Sure, Saratoga Springs is known for its mineral water, racetrack and arts scene. But ever since I first visited here during the summer three years ago, it’s also struck me as a surprisingly hip, literary hub, a place not only where good writing is appreciated, but also where many influential authors have passed through throughout the decades. In large part, that has to do with Yaddo, the historic artists retreat that neighbors Saratoga Race Course, and has hosted writers who have won an astounding 68 National Book Awards and even a Nobel Prize for literature (Saul Bellow). But the other funnel has arguably been the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College, which has brought the best-of-the-best in the literary game to the college during the summer for more than three decades.
What’s the Summer Writers Institute all about? It’s a month-long intensive workshop program—divided into two, two-week sessions—for college-level, professional and emerging writers of all ages (this year’s Institute kicked off on July 2 and will run through July 27). Every July, the Summer Writers Institute, which is an extension of the New York State Writers Institute in Albany, brings dozens of famous and award-winning artists from all over the country not just to read from their own works, but also to actually lead these workshops, critiquing and encouraging new and emerging writers, including yours truly. That first visit to Saratoga I mentioned earlier? It’s all because of a scholarship I received to the Summer Writers Institute in 2015.
Both Institutes, the one in Albany and the summer program in Saratoga, were the dream (realized!) of William Kennedy, an Albany native and author of the seminal Ironweed, a novel about the Capital City during the Great Depression, which won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize (a movie version, starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, was shot in and around the Capital Region). The release of the book made Kennedy a literary superstar and garnered him a number of prizes and awards. The year he won his Pulitzer, Kennedy offered a large portion of his prize earnings to the State University of New York at Albany, where he had been teaching creative writing and journalism, on the condition that the university matched his endowment to start what would become the New York State Writers Institute. In addition to it, Kennedy had always thought that Saratoga would make the ideal location for a summer program. So he hired Skidmore Professor Robert Boyers, who had founded the prestigious literary magazine Salmagundi, to develop the month-long writing program.
Since its inception in 1987, the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore has drawn students and award-winning writers from all over the world. Though the Summer Writers Institute started out with a faculty of just five—two fiction writers, two poets and one nonfiction writer—it has swelled to include 20 established authors for the 2018 faculty, and that doesn’t even include visiting authors, of which there are just as many. “I’ve been in the game for a very long time,” says Professor Boyers. “A lot of the writers I had contacts with and relationships with through Salmagundi magazine. So before I even started the Writers Institute, I had that foundation.”
The list of names that have either taught or read or, in many cases, done both at the Summer Writers Institute, embraces the highest echelon of contemporary authors, many of whom have won Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards—or are regularly shortlisted for myriad other literary awards. Some of the institute’s veterans include Michael Ondaatje, who wrote The English Patient, which was recently voted the best Man Booker Prize-winning novel ever; Joyce Carol Oates; Louise Glück; Marilynne Robinson (Gilead); Paul Harding (Tinkers); and of course, Kennedy, himself.
saratoga living was lucky enough to chat with four of the Summer Writers Institute’s award-winning visiting authors: Robert Pinsky, Mary Gaitskill, Rick Moody and Joanna Scott.
The former US Poet Laureate (1997-2000) is the author of 19 books, including a critically acclaimed and award-winning translation of Dante’s Inferno. Pinsky’s honors include the Los Angeles Times Book Award, Williams Carlos Williams Award and PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, among others.
How long have you been teaching and reading at the Writers Institute?
I’ve been coming to the institute for many years, beginning in the previous century when I used to teach for the full two weeks—I think maybe for two, two-week sessions. I’ve always loved the intensity of focus and the variety of writers. The Boyers-Kennedy spirit has always emphasized writing—not networking, publishing, schmoozing and academic foofaraw. Just writing.
Jazz has been a big influence on you and your work. Have you ever been to a jazz concert here in Saratoga?
I’m well aware of Saratoga Springs as a jazz town. At the Skidmore Jazz Institute (brainchild of Don McCormack, the Jazz Dean), I’ve seen a demo/master class by Milt Hinton and gotten to do Poem-Jazz with Pat LaBarbera.
Does it inspire you to write when you’re around a bunch of other writers, like at the Institute? Or do you need a quiet space to work?
I grew up in a noisy household, and sometimes I seem to work better with a lot going on around me. Calm, quiet surroundings can cause stage fright. So I’ve been known to write while at the Institute.
The essayist, novelist and short story writer has had her work appear in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine and Esquire, among other top publications. The 2002 film Secretary, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, was based on the short story of the same name from Gaitskill’s breakout short story collection, Bad Behavior.
What’s your favorite memory or experience from the Writers Institute?
Watching Joyce Carol Oates read a series of dramatic poems, one of which was about Marlon Brando. It was truly a bravura performance of brilliant material; she projected tremendous power, which was all the more impressive given her age and slight appearance. The audience was completely rapt. On a broader level, the experience of watching the program and the people in it evolve and respond to the changing times has been touching and profound for me. I’ve never had the experience of getting to know a group like this and its been nurturing in a subtle but important way.
While you’re in Saratoga, what do you like to do?
My favorite thing here is taking long walks. I have been to the breakfast at the track a couple of times, and watched the horses train.
Do you find that you write more when you’re surrounded by lots of other writers, like at the Institute?
I’ve never actually tried to write here. Too much going on. But that might be different if I had come for two weeks and stayed on the weekend. In fact, I’m here for the weekend now, and I’m going to try writing something, but that is unusual.
Moody was on The New Yorker’s list of “20 Writers for the 21st Century.” He has won the Addison Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Paris Review’s Aga Khan Prize and more. His 1994 novel, The Ice Storm, was made into a feature film of the same name by Oscar-winning Director Ang Lee.
How many years have you been teaching and reading at the Writers Institute?
I can’t remember how many years. A lot of years! I think I appeared as a reader in the late ’90s, maybe 1998 or so. And then within a year or two I was teaching there. And have ever since. I have a lot of great memories of my time there. I can tell you a very personal memory, and that is that Bob and Peg [Boyers] have allowed me to bring my very young son in the last couple of years, which is kind of them. This will be his third visit this summer, and his first was when he was only a month old. Last summer, he took some of his very first steps on campus, in the non-denominational chapel at Skidmore, as we were waiting to go over to Bob and Peg’s place for dinner. I never will forget that, ever.
What do you like to do while you’re in Saratoga?
Go to Lyrical Ballads. Go to Four Seasons for meals here and there. Every now and then I go to the Roosevelt Baths. I have visited Yaddo a few times over the years. Also, we like to go to the Tang Museum on [Skidmore’s] campus quite a bit.
You wrote about Saratoga’s Gateway Motel in your novel Hotels of North America. Did you actually stay there, and would you leave them a Yelp review?
It’s been a long time since I saw the inside of the Gateway, but I have in fact been in there, way back when. The Gateway, as it appears in the novel, is an imaginary, hyperbolic version of the real one, and the opinions expressed about it are the opinions of a fictional character. I love all Saratoga area businesses, and wish them all well!
Scott is a Roswell Smith Burrows Professor of English at the University of Rochester and the author of a dozen books. She has won the Pushcart Prize, the Aga Khan Prize and her books have been finalists for the Pulitzer, the Pen-Faulkner and the Los Angeles Times Book Award.
What’s your favorite memory or experience from the Writers Institute?
I’ve been coming to the Writers Institute (with an occasional year off now and then) since my older daughter was a toddler, and she’s 26 now. Favorite repeated memory? Working with amazing participants on their writing. Favorite one-time memory? Riding a polo pony (one of the participants in my workshop was a groomer for a polo team!).
What do you like to do in Saratoga, when you’re not hard at work at the Writers Institute?
I like to get on my bike, glide down Broadway past the beautiful old houses and treat myself to a cappuccino and a custard rum raison pastry at Mrs. London’s. Then, of course, I have to peddle back up the hill to campus.
You’ve been teaching at the University of Rochester for 30 years now. What do you enjoy most about living and working in Upstate New York?
I like living in a small city. At the same time, it’s comforting to know that the lakes, mountains, New York City and all the smaller jewels like Saratoga, Skaneateles and Cooperstown are not too far away.
Many of these writers do public readings at Skidmore’s Palamountain Hall during the summer sessions, and upcoming events include readings by literary luminaries such as Moody (tonight!), Pinsky (July 20) and Oates (July 25). Check out the full schedule here.