Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2005

Features:

Carmen Perez Dickson ´78
Principal, Roosevelt School, Bridgeport, Conn.

Scott Lowell ´87
Actor, Showtime´s "Queer As Folk"

Melkon Khosrovian ´91
Philosophy major finds life´s flavor in a new company



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Finding the Right Fit

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New voices, new fiction

New voices, new fiction
From left: Ann Napolitano ´94, Martha Witt ´90 and William Lychack ´88

"I don´t know if fiction matters in the real nuts and bolts world, but it is important for me to lavish love on my pages."
- William Lychack ´88

by Mary Howard


Getting published is never easy. And getting a first novel published is perhaps the most difficult publishing trick of all. But this summer, three Connecticut College graduates had their first literary novels published to excellent reviews: William Lychack ’88, author of The Wasp Eater (Houghton Mifflin); Ann Napolitano ’94, author of Within Arm’s Reach (Crown Publishing); and Martha Witt ’90, author of Broken as Things Are (Henry Holt and Company). During Fall Weekend in October, all three shared their experiences as writers and their thoughts on fiction in a panel discussion, “Why Does Fiction Matter?”

Though they have had different paths to success, these three young authors all credit Blanche Boyd, Roman and Tatiana Weller Professor of English and writer-in-residence, for giving them direction and inspiration. “Blanche is a permission giver,” says Lychack. “She gave us our voices.”

“I remember,” says Witt, “when I first took her class, and I kept abandoning stories. Blanche told me, ‘Just stick with one, even if you don’t think it’s going to work out.’ I took her advice, and when I did finish a story, I felt so vindicated.’”

Napolitano admits that she lacked direction when she came to CC. “My head was a swirling mess!” she says. She knew she liked to write and read, and after signing up for Boyd’s short story class as a freshman, her future started to take form. “Blanche was so direct and forceful. So many things she said helped shape my opinions.” On being a writer, Napolitano remembers Boyd saying, “If you can do anything else, do that. But if you’re stuck with writing, you’ll have a hell of a time!”

William Lychack ’88

Writing has been a “hell of a time” for Bill Lychack ’88, a former speechwriter, ghostwriter, bartender, janitor and Mr. Softee Ice Cream man, who currently works as a judo instructor in New York City. His novel, The Wasp Eater, was many years in the making. “It was a book that I had to write; something I needed to do — 10 to 12 years of following one story to the center. I didn’t have a choice.”

The Wasp Eater tells the story of a 10-year-old boy who hopes to reunite his estranged parents. Set in a Connecticut mill town in the late 1970s, the story was inspired by the author’s childhood. His father, who left his family when Lychack was still a baby, died when his son was nine. In an essay about his inspiration for the novel, he writes, “I never really knew my father … how could I not live in the magic ifs of the story? What if my father didn’t want to leave us? What if he and I could have one last hurrah together? What if we could somehow recover something that was, ultimately, unrecoverable?”

Magic is a theme that comes up often when Lychack talks about his work. He speaks of “casting spells” for his readers, and more importantly, casting them for himself. “There is the ‘I will not get up until I finish this paragraph,’ spell,” he says with a laugh, admitting that he willed himself to sit in a room and “stay there until I had the book done.”

A philosophy major, Lychack signed up for Boyd’s creative nonfiction class as a freshman. His wife, Betsy Thielbar Lychack ’89, recalls how excited her then-boyfriend was to be taking the class. “He was so passionate about what he was doing. He’d come home with all these notes and quotes from Blanche.”

That passion, ignited in Boyd’s class, is still burning. When asked, during the panel, if fiction matters, Lychack replies, “I don’t know if fiction matters in the real nuts and bolts world, but it is important for me to lavish love on my pages.” But the author refuses to take himself too seriously. “I am just a dude trying to write books, making a living, plumbing my passions,” he says.

Lychack holds an MFA from the University of Michigan. Portions of his novel have appeared in Quarterly West, The Sun, TriQuarterly and Witness.

Ann Napolitano ’94

Ann Napolitano ’94 describes Blanche Boyd as a “massive hero figure. I was completely terrified by her and idolized her. She was so self-possessed, dropping her pearls of wisdom. She opened a world that I never knew existed.” Napolitano, who published Within Arm’s Reach in June, had never met a fiction writer before taking Boyd’s class. “When Blanche read Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’ in class, it split my brain in half.”

It was under Boyd’s tutelage that Napolitano realized she was a novelist and not a short story writer. “I could never finish a short story,” she explains. “My stories were long; the endings were always forced.”

Within Arm’s Reach, Napolitano’s first published novel (she calls her unpublished novels “exercises”), tells the story of three generations of an Irish-Catholic family shaken reluctantly into self-examination by an unexpected pregnancy.

Growing up in New Jersey in a large, Irish-Catholic family, Napolitano was a “natural spectator” as a child. “I always wanted to explore that kind of family — white, middle-class, Irish-Catholic,” she says. Her observations provided fodder for the back-story of the book. In her novel, she retells a family story about a grandfather who, in his grief, threw stillborn twins into the trash. She also uses her grandmother’s childhood memories of growing up in a large hotel. Despite these family references, she asserts that her work is fiction.

“As a fiction writer, I am creating a whole new world. I can show or do anything, and that is so exciting,” she says. Does she believe that fiction matters? “I believe it is very personal,” she says. “All kinds of art speaks to people in different ways.”

A self-described organized person, Napolitano realized in graduate school that it was important to apply her natural discipline to writing. “I realized if I wanted to be a writer, I had to do it … I had to write every day.” She admits that she can’t be between reading books or writing books. “I feel anxious and uneasy,” she says.

Before she began writing full time, Napolitano had an unusual day job: she was a personal assistant to pop star Gordon Sumner (better known as “Sting”) and his wife, actress Trudie Styler. The two are both very supportive of her writing. “Sting read the book and loved it,” she says.

Napolitano earned an MFA in fiction writing from New York University, where she studied under Dani Shapiro and Paule Marshall. She now lives in London.

Martha Witt ´90

Though her novel, Broken as Things Are is set in her hometown of Hillsborough, N.C., Martha Witt ’90 has a hard time answering the “autobiography” question. “A work of fiction creates its own kind of truth,” she says. “It doesn’t rely on fact.”

“We go about our daily lives in the world without too much care. Fiction exacts from us an attention to detail and to the particulars of our experience that deepen that experience. I think that art has a way of holding time still so we can examine life in a way that is otherwise very difficult.”

Broken as Things Are is a haunting and lyrical story of a dysfunctional relationship between siblings: 14-year-old Morgan Lee and her handsome but disturbed older brother, Ginx. Like Lychack, Witt spent a long time working on her book — 11 years. She admits that she cried when she learned that Holt had accepted it for publishing.

Though Witt “envies her life before writing,” admitting that her writer’s eye has ruined her ability to read for sheer enjoyment, she has an internal drive to write. “I get anxious when I am not writing.”

Though she published a short story as an undergraduate, when Witt started writing in Boyd’s class, her stories were often over-complicated and confusing. “I thought if my stories were simple, they would not be deep,” says Witt. She took Boyd’s advice to “just tell a story.” With Broken As Things Are, Witt has been praised for her “strong and beguiling” voice by author John Barth and compared to Harper Lee and Flannery O’Connor by E.L. Doctorow.

Witt has received grants from the New York Times Foundation and the Thomas J. Watson Foundation and has held residencies at both the Yaddo and Ragdale artist colonies. An Italian major at CC, who lists Dante’s Inferno as one of the most influential books she has ever read, she holds an M.A. in creative writing from Johns Hopkins and an M.F.A. in fiction writing from New York University, where she was a New York Times Fellow. She is currently a doctoral candidate in English education at Teachers College, Columbia U., and lives in New York City with her husband, daughter and son.

Once their toughest critic, Boyd has nothing but praise now for her three former students. “I am really moved by the level of art and beauty in these books,” she says. “There is nothing cheaper than talent. The distance between being talented and being good is the hardest inch you’ll ever cross … and these [novels] are good!”


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