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NICHOLAS DELBANCO
in conversation with BENNINGTON REVIEW

 

JESSICA ZENG

To what extent are the experiences, thoughts, and desires of the teenagers in your story "Youth" affected by your own youth? You write about youth frequently—can you discuss that impulse? In writing about youth, is one also invariably writing about nostalgia and the passage of time?

NICHOLAS DELBANCO

I was very young when I became a faculty member at Bennington; they hired me in 1966, at the age of twenty-three. Now half a century has gone by, and one relies (this writer does, at any rate) increasingly on memory and “remembrance of things past.” So the episode here detailed does come from my own youth. It’s not, of course, a memoir, or I would have described it as such; my girlfriend at the time did not become a television journalist; her father was no lawyer and my mother wasn’t divorced. Martha’s Vineyard has grown exponentially in terms of population, and the old lady I here write of is long dead.  And so on and so forth. But what you describe as “the passage of time” has indeed become a central subject—or perhaps a better word is preoccupation—in my recent work.  “What’s past is prologue,” possibly, but it’s also just plain past.

JESSICA ZENG

The Martha's Vineyard diner in the story, and the old woman who works there, are evoked in such careful detail. What was your inspiration for the setting and for her character?

NICHOLAS DELBANCO

My effort here was to replicate, in some degree, the slow and painstaking procedure of the “short order” cook herself. She was anything but rapid, was very attentive to detail, and it seemed appropriate to mimic that approach. I can’t of course remember with full retentiveness the sequence of her actions, the details of the room and food—but it felt right, in fictive terms, to reproduce that experience. I do remember feeling impatient, then aghast, then trying not to laugh…

JESSICA ZENG

How did you decide to frame the story in the format of a retold Hansel and Gretel fairy tale? What interests you about the form of the fairy tale in general?

NICHOLAS DELBANCO

Two children lost in a dark wood is one of the root narratives; so is the romantic sequence of “boy meets girl; they fall in love; they part.” If you look beneath the surface of most rites of passage, they do feel stereotypical—or, more grandly, archetypical. Think of passage in its secondary meaning—“the passage on p. 23”—or the sonorous equivalence of “rites” and “writes.” So when I wrote of passage here, the fairy tale commended itself as an appropriate form.

JESSICA ZENG

What books, films, or works of art have you encountered or re-encountered recently that have had an effect on your thinking and practice?

NICHOLAS DELBANCO

At a certain stage of art and life—I hope this doesn’t sound over-pretentious—the “books, films, or works of art” that one encounters no longer have an appreciable effect on one’s artistic “thinking and practice.” I published my first novel, now, fifty years ago; next year my thirtieth book will appear. Therefore, if nothing else, I’m no longer an apprentice or enrolled in what Yeats so wonderfully called a “singing school.” That said, it remains to say that one is always looking for a fresh draft of experience, and hoping to encounter new/old exciting work. In terms of the three categories you list, I’d say my most important recent sightings were Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, by Adam Hochschild, Moonlight, the film by Barry Jenkins, and an exhibition of paintings still hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Max Beckmann in New York.”

JESSICA ZENG

You were a professor at Bennington College for twenty years, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. Could you share a classroom memory from your time here? What are your memories of the student body, and of how it may have changed over your tenure here?

NICHOLAS DELBANCO

I welcome this new version of “The Bennington Review”—for which I once briefly served as Editor—because it reminds me of a period when artists were consequential, even crucial, in the college faculty. I don’t of course know much about the present curriculum, but at that time an artist was primus inter pares. To play poker with Lou Calabro, Alvin Feinman, Bernard Malamud, Ken Noland and Jules Olitski, among others, was to join a high-stakes game. And those high stakes extended to the writing workshop, where my students were—again among many others—Bret Easton Ellis, Jill Eisenstadt, Ted Mooney and Mary Ruefle. There was palpable excitement in the work emerging from the college rooms and halls. Towards the end, when John Gardner and I began the Bennington Writing Workshops, the excitement would continue in the summer, and when I founded the low-residency M.F.A. Program (begun in the mid-1980’s and discontinued until born again—like this very magazine!) it happened over Non-Resident Term, in the winter months. We were word-and-dance-and-theatre-and-music-and-sculpture-and-painting drunk those years.


NICHOLAS DELBANCO taught at Bennington College from 1966 to 1985; he has just retired as the Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor of English from the University of Michigan. Together with the late John Gardner, Delbanco founded the Bennington Writing Workshops in 1977; in 1982, he cofounded the low-residency Bennington MFA Program in Creative Writing. He is the author of twenty-nine books of fiction and nonfiction; his most recent novel is The Years.


JESSICA ZENG is an editorial assistant at Bennington Review. 



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