British novelists Martin Amis and David Mitchell are among the leading lights of the University of South Carolina’s 2014 Open Book series, which begins on Monday, March 17.
The five-week series, which brings well-known writers to the campus for in-depth discussion of one of their major works, will be held at 6 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday in the program room of the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library on the USC campus. Both events are open to the public.
Each Monday during the series, USC Master of Fine Arts Director Elise Blackwell, or another English professor, will talk about the week’s book. Blackwell describes the format as “a cross between a lecture and a book club discussion.”
Each Wednesday, the author will be on hand to address the group, which generally involves readings and questions from the audience.
This year’s roster of books and authors include:
Yiyun Li, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
March 17 and March 19
This Chinese-American writer made a stunning debut with A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, her 2005 collection of short stories about the generational divide between parents and children, both inside and outside of China.
“She got a lot of attention young,” says Blackwell, citing Li’s placement on the Best Young American Novelists under 35 and The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 lists. Li also received the coveted MacArthur Foundation Award.
Blackwell, who will give the Monday lecture, describes Li as “a beautiful writer with a deep insight into human relationships.”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
March 24 and March 26
Mitchell’s hyper-complex novel is like no other: a mega, meta-fiction composed of connected stories set in a variety of eras, from the 19th century to the far future, all dealing with the theme of slavery.
“Cloud Atlas is a big book,” Blackwell says. “It’s experimental, and I’m interested to see what the audience will think of it. I’m really hoping that they don’t go see the movie before they read the book.”
Debra Rae Cohen will lead the Monday lecture.
Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad
March 31 and April 2
Egan is a popular novelist who has long had a loyal fan base, which increased when A Visit From the Goon Squad garnered a Pulitzer Prize in 2011.
“The audience is really gong to enjoy her as a speaker as well as a writer,” Blackwell says. “Several of the MFA students are particularly excited about her visit.”
David Cowart will give the Monday lecture.
Charles Johnson, Middle Passage
April 7 and April 9
Ever since winning the 1990 National Book Award, Johnson’s novel about the slave trade has been accorded classic status, which is partly why it was chosen this year.
“Sometimes we do newer books,” Blackwell says, “but I thought it would be fun to talk about a book that really has staying power.”
Qiana Whitted will give the Monday lecture.
Martin Amis, Time’s Arrow
April 14 and April 16
Amis has been one of England’s leading writers and public intellectuals for decades, due as much to his funny and often violent novels, such as Money: A Suicide Note and London Fields, as to his fierce literary criticism, public friendships with the late Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie, and equally public spats with writers Julian Barnes and Terry Eagleton.
“The list of people who have known and fallen out with Amis is long and distinguished,” said a writer in the U.K. Independent in 2010.
Blackwell decided to invite Amis after hearing him at the National Book Award ceremony a few years ago, where he introduced one of his longtime heroes, the crime novelist Elmore Leonard.
“I was absolutely taken away by how witty and charming he is,” says Blackwell, who will lead the Monday lecture. Also, “It’s interesting to talk about Time’s Arrow, because he uses a structural technique that’s risky but he makes work, which is that the book is told in reverse chronological order.”
Blackwell says several of the authors she has hosted in the past really take to South Carolina, like Irish novelist Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin). After finishing his talk, he joined students at a Five Points bar, where they ended the night singing Irish songs.
Also, South Carolina is not immune to literary groupies. Blackwell recalls taking Atonement author Ian McEwan to Cellar on Greene, where he was approached by a couple of flirtatious fans — who tried to find out from Blackwell’s husband (novelist David Bajo) where McEwan was staying.
Whatever the reason — literary popularity or devotion to a particular novel — the Open Book series played to typically full audiences last year. Blackwell says even more people have registered to attend this year.
“Some people come out to hear one particular author that they like,” she says, “and others are committed and really take it as a public course.”
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