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PODCAST: "Mentors, Muses & Monsters" Panel [MP3]



From the looks of things, a lot of you folks intend to make 2010 the Year of More Writing. Need a little inspiration to help you battle the blank page? Well, we can't help you with that one -- but maybe these local authors can, as they reveal their thoughts on the writing process, and give us a glimpse of the forces that shaped their work. (For you impatient, just-get-to-the-audio-already types, scroll down to the end of the post for an MP3 link.)

Novelist, journalist and writing instructor Elizabeth Benedict should probably include "Internet search engines" in the list of things that have been formative to her writing career. The widely praised author of the 2006 novel The Practice of Deceit, who at one point was labeled the "Sex Priestess of the Ivy League" by the New York Observer, once Googled the word "sex" and cataloged her findings in an essay called "What I Learned About Sex on the Internet." More recently, she searched Amazon.com on a whim to see if there had been any books published about writers and their mentors. There hadn't been.

And so Benedict ran with the results of her Amazon search and seized the opportunity snatch up one of the increasingly few untapped literary concepts remaining, enlisting a group of 30 writers to compile an anthology of essays about the people, books and life experiences that had inspired them. What she found was that writers from Joyce Carol Oates to Denis Johnson to Jonathan Safran Foer were overjoyed at being given the opportunity to write about (surprise!) their own writing and what had influenced it. A hop and a skip forward, cue the October 2009 publication of Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives.

Back in November, Benedict hosted six of the 30 writers featured in the anthology to speak at the Brattle Theatre for a mega-meta orgy of bookwormy navel-gazing. Here's what each panelist had to say about the heroes and helpmates who indelibly impacted their writing careers.

Novelist and Grub Street artistic director Christopher Castellani (The Saint of Lost Things) told the crowd of his experience at Middlebury College's Bread Loaf Writers Conference, where he watched one of his classmates become teary-eyed as Charles Baxter read, by heart, a passage from The Feast of Love.

2009 PEN New England Award winning novelist Margot Livesey said that she channels the enthusiasms of her late adoptive father (an English teacher at a Scottish school for boys), who inspired Livesey to draw inspiration from books themselves. "Who knows if the pages I'm working on now will see the light of day?" she asked herself. "When ... I'm at a loss to frame an idea or make a connection, I follow [my father's] example. I plump the pillows, and I turn to my library."

For National Book Award finalist Jim Shepard, it was postmodern American novelist John Hawkes who made a monumental impression as his English professor at Brown. Shepard, who now teaches at Williams College, relayed the the familiar tale of a best-selling Ivy League English teacher paving the way for his student to evolve into another best-selling author and English teacher. The cyle continues.

The story was similar for novelist and essayist Jay Cantor, who was taught by Bernard Malamud during his years at Harvard. "I still thought that I should be a doctor, as my father wanted, although I knew beyond doubt that I wanted to be a writer," he said. "For a good Jewish boy like myself, 'should' was the glue of the personality. And I'm not sure how this story would have gone on if Bernard Malamud hadn't come to Harvard for two years to teach a writing class." Today, the Cambridge-based Cantor is a winner of the MacArthur Prize Fellowship and oversees creative writing at Tufts.

Lincoln-born, National Book Award-winning novelist Julia Glass turned to her experience with cancer during the publication of her first novel, and the overwhelming and unanticipated support she had received from her book editor. "My book's publication date ... was the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel," she said. Glass recalled having been shocked when a journalist mentioned her bout with cancer in an interview, saying he had Googled her, and immediately turning to her editor for advice. "If this [online] article makes people go to your readings, that's a good thing," her editor reassured her. "Don't you think that they'll be on your side? ... And if you cry, you'll sell 10 more books."

DOWNLOAD: "Mentors, Muses, & Monsters" [MP3]

Hear Margot Livesey and Julia Glass in conversation this Tuesday, January 5, at the Brookline Booksmith.

Recorded live at the Brattle Theatre, courtesy of the Harvard Book Store, on November 13, 2009. To subscribe to this podcast, paste this RSS feed into your podcatcher or feed-reader of choice, or bookmark http://thephoenix.com/podcast.

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