Insightful Soul: An evening with Renata Adler

by Emma Muto Gordon

renata adler speedboat
via The Guardian

As a part of their Reading series known as “Literary Publishers,” the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House and the New York Review Books presented Renata Adler. Adler has been throughout the literary world since she began as a reporter with major stories such as her coverage of Selma and the 6-day war. Renata Adler, a former editor of The New Yorker, has published two fiction novels—“Speedboat” and “Pitch Dark,” as well as several Non Fiction collections including her latest collection, “After the Tall Timber.”

Adler began her reading with a segment from her favorite novel, “Pitch Dark.” In her worn, yet powerful, voice she spun the tale of a women and a raccoon. Living in an old farmhouse, the woman discovered the raccoon coming into the barn and curling up by the stove. After weeks of trying to get close to him she “thought he was growing to trust [her] when in fact he was dying.” As the story continued she painted the arrival of the animal control gentleman and his grandson to take away the raccoon. Even within her words and descriptions of the raccoon looking at her as he was taking away, one could feel a sense of betrayal from the creature.

Finishing with the first segment and calling it slightly sappy, followed by a gentle laughter from the crowd, Adler moved on to a segment from her new book “After the Tall Timber. A collection of non-fiction,  Alder explained how she was originally promoted to an editor position at the New Yorker before being allowed to go out to California for a short period of time to do some reporting. The scene she painted was the Sunset Strip in LA in the 1960s.

One street corner held a group of God-fearing people preaching to the passersby of their sins while a group of teenagers walked by and began to interact with the church people. The scene played out in ridiculous ways of the teenagers taunting the God-fearing and vice versa until finally one couple stood in front of the leader and began to kiss, sparking more outrage and approval. After finishing with that segment, Ms. Adler looked to the crowd and said, “The question is whether one is truer than the other.”

The evening continued with a question and answer session opened to the crowd. Most of the questions revolved around how she came to do what she does and other points of her career.

On writing a story she spoke to the fact that “a story unfolds before you… as long as you’re paying attention to what’s going on”, you’ll find something. And speaking to fiction she said “if you’re going to write, particularly with criticism, you ought to write fiction. That is where the writing is.”

Her childhood consisted of German fairytales that had bitter ends for the children who didn’t listen to rules, but still they held no emotional effect on Adler. She encouraged the crowd to read classics because they’re there for a reason.

Adler ended the evening on a quite grim note however when asked about today’s political issues. In her own opinion, she believes these to be very bad times, even the end of times. She believes people are throwing words around too easily such as Genocide. Living through the racial issues of the civil rights, she doesn’t believe today’s issues to be the same and if you can’t see the difference there’s no conversation.

She went to rectify it slightly by saying that people her age, when she was writing during Selma and California in the 1960s, had the same beliefs has she does now and she’s embarrassed to have become so cynical.

Overall the evening was very enlightening on writing and how to report and how to enchant readers through the spoken word. You can find any of Ms. Adler’s works at any bookstore in the city and they are certainly worth a read.

If you’re interested on hearing an author read their works, the Lillian Vernon Creative Writing House is hosting these readings every Thursday and Friday for the next several weeks.

Emma Muto Gordon is a Contributing Writer. Email her at


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