- Claire Messud
In May, at an annual Boston gala honoring writers, I was to introduce the novelist Min Jin Lee. Over cocktails beforehand, we chatted with another honoree, the novelist Jennifer Haigh. Within minutes, we realized that we'd all been together before, in the summer of 1999, at the Sewanee Writers' Conference. I was a fellow there that year, while Min and Jennifer were working on their first books. For all three of us, the intense workshops, unforgettable readings and lectures, and the long nights of conversation were transformative. We're just three of the hundreds of writers in this country indebted to Wyatt Prunty, who has not only supported and united us but has created a literary home for us for the past thirty years. [End Page 738]
Almost thirty years ago, I dropped out of the Syracuse MFA and then lived most of my twenties in London. When I landed in Washington, DC in 1995, having recently published my first novel, I had no American literary friends, or even acquaintances. I attended Bread Loaf, where I rediscovered poetry and a cohort of amazing poets—among them Erin Belieu and Greg Williamson—and it was thanks to Greg that I went to Sewanee a few years later, and discovered Wyatt's world. Arriving on the Mountain felt like being allowed into an enchanted literary kingdom: Wyatt, Cheri Peters, and the merry band of writers who formed the original staff—including Greg, Phil Stephens, Leah Stewart, Leigh Anne Couch, and Juliana Gray—created an exuberant, rigorous, riotous, smashingly talented, totally unpretentious community. On that mountaintop, among those writers, I wanted to belong, and was welcomed.
Those halcyon years were central to my life for most of my thirties. I spent a memorable semester teaching at the University, living in a big house on the edge of the bluff with my (now departed) dachshund Myshkin, where the doors didn't lock (who needs locks in Sewanee?), and the previous tenants' children had stuffed Lego down the toilets. In my early summers at the Conference, groups of us went skinny dipping past midnight—imagine the eminent and rather elderly Romulus Linney, naked among twenty-somethings. Wyatt heartily disapproved: he can be stern when necessary, even a little scary.
I brought first my husband to the Conference, then our kids as they were born. We dropped our infant son on his head in the parking lot of the Sewanee Inn; fifteen years later, he seems none the worse for wear. There were beautiful buffet suppers at Wyatt and Barbara's house, long conversations, drinks in hand, at Rebel's Rest and over fried green tomatoes and cheese grits at Pearl's. Generations and genres were thrown together in mutual appreciation; [End Page 739] we heard readings and were offered revelations I'll never forget—I first heard Robert Hass read there, and marveled; and marveled, too, when shy William Gay read for the first time ever. We all loved to hear Wyatt read: too well-mannered ever to put himself forward, he nonetheless conceded to this annual event. At my house, lo these many years—it's been over a decade since we visited the Conference—we've quoted his brilliant lines about kids: "'We should have waited until / They were older to have them.'"
Wyatt's Sewanee, like his poetry, is filled with humor, sometimes sharp but always bonhomous and wise. He has presided over the precious community he has created with wisdom, generosity and a little recul: bemused by youthful antics, judicious in praise, profoundly ethical in matters both human and artistic. Crucially, Wyatt's Conference, in welcoming spouses and children, has set an inspiring example. The writing life isn't separate from life, Wyatt insists: it is life. Sometimes messy, sometimes noisy, often surprising, always open and supportive.
Writers have come to Wyatt's Mountain to learn from him and from one another; he has taught us that these lessons travel with us into the world, an abiding gift to all who've had the good fortune to attend the Conference. Wyatt Prunty, sage poet, consummate gentleman, and literary exemplar, has shown for thirty years how...