A young woman rose gracefully from her chair and took her place at the podium before a large crowd of students and faculty at the Visiting Writers Series last week, sponsored by ‘ink.’ She was Jennifer Vanderbes, and her audience at the College warmly welcomed her as she gave a reading from her 2003 novel “Easter Island.”
Authors are frequently asked when they fell in love with writing. Usually, there is a flowery anecdote filled with a striking turning point in an author’s life that makes him or her want to stay with a pen and pad in hand forever. For Vanderbes, 31, this was not the case.
“It was not love at first sight,” she said. “It was a true, gradual process of falling in love with literature.”
Dan Pope, adjunct professor of English and organizer of the event, praised Vanderbes’ literary talents when he introduced her, referring to her book as one that “makes you feel smarter when you read it.”
She took the audience on a journey to Easter Island as she read from three sections of her captivating first novel about two women from two different time periods. Their stories converge on a remote island as they unlock its mysteries and uncover the truth about themselves and their loved ones.
“Her book is a terrific example of historical fiction,” Pope said.
While pursing a graduate degree in creative writing at the University of Iowa, Vanderbes began indulging herself in archeological journals. It was then that she discovered that during World War I in 1912, a German fleet had arrived on Easter Island, a remote island located halfway between Chile and Tahiti. She decided to use this setting and story line to create her novel.
“The island itself is a setting of beauty, destruction and rebirth,” Vanderbes said. “The characters that are moving towards this island are all sort of simultaneously going through those processes.”
Vanderbes explains that the setting was essential to the novel. She said that after researching, she was interested in the island and liked the idea of foreign settlers “affecting” the island and exploring how it was affecting them.
She also read a lot of World War I memoirs and biographies of women from that time period to get a sense of how to create some of the voices of her characters.
Another part of her research involved visiting the island and spending time with some of its inhabitants. She told the audience how the people on the island responded to her writing a story based on their home.
“It took them awhile. They were very disappointed when they got to the airport and saw how young I was,” she said. But during her second visit to the island, the natives began to understand that she was really writing a novel when they saw her compiling pages.
“I’m sure it’s a little strange (for them) to see an outsider’s perspective of the place,” she said.
Although not everyone at the event had read Vanderbes’ book, a large majority of them did for Pope’s course, Genre Studies The Novel. For instance, Gina McGrath, freshman open options culture and society major, explained how Vanderbes had visited her class earlier that day to discuss her book and her short story “Hat Box,” as well as to share her experiences with writing fiction.
“I was very impressed because there are so many plot lines that are interwoven,” McGrath said of the author’s book.
Patrick Czekanski, sophomore chemistry major who also read “Easter Island,” agreed with McGrath. “I think it was interesting how the stories were converged and interrelated with one another,” he said.
Bethany Allinder, junior English major and vice president of ‘ink,’ describes the Visiting Writers Series as “not only an honor, but a necessity.” “Writers capture our times,” she said, referring to Vanderbes. Although she did not read “Easter Island,” she was excited to have Vanderbes give a reading and was proud of the large turnout of over 50 students.
Pope also stressed the importance of exposing students to published authors. “Creative writing students get a chance to meet various writers,” he said. He also explains how authors like Vanderbes bring students “that much closer to seeing what it takes to become a professional writer.”
Allinder, who, like Vanderbes, writes historical fiction, said, “It’s interesting to see how personable the writers are and how the atmosphere is different each time.”
Vanderbes was very personable with the audience, engaging them in a question and answer segment, signing copies of her book and answering students’ individual questions after the event ended. Questions ranged from who were the author’s literary influences to how she was able to publish her book.
In the end, Vanderbes modestly explained that getting her book published was a “leap of faith” and that when she set out to write it, she wasn’t counting on it getting published or being well-received.
Vanderbes is currently working on on another novel. Judging by the success of “Easter Island,” including being named a book of summer by “Time Out New York” in 2003, we can look forward to another intriguing and impressive work of art from the young and talented Vanderbes.