Here's how the NYS Writers Institute gets all those great authors to visit

NYS Writers Institute offices 2018-January

Many of the walls in the offices of the NYS Writers Institute in the Science Library on UAlbany's uptown campus are covered with posters touting appearances from the history of the visiting writers series. It's a remarkable a list of well-known and notable authors.

Each spring and fall the New York State Writers Institute releases the lineup for its visiting writers series and pretty much without fail we have this thought while looking it over: "Holy moly, how'd they manage to get all these people?"

This is an important moment for the institute. It has a new director -- longtime Times Union journalist Paul Grondahl started last year. The great author William Kennedy, who founded the institute with money from his MacArthur "genius" grant, is celebrating his 90th birthday this month. And the institute is facing competition from other orgs for both events and attention.

So we figured this would be an interesting time to drop by the institute on the UAlbany campus to talk about how they put together those impressive lineups -- and what's in store for the future...

They work all sorts of angles to build the visiting writers lineups

One of the remarkable things about the NYS Writers Institute is that it assembles the visiting writers lineups on what assistant director Mark Koplik, who's been with the institute for two decades, calls a "very, very limited budget."

So how do they do that?

"A lot of this, I frequently describe it as crimes of opportunity," Koplik explained with a smile.

That means working all sorts of angles to get authors on the schedule: Keeping an eye out for book tours and maybe scoring a visit between stops in New York City and Boston. Developing relationships at conferences. Leaning on decades of goodwill built up with publishers. And playing to the history of series. As Koplik noted, "People are often coming here because their heroes have been here."

And sometimes it's a matter of persistence. Salman Rushdie is on this spring's schedule after what Koplik described as "just a continual, almost annual pursuit."

They focus on the authors having a good experience

Koplik and Paul Grondahl said another way the institute is able to get authors is to make sure they have a good time here.

In this sense, a good time means that the authors are well taken care of -- a pick-up at the train station, a good dinner, friendly conversation -- but also that the visitors get a chance to do some outreach and have interesting community experiences.

Grondahl pointed to the December visit from YA author Nic Stone as an example. The institute organized the typical evening reading and talk at the State Museum, but it also arranged for her to meet UAlbany students and brought her to Albany High School.

"It was a really diverse group of students, who are great readers," Grondahl said of the Albany High visit. "So in addition to treating them really well, we give them relevant experiences when they're here, they meet their readers and their fans. And things that are socially conscious are of import to them. So I think that's another way we're going to get them to come back, and they tell their friends, hey, Albany is great."

They also rely on William Kennedy... but that's changing

All these years the institute has also had a trump card in discussions about scheduling authors: its founder.

"Our secret weapon is Bill Kennedy," said Grondahl. "Everyone loves Bill Kennedy. ... I mean, when you look at our wall of fame with the world's great writers many of them came because they have a personal friendship with Bill Kennedy. And he's the greatest host and the one who always makes you feel like you're the only one in the room. And so we have for 35 years, the longest portion and the bulk of the writers have come because of Bill Kennedy."

The institute won't always be able to depend on Kennedy -- he's celebrating his 90th birthday -- and both Grondahl and Koplik said they've been working to lay the groundwork for that day.

"It is less all about Bill and who he can bring in, more about Mark and I and going forward, leveraging our reputation, our connections with publishers."

They're focused on widening the field of writers

For all the big names the institute has been able to bring in over the years, it has also at times been, well, maybe a bit narrow in how it views the field.

"We were stuffy for a while," is how Grondahl put it. "We've got to admit that. We got stuffy."

So Grondahl and Koplik said they're focused on widening the range of writers and artists.

"I'm open to everything," said Grondahl. "I realize from the newspaper industry industry if you don't open up and change and broaden you die. And we also have to reflect this campus which is almost 60 percent students of color. We can't just keep bringing in the, you know, the canon writers we love, the all stars. And Mark is onboard, we're all on board with this, from the president on down, that we have to open it up, we have to reflect our campus. We have to reflect our community. We can't just be an ivory tower anymore. It's just, that's the way you die."

One early example of how the institute is taking a broader view on the sorts of speakers it brings in: The fall slate opened with the rapper/comedian/actress Awkwafina, who also happens to be a UAlbany alum.

"I realize from the newspaper industry industry if you don't open up and change and broaden you die. And we also have to reflect this campus which is almost 60 percent students of color. We can't just keep bringing in the, you know, the canon writers we love, the all stars. And Mark is onboard, we're all on board with this, from the president on down, that we have to open it up, we have to reflect our campus. We have to reflect our community. We can't just be an ivory tower anymore. It's just, that's the way you die."

"We're not cheapening it," Grondahl said of the institute's wider-angle view. "There's a lot of discussion and purpose behind a lot of this. So at the same time we'll bring in Awkwafina, we'll bring in Claire Messud or somebody, a literary writer of quote-unquote highbrow taste. We're not leaving that whole segment behind either, but it's not going to be the only thing we do."

They want to be part of the conversation in this area going forward... and could use your help

The wide-angle view is connected to the role Grondahl and Koplik see for the institute in the Capital Region.

"We want to be relevant and we want to be in the middle of the conversation that we hope the Capital Regional is having," said Grondahl, pointing to events like last fall's "Telling the Truth in a Post-truth World" symposium. "Our world is words and writers and publishing but these are issues that are universal not just in our community. Immigration diversity. Women. First amendment, free speech. So these are things we want to try to foster a conversation."

But even though the institute has been able to work on a small budget, those sorts of events do cost something to organize -- an even harder challenge if they're to remain free to the public. And of late, the institute has also been facing competition from places such as Proctors, which have been booking writers like David Brooks (with high ticket prices).

"It takes a lot more money to do these things than I realized," Grondahl said. "So part of my mission as fundraising and I'm spending a lot of time asking people for money, which is all new for me. But we were very successful raising money to to host the symposium. Very successful in exceeding our goal for the William Kennedy endowment fund. So again that goes to our reputation and. People see what a gem and this is and they want it to continue and expand. I think we have a lot of goodwill over 35 years and we're going to keep building on that."

If you're interested in donating, the Writers Institute has a page with information on how to do so.

The spring season of the visiting writers series open Tuesday evening with author Gish Jen at the State Museum.


+ NYS Writers Institute visiting writers spring 2018


Thanks. Good piece.
NYSWI is one of the greatest things about our area. And Paul G. is making it even better. I urge everyone to make it to some or more of their events.

Thanks for digging into one of the under-heralded cultural gems of the area! Mark and Paul deserve more attention and praise for what the program routinely accomplishes and the direction it's taken.

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