I’m on vacation in upstate New York (the Catskills to be exact, right near Woodstock), and rather than neglect this blog, I’ve decided to do a post of my five favorite writers who are either from upstate, or who have written about upstate. (P.S. I realize that Woodstock isn’t exactly the northern part of New York State, but when you’re from NYC, everything is “upstate.”)
Here we go:
Joyce Carol Oates
This woman has written so many books that it seems impossible to keep up with them. She’s probably best known for her short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” which is the based-on-real-life story of a serial killer who comes for a popular teenage girl, and is taught in just about every high school and college level English class. Oates has won the National Book Award and been nominated for the Pulitzer several time. My personal favorites works of hers are her short stories of the suspenseful and grotesque, such as are found in Collector of Hearts and Haunted. In my opinion, she’s a modern day rival for Poe’s crown in this department. And she was born in Lockport, New York.
I am not a sport’s fan, but somehow Frederick Exley’s book A Fan’s Notes, with all it’s focus on drinking and professional football, spoke volumes to me when I first read it. Based upon, as Exley calls it in the introduction “that long malaise, my life,” this book proves that a life poorly lived can still make up the stuff of great literature. Exley was born in Watertown, NY, and lived much of his life in the state.
Often referred to as “The Bard of Albany,” William Kennedy wrote several books, one of them a Pulitzer Prize winner, all set in upstate New York. Lots of the events in the books are based upon local history. Though Kennedy fled New York early in life, he came back shortly thereafter and stayed for good, currently residing not far from Albany. Ironweed, his Pulitzer Prize winner, is one of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching depictions of the ravages of alcoholism ever written (it was also made into an excellent film starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in 1987).
I don’t think I can say enough good things about Kurt Vonnegut. Though born in Indiana, Vonnegut resided in Schenectady, New York after returning from WW2, and set many of his novels in a fictional town based upon it. Vonnegut is, simply put, a writer for everyone. I have never met anyone too uneducated, or too smart for the works of Vonnegut. He was funny, he was dark, he wasn’t afraid to experiment with words and form, and he was brilliant. If not for discovering Vonnegut early on, I highly doubt I would be the reader and the writer I am today.
Oh, Nabokov. Though he was born in Russia and died in Switzerland, Ithica, NY was proud to call him a resident from 1848 to 1959. A synesthete, Nabokov’s odd relationship to the senses ( he could see the color of letters distinctly) was clear in the delicate word play that marked his novels. Though most people’s favorite is Lolita, I have always loved Pale Fire the best. In it, a deranged man gains possession of the last poem of a famous poet and makes notes and asides on it until it becomes about his quite likely imagined history as an exiled king. Truly amazing stuff.
There you have it. Five writers that upstate New York has been proud to count among its residents. I don’t blame them for living here. It’s beautiful in these parts, and I know that I for one am getting lots of writing done.