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Jumping off the page: Aspen Winter Words kicks off

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
James KreigsmannErica Jong appears Tuesday at the Given Institute to open the Aspen Writers' Foundation's Winter Words series.
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ASPEN – The model of a writer as someone who toils in seclusion, leaving his favored nook only when necessary, and providing the world with nothing but his words on a page, is one that may endure to this day – but just barely. A writer who cares to get his work into readers’ hands has to face the fact that books don’t sell themselves, that a pile of papers between two covers by itself doesn’t necessarily inspire someone to pick it up and take it to bed. So, increasingly, writers have taken on the secondary role of quasi-entertainers, appearing in events that link them to readers. Provide a potential reader not only with a book, but also with a warm body – especially one that is engaging, humorous, insightful, and possessed of a mellifluous voice, and happens to be the writer of said book – and you’ve given someone a compelling reason to become a reader.The Aspen Writers’ Foundation opens its Winter Words series Tuesday, with Erica Jong giving a presentation at 5:30 p.m. at the Given Institute. The series continues through mid-March with five more events, and writers such as Jared Diamond, David Wroblewski and Tobias Wolff won’t be in attendance simply to give audiences a look at the faces behind the words. The writers are expected to engage with the audience, provide a look underneath the art of literature, and inspire listeners to crack a book.”The ultimate goal is to get books in people’s hands,” Lisa Consiglio, the executive director of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, said. “We want to bring someone in who makes an audience go, ‘Wow, that guy – or girl – is so inspirational and funny, I’m going to walk out of here with a book.'”Not every writer fills that job description. Consiglio declines to mention names for print, but notes that there are writers who are shy, or inexperienced in public speaking, or, more often, arrogant in demeanor. For the most part, however, the writers she has witnessed doing their thing in front of a crowd are not recluses, but are adept at revealing in person the qualities that would make a reader want to absorb his words. Candace Bushnell, who wrote the collection of columns “Sex in the City” as well as the novels “Lipstick Jungle” and “One Fifth Avenue,” was “hysterical, the perfect candidate to lighten things up,” said Consiglio, who has led the Writers’ Foundation since the fall of 2003. Colum McCann and the late Frank McCourt – both Irish-born, Consiglio notes – were gifted speakers. “With McCann,” Consiglio said, “you feel like you’re the only person in the room with him.” When Jeffrey Eugenides appeared last summer, Consiglio said, “I’d never been so mesmerized. It was like he cracked open his mind and you could see how it worked. Eerily so, like he was not of this planet.”Consiglio saves her grandest praise, however, for Anita Shreve, who returns to the Winter Words series on March 8. “I heard her and it made me want to read everything she’s ever written,” she said.In assembling the Winter Words series, which enters its 13th year Tuesday, it’s not enough to locate excellent writers. Board members and staff of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation read books, but also listen to interviews of authors on NPR and other outlets, searching for writers who have the ability to jump off the page.”We want someone who wants to be in front of an audience, participate in a Q&A, not just read and read and hang it up for the night and go along their own way,” Consiglio said. “We want people who are interested in their readers.”Having begun her writing career as a poet, Erica Jong said it was a necessity to bring her work to audiences. “For poetry, that was the only way to get attention,” said Jong, who joined the group Poets & Writers around the time of its founding, in 1970, and who did frequent readings in schools. “You could bring poetry to people in a country that didn’t care much about poetry.”Jong, whose latest book is the poetry collection “Love Comes First,” recognized that a talent for public speaking would be vital. She recorded her appearances and would study them afterwards to see what was working. She says that now, “after many, many years,” she is comfortable in front of a crowd. That has served her well. She notes that writers now have virtually no choice but to present themselves as well as their books. TV programs have little interest in promoting writers, even less than they had 20 years ago. “No one wants to interview a writer,” she said.Writers have different ways in which they can be a captivating presence at the podium. John Irving has demonstrated a rare ability as a dramatic reader of his own work. Ann Patchett, in speaking about the zeal she brings to recording books on tape – a task which many authors dread – hinted at the hard, grind-it-out ethos sometimes needed to create great literature. Jong says she is particularly good at giving Q&A, which allows her humor to emerge. She is cautious about doing too much reading. “There’s only a certain amount you can absorb, unless you know the work really well. Whereas with Q&A, you feel absorbed in it more,” she said.On occasion, writer’s events can make for social drama. Consiglio recalls appearances – again without mentioning names – that divided audiences along lines of politics, wealth and ethno-religious backgrounds. She has welcomed that exchange of ideas.”We don’t tell people what to say,” she said. “We research them. But this program is about freedom of speech. When they have the podium, it’s theirs.”As much as she appreciates a writer who is a good speaker, Consiglio said she doesn’t see personal appearances as the core part of the writer’s work. Historically there have been writers who embrace engaging with the public and those who do not. According to Jong, Dickens loved to do readings and was very good at it; Melville was his polar opposite.”I think a publicist would say, Absolutely, a hundred percent, that’s part of the job,” Consiglio said. “But I wouldn’t trade that for a great novel. There are people for who being on a stage is just sheer hell. Maybe they just flat-out don’t like to do it. They’re shy, and that’s OK. The power of the written word is not the same thing as great speaking.”For full Winter Words program details, go to aspenwriters.org.stewart@aspentimes.com


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