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Authors discuss their work and inspire

In an old town in northern Florida, a woman is walking at night. It’s raw weather and she walks fast, angry and alone. In the dark, her neighborhood looks half marvelous and half brutal—bird of paradise flowers and black swans and old Victorian houses sagging with rot. One live oak spreads over half an acre; her children used to pick ferns from the branches to tuck into her hair.

She sets off into Lauren Groff’s Florida, a book of stories that centers around her. On April 26, Groff comes to the Mount for a conversation with Heidi Pitlor, novelist and editor of The Best American Short Stories, opening a spring and summer of writers.

National and international writers are coming to the Berkshires, and not only to Edith Wharton’s house. At museums and colleges, they will share fiction and nonfiction, poetry and thrillers—and questions that have shaped the last century and will shape the next.

Groff keeps a balance of dark and beautiful in a town where the the air smells of campfires when old turpentine pine forests around the edge catch fire. Her writing holds a sense of environmental foreboding, Pitlor says, and she wonders, “what does she think the future looks like?”

On a cold day in New England, Charles Mann held his newborn daughter and asked the same question. As he writes in his newest book, when his daughter is his age, more than 10 billion people will be walking the earth. He comes to Williams College on April 24 to talk about The Wizard and the Prophet. A correspondent for The Atlantic, Science and Wired, Mann has won national acclaim for books including 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus.

Rethinking the past, he is also looking ahead. In his new work, two men in the 1950s saw a crisis coming in this century: They saw people hitting the planet’s limits in food, water and energy, and they tried to reshape the way people relate to the natural world. And they adamantly disagreed with each other.

William Vogt and Norman Borlaug met only once, according to Mann. Vogt created the international environmental movement; Borlaug saved millions of people from starvation. And Mann believes the conversation they began is central today.

Global forces in the natural world, technology and politics are shaping fiction today as well as nonfiction, Pitlor says. On May 15, national book award finalist Salvatore Scibona will come to Bennington College to talk about his newest novel, The Volunteer, crossing four generations from a U.S. marine in the Vietnam war to a child abandoned in an international airport.

And the Mount looks ahead from World War II with historian Andrew Nagorski on May 30 and novelist H.G. Adler on June 12. Adler survived the Langenstein camp outside Buchenwald. Journalist and author James Marcus and Berkshire poet Peter Filkins, who translates Adler’s novels from the German, will talk about Adler’s life. From his childhood in the intellectual center of Franz Kafka’s Prague, he survived the greatest chaos of the 20th century, and he willed himself to record it.

Internationally acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni has been writing blunt history into her poetry since the 1960s, warm and angry and sad. She has honored people who changed history and people history has forgotten—sometimes the same people. She will give the keynote address at MCLA’s first conference on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion on June 11 to 14. She has recently released her newest book, A Good Cry, honest and long-sighted in its voice—a collection that can blend the courage of the family who raised her, tributes to Ruby Dee and Maya Angelou, turning points in time and the joy of home-made bread.

Heidi Pitlor

Pitlor admires risk-taking and depth in language and ideas. “Some of the best writing out there is breaking barriers in some ways,” she says. “There’s a lot going on and a lot of competition for readers’ attention. I can’t imagine a noisier time, between tech and the news. We need to be entertaining, and we need to be going deeper, stranger.” What used to be speculative fiction isn’t that speculative anymore, she says—ideas on artificial intelligence, climate science and more are becoming real.

She will talk with Groff in the next True Conversations at the Mount, one in a series with women fiction writers. They will discuss what it means to write fiction today, Pitlor says, and explore the kind of questions women writers rarely get asked in interviews. A quote from Groff in the Harvard Gazette inspired Pitlor to begin the series.

“She was asked how she negotiates work and family, and she said, ‘I know that this is a question important to many people, but until I see a male writer asked this question I’m going to decline to answer it.’

“You get asked so many questions like this — and not about the work.”

Pitlor came to the Mount to walk through Wharton’s rooms as she researched her own latest novel, which is coming out next year. When Wharton lived here, she was becoming a writer and freeing herself from her marriage. Pitlor imagined her expression if an interviewer had asked her how she negotiated work and family.

Pitlor will return by late summer for the next conversation in the series, and she has been looking forward to talking with Groff from the beginning. She feels strength in Groff’s courage and clear eye. “Every word is awake. Every line is alive.”

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