Interview by Stephanie A. Vega, Assistant Editor, The Fourth River
On October 18th, we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Melanie Brown Lecture Series with the visit to Chatham of acclaimed writer Amy Bloom. The Melanie Brown Lecture Series brings an established author to Chatham every year and allows aspiring writers and the Chatham community at large to interact with them in various settings and learn about their work. The Fourth River is honored to feature a folio of work from the last decade of the lecture series in our current digital issue.
The Melanie Brown Lecturer is supported by an endowment from Melanie and Fred R. Brown established in 2008. The Browns are lifelong Pittsburghers who love books and have crisscrossed the country collecting signed copies of works of fiction, most of which are first editions. The Browns generously donated their vast collection of award winning contemporary fiction to Chatham in 2010. The Melanie and Fred R. Brown Special Collection of Literary Fiction is now permanently housed in the Jennie King Mellon Library. They now spend most of their time in Florida but are frequently back in town. I had a chance to interview Melanie and Fred Brown in advance of their traveling to Pittsburgh this month to attend the lecture.
The Fourth River: Celebrated author Amy Bloom will be coming to Chatham as the tenth Melanie Brown Lecturer. Are you excited about her visit?
Melanie Brown: We are pretty excited about that. We were excited when it came up as an option. Usually we have some input. Together with Marc Nieson and Sheryl St. Germain we make a decision from several names. They’re already starting to throw up names for next year.
FR: I know you are both avid readers and collectors of books. How did the idea for a lecture series first come about?
MB: We enjoy going to see authors and getting signed books, and we formed this relationship with Sheryl St. Germain.
Fred Brown: It started ten or eleven years ago. This is the tenth anniversary but it’s only been nine years. That’s because we shifted from Spring to Fall, so in one year we did two. Amy Bloom is the tenth author we have brought in.
Ten or eleven years ago, when Melanie and I were really active collecting and getting the books signed, Chatham had an author coming in. It was someone I collected. Melanie and I were going out of town and we couldn’t attend the lecture. So I called Sheryl. I got her on the phone and I asked, if I get these books to you, would you get them signed? And she said yes. She was really gracious about it. So lo and behold, a couple weeks later, we get back home and I call her. She had gotten the books signed and offered to mail them. I said, how about Melanie and I come down and pick them up. She said yes and we went there and spent about a half hour, forty-five minutes. It’s one of those things, a really strong relationship started because of that, her doing us the kindness of getting the books signed.
We had seen that she liked to bring in authors, and I don’t know how much longer after that it was, maybe five or six months later, that we went back with a proposal to Sheryl that we would sponsor a Melanie Brown lecture every year.
I’m not a writer but Melanie will tell you that I tell stories. The real heart of the story is that Sheryl was so gracious in doing us a favor. That is what started the relationship and the lecture series, which then led to our book collection being donated to Chatham.
MB: We had no relationship with Chatham before then, before asking Sheryl if she could get the books signed.
FR: The Melanie and Fred R. Brown Special Collection of Literary Fiction housed here in the Chatham Library is such a special space for lovers of fiction—there is this added connection with these books, especially with signed copies and inscriptions, which you have been collecting for a long time. How do you think that collection ties into the work of the Melanie Brown Lecture series?
MB: Part of the collecting was about going out to see the authors and get things signed. For me, that was one way that I could get Fred to travel, as well as being able to meet the authors. Most of the authors that we have met over the years have been very generous and grateful to have people come out to listen to them talk and sign books. The lecture series gives that added bonus of being able to interact with the MFA students. Students have come up and said thank you, said they are grateful to have these lectures and be able to go in the library and see these books. That means a lot to us.
FB: I analogize it to people interacting with famous sports stars or people in the performing arts, actors and so forth. I mean, to be able to sit down with people we admire because of their skill in writing and just have a conversation, even dinner and a glass of wine—I am awed by that. I know that in our society writers of fiction are not always seen like that but in my mind they are. Sometimes I pinch myself to think that I could experience that. And that just rolls right into their signing books. Melanie and I have copies of books by each of the ten authors that have been part of the Melanie Brown Lecture. We have signed copies. They are sitting right in the prominent place in our great room.
MB: When we decided we were moving from Pittsburgh we knew we weren’t going to be taking our books with us. That’s when we decided we would donate the collection. We had formed a relationship with Sheryl St. Germain through the lectures and decided that Chatham would also be the best home for our books.
FR: Thinking about some of the exceptional writers that have come to Chatham through this lecture series, which are some of the most memorable ones to you?
MB: Well, the first one (and this is partly why we moved from Pittsburgh), the first one was in February and Debra Marquart couldn’t make it in because of weather. She was flying in from Iowa, and her flight couldn’t make it in, so essentially we had this big dinner without her, which was a shame.
FB: But we partied hardy anyway.
MB: They did reschedule and she did finally make it in. She was really interesting. She was not only a good writer but also a musician. She brought some CDs and we had a fun time.
They all have pretty interesting stories in and of themselves. Karen Bender was up for the National Book Award right around the same time so she was really excited. And when Wiley Cash came he was talking to someone in Hollywood. He was possibly getting some kind of movie deal. Different stories.
FB: Subsequent to there being a lecture we saw Karen Bender at the Miami Book Festival. We also saw Wiley Cash about a year after he had won the award; he came into Fort Myers. They saw us. They recognized us. They were appreciative not only of what we did for them but also for having them come to the campus and interact with the students.
FR: What keeps you engaged and excited about fostering that link between established authors and the writers here at Chatham just starting their writing careers?
MB: We just hope that the students that do get to have time with the authors get to ask them questions and find out how they write, their techniques and other perspectives. Getting that first hand from someone who is writing actively, who has published and been recognized, hopefully will mean that the students are getting what they need out of that interaction.
FB: It won’t actually be a measure of success, but we would take a huge amount of pride if a future Melanie Brown lecturer is a graduate of the MFA program at Chatham. It’s not a measure of success, but boy that would be neat.
Stephanie A. Vega writes fiction. Originally from Paraguay, she studied Economics and International Relations in the United States and the United Kingdom. She now lives in Pittsburgh and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Chatham University. Her fiction has been published in The Threepenny Review and is forthcoming in The Cossack Review and The Normal School.