Writers in their youth

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From 1976 to 1980, novelist Joe David Bellamy directed the Fiction International/St. Lawrence University Writers’ Conference in a rustic conference center along the shore of upstate New York’s Saranac Lake. I’d never heard of it until I picked up “The Lost Saranac Interviews: Forgotten Conversations With Famous Writers” (Writer’s Digest books: 280 pp., $19.99), a collection of transcripts from the five years of the conference, which Bellamy has just edited with his wife, Connie, an English professor at Virginia Wesleyan.

Paging through this book makes me wish I could build a time machine and go back to the late 1970s, just so I could see it for myself. Partly, it’s the participants — among the bits and pieces here are interviews with Annie Dillard, Russell Banks and a very young Ann Beattie, as well as panels on “The Place of Autobiography in Fiction” with John Hawkes and Gail Godwin, and “The Pitfalls of First Novels” with Charles Simmons and E.L. Doctorow.

But equally alluring are the book’s copious photographs, which make me wonder: Is it possible that the world could ever be so young? There’s Dillard, looking like a high school kid in a baseball hat and pigtails, or Doctorow, Jayne Anne Phillips, Daniel Halpern and William Kittredge relaxing on the sun-splashed deck.

Actually, it’s less the literary talk than these pictures that keep me coming back. To see all those writers hanging out together is like getting a glimpse of some long lost, peaceful summer in which, it seems, there was nothing but time. Given our own rushed and desperate moment, that’s something to long for, and it’s what makes this unexpected volume resonate.


David L. Ulin