Recent Readings by Authors at the South End Library Illustrate the Varied Richess of the Local Writing Scene and the Unique Role Played by Branch Libraries in their Neighborhoods

FOSEL founding president Marleen Nienhuis and novelists Margot Livesey and Sue Miller

FOSEL founding president Marleen Nienhuis and novelists Margot Livesey and Sue Miller

The range of authors who came to talk about their work at the South End Library during Halloween season provided a nice illustration of the  deep and varied pool of writing talent that exists at the local level, and the supportive role neighborhood libraries play in hosting them. On October 25, Maryanne O’Hara, a short-story writer who lives in the South End, discussed her much-praised first novel, Cascade, which is based on the flooding of a town in Western Massachusetts in the 1930s. She was followed a few days later by acclaimed novelist  and Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Emerson College,  Margot Livesey, who talked about her latest work, The Flight of Gemma Harding,a re-imagening of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. That same week, rock biographer Stephen Davis, arrived at the South End branch with a seemingly inexhaustible collection of anecdotes and observations about the rock and pop stars he’d written about for decades, after reading from his most recent (unauthorized) biography of Carly Simon, More Room in a Broken Heart.

Maryanne o'Hara giving a talk at the South End library

Maryanne o'Hara giving a talk at the South End library

O’Hara’s novel, while a fictionalized account of a to-be-drowned town, attracted an audience interested in the actual flooding of small towns in Massachusetts by the Quabbin reservoir in the 1930s. The author did not disappoint: she brought copies of old photographs of the four towns that became submerged –Dana, Enfield, Greenwich and Prescott– and, after signing copies of her book, even used a stamp with a special postmark of the novel's make-believe town, Cascade, on the last date of its supposed existence, December 27, 1934. Part of the research for the novel was done at the Waterworks Museum on Chestnut Hill, O’Hara said, which documents the history of the country's first metropolitan water systems. O’Hara’ inspiration for the main character, artist Dez who is torn between ambition and family tradition, was sparked by an interview with WPA painter James Lechay in Truro, MA, a decade ago. Her subsequent interest in the WPA, and the 1930s' government support for the arts, turned first into a magazine article, but eventually found its way into her novel, as did O'Hara's love for Shakespeare --a Shakespeare summer theatre features prominently,-- and the author's fascination with the actual drowned towns of the Quabbin reservoir.

Author Stephen Davis

Author Stephen Davis

Margot Livesey was introduced by novelist Sue Miller, who said she loved Livesey's novels before she ever met the author, and especially appreciated what she described as the novelist's thoughtfulness for the “mysteriousness of otherness.”  Livesey explained that in The Flight of Gemma Hardy she examined why 21st-century female readers of Jane Eyre still identify in such profound ways with the 19th-century character, even though their lives are vastly different. She suggested that the novel, which has not been out of print in 165 years,  still speaks to readers for two reasons: the heroine represents the arche-type of orphan and pilgrim, and it explores the fundamental question asked by the Bronte sisters of how a girl of no special talents, without a family or special skills, can make her way in the world. In The Flight of Gemma Hardy she wanted to “re-imagine the appeal of Jane Eyre for those who loved it and those who hadn’t read it.” Having been raised herself in a boys’ private school in Scotland, where her father was headmaster, and her ‘severe’ stepmother’s notion of children was they best be ‘seen but not heard,’ the author recounted she spent much time hoping for a natural disaster that would destroy the school and its Gothic buildings. Nevertheless,the English landscape has been the setting for most of her writings but after living in the US  for many years, her current work-in-progress, or  as she described it, “the novel I am failing to write,” is set in contemporary New England.

Stephen Davis’s animated talk about the world of pop and rock as he experienced it, writing first for the Boston Phoenix and Rolling Stone magazine and concentrating on rock biographies later, centered on the life of singer/songwriter Carly Simon, who he knew closely through friendships with her brother Peter, and the time their families spent on Martha’s Vineyard growing up. Describing her rise to fame, Davis placed her squarely in the culture of the 60s and 70s, when successful female singers were few and far between but the female audience of baby boomers was ready for their music, even when they didn’t know it until they heard it. “Carly was part of the continuum of how things should be rather than were,” Davis said. “When her Greatest Hits came out, it was what the women in minivans listened to taking their kids to soccer practice.” The talented Simon had romantic relationships with many stars, and “learned from her boyfriends,” said Davis. They included Cat Stevens --a date with him inspired Simon's song Anticipation-- and  James Taylor, who was her husband until she “threw him out” when she feared his drug addiction would become an issue for their two children. “She doesn’t have his phone number to this day,” said Davis, even though theirs was a “great romantic love story,” he added. Davis, who ghost-wrote the autobiography of Michael Jackson at the request of  Doubleday's then-editor Jacqueline Onassis  --"she made the phone calls; someone else edited,” he said,-- is currently working on the biography of Stevie Nicks, the singer/songwriter who sang for many years with Fleetwood Mac.

The five favorite books recommended by the authors mentioned above, and previous speakers, can be found underTHE SOUTH END READS.


January 15, 2013, 6:30 p.m.

Leah Hager Cohen

The Grief of Others

The author, who publishes both fiction and non-fiction, will read from her latest novel which the New York Times described as “her best work yet.” With an introduction by  Sue Miller


Tuesday, January 29, 6:30 p.m.

Lynne Potts

A Block in Time: a History of Boston's South End from a Window on Holyoke Street. 

Details will be posted as they become available.


Tuesday, February 5, 6:30 p.m.

April Bernard

The poet (Romanticism)and novelist, most recently of  history (Miss Fuller), is currently the director of creative writing at Skidmore College. With an introduction by South End author Doug Bauer


Tuesday, February 26, 6:30 p.m.

Andre Dubus III

Townie, a memoir

The examination of the author’s violent past has been described ”best book” of non-fiction of 2011 and 2012 by many literary-gate guardians, and was preceded by his previous novelsHouse of Sand and Fog (made into a movie by the same name) and The Garden of Last Days.  Sue Miller will introduce the author.


Tuesday, March 19, 6:30 p.m.

Mari Passananti

will read from her second novel, The K Street Affair.


Tuesday, April 18, 6:30 p.m.

Doug Bauer

Editor, writer of numerous books of fiction and non-fiction, and revered professor of English at Bennington College (to where he commutes from the South End), Bauer will read from his most recent collection of essays, What Happens Next?, to be published in the fall of 2013  by the University of Iowa Press.


Tuesday, May 14, 6:30 p.m.

Dennis Lehane, the spectacularly successful author who grew up in Dorchester and is ALSO a BPL trustee, published his latest novel, Live by Night, in 2012. Set in Boston in the 1920s, the New York Times' reviewer called the book a "sentence-by-sentence pleasure."


Tuesday, May 21, 6:30 p.m.

Alice Hoffman

The Dovekeepersa historical novel describing the AD70 massacre at Masada from the point of view of four women at the fortress before it fell during the Jewish-Roman war, is the most recent of the nearly two dozen novels by Hoffman and just came out in paperback. To be introduced by Sue Miller.


Tuesday, June 11, 6:30 p.m.

Alice Stone,

the local filmmaker whose mesmerizing documentary, Angelo Unwritten, has followed the life of a teenager adopted out of foster care when he was twelve, will return with an update of new material gathered since December 2011.


Tuesday, June 18, 6:30 p.m.

Philip Gambone

will return to read from his current work-in-progress, retracing the steps of his father who, as a soldier, was sent to Europe during the Second World War.