Novelist Draws from Life’s Painful Lessons
Ask Lynn Lurie, MFA’06 (M), how long she lived among the Indians of Peru in order to write her recently published novel about their immense suffering during the Shining Path guerrilla war of the 1980s, Corner of the Dead (University of Massachusetts Press, 2008), and the lawyer-novelist will surprise you with her answer.
“I’ve never lived in Peru,” says Lurie, “and I have no direct experience at all of what the Indians there went through during the guerrilla war.” However, she did read more than 2,000 pages of research about the Maoist Shining Path movement there.
For Lurie, who had spent a couple of years in Ecuador as a Peace Corps volunteer after graduating from Barnard College, Columbia University, New York City, in 1980, the process of transforming a mother’s powerful grief into empathy and compassion for some obscure villagers living high in the Andes took place during an advanced writing class in FDU’s master of fine arts (MFA) program and drew on her real-life experiences.
“Corner of the Dead is all about grief and emptiness and the desolation of losing people you love — and I think I do know something about those things.
“When my son, Barnett, was very ill with a rare neurological disorder a few years ago, I was forced to confront the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to restore him to a life worth living, no matter how hard I tried. That was extremely painful, of course; there were days when the devastation felt so terrible that I could barely function.
“Thankfully, my son survived his ordeal, and today he’s a healthy freshman in college. But for several years, it seemed likely that he wouldn’t be able to overcome his illness. So I think that what I did as a writer was to take those very intense feelings and somehow weave them into a narrative of suffering and loss among the Indians in the mountains of Peru.”
“I think I was very lucky to have enrolled in the FDU writing program,” says Lurie, who earned a law degree at Fordham University in 1988 and then spent several years as a community activist working to help provide housing for the poor in Newark, N.J. She credits her FDU teacher Terese Svoboda, the award-winning author of Black Glasses Like Clark Kent, with sowing the seeds that became her first novel.
“Terese’s keenly sensitive reading of my work helped me immensely, and the first writing assignment she gave me eventually became the opening chapter of the novel.” In researching for the novel, Lurie learned “about the terrible suffering of the local Indian population as it endured brutal violence from both the guerrillas and the government.
“But Terese was absolutely invaluable … because of the way she helped me to pour my feelings into the story I invented about a young photojournalist, Lisette, who witnesses the destruction of these vulnerable lives.
“Lisette is scarred terribly by what she sees, and she can barely stand to look at the devastation before her. And yet she does look, and she also manages to survive, emotionally as well as physically. In many ways, I think the novel is about how you cope with painful loss.”
After struggling with the manuscript and seeing it blossom into the thesis for her MFA, Lurie was pleasantly surprised last year to discover that her manuscript had won the prestigious University of Massachusetts Press’ Juniper Prize for Fiction, which included the contract for publication. “I jumped up and down for a while before I could collect myself,” she recalls, “and that evening when I got home, I told my family and there was champagne. Writing is hard, hard work — so it’s always good to remember wonderful moments like that one!”
Married to attorney Andrew Koven (they also have a daughter, Franny), the New York City-based Lurie is already hard at work on a second novel. Her message is about “recognizing the vulnerability of human beings and understanding that each one of us is connected to all the rest. Knowing that, I think we can be kinder to each other, and more accepting … and I think that’s what Lisette finally comes to understand in Corner of the Dead.”