On February 16th, the State Theater took a step back in time. As guests in evening gowns and suits walked down a red carpet—while posing for photographs by the local paparazzi—Elizabeth Taylor lit up the screen with her infamous portrayal of the Egyptian queen in the 1963 film Cleopatra. Despite almost bankrupting Twentieth Century Fox, Taylor’s box office bomb served as the key to success for Jess Walter’s bestselling novel Beautiful Ruins. An “almost-love” story, Beautiful Ruins weaves together a captivating cast of characters across Italy and Hollywood over fifty years using the production of Cleopatra as the central pivot of the plot. The Hollywood-themed gala at the State Theater was the kickoff event for the 2015 Centre County Reads/CALS Community Read of Beautiful Ruins. Through this classic film, viewers were able to fully visualize the backdrops and romantic themes of Walter’s sweeping drama.
This is the sixth year in which CALS and Centre County Reads have collaborated on the Community Read. A joint effort by local libraries, organizations, and volunteers, Centre County Reads was formed in 2003 with the mission to “encourage county residents of all ages to explore the human condition and the issues of community by reading the same book and coming together in discussions anytime, anywhere, with anyone.” While Centre County Reads and CALS previously sponsored independent reading series at area libraries and Penn State respectively, the two organizations joined forces starting in 2010 to field a more expansive Community Read that would truly unite the local and university communities around a single text. For 2015, Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins was selected as the novel to unify several diverse audiences for an exciting month of events.
State College residents and Penn State students learn about Hollywood's Golden Age.
Marsha Gordon and Kevin Hagopian discuss the evolution of Hollywood celebrity.
Following on the cinematic theme of the Cleopatra gala, CALS hosted “Hollywood: A Roundtable” on March 5th at the Mann Assembly Room. Students, faculty, and community members filled nearly every seat to learn about various aspects of the American film industry in relation to Beautiful Ruins and the nightmarish process of filming Cleopatra. Penn State’s Kevin Hagopian, a senior lecturer in media studies, discussed what he called “the death of one Hollywood and birth of another,” as he explained Cleopatra’s role in the demise of studio-era Hollywood. Professor Marsha Gordon (North Carolina State University) traced the evolution of the silent film star to the new form of celebrity created through Elizabeth Taylor’s and Richard Burton’s high profile off-screen relationship. Penn State professor Jim West concluded the event with a lecture on Hollywood’s relationship with literary modernism, using Walter’s novel to comment on F. Scott Fitzgerald and screenwriting. West entertained the audience with anecdotes of meeting the actress Carey Mulligan and reading a skeltonic poem based on Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.
Jess Walter tells Patty Satalia about his writing process.
The Community Read culminated with two evening events featuring the Beautiful Ruins author. On March 17th, WPSU host Patty Satalia interviewed Jess Walter in the Penn State HUB Robeson Auditorium for “An Evening with Jess Walter.” The night began with an announcement of the CALS’ Beautiful Ruins writing contest winners, whose prizes included an autographed poster by Walter. In addition, Jo Hsu received a two hundred dollar grand prize for her entry, “Forest for the Trees.” During the interview that followed, Walter shared with the audience the origins of his writing career and the fifteen years spent drafting Beautiful Ruins while juggling journalism and other projects. He also discussed how his mother’s failing health motivated him to create a strong female protagonist in Dee Moray. “I wanted to take my mom somewhere she’d never been,” he said.
On Thursday, March 26, Walter read from his work in Foster Auditorium as the 2015 Steven Fischer Writer-in-Residence. He began with a poem from The Financial Lives of the Poets, citing, “I write some of the worst poetry you could ever hear, and I wanted to share some of my writing failures with you.” One piece compared the fabric of America to a thong and prompted the audience into fits of laughter. He also used his encounters with creative writing students at Penn State to discuss his dedication to craft. Several years earlier he believed he had come up with “the best story ever written,” about a sex talk a father drunkenly relays to his son. Finally accepted after years of rejection, he realized that there was always room to improve upon one’s “best” work. For the main event, Walter read an autobiographical work entitled “Statistical Abstract for my Hometown, Spokane, Washington,” a poignant piece with a surprising amount of bicycle thievery. At the end of the story, Walter choked up, claiming that he’d only read the short story four or five times in public—every time he had the same emotional result.
From the grandeur of the opening gala to the accessibility of Walter’s Q&A session, the 2015 Community Read proved to be not only fun and entertaining, but also necessary. It’s not often that Penn State students or State College residents get to interact with a favorite book or its award-winning author on such intimate terms. Writers often arrive at Penn State or the downtown Schlow Library and give short readings. Yet this event series is uniquely beneficial because it allows multiple opportunities for the wider Centre County community to come together as one and meet the writer while investing in the complete world of the novel. From a viewing of the film at the crux of the novel to a lively discussion of Old Hollywood history to the author’s own reflections on writing, this year’s Community Read has created a high standard for the 2016 Community Read to aim for.
This article was co-written by CALS Undergraduate Interns Diana Allen and Carter Clabaugh.
Click here to learn more about the 2015 CALS Community Read.