Author Teaches Students to Perfect Critical Eye By Sujata Massey Francine Prose, a Writing Seminars visiting professor in fiction, wields a pen like a scalpel. Her two collections of short stories and eight novels dissect social worlds from the U.S. embassy in Port au Prince to New York's Hudson River Valley mansions and Fire Island beach houses. Prose, who will read from her work Tuesday, Nov. 29, at 8 p.m. in the Garrett Room of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library, has been a writer since childhood. "Writing was the only thing I could ever do, the only skill I ever had," she said almost apologetically during a telephone interview from her home in upstate New York. The teaching of writing is something she believes in. As an undergraduate at Harvard University she studied writing; she feels her future was shaped by a particularly good workshop. She went on to teach writing at Harvard, and later at the University of Iowa, the University of Arizona and Sarah Lawrence College. Prose travels eight hours round-trip every Tuesday to be with the group of graduate students she coaches. The ultimate role of a writing teacher, she believes, is to show students how to appraise their work critically. "Certainly, editing can be taught, which is what I would hope to teach my students," she said. Prose's most recent books are The Peaceable Kingdom and Primitive People, which is about an au pair from Haiti who arrives in New York's Hudson River Valley and finds herself caught up in the social savagery practiced by the area's wealthy. An earlier book, Household Saints, is the magic-realist tale of a girl who aspires to sainthood while growing up in New York's Little Italy. In 1993, Household Saints was made into a film directed by Nancy Savoca. "I loved it," the author said of the movie. "It was absolutely true to the book." Her next work, Hunters and Gatherers, is scheduled for publication by Farrar, Straus and Giroux next spring. "It's about a man who wanders into a group of new age goddesses," Prose said. "It takes place mostly in New York City and Fire Island, and then the whole goddess-worshiping group goes out to the Arizona desert." Travel writing is a parallel career that gets Prose out of her study. She has journeyed to Macedonia, Prague and the Loire Valley for publications including Vogue, Condé Nast Traveler and The New York Times. In next month's issue of Travel and Leisure, Prose describes her experiences celebrating last Christmas in Provence. "It's just amazing that someone would pay you to go somewhere," she said. "I also like doing it because it gives you a focus while you're traveling. You know what you're looking for."
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