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New book 'eavesdrops' on writers' conversations

Beth Staples
June 22, 2011

How would you like to pull up a comfortable chair by the fireplace (unlit, unfortunately), relax, and listen to an author describe his or her craft? And be able to ask questions as well?

Thanks to a new series of books inaugurated earlier this year by the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, you can do just that.

Volume One of the series, “Word of Mouth: Conversations with Visiting Writers on Their Craft,” contains transcripts of conversations held at the Piper Writers House at Arizona State University with eight noted writers.

The writers – Harold Schechter, Kimiko Hahn, R. Dwayne Betts, Francine Prose, Bob Hicok, Charles D’Ambrosio, Etgar Keret and Franz Wright – appeared in the Piper Center’s Distinguished Visiting Writers Series during the 2009-2010 academic year. Their genres include poetry, nonfiction, short stories and novels.

Copies of the first volume are available for $10. Credit card orders can be placed over the phone by calling the Piper Center at (480) 965-6018, or sending a check for $10 to: Arizona State University, Piper Center for Creative Writing, PO Box 875002, Tempe, Ariz., 85287-5002. Make check payable to “ASU Foundation” and note “Word of Mouth” on the check. Online ordering is forthcoming.

The paperbound book is small – roughly 4-1/4 by 7 inches, with 222 pages. It’s just the right size to tuck in a pocket or purse for waits at the doctor’s office or hair salon, or on the light rail.

The idea for “Word of Mouth” came from Peter Turchi, director of the Piper Center, which is housed in a historic home on the Tempe campus. “This past year, after poet and fiction writer Stephen Dobyns spoke eloquently to a full house, we realized an opportunity had been missed,” Turchi said. “We began recording the conversations, and posting brief clips on the Piper Center’s website; and that led to this.”

Before the advent of creative writing programs, and the books of interviews with writers they have spawned, writers learned their craft partly by talking with other writers, Turchi notes in his introduction.

“Oh, to be a fly on the wall of 27 Rue de Fleurus in the 1920s, when Gertrude Stein hosted Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Thornton Wilder and Sherwood Anderson, among others.”

Turchi adds that “though we can’t take you back in time to Gertrude Stein’s salon, we can make you a metaphorical fly on another wall: this one in the Virginia G. Piper House, the former president’s cottage, very nearly in the middle of the Tempe campus of Arizona State University.”

The Piper Writers House is an appropriate place for such literary conversations to take place, Turchi said, because the house does have a literary bent in its history: Robert Frost once slept in one of the upstairs rooms.

So, he concludes, “Imagine you’re walking past Old Main, under central Arizona’s consistently clear blue sky, to a wood and brick house at the center of a grassy oasis in the desert. A well-intentioned undergraduate is encamped in the shade of a tree, drowsing over required reading; a cat rustles in the bushes; a young couple huddles on a bench by the murmuring fountain…but you’re headed up the sidewalk, onto the wide porch, and through the front door. Just in time – quick, grab a seat…”

Volume Two, expected in the fall of 2011, will include conversations with Brad Watson, Nicole Cooley, Jim Shepard, Heather McHugh, Eleanor Wilner and Reif Larsen.

Since the conversations truly are back-and-forth exchanges between writer and readers, they are informal and easy to read.

Here is a sampling of what some of the authors had to say in Volume One.

Harold Schechter, author of “The Devil’s Gentleman: Privilege, Poison, and the Trial That Ushered in the Twentieth Century”:

Q: Do you think you’ll write anything about current crime?

A: Well, I’ve done these encyclopedic books like “The to Z Encyclopedia of True Crime and “The Serial Killer Files” and those include contemporary stuff. But I’m not really interested in dealing with victims or, especially, actual criminals. I sometimes get fan letters from people in prison, and there was a time when I would answer them, but then I discovered that’s often not a great relationship to establish. I’m a 19th century Americanist. My background is as a literary scholar. That’s what I teach. That’s what I did my dissertation on. I love doing the research into these older crimes – the one that I’m hoping to do next happened in the 1870s. And I like spending time in the library. That’s why I became a college professor.”

Francine Prose, author of “Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife”:

Q: What is your reaction when people see things in our fiction that you neither intended nor even thought?

A: Well, it’s in a mirror, you know. I mean, if you’re writing, it’s a mirror. People see themselves or they see their own problems. Unless it’s insulting in some way, which it hardly ever is, that’s fine with me. One of the things that I love is going into high schools. Now that I’ve started writing so called YA novels, I go into high schools, and that’s what they’ve read, and it’s not that much fun. I mean, it is still fun. But what’s really fun is going to high schools when they’ve read a short story. I can’t tell you how many times they’ve said, “Do you know that you have stars in the first sentence and stars in the last sentence?” And I go, “No.” They have these fresh open minds with all these brain cells, so they can pick it up.

R. Dwayne Betts, a poet and the author of the memoir “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison”:

Q: “When did you actually think about sitting down and starting to write this memoir? How long after you left (prison)?

A: I always wanted to be a poet and a professor, and I’ve been teaching poetry since I’ve been out of prison. For free, for $200, for fifty cents, for lunch, and I was teaching in prison, too. I always wanted to be a teacher, a professor. And I wanted to write a memoir just because I didn’t like a lot of prison memoirs that were written. But I wasn’t sure if I was emotionally ready, and I always had a lot of stuff going on: family, school, work.

(After being interviewed by a reporter, and realizing that the reporter was going to write about his whole life, and not just the book club, Young Men Read, that he started after prison, he signed a contract with Penguin in
August 2007.)

The reason I was able to write it, I think, is that every story I had been telling up to that point, every letter I had written up to that point, even every book I read, I did with the idea of trying to understand my own situation.

…I wanted to write a book that engaged with those questions and prompted the kind of conversation that might save a life, as opposed to writing a book in which it was like: before prison, prison, hero. So that’s the back-story. I think it’s a miracle, too, because I don’t think stuff like that usually happens.

(Betts was an honors student in high school, and at age 16, he took part in a carjacking, was tried as an adult, and spent nine years in jail. He graduated from the University of Maryland.)

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