Sunday, January 20, 2013

Arts & Extras: Novelist returns to Hollins alma mater for conference

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Mike Allen, arts and culture columnist

Mike Allen, arts columnist

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Massachusetts novelist Karen Osborn will return to Hollins University this month for the first time since her 1979 graduation as the 2013 Louis D. Rubin Jr. Writer-in-Residence, and to talk about the state of the publishing industry at this year's Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, which starts Friday on the Hollins campus.

Osborn lived in Roanoke's Old Southwest neighborhood while she worked toward her degree in English, and began having poems published while a Hollins College undergrad.

She said she's very excited about coming back to campus. "I love it there and they have such a great community of writers." During her residency, she hopes to start a new novel. "I have some ideas," she said.

She began working on her first novel, "Patchwork," after she had finished graduate school at the University of Arkansas. The book, chronicling decades in the lives of three sisters, was inspired by research she conducted in a South Carolina textile town near Clemson University, where she was teaching. The textile mill industry was mostly a memory at that point, but through interviews, she learned how a mill town functioned.

The New York Times named "Patchwork" a Notable Book of the Year in 1991.

Her latest novel, "Centerville," published through West Virginia University Press, is her first that springs from one of her own childhood memories, she said.

Set in 1967 in a Midwestern town, the novel opens with a man leaving a paper sack that contains a bomb inside a drug store. A young girl about to enter the store changes her mind, walks away, and becomes a witness to the explosion that kills almost everyone inside.

Osborn said that when she was a child, she witnessed a bomb go off. "I almost walked into the store and had turned away moments before the explosion."

She's changed many of the details of the true life crime and of the town where it happened, she said. In real life the bomber died in the explosion. In the novel, he leaves before it detonates.

The novel becomes an examination of an act of random violence, the person who commits it and the community that struggles to understand and cope with it.

Osborn said that one of the conclusions she came to was that "there's a lot that we can never answer about something like that." Yet she also tried to capture "the collective support that is given by people in a town or a community ... the ways in which people are sort of glued together that buoys us all."

She'll be giving the opening talk at the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference at 8 p.m. Friday at the university's Wetherill Visual Arts Center. She plans to talk about her own publishing experiences and her decision to go with a university press rather than a commercial publisher for her novel, which was released in October.

University presses are more traditionally associated with short story collections, but more have begun seeking novels, she said. "I think it's good information for other writers to have. We need choices."

Other writers speaking and teaching at the conference include Roanoke-based sports writer Roland Lazenby, author of "Black Jesus, The Life of Michael Jordan," forthcoming in 2014; Roanoke County novelist Gina Holmes, whose newest book, "Wings of Glass," made the 2013 Winter Spring Okra Picks, a list of highly anticipated books compiled by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance; Blacksburg young adult fantasy writer Tiffany Trent and Roanoke young adult science fiction writer Angie Smibert; and many others.

Lynchburg writer Kathleen Grissom, author of the New York Times bestseller "The Kitchen House" will be the keynote speaker following Osborn.

Admission to the conference, which continues Saturday and Jan. 27, is $60. For more information, contact founder Dan Smith at 556-8510, e-mail or visit

Festival honors Hollins theater

Two original Hollins Theatre productions have been recognized by the upcoming Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

In February 2012, the theater debuted "Bellocq's Ophelia," adapted from the book of poetry of the same name by U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. Hollins theater professor Ernest Zulia, English professor T.J. Anderson III and 2012 graduate Lexi Mondot did the adaptation. Trethewey earned her master's degree from the school in 1991 and her father, Eric Trethewey, currently teaches English there.

"Bellocq's Ophelia" will be one of five full productions competing in the Region IV division of the festival, which takes place Feb. 5-19 at Darton College in Albany, Ga.

Even if the play doesn't make the cut to move on to the national festival in Washington, D.C., in April, its creators can take comfort that it has already made the trip once before. "Bellocq's Ophelia" was performed as a staged reading at the Kennedy Center's Page to Stage Festival of New Play Readings in September.

The Region IV festival has also given a playwriting award to Hollins M.F.A. in Playwriting candidate Meredith Levy. Her play "Decision Height" debuted in the Hollins Theatre in October. A staged reading of "Decision Height" will be performed at the Albany, Ga., festival in February, with a full staged performance scheduled for 2014.

Additionally, Hollins M.F.A. in Playwriting student Kevin Ferguson had two short plays selected to compete in the regional festival. Hollins seniors Kaitlin Heath and Maria Latiolais and sophomore Russell Wilson have also been selected to compete with 400 students nationwide for the festival's Irene Ryan Acting Scholarships.

PechaKucha Night paused

PechaKucha Night Southwest Virginia founder David Verde sent me a message that the events scheduled for this year "are being postponed until future notice."

In a "pechakucha" event —- a name from the Japanese word for "sound of chit-chat" — speakers give a PowerPoint presentation on any topic, though the presentation must conform to a rigid format. You may use only 20 slides, and you may spend only 20 seconds speaking about each slide.

Verde's events were officially endorsed by with an agreement that he would hold four sessions. Three were held in Roanoke, and one in Blacksburg in August (at which I gave a presentation).

Verde wrote that the 2012 events only broke even, leaving no funds to continue with in 2013. Expenses have had to come out of his own pocket if sponsors, donations and ticket sales proved not to be enough. "I lucked out last year that I didn't have to be responsible for paying any large out-of-pocket costs."

At present, he hopes to hold one event in Roanoke and one in the New River Valley each year, but he's not scheduling them until he "finds a reliable way to make each event financially independent."

Verde also writes and shoots photographs for The Roanoke Times Style Street blog.

'Right to Choose' art auction

Planned Parenthood in Roanoke will hold "A Right To Choose" —- an art auction and fundraiser for the organization's Roanoke Valley programs and services —- at 7 p.m. Thursday in The Sanctuary at Five Points, 1217 Maple Ave. S.W. in downtown Roanoke. The event expands on Planned Parenthood's previous art fundraisers, which were whimsically titled "The Right to Shoes."

Participating artists were asked to create art representing a right of their choice or a right the artist wishes existed, such as free speech, women's rights, gay marriage and environmental rights. Contributors include both well-known and up-and-coming artists, said Director of Development Sally Walker. "I'm really pleased with the diversity of people coming,"

The event will include music by Just the Two of Us and an announcement of five awards pre-selected by a panel of judges. Admission $20. For more information call 562-2370 ext. 7041 or visit

On the Arts blog

What did Vincent Van Gogh really look like? Visit the Arts & Extras blog at to check out a Lithuanian artist's remarkable photographic reconstruction using one of Van Gogh's famous self-portraits.

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