Introducing a Guest Speaker

I have the great pleasure today of introducing you to someone who, in addition to being my favorite writer, I am fortunate to consider a mentor and a close friend. As it happens, Quentin James was also the first acquaintance I made when I began teaching at Columbia in 1992. I had just been hired as an instructor in the creative writing program, and had been in my new office for about ten minutes, when Quentin walked in. I of course knew who he was; the man, after all, had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Dogcatcher. But he introduced himself anyway, and then, to my surprise and my delight, sat in the chair opposite my desk, and proceeded to engage me in conversation. I just couldn't believe that this famous author, who I personally considered one of today's greatest novelists, was taking the time to sit and talk with me. I was even more surprised when he proceeded to inform me, after forty-five minutes chatting together, that I was actually sitting in his office! After I turned bright red and finished sputtering my apology, I asked him why he didn't kick me out when he first came in and found me at his desk. And I'll never forget his response. He smiled and said, “Because I like the company.”

In retrospect, I realize that I shouldn't have been quite as surprised by that first meeting as I was. Because anyone who reads Quentin James' novels knows that only someone who has that kind of fascination with other people could create the wonderful, absolutely believable characters that he's famous for. I'm thinking of characters like Evelyn, the alcoholic nightclub singer of Blue Streak, and Derek, the cop who dreams of a career as a chef in Walking the Beat — characters who are such unique, fully drawn individuals that we feel we know them, and who, when we've reached the last page, we find ourselves missing.

During one of our many conversations about writing, I once asked Quentin about the process he uses to create these characters who are not only realistic but also captivating, complicated individuals. And he told me, “It's easy. I just listen to what people have to say about themselves. Anything you need to know about creating characters you can learn from listening to the people you meet.”

As far back as high school, Quentin demonstrated that keen interest in listening to what people have to say. Serving as the editor of his school newspaper, the Gryphon Gazette, he wrote a weekly column in which he profiled a student or teacher whom he'd interviewed. That column won him an award from the High School Press Association, and led to a summer internship at the Washington Post. In college, Quentin continued writing these profiles for the Princeton paper. Acting further on his interest in people, and demonstrating the compassion and empathy that critics today describe as hallmarks of his writing, he began volunteering his time at a peer crisis counseling center.

The experience of listening to his fellow students share their crises and troubles, and reveal in many cases their most intimate emotions and desires, became the inspiration for Quentin's first novel, Hear Hear, published by Random House in 1973 to universal acclaim. Arlene Kreig, reviewing the book in the New York Times, hailed it as the arrival of an important new talent in American fiction. That impressive debut was followed by five more novels and three short story collections, all of which have earned tremendous critical praise and accolades. Four of those novels have been turned into successful films, the most recent one, The Last Train of the Night, earning Quentin an Oscar for his screenplay. That Oscar can take its place alongside Quentin's Pulitzer, and two American Book awards.

Quentin is currently at work on his next novel, tentatively titled, For Crying Out Loud. Today, we have the great privilege of having him here to read an excerpt from it in person, as well as talk to us more about his distinctive writing process. Please, join me in welcoming the wonderful writer responsible for creating all of those marvelous characters who we know and love, my friend, colleague, and occasional office mate, Quentin James.

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