The Storied History of the Visiting Writers Series
by: Kellie Stewart
Decades ago, in her first few months as a new faculty member in the Butler University English Department, Hilene Flanzbaum received a phone call. One of her colleagues, Susan Neville, asked if she would be interested in assisting with an upcoming writer visit for the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series.
“She said, ‘I’m busy this weekend. Do you want to take over?’ Then she said, ‘And it’s Allen Ginsberg,’” said Flanzbaum. “I spent the entire weekend with Allen Ginsberg, and it really was just fabulous. I knew I liked his work and wrote about him in my dissertation, but I wasn’t sure if I’d like him personally. But he couldn’t have been sweeter or more considerate– a memory that I’ll have forever.”
For nearly 40 years, the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series has hosted an extensive and impressive list of writers–from Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners to fresh voices in the literary world, local Indianapolis writers, as well as those from around the world, and writers representing a diverse array of genres, backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and viewpoints.
“The Writers Series was always batting way above its weight,” said Flanzbaum, who is now Chair of Modern Literature and Director of Butler’s Core Curriculum. “That was the miracle of Susan Neville.”
The fall 2023 semester lineup alone features fiction and nonfiction writers and a poet–including a Pulitzer Prize Finalist, two National Book Award Finalists, a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” Award winner, a Pushcart Prize winner, recipients of MacArthur, MacDowell, and Guggenheim Fellowships, a Publishers Weekly “Writer to Watch”and a former poetry editor of The New York Times Magazine.
The Visiting Writers Program is coordinated by the Department of English and offers 10–12 events each year, all of which are free and open to Butler students, faculty, and staff as well as the Indianapolis community.
“I always hoped it would last decades,” said Neville, who helped found the series and is now Butler English Emerita Faculty. “In the early days of it, everything was quite exciting.”
In 1984, Neville arrived at Butler to teach in the English department. She was the first professor hired specifically to teach creative writing classes.
“The first creative writing class I taught had only four students in it. Then, all of a sudden, there were 15 students and then two or three classes,” said Neville.
Shortly after starting at Butler, Neville began proposing and executing a variety of programs to complement the work her creative writing students were doing. With a grant from the Lilly Endowment, she started the Butler University Creative Writing Camp to “stop the brain drain” and keep artists and writers from leaving Indianapolis. The camp, which, 39 years on, is still offered every summer, was followed by the creation of the Butler Writers’ Studio, the Spirit & Place Festival, a creative writing undergraduate degree, and the inception of the Butler MFA in Creative Writing graduate program–in all of which Neville played an integral role.
“Thinking back, what I was good at was starting things. Coming up with ideas, writing grants, giving the proposal,” said Neville. “Sometimes I think, how did I do all that? I had a baby in ‘83, a baby in ‘86, was teaching three or four classes a semester, and writing. At the time, I didn’t feel like I was doing any of it well, which is how I think most people feel.”
Starting in 1985, Neville began inviting writers to give readings on campus and meet with her students. A generous financial gift from Vivian (Stevenson) Delbrook, a 1927 Butler graduate and avid reader, bolstered the series to a level Neville could only have imagined. Delbrook, who studied to be an English teacher when she was an undergraduate, was a champion for the series, leaving a donation that is now in a trust to ensure the program continues for years to come.
Equipped with a Rolodex of phone numbers and addresses (it was the late ’80s, after all), Neville, with the help of Visiting Writers Series co-coordinator Fran Quinn and former Program Coordinator Shirley Daniell, drew prominent figures in the world of literature, such as Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer, Dan Wakefield, John Updike, Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, and many more, to central Indiana.
“We tried at the beginning to always have a Nobel Prize Winner, if we could, because we had a president at the time who said, ‘You get a Nobel Prize winner, I’ll pay for it,’” said Neville. “So we had somebody just about every year for seven or eight years. It was amazing.”
In the decades since, the series has partnered with a variety of Indianapolis organizations, including the Eiteljorg Museum, the Mexican Consulate, the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library, the Indianapolis Museum, and others for events, such as a reading by past Illinois poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks, co-sponsored by the Madame Walker Urban Life Center, and the Red Hawk Native American Support Group-sponsored reception for Native American writer Joy Harjo.
Flanzbaum credits the Visiting Writers Series with inspiring her to apply to work at Butler.
“I was a verified east coaster, and, when I was looking for jobs, I was very picky about where I would apply…having lived only on the east coast,” she said. “I can still remember where I was sitting in my study, and there was a line at the bottom of the job posting that said, ‘Butler hosts a nationally-recognized Visiting Writers Series, which has brought…,’ and they named three or four people, and that was the sentence that made me apply for the job.”
The degree to which writers are made available to students in the English and MFA tracks extends far beyond prepared class visits, workshops, and auditorium readings.
From the series’ start, students have always prepared, written, and read the introductions given before each writers’ reading.
“From the very beginning, we’ve always had a student introduce,” said Neville. “Years later, we’ll have students talk about– ‘Oh, God, remember when I sat next to Grace Paley?”
Booth, Butler MFA’s graduate student-led literary journal, and Manuscripts, Butler’s 80+-year-old undergraduate literary journal, have published interviews with visiting authors, written by students. Additionally, Butler offers a 300-level English course (EN 383: Visiting Writers Series) to all English majors that features the work of authors in the series.
During their visits, oftentimes writers stay in the apartment located off the kitchen of the Efroymson Center for Creative Writing (ECCW), affectionately known as the Creative Writing House. Writers have been known to hold an informal court in the kitchen as students wander in for coffee and snacks between classes.
The opportunity to have notable one-on-one experiences with writers is one of the prevailing gifts of the VWS for both students and faculty involved with the program.
English professor and VWS committee member Andy Levy summarizes these moments: “’I’ve always loved the oscillation between seeing a writer in front of a large crowd and seeing them in small, even one-to-one settings. Sometimes you see the way the writer as a person is continuous with the writer as reflected in their work, and sometimes you see the opposite. But usually they’re interesting and kind people, and in the long-term that has been the most inspiring thing.”
Recent VWS program director and English professor Jason Goldsmith adds, “What strikes me most is how utterly kind and humane these individuals are. We tend to imagine them as celebrities of some sort, but they are so generous with their time and attention. Driving Zadie Smith to dinner and discussing sciatica or the struggles of parenting puts so much into perspective!”
One individual close to the series reflected, “You know, we’ve hosted Joyce Carol Oates three times, and the third time she came, she was a little nuts.”
Today the Visiting Writers Series is run by a committee consisting of Butler English Department professors who make writer selections and steer the direction of the program.
Butler English professor Michael Dahlie, who is in his third year serving as the Visiting Writers Series Committee Creative Director, oversees the final writer selections for the upcoming season.
“Every year the group comes up with a big list of potential guests who might be interesting to Butler and the Indianapolis community,” said Dahlie. “It’s my job to get the list down to the ten-or-so people we end up inviting.”
Dahlie says the current vision of the series remains focused on providing unique experiences and rare access for Butler students to writers they otherwise would not have.
“It’s a big part of our mission to serve the Indianapolis community, but the one-on-one meetings, the dinners, and the casual contacts that come from having visiting writers on campus—these are all designed for undergraduate and graduate English students,” he said. “Since we have a lot of young writers coming in this year, I think we’ll get to hear a lot of exciting and groundbreaking work.”
Adriana Jones is the Visiting Writers Series’ administrative specialist and is responsible for all the logistics, coordination, and promotion for each of the visiting writers. Since starting in the position in spring 2021, Jones has had several unique experiences with the writers—removed from the stage lights, audiences, and formalities.
“One day, I had just dropped off Percival Everett at the ECCW because he was evaluating grad students’ written work,” said Jones. “I went to leave and realized my car had gotten a flat tire. I called AAA, and while I waited and in between his meetings, we struck up some interesting conversations.”
Butler English alum and Head of School at University High School Alicia LaMagdeleine cites her experiences with the Visiting Writers Series events when speaking to her high school students.
“I just told my class that getting to see writers on campus is one of the best things they can do in college if they are interested in writing and the humanities,” said LaMagdeleine. “Going to the VWS while I was at Butler allowed me to see authors and poets as real people, to not just read their work, but to really hear them talk about their craft and how they saw their role as an artist in the world. I mean, I was 20 and got to have dinner with Seamus Heaney. It was transformative.”
“I’m really, really happy that it still goes on,” said Neville, who retired in May 2021, after 38 years teaching at Butler.