UND Writers Conference: 'A Portrait of an Artist'

The UND Writers Conference has hosted some big-name authors in its 44 years, but perhaps none bigger than playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner, who on Friday will share perspectives on his work, including some of America's best-known plays an...

Tony Kushner
A Conversation with Tony Kushner will be held at 8 p.m., on Friday at Chester Fritz Auditorium in Grand Forks.

The UND Writers Conference has hosted some big-name authors in its 44 years, but perhaps none bigger than playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner, who on Friday will share perspectives on his work, including some of America's best-known plays and films.

Kushner, an Oscar nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay for Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," is perhaps best known for "Angels in America." The play in two parts about the AIDS epidemic in Reagan-era New York won Kushner the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.

Ten years later, "Angels in America" was adapted into an HBO six-part miniseries for which Kushner wrote the screenplay. It won 11 Emmys out of 21 nominations, including one for Kushner for best writing.

UND Assistant English Professor Crystal Alberts, who co-directs the UND Writers Conference along with UND Associate English professor Heidi Czerwiec, said they invited Kushner never really thinking he would attend.

Now, with the conference and his visit just days away, they're as excited as they were in August, when they announced that Kushner and seven other exemplary authors would visit the UND Writers Conference, which opens Tuesday and runs through Saturday.


"I have butterflies," Alberts said, "and I haven't had butterflies about meeting an author for several years. Kushner knows no boundaries. He's probably the most influential American playwright, period, which is impressive. But what makes it more so -- drama tends to be the genre not a lot of people read. And even if you don't read plays or go to see performances, people still know Kushner."

UND Professor of Philosophy and radio show host Jack Russell Weinstein, who will interview Kushner on the stage of Chester Fritz Auditorium Friday, said he is reading Kushner's plays and other Kushner interviews to prepare for "A Great Conversation with Tony Kushner."

"Even if people aren't familiar with Kushner's work, this will be an event worth going to," Weinstein said. "This is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime experience that people only get in a university town."

As always, the UND Writers Conference events are free and open to the public.

A talented line-up

Kushner may be the biggest "get" at this year's conference, but the other visiting authors -- Dorothy Allison, Mary Jo Bang, Richard Bausch, Nick Flynn, Ed Bok Lee, Gary Shteyngart and Cheryl Strayed -- are hardly slackers.

"I think we're incredibly lucky to have the people we have this year," Alberts said. Part of the event's success comes from years of support from the UND president, provost and others who recognize that the UND Writers Conference is part of what makes UND exceptional, she said.

Alberts credits her co-director, Czerwiec (pronounced SAIR-oh-wek), for being able to spot good authors who are about to hit it big. This year, that list includes Cheryl Strayed.


"She actually was not well-known when we booked her," Alberts said.

In early March 2012 and at Czerweiec's suggestion, Albert booked Strayed for the 2013 conference. Days later, Strayed's book "Wild" was released. By June, it was No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Oprah Winfrey chose it as the first selection for her Oprah's Book Club 2.0. Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon optioned "Wild" for a film in which she plans to star.

"That's also part of our tradition," Alberts said, "to find writers that are going to become very well-known and influential."

Another case in point was Junot Diaz, who won a Pulitzer for his novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" in 2008, one week after appearing at the UND Writers Conference.

Of this year's visiting authors, Bang is an acclaimed poet, Bausch is a Southern writer with 11 novels to his credit and Flynn's work includes a book made into the movie "Being Flynn" starring Robert DeNiro and Paul Dano.

Strayed, originally from northern Minnesota, is a writer who embraces ideas about what it means to grow up in the area, and what it means to be a woman, to deal with grief, to be a mother and to be strong and independent, Alberts said. Strayed also has written the "Dear Sugar" advice column for since 2010.

"Her 'Dear Sugar' columns take on a different voice in some ways," Alberts said. "There is some bite to her words. She's not afraid to take topics head on."

Author Dorothy Allison ("Bastard Out of Carolina") writes from her experience of growing up in a lower working class home in the same way the work of 2011 visiting writer Maxine Hong Kingston spoke in a way that impacted the feminist movement in the 1970s, Alberts said. Allison will speak to UND's women's studies classes while she's in town.


"Allison knows what it means to struggle to put food on the table, to be the first (in your family) to graduate from high school and college, and what it means to jump class and to figure out how you still relate to your family or if you still fit into your family," Alberts said.

Ed Bok Lee, who grew up in Fargo and lives in Minneapolis, has written about what it means to live in Minneapolis and the upper Plains, Alberts said.

'Wickedly funny'

"Another person I'm very excited about is (visiting author) Gary (Shteyngart)," Alberts said. "His satire is wickedly funny and yet highly disturbing because he comments on our overly socially networked society and what happens when kids stop reading."

Shteyngart, born in Russia, came to America with his family when he was 7. His book "Super Sad True Love Story" is described in a Publisher's Weekly review as a dystopic vision of the future of America. In his book, all people care about is looking good, being thin, buying stuff and being online, Alberts said.

"It mimics the conversation you would see in an IM chat," Alberts said. "At one point, the characters are conversing about these people who they think are especially ignorant. And all their words are misspelled. It's a wonderful book."

Almost all of the UND Writers Conference takes place in the UND Memorial Union. The visiting authors read from their work, take part in panel discussions and take questions from the audience. A film festival runs in conjunction with the conference, with films chosen by the visiting authors and shown in the UND Memorial Union Lecture Bowl. (See a complete schedule for the UND Writers Conference, descriptions of the films and brief bios of the authors elsewhere in this section.)

Jack Russell Weinstein will record his "Why? Philosophical Discussions about Everyday Life" radio show with visiting author Mary Jo Bang as his guest, at 2 p.m. Thursday in the UND Memorial Union Ballroom. The live recording will be edited and broadcast later on Prairie Public radio and on the website.


"A Great Conversation with Tony Kushner" at 8 p.m. Friday will feature Kushner and Weinstein conversing and sitting opposite each other on the stage of the Fritz. Questions also may be taken from the audience.

Reach Tobin at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or send e-mail to .

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