Photo by Greg Bensonchecked into my hotel and had some time to kill before coming here," J. Robert Lennon C'92 says to the 20 or so people assembled to hear him read at Kelly Writers House in late February. "I was a little nervous, so I figured I'd sit back and watch a little TV. I turned the TV on, but instead of a program, it had the Hotel Menu. They started flashing up different things that the hotel made available for business travelers. On this list, it said: 'Fax and Coping Services Available.' So I took advantage of that, and I feel very confident now. I highly recommend it."
   He gets a good laugh -- and not just because the majority of the audience is made up of his family and friends. The 28-year-old Lennon, who slouches at the podium, his dark hair somewhere in the realm between "tousled" and "unkempt," his manner a mix of bookish and hip, channels much of his considerable intellect into the deadpan delivery of one-liners, both in person and on paper. It seems fitting that his new novel -- his second, after the well-received The Light of Falling Stars -- is about a comic strip.
   More specifically, the funnies documents the travails of the Mix clan, the actual -- and highly dysfunctional -- family behind the popular syndicated strip, "Family Funnies." When the Family's progenitor, Carl Mix, dies unexpectedly, it is learned that he has bequeathed the strip to his son, Tim, a failing avant-garde artist, and given him three months to produce a portfolio of strips satisfactory to the syndicate editors. Though Tim is initially reluctant, by drawing the "Family Funnies" -- and perceiving his parents and siblings through "the reeking roil of [his father's] subconscious" -- he realizes that his harsh, longtime preconceptions have been misguided at best.
   Tim Mix's inner conflicts, neuroses and self-doubt make him an appropriate narrator for this irreverent but touching situation comedy. His is a sharp, comic voice, attuned to the timing of good storytelling and the cadence of plain speech -- in fact, he sounds a lot like J. Robert Lennon. "This narrator is fairly close to me," the author admitted privately, shortly before the reading. "I'm preoccupied with a lot of the same things that he is preoccupied with. But he's a little more screwed up. My family is stable and happy, and I've never had the kinds of problems he has."
   As if to underline his statement, practically the entire Lennon clan is waiting for him at the Writers House when he arrives for the reading.
   Lennon's visit was sponsored by the Kelly Writers House Alumni Writers Series, which has brought more than a dozen alumni fiction writers, poets, journalists, screenwriters, editors, literary agents and other publishing folk to the former University chaplain's-residence-turned-literary-hub at 3805 Locust Walk. Since opening in the fall of 1995, Writers House has developed a handful of regular reading series, each with a specific focus: Philly Talks, as a House flyer has it, is "a dialogue with contemporary poets." Theorizing in Particular is "an interdisciplinary lecture series highlighting current methods of cultural analysis and criticism." The Talking Film series hosts visiting screenwriters, film producers and directors.
   While alumni have appeared at the House since its beginning, the idea of a reading series focusing exclusively on alumni began to take shape in a formal way in the fall of 1997, largely under the direction of Dr. Alan Filreis, professor of English, who had led the effort to create the House and serves as faculty director, and Kerry Sherin C'85, who was then the House's resident coordinator and has since become program director. "Writers House had become a kind of clearinghouse for information about alumni writers," Sherin recalls. But, although the School of Arts and Sciences had occasionally sponsored talks by alumni writers, there was no regular series serving that purpose.
   For Sherin, an alumni series seemed a natural extension of the House programming. "I know what it means to be a writer and graduate from Penn and lose touch with Penn," she says. "I also know that when I was an undergrad, I sought out the writers in the Penn community. I wanted to meet them and talk to them about what they did, and show them my work."
Photo by Ken Yanoviak   In addition to Lennon, the series has included visits by fiction writer and journalist Jennifer Egan C'85; poets Betsy Andrews C'85 and Carole Bernstein C'81; journalists Gilbert Sandler C'49, Mark Cohen C'84, Stephen Fried C'79, Buzz Bissinger C'76 and Sabrina Eaton C'85; screenwriters Alec Sokolow C'85 and Andy Wolk C'70; anthologist Larry Dark C'81 and editor Tina Pohlman C'92; literary agent Loretta Barrett CW'62 GEd'65; film producer Kathy DeMarco C'88 W'88; performance artist Eva Mantell C'85; monologuist Sharon Glassman C'84; and grant-writer Andy Robinson C'80.
   "I approached them," Loretta Barrett recalls. "I had read about the Kelly Writers House in the alumni newsletter, and thought it was a wonderful idea." Barrett worked as an editor for Doubleday before creating her own literary agency, Loretta Barrett Books. She has led publishing workshops at the House in January of 1998 and again this year. Both events were well attended, with the audience including both aspiring writers and would-be publishing professionals and ranging in age from 20 to 50, in Barrett's estimate.
   She enthuses about the House's potential to support developing writers. "Practically every writer I have ever worked with, particularly in fiction, started writing very young. So to be able to have a place on campus for the undergraduates who are interested in writing is an extraordinary opportunity. I think it adds an enormous dimension to the life of a campus. I don't know of anything like the Kelly Writers House on other campuses, to be perfectly honest."
   Events such as Barrett's workshop attract career-minded English majors eager to make their first professional contact. When Anchor Books editor Tina Pohlman and Larry Dark, editor of the annual anthology Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards (published by Anchor) visited, they were nearly overwhelmed. "I was really surprised at how much of the discussion focused on the practical," Pohlman says. "Larry and I did our prepared questions, and then we took a lot of questions from people in the audience, and then when we were done with that, people followed us out the door and asked us more questions." One student has since sent her a manuscript, "which I haven't had the time to read yet."
   A similar scenario unfolded in the wake of the screenwriting workshop, which was co-sponsored by the Talking Film series, hosted by Andy Wolk. "There were maybe a dozen people in the audience," recalls Wolk, a successful writer-director and former artistic director of the Sundance Institute, "and almost every single one of them has called me or written to me or sent me scripts afterwards. Here I am, three thousand miles away. I think that speaks to a kind of need that something like this [program] fulfills."
   Caryn Karmatz Rudy C'92, senior editor at Warner Books, puts it another way: "Anyone who was an English major from my year at Penn remembers that our Wharton counterparts had tons of job interviews and all sorts of career planning assistance. Whereas if you were an English major, there wasn't a hell of a lot that was open to you." Karmatz Rudy made her first visit to the Writers House in March, when she helped organize a career fair in publishing co-sponsored by Career Services and the School of Arts and Sciences. "This is the first step toward creating some of that alumni-student bonding that goes on in trying to get people jobs," she explained.


May/June Contents | Gazette Home

Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 4/29/99