On the Storied Campus of Yale University

I’ve loved traveling to historical places for vacation ever since my dad let me choose Jamestown, Virginia over Disneyland when I was 10. This year, I got a bonus: I combined my love of history and my love of books by attending a summer writers’ conference at Yale University. There I learned from some of today’s most celebrated novelists—and I got to wander the shaded greens and hallowed buildings of one of our country’s oldest institutions.

Author Chris Bohjalian’s master class was certainly a highlight. I’ve read several of his 19 books, and perhaps my favorite is his historical novel, Skeletons at the Feast. The story centers on 18-year-old Anna, the daughter of Prussian aristocrats, toward the end of WWII. Anna and others flee from Eastern Europe as Russian soldiers advance to Berlin. Bohjalian said, “I must invite readers into the story soon. And, when my books work best, they are about dread for readers.” Skeletons introduces a character we care about—as well as high tension—on page one, and there is a palpable sense that things will only get worse.

Readers who enjoy lush, epic novels that shift between the past and the present should check out The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee, another instructor I had the honor of meeting. In Chee’s 2016 bestseller, Lilliet Berne is an opera singer in nineteenth-century Paris. Just when she thinks she may achieve her chance at immortality—a role that no other diva has ever performed—she discovers the composer’s material is based on her own life’s deepest secret. Of the four people who know about her hidden past, who will be the one to betray her? Chee’s goal with this book was to “grab the reader by the collar and not let them go.” He added, “To build a story, write with a chain of consequences. This happened because this happened because….” I loved the gritty protagonist in Chee’s novel, and I loved her twisting, turning story.

Then there was author Lily King whose historical novel Euphoria captivated me. I only wonder why I waited to so long to pick it up. Inspired by the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead, the book is a masterwork of creating characters in conflict—conflict internal to themselves, and conflict that drives an unforgettable love triangle. About her writing, King said, “I don’t ‘think’ when I write. I’m more like a blind worm on the ground, feeling my way around. It’s not an intellectual process. Writers must be true to what’s inside; it wants to come out. Writers must listen.”

My week was filled with other joys, too, everything from browsing 16th-century paintings at the Yale University Art Gallery to curling up in a leather love seat at Sterling Library (a breathtaking structure in the Gothic style) and studying fiction projects by the talented classmates from my small group workshop. We were led by Terra Elan McVoy, whose many novels have kept her young adult readers up late into the night to see how her ever-so-relatable stories end. Terra shared with us her insights from a lifetime of reading and studying craft. Because of her caring instruction, I left my summer vacation not only as a stronger reader, but as a woman filled with even more creative inspiration.

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