In the days and weeks following the 2020 presidential election, writer and Quogue resident Roger Rosenblatt began to feel a distinct sense of unease.
“When Biden and Harris won and Trump started his malevolent mischief — around November 10 or 11, a week after the election when all the results were in — the news went to riots in various cities where Trump-inspired thugs were fighting those who were celebrating,” Rosenblatt recalled. “The visual impact from that was severe.”
His was a common reaction, and one that only grew worse during the subsequent interregnum — the two months between the election and the date on which President Joseph Biden officially took office. Normally, it’s a period of calm, transition and celebration (for the victor’s camp, at least). This time around, it was anything but. The visual impact that first disturbed Rosenblatt in November culminated in all out mayhem that gripped Washington, D.C., on January 6, when supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in a misguided effort to overturn the presidential election.
“I went through civil rights and Vietnam War demonstrations and they were nothing like this. Those issues were genuinely important,” said Rosenblatt. “Given the chasm Trump and his awakened followers have carved in the last four years, I thought, is there something our tribe can do to ameliorate the situation?”
Rosenblatt’s tribe, of course, are his fellow writers — those creators of poetry and prose who have a distinct talent for using their words to put life into perspective, particularly during times of trouble.
And these are definitely troubled times. So Rosenblatt, who teaches in the Stony Brook Southampton MFA in Creative Writing program, decided to put out a call to arms — or in this case, quills — with the suggestion that he and his writerly compatriots create a literary venue in order to share their works, ideas and compassion with a wider audience on a regular basis in order to deal with recent traumas and help heal the nation.
“And I think it is a trauma. I wasn’t aware of this as a prime motive,” notes Rosenblatt. “I wrote an invitation letter to half a dozen writers to test the waters. What we do is not immediately active, but there’s an underlying belief that people require one another and need to understand each other. I asked them, ‘If we gave readings with that in mind, would it be a worthwhile thing?’”
Francine Prose, Billy Collins and Russell Banks, among others, all responded to Rosenblatt’s question with a resounding, “Yes.”
“They said, ‘Let’s get out of this hibernation and see if we can do some good,” said Rosenblatt.
The result is “Write America,” a new author series spearheaded by Rosenblatt that, in coming months, will feature award-winning, nationally-renowned authors, as well as new and emerging writers, sharing readings and conversation about how books and art can bridge the deep divisions in this country.
Readings and discussions between two or three writers will be offered every Monday at 7 p.m. The series launched February 1, with a conversation between former United States poet laureates Rita Dove and Billy Collins. Hosted by Book Revue, an independent bookstore in Huntington Village, conversations are streamed on the store’s CrowdCast channel. “Write America” will run through September, if not longer, and other writers slated to participate in the weeks ahead include Major Jackson, Alice McDermott, Garry Trudeau, Alan Alda, Amy Hempel, Natalie Diaz, Paul Auster and many others.
“I had an inspiration and took it to the Huntington Book Revue,” said Rosenblatt. “It’s such a good store and a couple weeks before the election, I had my virtual roast for my birthday at the store. I went to Loren Limongelli, the publicist who runs the programs there, and said, ‘Would this be of interest? You’d be our home and we’d give you the distinction of representing some great writers, and you’d give us everything — including the platform.’”
“Within a couple days, she said ‘Yes.’”
While Book Revue, like many bookstores, has shifted to online events during COVID-19, Limongelli notes that “Write America” is unlike anything the store has offered in the past.
“Most of our events have been one and done, with an author promoting a new book,” she explained. “This is different, because it runs through September and a lot of the authors are reading selections from books that have yet to be published, so we’re doing some preorders.”
Limongelli adds that many of the authors appearing in the series are personal friends of Rosenblatt, and several of them are new to her.
“Roger’s been in the industry for a long time and through that, has made connections with writers from all walks of life, including students and up-and-coming writers,” said Limongelli. “We wanted to get a diverse group of writers to come together and use their works to remind people we’re all human and everyone has to start listening to each other.
“There are National Book Award finalists and Pulitzer Prize winners,” she added. “This was too great of an idea to pass up and a great opportunity to bring all these big names under one virtual roof, so to speak.”
Rosenblatt explained that each hour-long program will begin with the guests reading from their works for 15 minutes or so, followed by the authors discussing each other’s writings, and then questions from the audience. “Write America” will be offered through Book Revue’s CrowdCast platform, which is similar to Zoom, but as Limongelli explains, is advantageous because it makes it easier for retailers to sell books to viewers.
“There’s a ‘call to action’ button where people can purchase signed copies of the speaker’s books,” Limongelli said. “There’s also an ‘ask a question’ feature. In Zoom, audience questions can get lost, so this is a way to submit a question directly to the authors in a more user-friendly way.”
Rosenblatt notes that, in general, writers are not typically focused on affecting immediate societal change through their work, and instead, expect that their words will percolate into the psyche over years. But, he notes, the urgency of these times has changed that model and he hopes this program will elevate the discussion.
“I wanted to be explicit that we are here. Within a short time, I had 60 writers who wanted to take part,” he said. “I’m pleased that a third of the members are writers of color, which was deliberate, and they all responded enthusiastically.”
Though Rosenblatt is the instigator and creative soul behind “Write America,” he is quick to point out that he will not be dictating the topics or material the writers will share, nor what they will discuss after their readings. After all, writers have a way of forging their own path.
“I know my fellow writers. If I tell them what to think, they’ll go in the other direction,” he said. “If I were to ask Russell Banks to address the subject of justice, he will say, ‘I don’t write about that.’ But he does — fair play among unequals, protection of the weak and doing the right thing is what his fiction is about.
“Also, in Paul Muldoon’s poetry, you’ll see everything is undergirded by a sense of right. Dickens and Shakespeare did the same thing, even Jane Austen — no one has written without the assumption this won’t improve the world,” he added. “Writing brings people together because of human commonalities. I hope the discussions touch on that.”
And if, perchance, some rabble rousers happen to join in on the sessions with a contrary view to the facts at hand? Rosenblatt is certain that every writer in the group will be very capable of handling the situation.
“Literature has not been in the forefront of our minds lately,” he said. “Perhaps the nice thing will be, this is where our hearts and minds are — not on streets with liars and thugs.
“We’re looking toward equality and away from the violence, lying, cheating and all the things Trump represented,” he added. “The beauty of art is how we can do this stuff quietly — let the words carry it.
“This is what we stand for.”
“Write America” Schedule:
February 8: Francine Prose and Paul Muldoon
February 15: Russell Banks, Major Jackson and Alice McDermott
February 22: Patricia Marx and Garry Trudeau
March 1: Alan Bergman and Adam Gopnik
March 8: Alan Alda and Arlene Alda
March 15: Linda Pastan, Paul Harding and Juan Felipe Hererra
March 22: Anne Fadiman and George Howe Colt
March 29: Nick Flynn and Kirsten Valdez Quade
April 5: Kurt Andersen and Amy Hempel
April 12: Julie Sheehan and Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones
April 19: Natalie Diaz and Daniel Halpern
April 26: Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt and David Remnick
May 3: Carlos Fonseca and Rose Styron
May 10: Lloyd Schwartz and Priya Jain
May 17: Patricia McCormick and Michelle Whittaker
May 24: Grace Schulman and Lance Morrow
May 31: Molly Gaudry and Bruce Weber
All programs are Mondays at 7 p.m. on Book Revue’s Crowdcast channel. All events are free, but registration is required at bookrevue.com/write-america-series. More events will be announced in the months to come.