J.G. and Carrie Brown Visit Campus

Elisabeth Tone

On Thursday, October 1, novelists John Gregory Brown and Carrie Brown visited campus as the second installment in Colgate’s revived Living Writers series. The Browns, a husband and wife pair, currently teach at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, where he is the Julia Jackson Nichols Professor of English and she holds the post of Margaret Banister Writer-in-Residence.

The pair had lunch with a small group of students from the Living Writers class and continued to field questions from the entire English 360 class later in the afternoon. At 4:30 p.m., they both read from pieces on which they are currently working, in an event that was open to the entire Colgate campus and Hamilton public.

In the weeks prior to the Browns’ visit, English 360 students read and discussed one novel from each author. They first tackled Carrie Brown’s sixth novel, The Rope Walk, in which ten-year-old Alice MacCauley encounters tragedy and loss over the course of a summer in her otherwise idyllic Vermont town.

In an interview with Connecticut Public Radio’s Faith Middleton, Brown highlighted one of the underlying themes of the entire novel.

“When I started writing this book, I couldn’t imagine it would be a story about loss of innocence – coming of age stories are often about a loss of innocence – but in a way I’ve discovered that I had kind of written a book about the durability of innocence, or the degree to which innocence and faith and hope are all linked up together,” Carrie Brown said.

The Living Writers class also read John Gregory Brown’s first novel, Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, which was originally published in 1994. The narrative structure of Decorations is divided among three different characters who all move fluidly back and forth through time, so that the reader is able to piece together the Eagan family’s story from all the anecdotes that the narrators reveal. The novel is set in New Orleans, John’s hometown and a place with which he has a deep connection.

Associate Professor of English Jennifer Brice explained how she and Thomas A. Bartlett Chair and Professor of English Jane Pinchin came to assign these two specific novels to their students.

“We let all the novelists in this series pick their own novels. It seemed to me serendipitous that both John and Carrie picked novels that have a young girl as the central character,” Brice said.

Pinchin was likewise pleased with the selections that the Browns had made, maintaining that they have a certain kind of lasting power.

“These are novels I find myself returning to in my mind’s eye. They stay put,” Pinchin said.

Though Brice and Pinchin did not have a role in selecting Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery and The Rope Walk from the Browns’ wide repertoire of work, they were the ones to invite the Browns to be part of this year’s Living Writers series.

“Both of us love their novels. They’re from a part of the country [the South] not represented by other writers on our list, and John is a living, breathing example of a ‘Southern writer.’ Also, we thought a husband-wife team might provoke some interesting questions,” Brice said.

Provoke many questions they did, beginning at lunch in the English lounge on the third floor of Lawrence Hall. There, a group of about fifteen students and one alumna peppered the novelists with questions about such varied topics as Carrie’s journalistic background and John’s tendency to include autobiographical facts in his fiction. The students’ questions about style, themes and inspiration continued in the Living Writers class, with both Browns sharing their opinions and advice.

“It was fascinating having them present together, in part because we are always intrigued by what happens when writers are close enough to give each other advice, or see current work next to its past.But more, as works like Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives make clear, people are rightly intrigued by the dynamic of marriage and the ways creativity can be enriched by that deep and continuing conversation,” Pinchin said, in response to a question about the dynamic between the two novelists during the dual presentation.

Living Writers student junior Morgan Flannery also offered her thoughts on the husband and wife’s team effort.

“I was wary of having two authors come speak together and worried that one would sit silent while the other answered specific questions directed at their book. That said, it was really interesting to hear how knowledgeable the spouses were about each other’s work and their varying perspectives on the novels,” Flannery said.

At the public reading, the Browns took turns reading from their newest works and then together took questions from alumni watching the presentation online and members of the audience.

Although the Browns’ afternoon reading did not draw as many additional audience members as Junot Díaz’s had the previous week, there was high traffic among the alumni watching online. According to Director of Web Content Tim O’Keeffe, there were 338 “unique visitors” to the Living Writers site, 73 percent of whom were first time visitors. Furthermore, during the Browns’ reading there was a peak viewership of fifty-three.

The excerpts that John and Carrie Brown shared during the public reading session were culled from their current work. John read a few pages from the novel he is currently working on, the working title of which is The Sorrows of Henry Garrett. Carrie read part of a novella she has been writing, titled “The Material World.” These two readings particularly thrilled Pinchin.

“Those were very wonderful readings of new and yet-to-be-finished work, each paralleling the energy and persona of a central character whom, I, like my fellow listeners, now wants to know. I can’t wait for more,” Pinchin said.

Flannery had a different opinion of the two excerpts.

“I actually found the Brown readings a little slow. I was more engaged by John Gregory’s plot, circulating around a man fleeing from his home life in the face of Hurricane Katrina, but found Carrie Brown’s character, Ruth, more realistic and interesting,” Flannery said.

The Browns’ visit was especially personal for Brice, who has known the couple since 2000 when John hired her as a teacher at Sweet Briar College. Brice and Carrie still talk nearly every day, using cell phones and earpieces as they walk around their respective towns.

“The whole day was a revelation and a treat,” Brice said.