The 16th annual Writers’ Week returns to UNCW on Mon., Oct. 31, and through Fri., Nov. 4. Since 2001, the Department of Creative Writing has shut down all graduate and undergraduate courses for a full week to host both new and established writers who are prevalent in their genre. As in the past, 2016 will feature discussions and panels with publishers and agents on the variety of careers that involve writing. Writers’ Week allows students and locals of Wilmington to share a room with those who have made a life from words. Organized by professor and renowned author May-lee Chai, UNCW will bring some of the most profound, diverse and talented individuals in writing to ILM’s own backyard.
Starting on Monday, 16 public events will be open from morning to evening through Thursday. Friday will close with one morning panel. Events also include craft talks, career panels, author readings, Q&As, and more. All morning and afternoon events will be held in Warwick Ballroom 1, while the evening presentations will be at four different locations.
Writers’ Week begins at 10 a.m. on Mon., Oct. 31 with a fiction craft talk by Clare Beams. The up-and-coming author debuted her short-story collection, “We Show What We Have Learned,” via UNCW’s own Lookout Books. In 11 new stories, Beams displays her talent for developing characters with existential complexity and truths that capture the soul. Her careful use of unique settings and time periods offer her poignant words a dramatic backdrop.
Beams has been involved with UNCW for the past year-and-a-half through Lookout Books. In anticipation of the release of “We Show What We Have Learned,” encore spoke with the author prior to her first visit to UNCW for Writers’ Week.
encore (e): What was your experience like working with Lookout Books, a small and independent press? What makes them suited to publish your debut book?
Clare Beams (CB): Working with Lookout has been a dream. I knew it would be—I’d published one of the stories from the collection in Ecotone [UNCW’s literary magazine], so I already knew my editor, Beth Staples, was both brilliant and totally in tune with what I’m trying to do in my writing—but I couldn’t have anticipated the depths of the passion everyone at Lookout has brought to publishing this book. They care about it the way I do, and have worked as hard on it as I have—that’s been such a tremendous gift. Lookout was the best imaginable home for this book.
e: You utilize schools as a setting in almost half of this collection. As a former teacher, were you inspired by the liminal space between adolescents and adults? What about the classroom makes it a rich setting for fiction?
CB: I actually wrote many of these stories back when I was still teaching 9th-grade English—not all, but many—though nothing in this collection draws directly on any experience I ever had as a teacher (thankfully!), I do think my teaching fed the stories. I find the classroom a magical space for fiction. I think because classrooms are such self-contained worlds—and worlds that specifically set out to change people, often young people, who can be so eager to assume new forms. That dynamic seems to me ripe for dramatic use.
e: As an emerging writer, you are included in a lineup with award-winning journalist Mei Fong, novelist Chinelo Okparanta, and other established guests for Writers’ Week. How does it feel to be recognized among such a talented variety writers?
CB: I’m excited about everything having to do with Writers’ Week! I’m so honored to be part of this group of writers, and I can’t wait to meet them. I’m honored I’ll get to read, and give a craft talk, alongside them; I know this is something I’ll remember forever. Also, while I’ve exchanged uncountable (truly!) emails with Beth Staples and Emily Smith, my editor and publisher, and feel as if I’ve come to know them both and count them both as friends, I have yet to meet either of them in person—so that’s going to be a huge highlight for me, too.
e: Growing up in Newtown, CT, you took a unique and gentle approach to explore the aftermath of a school shooting. How did your relationship to Sandy Hook apprise the short story “All the Keys to All the Doors”? Why did you use fiction to explore school violence?
CB: That’s a fascinating word, “gentle”—you know. I’m not quite sure that’s how I see the story; though, certainly it’s true that the actual shooting remains offstage, and that fact does have to do with the nature of my experience of the Newtown tragedy. I was no longer living in Newtown in 2012, and my parents too had moved away by then, so it wasn’t my tragedy in any direct way. Newtown is a place I associated with a happy and safe childhood, though, and I was six-months pregnant with my own first child at the time, and even my peripheral experience of what happened there left me reeling. I think I always knew I’d have to find a way to write about that time, and also that this way—the way that would belong to me—wouldn’t be the most direct way. But the event itself has immense horror to me in the story, though it’s left shadowy, and I do think there’s a lot of ruthlessness to both Cele’s actions and the story itself, in the end.
e: The prolific author Joyce Carol Oates has called you “a female/feminist voice for the 21st century.” In what way do you see this as a feminist book? Why is exploring topics like the female body and motherhood important to you?
CB: This maybe isn’t an uncommon experience among women of my generation, but I think if you’d asked me about feminism when I was in high school or even at the beginning of college, I might have said, blithely, I thought we were in an age when it was no longer all that necessary. This is what I’d been told, and I wanted so much to think it was true. It’s taken my efforts to make my way in the world as an adult woman, and especially my experience of motherhood—and motherhood to a daughter, with a second on the way in December—to make me feel, in my own skin, the fraught territory women and their bodies still occupy in this world. This is a book that’s about the ways we shape the people around us—but I think it’s also in large part about the particular kinds of reshapings to which women can be vulnerable.