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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 21, 2011

Going Out for the Festival of Writers
Poets, novelists, journalists to celebrate the written word

By Anne Hayden

RENSSELAERVILLE — The rugged beauty of the Helderbergs inspires writers.

Jean Craighead George, renowned for her novel My Side of the Mountain, will headline the second Festival of Writers in Rensselaerville, opening July 28.

Her Newbury Award-winning story, about a young boy who runs away from home and survives in the mountains, is based partly on the Rensselaerville Falls, and partly on the Outlet Falls at Thacher Park.

“We’re thrilled to have her, and I know she is thrilled to come,” said publicist Laurie Lynn Fischer of George, who is now in her 90s.

She will be a guest of honor at a staged reading of her work on July 30, and will also do an exclusive book-signing. A film adaptation of her novel will be screened on July 28 at Conkling Hall.

Morality and social justice

Two other festival authors — Helen Benedict, and her husband, Stephen O’Connor — have a second home near Rensselaerville.

“We do most of our writing up here, because it’s so quiet. It’s magical for writing,” said Benedict. Both professors at Columbia University, the couple is based in New York City.

Benedict said they purchased their mountain home over 10 years ago, and have never regretted it. 

“Of all the things wrong with this world, the one great thing is that it’s so beautiful. That’s important to me,” said O’Connor, noting that he and Benedict love to spend their time near Rensselaerville biking the roads, hiking, and swimming in the lakes. 

O’Connor is interested in morality, and the ambiguity of it.

“My stories are all about people who are trying to do the right thing, but aren’t able to do so for one reason or another,” he said. At the festival, he will be reading from his latest collection of short stories, Here Comes Another Lesson.

“The lesson that life keeps teaching us is that we don’t have a clue what’s going on,” O’Connor said. His non-fiction works include a portrait of talented but troubled children he taught in New York City, and the story of the origins of child welfare in America.

Benedict is interested in social justice.

“I traveled a lot, lived in many poor countries, and often felt like an outsider; I have a strong social-justice impulse,” she said.

At the festival, Benedict will share an excerpt from her sixth novel, Sand Queen, which is being released Aug. 2. The main character is a young woman from upstate New York, who goes to Iraq, where she works as a prison guard. She meets an Iraqi woman whose husband and father have been imprisoned, and the two have a dramatic effect on each other’s lives.

The idea for the novel came from research Benedict did for her non-fiction work, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq.

“I was following the war, and I started to meet the early veterans. The women told me right away about how badly they were treated by fellow soldiers,” said Benedict. She said she heard stories of sexual harassment and other unjust behavior.

“I thought, these women are making the same sacrifices as the men, and they aren’t getting the same acknowledgement,” Benedict said. She tends to write about people who are struggling with identity. She believes it is because she’s the daughter of anthropologists.

About more than money

“I think it’s extraordinary that such a small town is able to pull off such a high-profile, professional event,” said Fischer, the publicity director for the festival. The volunteers who put together the event began working on it last fall.

Seventeen different authors and artists will read, lecture, and display their work for members of the community. Proceeds of the event will benefit the Rensselaerville Public Library.  

Poet Howard Nelson, and poet and memoirist Nick Flynn, will provide writing workshops during the festival. Biographer Suzannah Lessard; novelists Roderick Townley and Mary Morris; poet Wyatt Townley; New York Times writer Mary Tannen; and journalist Timothy Cahill will read from their works.

As a finale, an author of 16 fiction and non-fiction books, Francine Prose, will offer a reading and a discussion about interpreting place and time in historical non-fiction. Prose has won numerous awards, including the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for her novel A Changed Man, a satire about radical politics. Her novel Blue Angel, a satire about sexual harassment on college campuses, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Fischer said people visiting Rensselaerville for the festival should be sure to visit the falls and hike the historic Huyck Preserve.

“Fifty-percent of the library budget depends on the event, but it’s not just about the money,” said Fisher. “It’s about providing free or low-cost educational programs to the community.”


Those who wish to attend the festival can find a schedule of events at www.rensselaervillelibrary.org.

Prices range from $10 for reading and discussions to $50 for workshops. Weekend packages can be purchased for anywhere from $60 to $75.

The festival will run from Thursday, July 28, to Sunday, July 31.

The events are held in the hamlet of Rensselaerville, which is located at the foot of Route 85 in the town of Rensselaerville.

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