While she lived at the Mount, Edith Wharton discovered the power and honesty of writing novels, and through her novels, she made friends. The Mount may have been the first place where she felt fully herself. And here, on Saturday, writers will talk about finding home.
“It’s an amazing setting, first of all,” said Suketu Mehta, professor of journalism at NYU and acclaimed writer of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. “We will rely on all these good spirits to aid us in our discussions, and the topic is broad enough to let us say what is on our minds.”
From Friday night to Sunday afternoon, more than acclaimed 20 writers will gather for Berkshire Word fest at the Mount. Wordfest’s excitement runs deeper than most word festivals, said festival director Christine Triantos, because of the writers who have lived, worked and talked here in the past — because Edith Wharton and Henry James sat on the terrace on summer nights, reading Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” aloud. And in this festival, writers can to talk to each other.
Mehta, who now travels between Bombay and New York City, will join a panel with novelist Roxana Robinson, who lives in the house her grandparents built in West Cornwall, Conn. In a conversation called “From Insider to Informant,” with Adam Gopnik of The New yorker and Harold Augenbaum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, they will talk about how and why they write about the worlds they know.
“Everybody is an insider,” Robinson said. “Everyone knows about their own culture in a way they take for granted.”
As people experience the world, she said, they begin to learn how many ways people live, and how many assumptions they have made. She values both exploration and familiarity.
“You start off knowing your own culture in a way you will have to work to know others,” she said. “How they really say good morning. What they wear on their feet.”
Robinson’s culture is yankee, Puritan. She is fond of it, she said; she admires it, and she sees its weaknesses. Her novels often inhabit in this world, the uncomplaining “waste not, want not” world where people save chairs for generations because they still work — and the most important things are rarely said aloud.
The key to getting to know a world or a person, she said, is compassion.
“I write out of curiosity,” she said, “and a need to understand something.”
Mehta also writes from a need to know. He had left Bombay at 14 to move with his family to New York. Almost all of the writing he does, he said, has come from this “sundering.”
“I became a writer to understand that transition,” he said. “A lot of us on this planet are in this condition of not being native to anywhere. As writers, we are our own informants. We go back to our childhoods and tell stories to ourselves, our own stories.”
‘A lot of us on this planet are in this condition of not being native to anywhere. As writers, we are our own informants. We go back to our childhoods and tell stories to ourselves, our own stories.’ — Suketu Mehta
When he returned to Bombay as an adult, at first he passionately disliked it. He grew to understand it again, he said. This is a city where people like to talk, in trains and movie theaters and on sidewalks. He met film makers, criminals and policemen, poor women banding together to get clean water — and he built a book out of conversations.
“My way of going home was to collect stories,” he said, “and I knew I was home when the city revealed itself to me” and began telling them.
The book proved to him that he could go home, and that he could leave again. He learned that home could exist in more than one place.
Triantos has delighted in meeing the writers in this year’s festival and has found them enthusiastic, generous and gracious, she said. She imagines the writers leaving the festival in the evenings to continue the day’s conversations into the small hours.
Advisory board member Noreen Tomassi agrees that the writers she has talked with are excited about the weekend. They feel a connection to Wharton, she said.
‘The struggle is interesting, and it’s more interesting if someone is working toward the light.’ — Roxana Robinson
She feels Wharton is finally getting the recognition and the place in the canon that she deserves.
Tomassi, executive director of the Center for Fiction in New York, will lead a conversation on “the Literary Lure of De structive Choices.” A novelist may lead a character to do terrible things because the story demands it, she said, as “The House of Mirth” demands Lily Bart’s suicide.
“Wharton’s books are full of important choices on how to live,” she said.
A novelist may lead a character through a destructive choice, she said in a way that leads people to think about their own choices.
In a powerful book, Robinson agreed, the reader feels what the characters are going through — when they hurt, and when they give pain.
“If you’re alive, you’re trying to survive,” she said. “If you disregard that struggle and say there’s no point, you’re missing the best part. … People who are unhappy all the time are just as boring as people who are happy all the time. The struggle is interesting, and it’s more interesting if someone is working toward the light.”