I’m thrilled to announce that next February, I’ll be teaching a creative writing class at the American Museum of Natural History, exploring their world-famous exhibits and exquisite dioramas with the written word.
Natural History museums began with curiosity cabinets (Wunderkammer)—small closets or boxes in a person’s home, full of items they personally collected—bird nests, a snake skin, or a coin from China. The owners of these cabinets acted as museum curators: what they chose to go into the cabinets reflected who they were—just as everything we put into our own writing reflects us. Over the years, I’ve often used the American Museum of Natural History as a resource for my own stories and novels, and am extremely excited to share my expertise, as well as my nerdy enthusiasm for all things AMNH, with a group of ready students.
This five-session class will take place entirely at the American Museum of Natural History (located on 81st street & Central Park West in New York City) and meet once a week, every Tuesday, from Feb. 5th-March 5th, 6-8:30 pm. The class will also be held after hours—so we will have the unique opportunity to roam the halls free of crowds. Who knows what magical things might happen? (Think Night at the Museum, but with writers). Each class will be held in a different gallery. We will read excerpts of works by naturalists such as Theodore Roosevelt, as well as literary figures who incorporate the natural world into their fiction and poetry. But the main focus of this course will be to unleash your imagination, drawing on the exhibits for on-site writing exercises. I will also give craft lectures that examine the elements of creative writing, including setting, description and point of view, so that each student leaves with a strengthened grounding of the basics. Notebook, pen, and ability to write on the spot required. This class is open to the public and all writing levels, but space will also be limited, so please sign up early–we are expecting it to sell out quickly. Pricing and further information can be found here.
Update: the AMNH Registration link is now working. Just click “Buy tickets.”
**UPDATE: THIS CLASS IS NOW SOLD OUT. If you’d like to be put on the waiting list, email the “Tickets” dept at AMNH.
This week’s Selected Shorts features two stories that explore the place of objects in our lives: “Counting the Ways” by Susan Perabo, performed by Robert Sean Leonard, and “The Pony Problem” by Sloane Crosley, read by Kirsten Vangsness. Robert Sean Leonard joined me as co-host for this show, and had many interesting things to say about “Counting the Ways,” which follows a young couple who purchase something wild: a dress worn by Princess Diana. After Diana’s death, the dress begins to alter their marriage, and their lives. It was great to peek behind the curtain with Robert Sean Leonard and hear what it’s like to perform a story for Selected Shorts on stage. In our extended interview, we talk about the magic of reading work aloud, Robert’s favorite novel (Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer) and how books allow us to “swim around inside the soul of another person.” To hear the full program, including the readings of these two stories, as well as a personal introduction by Sloane Crosley for her piece, “The Pony Problem,” go to the Selected Shorts website or WNYC to download a free podcast, or listen the old-fashioned way, on your local public radio station. For my extended interview with Robert Sean Leonard, simply click on the link below (best enjoyed after listening to the stories, as there are a few spoilers in our chat).
Robert Sean Leonard on talismans & swimming inside another person’s soul:
As some of you may have heard, the host of Selected Shorts, Mr. Isaiah Sheffer, has passed away. I first met Isaiah about two years ago, but even before I walked into the studios at WNYC I felt like I already knew him–I’d been listening to his voice on Selected Shorts since I was a teenager. Later, after college—when I was holding down three jobs, working seven days a week, saving money and dreaming of moving to New York and becoming a writer—the program, and Isaiah, became even more important to me. Selected Shorts played on Saturdays, during the hour it took me to drive from one job, in a bookstore, to another job, waiting tables all night. My arms would be tired from lugging boxes of books, my hands covered with paper-cuts, and the last thing I wanted to do was work for another eight hours. Then Isaiah’s voice would come over the car radio, and it felt like a dear friend was keeping me company, and giving me what I needed to carry on: reminding me of the magic and the joy of sharing great short stories. I learned about so many writers for the first time by hearing them on Selected Shorts, and the next day I’d find their collections and novels in the bookstore and start reading the rest of their work. I looked forward to hearing Selected Shorts all week, and even though I lived far away and was only a listener, I felt like I was a part of a community. Years later, when Isaiah and Kathy Minton took me out to lunch and asked me to join the team at Selected Shorts, I couldn’t believe my luck. To be a part of this program, which had been so formative and such an inspiration to me, felt like an incredible honor. I was very nervous, and unsure of myself the first time I walked into the studio, but Isaiah, like the generous director and performer he was on stage, took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. He made it look easy—and was patient, even as I flubbed my lines. I was quickly dubbed his “sidekick,” the Assistant to Isaiah’s Magician. Every few weeks we’d meet at WNYC and talk about stories—but most of all—we had fun. Isaiah was full of energy, and would launch into songs, or quips from old movies, or tell a joke and have everyone laughing. Over the past few days, I’ve heard many heart-warming tales from Isaiah’s friends and family and fans, reminding me of all the things about him that were so special: the way he could bring a room to life just by walking into it, the way he put people at ease, and how he always made everyone feel included and a part of things. Isaiah was a true artist and performer, a hero of the short story and the upper west side—devoted to his wife and daughter as well as his “other family” at Symphony Space. I’m so grateful for the twists of fate that led me from that rusty old car in Massachusetts to being across the desk from Isaiah at WNYC. He was a teacher, a mentor, and most of all: a friend. I am going to miss him terribly. Last spring, we performed a duet together on stage at Symphony Space. George & Ira Gershwin’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” I’m never going to hear that song again without thinking of Isaiah singing.
Thanks to all the well-wishers who’ve been getting in touch after Hurricane Sandy. The banks of the Gowanus did break, and flooded a lot of the neighborhood. Even so, we fared much better than our friends out in Red Hook, Rockaway, Staten Island, Queens, New Jersey and all over Manhattan who lost power and had their homes destroyed. It’s been a rough week all around. But what is heartening is how much everyone is volunteering and giving what they can and trying to help others. For those who live in other states and are looking for ways to contribute, here are a few links. First of all, WNYC has done a great job explaining where and how to give aid (as well as how to get around without subways). Red Hook Recovers has been organizing recovery for the Red Hook area of Brooklyn. Occupy Sandy has been posting lots of info about volunteering and donations. You can also follow them on twitter for updates. The Park Slope Armory is being used as an Emergency Shelter for people without power or who have lost homes. NYC Service is another great site for getting information on how to help. The Food Bank for New York City gets free food to those who need it. And finally the Red Cross has also been taking donations for disaster victims across the Eastern Seaboard. If anyone has any additional sites/places/suggestions, comment below. Good luck and stay safe.
Here on the shores of Gowanus, Brooklyn, we are all awaiting the arrival of hurricane Sandy, wondering how many dead bodies may wash up on our doorstep when the canal overflows. It all feels appropriate for Halloween, somehow, and makes me wonder what kind of wild tale Edgar Allan Poe might have penned if he lived next to a superfund site. Poe has been on my mind for a few weeks, ever since I had the great pleasure of spending an afternoon with Neil Gaiman talking about his work. We covered three famous pieces by the master of the macabre, all featured on this week’s special Halloween edition of Selected Shorts: “The Tell-Tale Heart” (read by Terrence Mann), “The Black Cat” and “The Raven” (both read by Rene Auberjonois). Neil Gaiman is a fearless explorer of the dark side, intelligent and witty, with an imagination just as wild as Poe’s. It was a treat to get his insight into these wonderful tales and to hear him talk about his own writing process. You can listen to the program at WNYC, on podcast at Selected Shorts, or on your local public radio station. For those wanting more, you can check out Neil Gaiman’s essay, entitled: “Some Strangeness in the Proportion: The Exquisite Beauties of Edgar Allan Poe,” or click below to listen to our extended interview, where Neil recites selections of Poe from memory, talks about the influence of the master on his own writing, and contemplates what would happen if Poe had made his famous raven a parrot. Happy Halloween!
Neil Gaiman on Poe, Parrots, Unreliable Narrators, and the magic of reading aloud:
This week on Selected Shorts, we’ve got three great stories about fresh starts and new beginnings. The first is Etgar Keret’s “Healthy Start,” which is a part of his collection, Suddenly A Knock on the Door. It starts with a simple premise–a man gets mistaken for someone else at a restaurant. But when he decides to continue the ruse, it becomes a habit, until each day he pretends to be someone else. Next we have a story by Ann Beattie, “Hoodie in Xanadu.” Set in Key West, a place where people go to re-invent themselves, the narrator, Flora, discovers her neighbor is hiding something magical and unexpected behind his door. The final story, “Best Worst American,” by Juan Martinez, is a short-short that turns Walmart into an extraordinary landscape, where a man gets the chance to thank somone who gave him the confidence to start a new life. You can listen to this inspiring program for free over at WNYC, on podcast, on the Selected Shorts site, or the old fashioned way, on your local public radio station. I had a great time recording this show with guest co-host, Etgar Keret, who called into WNYC from Tel Aviv. You can listen to the extended version of my interview with Etgar below, as we discuss his writing process, as well as each of the stories at length, over cups of coffee 5,000 miles apart.
Etgar Keret on loneliness, Kublai Khan, and Walmart:
I’ve been on the road, and have fallen behind on my Selected Shorts posts. But wanted to make sure everyone had the chance to listen in to this great program that ran recently, with two amazing stories: “Vaclav & Lena” by Haley Tanner (read by Sarah Steele) and “Swept Away” by T.C. Boyle (read by Rene Auberjonois). Both stories involve islands and magic. Tanner’s “Vaclav & Lena” (recently picked as one of NBA’s “5 under 35″) is set on Coney Island, and follows two young friends learning English and training for their first magic show. Boyle’s “Swept Away” travels to the Scottish Isle of Unst, where the wind is so strong it blows cats, cars and young lovers over the edge. You can listen to these wonderful stories over at WNYC, or by podcast or by scrolling down here on the Selected Shorts website. I also had the chance to do extended interviews with both authors, which you can listen to below. This is my favorite part of doing Selected Shorts–getting the chance to talk with inspiring writers about their process, in depth.
Haley Tanner, on Coney Island, magic tricks, and how she turned this story into her award-winning novel, Vaclav & Lena:
T.C. Boyle, on Scottish accents, the isle of Unst, the importance of being read to, and his new novel, San Miguel:
Out of all of my stories, the one with the longest legs has been “Home Sweet Home.” I first published it in Epoch. From there it was picked for Best American Mystery Stories. Then it appeared in my collection, Animal Crackers. Then it was included in an anthology called Fiction Gallery, put out by Gotham Writers Workshop. And now, it has crawled out of the mist once more, chosen by the good people at Newtonville Books, Jamie Clarke & Mary Cotton, to be included in Boston Noir 2, the latest collection of crime stories based on place, published by the amazing Akashic Books. Special thanks to Dennis Lehane for deeming me worthy to appear alongside Joyce Carol Oates and David Foster Wallace. And long live Pat & Clyde, forever murdered on pot roast night!