On October 14, 2021, Washington University Libraries partnered with the Department of English to host an exclusive reading and conversation with author Joy Williams as part of Washington University’s Assembly Series. The event took place in Graham Chapel on the Danforth Campus, and was live streamed as well.
Vice Provost and University Librarian Mimi Calter welcomed the audience, remarking on the Joy Williams: Honored Guest exhibition in the Ginkgo Room of John M. Olin Library and online. She also acknowledged the Libraries’ collaboration with the Department of English, and the Libraries’ grant project to digitize the amazing audio collection of Assembly Series speakers.
The Curator of the Modern Literature Collection and manuscripts, Joel Minor, gave introductory remarks for both Joy Williams and David Schuman. Minor took inspiration from Williams’s list, “Nine Essential Attributes of the Short Story” to present his own version, “Nine Essential Attributes of the Literary Archive,” using Williams’s archive, of course, as the model.
Williams read a darkly humorous passage about a birthday party at a bowling alley in a dystopian world of environmental destruction, from her new and highly-acclaimed novel, Harrow (awarded the distinguished Kirkus Award for Fiction just two weeks after the event). This was her first time reading from the work and the only one she had planned for the foreseeable future.
In addition, Williams then read from a work-in-progress: micro-fiction pieces mostly involving the mythical character Azrael, and sometimes including the Devil, with clever nods to philosophy, literature, religion, and culture.
After her reading Joy sat down with David Schuman, Director of Creative Writing, for a discussion about her writing, teaching, and archive. Schuman had Williams as a teacher when he was an MFA Fiction graduate student at WashU in 2002, has worked with her since during her return visits, and has taught her work numerous times to his own students. He and his fiction colleagues were also instrumental in helping to secure Williams’s papers for WashU in 2017 and in getting her to campus for this occasion.
Williams and Schuman discussed whether it’s time for writers to create more havoc, whether Williams even writes for humanity anymore, her writing process behind Harrow, her environmental concerns, her long association with the university’s writing program, her teaching style, and the importance of sincerity to good writing.
The event wrapped up with questions from the audience. Questions ranged from illicitness and humor in her fiction to the long gestation of Harrow to the importance of animals in her fiction and nonfiction.
If you missed the event or would just like to watch it again, we have the video available above and on the Modern Literature Collection’s YouTube channel.
Left Bank Books provided signed copies of Harrow along with selected other Williams books. If you are interested in ordering a signed copy from Left Bank, you can contact them or view Left Bank Books’ inventory of Williams books.
To wrap up her brief visit to St. Louis, Joy and Joel appeared the next day on the St. Louis Public Radio show, “St. Louis on the Air,” to talk about Harrow, the Joy Williams: Honored Guest exhibition, the Joy Williams Papers and her long association with Washington University. A description and recording of the conversation can be found online through St. Louis Public Radio (STLPR).