Pillbox

Writers read diverse prose

Looking at the panel members at the “Pocketful of Prose” reading and discussion last Thursday in the Steinberg Auditorium, one immediately noticed the differences between the three writers sitting at the table.

Amina Gautier, a fiction writer and winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, sat at one end, looking polished and poised in a pencil dress. Kim Dana Kupperman, author of the award-winning essay collection I Just Lately Started Buying Wings, relaxed at the other end, swaddled in long, flowing layers. Between them sat Stewart O’Nan — prolific novelist, Pittsburgh resident, and moderator for the panel — wearing a worn-looking Pirates hat and chatting cheerily with audience members.

As it turned out, the writers and their works were as different from each other as their appearances would suggest, making for an interesting reading and an engaging panel discussion.

After associate professor of English Jane McCafferty briefly introduced the speakers, O’Nan began the evening by reading from The Night Country, in which two teenagers grapple with their lives after surviving a car crash that killed three of their friends. The novel, which O’Nan dedicated to Ray Bradbury, is narrated from the ghostly perspective of one of the dead friends; it’s fitting, then, that the writing style swirls dreamily as the narrator swoops through the suburban town and eventually makes his way back to the scene of the accident to recall it.

Kupperman followed by reading an essay called “Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone: A Letter to James Baldwin on the 25th Anniversary of His Passing.” The essay, which she recently wrote for submission to the Hunger Mountain literary journal, addresses everything from environmentalism to racism, from American imperialism to this month’s presidential debates. Although the essay is loosely tied together around a train ride she takes from New York to Pennsylvania, it mostly feels didactic and heavy-handed as it lists off the author’s opinions.

Gautier, who received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in four years at Stanford University and is now an associate professor at DePaul University, then read “Push,” a short story from her book At-Risk. In the story, a young girl at an overcrowded inner-city elementary school is forced by her teacher to reflect on the reasons why she picks on a fellow student. “Push” takes a narrow slice of time and uses it to give a lovely, lyrical glimpse into a young girl’s life.

Afterward, O’Nan led the panel discussion, during which the speakers delved into conversations on the short story format, the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction, and the ways that authors can play with genre conventions.

The writers’ differences worked to the discussion’s advantage: All of the writers were intelligent and well versed in literature, yet all had very different perspectives and opinions. The result was a lively and interesting conversation. O’Nan, in particular, made for a great moderator: Whenever Kupperman began to dominate the conversation, he would gently ease it back on track. Even though the conversation could have easily drifted off in an intellectually inaccessible direction, O’Nan’s down-to-earth approach kept the discussion engaging for the audience.

The conversation was interesting enough that an hour and a half easily flew by. The discussion could have continued on, but McCafferty regretfully announced that she would have to end the discussion, as it was getting late and there was pizza waiting in the Gladys Schmitt Creative Writing Center. The small audience clapped loudly for the panelists, and trundled up the stairs to wrap up an evening of great writing and great conversation.