Literary Festival brings renowned authors to campus

Joe Cramer

With all of the reading that Villanova students are assigned each semester, whether in core requirements or major-specific classes, it is all too easy to forget that behind the hundreds of pages of text is, more often than not, a human being with thoughts and feelings similar to our own. 

The appeal of book signings and readings by their respective writers derives from this sort of curiosity about the man or woman behind the page.

Villanova’s Literary Festival provides a rare opportunity to experience this often-concealed aspect of the creative process. Each year, the English department invites several well-known writers to visit campus and speak to the student body about their craft. 

This year’s 12th annual Literary Festival features six prolific writers, each representing different styles in the diverse field of literature. Elizabeth Strout kicked off the festival on Jan. 26, reading from her Pulitzer-prize winning novel “Olive Kitteredge.” Still yet to visit are post-modern novelist Arthur Phillips, memoirist and novelist Anthony Swofford, poet Ange Mlinko and, finally, the hugely influential Irish poets Peter Fallon and Seamus Heaney. 

Serving as director of the festival this year is Alan Drew, a professor in the English department and a published novelist in his own right. Drew found that, despite budget constraints, several fortuitous turns of fate ensured that his first tenure as director of the festival would be a prestigious one.

“I read some books over the summer that I was particularly interested in and got in touch with my agent,” says Drew of the process of selecting speakers for the festival. Drew put out feelers in the publishing world to see who might be interested in coming to Villanova, which is ultimately how he booked Strout and Phillips. 

Budget constraints due to the weakening economy posed early problems for this year’s festival. Strout, who has become increasingly sought after since the success of her newest novel, “Olive Kitteredge,” agreed to speak here for significantly less money than her normal asking price, says Drew. Yet not only was he able to keep Strout and Phillips, but he also managed to get in touch with Swofford, notable mainly for his military memoir “Jarhead,” and asked him to speak.

Drew and Swofford’s mutual attendance of the University of Iowa’s highly-regarded creative writing program helped draw the acclaimed “Jarhead” writer to speak at the festival. 

“We both went to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, so I knew about him from there,” Drew says. “Then we met at a reading a few years back and agreed to stay in touch, so I contacted him, and we arranged a visit.” 

Rounding out the program is the poet Mlinko, who has published two books and has another coming this year, and  the poets Fallon and  Heaney, whose participation Drew directly attributes to the cooperation of the Irish Studies Department and its chair, James Murphy, also a professor in the English Department.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Heimbold Chair in the Irish Studies department, a position held each spring by a distinguished Irish writer. Fallon was the first writer to hold that position in the spring of 2000, which was inaugurated with a joint reading by Fallon and fellow poet Heaney. To commemorate the anniversary, Murphy wanted to bring these two back to Villanova for another reading. This presented a unique opportunity for Drew and Murphy, as they combined efforts to bring these two important figures in the literary world to campus despite budget concerns.

Drew sees the eclectic group of writers comprising this year’s festival as an especially relevant and important one. 

Speaking on January’s reading by Strout, Drew admired the Pulitzer-prize-winning author’s drawing power. 

“We had a great turnout with the Strout reading,” says Drew. “It was standing room only, and we had a good mixture of students, faculty and even some local book clubs.”

The success of the Strout reading has Drew excited about Swofford’s visit to campus, taking place tonight at 7 p.m. in Connelly Center’s President’s Lounge. Drew admires the fierce honesty of his breakout work, “Jarhead,” which was adapted into a film starring Jake Gyllenhaal in 2005. 

“It’s a harsh, harsh book that doesn’t shy away from controversy,” Drew says of the memoir. “It feels like the kind of book that he just had to write. It has that kind of urgency to it.”

“Jarhead” covers Swofford’s own experience as a Marine sniper in the first Gulf War and portrays that experience with a gritty and unbarred realism that Drew sees as vitally important in today’s society. 

“It continues to speak to our current political situation in the Middle East,” Drew says. “There seems to be a filtering process in the American media that denies us the intimate experience of going to war that this book provides.” 

While the festival may be in full swing, thanks to the snow delay of last week, most of the readings are still yet to come. Phillips, author of several acclaimed novels, was supposed to visit last Thursday, but was forced to cancel because of the weather. His reading is tentatively scheduled for the last week of classes in April. Until then, there is Swofford’s reading tonight, Mlinko’s reading in Falvey Lounge on April 13 and the joint reading by Fallon and Heaney in the Villanova Room on April 20. 

The Literary Festival’s influence on campus is not limited to just the speaker’s visits. 

Drew is teaching a class that studies the works of the guests to the festival and organizes creative workshops around them. Students in this class have the rare opportunity to work with the authors in the classroom before they give their readings in the evening. 

Drew sees the participation of the English department as crucial to this festival’s success. 

“The English department faculty have been great by incorporating works by the authors into their syllabi,” Drew says. Heaney, for example, has been a fixture of ACS and English literature classes with his famed translation of the epic poem “Beowulf.”

“It’s great when the students attend the readings by authors they have been studying throughout the semester,” Drew says. “They get to see that authors are real people.”