21st-century writers talk at the Mount in Lenox


LENOX -- In her 40s, Edith Wharton discovered the intoxication of conversation. She and her friends would read Walt Whitman's poetry aloud when it was newly printed. She would read her own writing and ask what they thought.

But tonight, in that strong current of writing and talk, a college professor with two small boys is burying a seagull on Sanibal Island. A wife in a car in the dark says, "Why don't you tell me when you hurt?" A novelist remembers the father who abandoned him, and fights in the projects.

This month, four contemporary writers -- Andre Dubus III, Joanna Rakoff, Scott Stossel and Jennifer Finney Boylan -- will come to the Mount on four summer evenings, beginning Friday.

Kate Bolick, who has invited them to this set of public talks, imagines how it would have felt if Wharton asked them to dinner.

Boylan writes with a confidence and humor that reminds Bolick of Wharton.

"You feel as though she's talking right at you," Bolick said.

"Scott Stossel is like a Henry James. He's the kind of man she loved to hang out with. She was close to her male friends," intellectually intimate.

Dubus, writing about love, infidelity, class, has touched many of the themes in his novels that Wharton touched in hers, though he comes from the opposite end of the social spectrum, Bolick said. And Rakoff has an omniscient, tightly crafted style in her writing, shaped by writers like Wharton.

"[Rakoff] said it didn't come naturally to write memoir," Bolick said. "She's private in a way I think of Edith as being."

In January 2014, Bolick spent her days at the Mount, sitting with her laptop in different rooms -- the bedroom where Wharton composed her drafts every morning, the library where she wrote haiku by the dying fire at night. Bolick spent quiet days looking out at the frozen shore of Stockbridge Bowl, writing in Wharton's house, and talking with the people who have preserved it.

Working on a book is a solitary endeavor, she said.

She is also writing about a solitary endeavor -- in the wake of her widely read Atlantic article, "All the Single Ladies," she is writing about what it means to be a single woman in the U.S. today, and what it has meant in the past 150-odd years, through her own life and the lives of six women who have moved her.

Wharton is one of them.

So she was elated when the Mount's executive director, Susan Wissler, asked her last winter to work with them on a new series of talks with contemporary writers.

"There's something exciting, charged about talking about ideas on stage in real time," she said.

To share conversation with articulate, intelligent people, and to feel the roomful of people around you taking it in -- it's a good risk, Bolick said. It has a lifting energy.

Bolick called the series "Touchstones," after one of Wharton's earliest books. And she chose the writers and asked them to come talk with her about turning points in their lives as writers.

Though at least three of the four have written fiction, Bolick sees them linked by memoir -- all have recently written stories from their lives.

As she tells it, they also follow the curve of her own life.

Dubus comes from her hometown, Newburyport. She has never met him, but she grew up knowing about him, and he became a model for her. She looks forward to talking with him tomorrow night.

Dubus is best known as a fiction writer and author of novels like "A House of Sand and Fog."

In his recent memoir, "Townie," he tells the story of his childhood and growing up in Massachusetts mill towns between his hard-working single mother and his marine professor father, between schoolyard violence and education.

He chose weight-lifting and fighting as markers of manhood, ways to connect with his father and to protect himself, Bolick said. And yet he became a very compassionate man.

"His father was a macho novelist," she said. "[His father] drank. [His father] had no problem with making himself the center of the universe. It's amazing how [the son] became a writer even so."

Last year, she said, she gave a keynote speech at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., where Dubus speaks every year to the first-year class.

"They read the book, and he speaks," Bolick said, "and it's incredible to watch young boys line up to shake his hand. Some of them are crying. He speaks about the father-son experience in a way they've never heard before."

From coastal Massachusetts, Bolick went to Maine, to Colby College, where Boylan taught creative writing.

"I didn't have him as a professor, but he was the young, funny professor everyone had a crush on," Bolick said.

So she knew of his transition to become Jennifer Finney Boylan, and Bolick admires her as a writer, an advocate and an activist.

Boylan has written both fiction and memoir, and her most recent book, "Stuck in the Middle with You," centers on her wife and sons with love.

Stossel is Bolick's editor at The Atlantic, a mentor to her, a journalist and writer of creative nonfiction, as well as a recent memoir about his experiences with anxiety.

When Bolick moved to New York City in 2000, she met Rakoff as they were both starting out as young writers. Rakoff, author of a novel set in New York in the 1990s, has recently published a memoir of her own time in the city.

Now, coming up from New York, Bolick has found the Mount "an antidote to the city -- a slower, quieter, more thoughtful place" -- and invited the world to share it with her.

If you go...

What: ‘Touchstones at the Mount' series

When: 6 to 7:15 p.m., Fridays through Aug. 29

Where: The Mount, 2 Plunkett Street, Lenox

Admission: $18 for the general public, $15 for Mount members

Information: www.edithwharton.org


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