This past week, Baruch College’s Sidney Harman Writer-In-Residence program celebrated another year of their hallowed institution. The semi-annual “Conversation With” series, hosted by program director Rosalyn Bernstein, featured this semester’s Writer-In-Residence, the renowned Katherine Vaz.
Gathered within the Asriel and Marie Rackow Conference Room in the Newman Library, a diverse set of faculty as well as many students from Baruch witnessed the author in action.
Known for her critically acclaimed novels, Saudade and Mariana, as well as the short stories contained in her collections, Fado & Other Stories and Our Lady of the Artichokes, Vaz brought her expertise and passion for writing to the many guests who were in attendance by reading various excerpts from her unfinished novel, Below The Salt.
With a tinge of magical realism imbuing the passages that dealt with love and war, Vaz’s reading succeeded in conveying the emotions found deep within the work.
Her audience filled the conference room, with some audience members standing just outside the main entryway to listen to her readings.
“I love her language; it has a serene quality,” said Marlon Altoé, one of the many attendees as well as a student in Vaz’s Harman Writing Course focusing on short fiction. “And [her] poetic imagery that relates events really well and allows you to go on a journey, if you allow yourself to experience the feeling.”
The diversity and the sheer number of guests present at the event spoke volumes about the quality of the material Vaz presented and showed the reach of her writing.
One couldn’t scan the audience without noticing Elizabeth Strout, celebrated author and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009. She was clearly reveling in the details of Katherine Vaz’s reading.
There was a deep respect and appreciation of the work, evident in the joy Strout experienced while listening.
She also took the time out to recognize the venue as well.
“She did a fabulous job,” recounted Strout, “and, I have to say, the very idea of this event, where one is able to attend a reading in this sort of environment, as opposed to a reading in a bookstore, where it can be very commercial, celebrates the material itself and is simply great.”
As much as this event was a celebration of the writer’s written material, it also served as an avenue to pick the author’s brain, in an effort to unearth what ticks between the pages of manuscript she composed.
The evening was structured so that after the reading, guests had the opportunity to ask questions to and receive answers from the scribe herself.
One guest seeking to better her own writing asked about Vaz’s process, how she could even write the way she did, and what it took to approach an idea and, subsequently, tackle it.
Vaz replied with an analogy that many would understand firsthand.
“I know that I’ve always been jealous of those that could sing, you know, because they just could. I guess that’s how I write,” related Vaz. “The stories are somewhere in here and they just come out, making it almost a song in me that just comes out the same way it just does for those with that natural tendency towards it.”
Another attendee of the reading asked about the process of writing a novel in general. In response, Vaz offered another illustrative gem of insight.
“Like Thomas Wolfe once said, ‘Revising is sort of like putting a corset on an elephant,’” she said, garnering some laughs. “You have to remember that writing is not about getting it right the first time; it is a long process which takes time, takes you forgetting about the material and coming back to it, takes you figuring out the heart of the material.”
Gracious and ever thankful, Vaz hobnobbed after the event with the many close friends and appreciative students who stood until the very end to have a book autographed or to merely share a few words.
Her bright red and flowered heels could be seen scurrying around as she made sure all were spoken to.
She displayed a genuine care for her readers and students similar to that felt within her passages, from a novel eight years in the making.
“It was my first time sharing a lot of this work, and I’m honestly very happy to be here,” she said. “It was a warm room, and it was easy to read for everyone because everyone was so welcoming.”
“You did wonderful dear, absolutely wonderful,” beamed Strout to Vaz as the room began to empty. “Everyone in the room was so attentive! You did great.”
With a wry smile on her face, Vaz declared, “Well, it was eventually standing room only. That’s not so bad, is it?”