Alison Lurie to read short works from a long career

Alison Lurie

While best known as a novelist, with some of her fiction set on a campus very much like Cornell’s, professor emerita of English Alison Lurie has also written supernatural short stories, essay collections on children’s literature and folklore, memoirs and other nonfiction.

Lurie will choose some of her shorter works – “things that are complete in themselves,” she said – for a reading Thursday, Sept. 19, at 4:30 p.m. in Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium, Goldwin Smith Hall. The annual Richard Cleaveland Memorial Reading, the first event in the Fall 2013 Barbara & David Zalaznick Reading Series, is free and open to the public.

Retired from teaching for eight years, Lurie has been writing a children’s book, and she contributed “The Sweater Curse” to “Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting,” a collection coming out in November.

Her new book “The Language of Houses” will be published next year. She calls it “a study of what buildings are saying to us.” Her 1981 book “The Language of Clothes” took a similar approach, as an exploration of communication through dress.

“I’m interested in the way buildings influence our lives, from a cultural, sociological or human perspective,” Lurie said. “After a while I didn’t want to confine it to houses, so I started to look at schools, churches, museums, hospitals, stores and offices.”

Lurie began teaching in the Department of English at Cornell in 1969 and was named the F.J. Whiton Professor of American Literature in 1989. She retired in 2005.

“I eased into retirement very slowly, so finally I was only teaching one course in the fall term, on humor and literature,” she said.

Lurie taught a fiction seminar for MFA students, and undergraduate courses in writing,  folklore and children’s literature.

“Then I taught a course in the child in literature – it was something I’ve always been interested in,” she said. "It's usually possible to invent a new course, and a lot of people in the English department have done that. Lamar Herrin wanted to teach Southern literature, for instance, and Jim McConkey invented a famous lecture course on memory in literature. Unless it was very flaky, the deparment would usually let you do it.”

The fictional town of Corinth, Corinth University and Hopkins County have been the primary setting for three of Lurie’s novels: “Imaginary Friends” (1967), “The War Between the Tates” (1974) and “Truth and Consequences” (2005).

“I’m not the kind of person who can write, let us say, about 18th-century France or even 18th-century America, or gang wars in Los Angeles,” she said. “I’ve mostly written fairly close to what I know.”

Her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1984 novel “Foreign Affairs” follows a Corinth professor to England and back. Lurie has also lived in Amherst, Mass.; Los Angeles, London and Key West, all of which have appeared in her fiction. Many of her characters reappear in other novels, including “Real People” (1969), “Only Children” (1979) and “The Truth About Lorin Jones” (1989).

Gov. Andrew Cuomo named Lurie the New York State Author in 2012, a two-year appointment.

“I thought there would be more I’d have to do," Lurie said. "If you’re the U.S. poet laureate, you have to go all over the country promoting a cause like library development, literacy or storytelling. But even if there aren't many duties, I think it's a good thing for a state to have an official poet or an official writer, just as it's good for them to have an official bird and official flower. Maybe that way there's less chance that any of us will become extinct."

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