MAPLEWOOD, NJ - The Fourth Annual Maplewood Literary Award was presented on Saturday, April 1, to Pamela Erens, critically-acclaimed author and Maplewood resident. The event honoring Erens was held at the Maplewood Memorial Library, and concluded the 2017 Maplewood Ideas Festival, which was a series of programs and events that engaged the community with lectures, conversations, and presentations by local visionaries, actors, authors, artists, and innovators.
With Erens’ work esteemed by NPR, The New Yorker, Kirkus, Literary Hub, and the Irish Independent among others, the public award ceremony included a Q&A-styled interview conducted by Maplewood Library Director Sarah Lester.
Erens shared her experiences as a writer and gave insight into her writing expertise. Erens is the author of three novels: “Eleven Hours,”“The Virgins,” and “The Understory”, and has written other short fiction, reviews, and essays as well.
“There are so many things that make great literature,” Erens said. “Anything can be great literature if it is connected to human nature.”
Erens read excerpts from her most recent novel, “Eleven Hours,” which is a story about childbirth and motherhood through the lenses of two soon-to-be mothers who are both experiencing life challenges at the time of their encounter.
This 156-page novel has no separating chapters, and is a continuous narrative of what Erens described as a “connection with human experience.”
It all started with the subject of pregnancy, explained Erens, who has two children of her own. She wanted to portray pregnancy the way she sees it, as an “amazing yet complex experience.”
“It’s a messy, unpredictable process. There are billions of birth stories: no two are the same,” Erens shared. “I just wanted to make it as true to my memory. Anything I do is to tell a story as straightforward as possible. I connect to my characters a lot. They are an exaggerated version of me.”
“The Virgins,” Erens’ 2013 novel, was defined by John Irving of the New York Times as “a woman writing dangerously.” Not only does this coming-of-age tale set in the late 1970s speak to Erens’ own experience of attending boarding school, but it also touches upon what she describes as the “sex and drug freedom” at the tail end of the post-hippie era. It is told from a man’s point of view in a simplistic yet detailed retrospective narrative.
“I’m more in the habit of writing in the first person, so writing from the male point of view. It’s very freeing. I wanted that distance and I didn’t want to collapse into the characters,” she said. Trying to insert yourself too much into your stories as a writer, Erens said, is what was really dangerous, adding that Irving’s book review was “much too generous.”
Before the accolades and literary praises, Erens was always a writer and a reader. As a young girl, she said that she always had this “deep need” to write and was “really excited about books.” She also loved puzzles and found them a parallel to writing, in that the dynamics of all of the pieces needed to change in order to get the entire picture just right.
In her earlier days of writing about women’s health, feminism, and politics at Glamour magazine, Erens learned how to make her work more succinct and eventually transferred that over into her fiction.
Her road to authorship hadn’t been smoothly paved. During the process of trying to get her first novel “The Understory” published, Erens did not have an agent. She sold her manuscript to a small press and did much of the self-promotion groundwork for her book. With years of initial setbacks in getting the novel on bookstore shelves, Erens said that starting out as an author was insecure, demanding, and difficult.
Even as an established writer with “more tools in the toolkit,” she said that some of the self-doubt in writing her stories and coming up with ideas never goes away. There is always the processes of drafting, rewriting, and expanding.
What is the key to being a writer? Discipline, Erens said. She forces herself to sit down and create. It is the only thing that “keeps you moving one step after another.” Another of her tools is long walks in the South Mountain reservation. It sparks her creative juices to think up plots, storylines, and characters so that when she returns home, two to three hours are dedicated to prose.
A major side effect of this system shows itself through “The Virgins” – the location is modeled after South Orange. Her experiences as a Maplewoodian are intimately interwoven throughout her books in the cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity that surrounds her.
Erens said that her next literary work will be another novel, but she is still in the planning stages. “I’m in a slog period,” she said. “That’s all I can say about it.”
Maplewood Mayor Victor De Luca presented the Literary Award to Erens, adding, “it'’s been a great two weeks, hundreds of people engaged with different thinkers, authors, and architects.”
After his proclamation, De Luca asserted that April 1 should be “Pamela Erens Day” because of her many literary accomplishments, to the applause of the audience. The ceremony was followed by a book signing with Erens.
Lester said the purpose of the Ideas Festival was to “celebrate the talent and creativity” in the community, and that this end was met. “This is what makes Maplewood such a special place to live in."