42nd annual Writers Week features literary heavyweights Atwood and Cusk

The annual Writers Week conference is a week-long literary event in February that brought in contemporary writers to discuss their latest work. This year’s Writers Week, sponsored by the UCR Creative Writing Department and the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) began Feb. 4-5 with award-winning writer Margaret Atwood and keynote speaker Rachel Cusk. The first part of the event happened this week, and will continue from Feb. 11-15 with additional presenters.

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Margaret Atwood

Writers Week kicked off Monday night at 7 p.m. with a Q&A by this year’s recipient of the LA Review of Books-UCR Department of Creative Writing Lifetime Achievement Award Honoree Margaret Atwood. Atwood has written a variety of acclaimed works, most famously, the dystopian fiction novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Writing in a variety of genres, she has garnered dozens of distinguished writing awards and honors. Atwood was received by a crowd of over 100 people who were eager to hear what she had to say. The interview was conducted by UC Riverside’s writer’s week director and Professor of Creative Writing Tom Lutz. He began the event by mentioning Atwood’s childhood in Canada’s Quebec province. Lutz’s question of if writers should be detached or empathize with their story set the tone for much of the Q&A. Atwood said that “both” are important qualities for a writer, explaining that a balance in being able to empathize and be distant in a subject to view anything in different frames. She stated that this balance is what allows a person to write effectively.

Lutz asked Atwood’s opinion about the recent popularity of dystopian fiction. She explained that utopias were the main interest in the literary community before World War I, adding that writers would create perfect worlds in their novels where the world’s issues were non-existent. However, the aftermath of World War I changed the frame of the society’s worldview. Atwood responded that with the destruction and chaos that World War I and the following wars created, people took a greater interest in dystopias and the literary world satisfied those interests.

During the Q&A session, Atwood discussed 19th century writing and the influence it had on her. She discussed how worldviews were different than those of today, specifying that the way readers interpret a story is a product of their surroundings, rather than the writer’s era. Atwood used an example of Charles Dickens killing off a beloved character, Nills, which many readers had loved in “The Pickwick Papers” (Dickens’ first serialized novel, originally published monthly). Audiences were so saddened by his death that many of them had worn black as an expression of their mourning. Atwood also mentioned how Irish poet Oscar Wilde, writing in a different time, divorced from this context, had laughed at this act of mourning. Atwood explained how the mindset of someone like Wilde was different due to living in a very different society.

Following the Q&A, Atwood signed copies of her works and had her photo taken with fans. As the event ended, the crowd was left pondering the insights that Atwood had provided into her literary philosophy throughout the night.

—Antonio Velaochaga, CW

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Rachel Cusk

Canadian-born novelist Rachel Cusk, an award-winning and critically acclaimed author of 13 works of fiction and nonfiction, was the keynote speaker for Writers Week. Cusk’s first novel, “Saving Agnes,” was published in 1993 and won the Whitbread First Novel Award. Her latest trilogy, consisting of  “Outline,” “Transit” and “Kudos,” reflect her experiences during a three-month family visit in Italy. “Outline” has been listed by the New York Times as part of the Top 10 Books of 2015 and has been selected as a finalist for the for the Folio Prize, the Goldsmiths Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Cusk spoke to a crowd of fans in INTS 1128.

Associative Professor and Chair for the UCR Creative Writing Department, Andrew Winer, introduced Cusk and led the discussion of “Outline.” Winer began the discussion by quoting Virginia Wolf, saying that female writers have to break norms in novel writing to create their own distinct literature. “Outline,” following this philosophy, is separated into 10 conversations, each with different characters. In response, Cusk explained the initial difficulties that she faced when writing “Outline,” often scrapping her drafts and restarting the manuscript. Eventually, this led to her considering the final structure of “Outline.” “Maybe one of the reasons why I write is, you always think, when you’re writing you don’t have to be yourself,” Cusk elaborated.

Cusk read a section from her book in which a character talked about their feelings on femininity in Poland. “I think my book is much about what you hear and what you listen to,” she explained regarding the section. “What would the form do to describe the loss of personal reality? How can you represent the loss of that?”

Cusk then answered questions from the audience and signed copies of her book for attendees. “Kudos,” the third book in her “Outline” trilogy, will be released in April 2019.

—Martha Delgado, SSW

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