For the third spring, Elise Blackwell will lead Columbia’s reading community through a five-week contemporary literature course in the form of The Open Book series of visiting authors, sponsored by the University of South Carolina’s College of Arts & Sciences.
This year’s lineup features Yiyun Li, David Mitchell, Jennifer Egan, Charles Johnson, and Martin Amis. The mix of well-known and less-well-known will surprise none of the hundreds of people who have attended in years past, but it is the stellar names — the previous two years included Ian McEwan, Marilyn Robinson, John Banville, Colum McCann, and Nicole Krause — that give the series added oomph.
There is, Blackwell said, “a tremendous appetite in Columbia for literary events,” something that The Open Book is designed to both satisfy and stimulate.
Blackwell has her own writing chops. Along with being an associate professor of English and director of USC’s MFA in Creative Writing program, she is an author whose fifth novel, “The Lower Quarter,” is due for publication next year. Her husband is David Bajo, an assistant professor of English at USC; his third novel, “Mercy 6,” will be published in September.
Sometimes, it’s the connections Blackwell has made as one of their own that enables her to induce far-off writers to hazard the hopscotching of airplanes that can be necessary to land in Columbia. “There are direct flights from LaGuardia, which helps,” she said. “I think they’re also attracted to the town-and-gown aspects — they meet with our MFA students as well as the reading public. I think, too, that the writers really like the idea behind this series — of coming in and talking to a large group of people who’ve already read and thought about their work. It leads to a higher quality Q&A session.”
When deciding which authors to invite, “one of our criteria is literary diversity,” she said. “We want something for everyone — if someone doesn’t like one book, maybe they’ll love the next. We also take into account name recognition, which helps draw an audience. But having unknowns mixed in with famous writers helps people discover writers they might otherwise not know about.”
Do you have to read the books? Not really. “It’s not a traditional reading series,” Blackwell said. “I think people who read the books get more out of it, but the authors know that not everyone in the room will have read the book. Often the author, as part of the talk, will discuss the process of writing the book and read short excerpts. There’s plenty there for people who haven’t read the book and just want to hear the author.”
The Open Book begins on Monday, March 17, with Blackwell’s talk on Li’s “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” followed by Li’s presentation on March 19. Blackwell also will give the year’s concluding talk, on Amis’s “Time’s Arrow” on April 14. In between, her colleagues Debra Rae Cohen will discuss Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” (March 24), David Cowart will discuss Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad” (March 31), and Qiana Whitted will discuss Johnson’s “Middle Passage” (April 7), and the author of each work will appear on Wednesday of the same week.
All events take place in the program room at USC’s Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library and begin at 6:00 p.m. There is no admission charge, but seating is limited. For more information, visit The Open Book website at artsandsciences.sc.edu/theopenbook/welcome.