Alex Morris, senior editor
Director of Undergrad Writing Gary Hawkins introduced Warren Wilson’s Writer in Residence Madeleine Blais on Tuesday evening, Oct. 28. Hawkins described the nonfiction writer’s work as refreshing, referencing in particular Blais “not writing about the self.” Blais has also worked as a journalist, gaining national recognition for her work, in which she has focused on subjects ranging from war veterans to girls on a high school basketball team.
Blais introduced herself and said a few words on journalism, mentioning newspapers in this day and age as a disappearing source, calling them “quicksand under her feet.” She then put on her amber glasses and proceeded to share her work with a small but alert audience in Canon lounge. She read an essay that was derived from an interview with Playwright Tennessee Williams (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) she’d obtained in South Florida’s Key West. Blais had admired Williams since seeing one of his plays, The Glass Menagerie, in high school.
“Sometimes in life you do get to talk to someone who is beyond a mentor and more like a God,” she said.
She read her essay aloud, telling the story of her quest to get to Tennessee Williams’ home in Key West, traveling from Miami on a bus full of characters. She read about her three attempts in one day to visit him, the last one proving to be successful. Once she got in touch with him, he welcomed her into his world. He allowed Blais to spend time with him and his entourage throughout the next three days. Williams told Blais stories about his mother’s illness, his love of early mornings in Key West and his friends and family. Some of the things Williams spoke on were inspiring and some were heart wrenching.
After Blais read, she answered questions from the audience, speaking on being a writer and also a reporter. She said that reading was always encouraged in her house growing up and that she lived across the street from the public library.
“Writers begin as readers,” Blais said.
She also made comments on the observation of disappearing newsprint, and the increase of online news sources and blogs.
“Anyone can be a publisher,” she said. “We havent figured out what that means yet.”
Blais won a Pulitzer Prize for a piece she wrote in The Miami Herald about Zep, a WW1 Vet who was dishonerably discharged because he was a pacifist. It was later published in a collection called The Heart is an Instrument. This collection gives various portraits of other individuals as well. Along with Zep there is the story of a babysitter who murdered the three children she was watching.
Besides The Miami Herald, Blais has worked as a reporter for The Boston Globe and The Trenton Times. She’s also written for The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune, among other newspapers. She’s published several nonfiction works including In these Girls, Hope is a Muscle, and a memoir titled Uphill Walkers: Portrait of a Family. Blais currently teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Writing Professor Dr. Catherine Reid is good friends with Blais. The two nonfiction authors met in Massachusetts, Blais’ homestate. When they met, Reid was attending Smith College and Blais was attending UMass.
“As our Writer-in-Residence, Maddy Blais graced us with the stature of a well regarded writer and the generous attentions of a gifted teacher,” Reid said.
After Tuesday, Blais spent the next several days visiting Warren Wilson and speaking in both nonfiction and journalism classes. Blais also spent one-on-one time advising senior writing majors.
Reid added that this was a great benefit for the students calling Blais “a natural storyteller who offered insights both into the crafting of good prose as well as the navigating of a complex publishing world.”