Converse College welcomes award winning author, Erin McGraw, as Elizabeth Boatwright Coker Visiting Writer for a free public reading in the Bain room of Wilson Hall, March 16, at 8 p.m. The public is also invited to a 7 p.m. reception and author book-signing with McGraw in Wilson Hall. For more information call 596-9111.
McGraw will read from her recently published fifth novel, The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard (Houghton-Mifflin). “The book is based on the life of my scandalous grandmother, who ran away from her family, abandoned her children,” the author says.
The story begins on the Kansas prairie of the early 1900’s, from which feisty Nell Presser “who couldn’t cook but could sew,” fled to Los Angeles, California. There she worked as a seamstress during that glamorous era when the motion picture industry was transforming Hollywood from an agricultural suburb to the movie production capital of the world.
While writing Seamstress, McGraw built on the story she grew up with and created a fictional character that she knew almost as well as she knew herself. “I spent many years imagining my grandmother as a young woman and the forces that drove her to do what she did.” McGraw had to extensively research the Kansas prairie, Hollywood and its region, and the responsibilities of women there from 1900 to 1924.
“I loved doing the historical work,” she says. “I loved immersing myself in the period learning about sewing. I liked being lost in this world.” Somewhere in the midst of discovery, though, McGraw found more than hard data. She realized that her grandmother was not a heartless monster; rather, she was a woman who made a complicated choice in the hope of saving her own life.
Born in California. McGraw countered her grandmother’s westward journey by moving to the Midwest in 1982. “I consider myself a born-again Midwesterner,” she says. “I like life better , where it’s less expensive and easier to find a parking place.”
She has no other stories about her own family in the works, but recognizes that family is a persistently interesting topic. “Somebody once asked John Irving why he writes so often about family,” McGraw explains. “He said, ‘It’s the only subject.’”
When pressed for a story idea, she has found Dear Abby-styled advice columns and daytime TV talk shows to be peerless sources for the fiction writer. “I like to ponder human situations that I find interesting,” McGraw says. “Trying to imagine what would drive a person to do something that seems silly or destructive or just plain nuts.” She adds that if you find yourself blinking and asking, “He did what?” then you’re probably in the realm of potentially good fiction.“One of the things I love about writing fiction,” McGraw says, “Is the way it gives us a glimpse of our own experience from a new and sometimes revealing angle.”
She hopes people who come to her reading will get a specific portrait of a specific family that will not only be interesting, but will also create the kind of recognition that allows them to say, Yes! I know exactly how that is.
Converse graduate and undergraduate students will have the opportunity to work with McGraw when she conducts fiction writing classes during her two day visit. Converse Associate Professor of English, Susan Tekulve, worked with McGraw at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference in 2008. “I felt like I’d been given some powerful fictional medicine after working with her,” Tekulve says. “I feel very lucky to have her as our guest. She is at the height of her powers as a writer, but she’s also an honorable and talented teacher of writing.”
Along with The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard, McGraw’s novels include The Good Life and Lies of the Saints. Her shorter works have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Good Housekeeping, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, STORY, The Georgia Review, and many others. She has received fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council, the corporations of MacDowell and Yaddo, and she is a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Along with her husband, the poet Andrew Hudgins, she teaches at Ohio State University and divides her time between Ohio and Tennessee.
“I like being in the South very much,” McGraw says, “which is just one reason I’m happy to come to Converse. I haven’t read in South Carolina before, and I hear good things about the onion rings at the Beacon.”