skip the whole thing.”
The two genres are very different, she said.
“When I first sat down to write a novel, after telling stories, I had to completely learn how to do it. It wasn’t as though knowing how to write stories or sonnets gave me an inside lead,” Dark said.
Like Frank, she knew she wanted to be a writer from childhood: for Dark, she knew at age 6. “I’ve been talking with people lately about whether they were child writers,” she said, and discovering that there’s a difference between those who write as children and those who take it up later. “For me, as a child and a teen, it was an escape and a very structured private place.” That structuring, she said, was “like a work of art.” Her early writings might not be, she said with a laugh, “but I had the awareness you could make something beautiful if you sat by yourself and did some concentrated thinking.”