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Noted Novelist Brings Remarkable Personal Story To Davidson Classroom

McGee Visiting Professor, Jill Ciment with Sadie

Davidson College welcomes this semester a visiting writer who looks forward to "living in real America" for a few months.

Canadian-born Jill Ciment, Davidson's McGee Visiting Professor, has written and taught for the past 15 years in New York, and lived in Los Angeles before that. For the past decade she has also taken annual vacations to an idyllic island in Puerto Rico, where she enjoys the luxury of writing by morning and reef diving in the afternoon. However, she still doesn't believe she's had a truly American experience.

She will have four months to find out if central Piedmont North Carolina fits the bill, living in Davidson through May with her husband, artist Arnold Mesches. She will teach introductory and advanced creative writing while working on her fifth book, a novel titled The Life and Art of Sara Ehrenreich. "If you write and teach simultaneously, you do both better," she said.

The "real Americans" in this area will have an opportunity to meet Ciment on Tuesday, January 25, when she gives a public lecture and reads from her work. Her presentation will begin at 7:30 p.m. in the 900 Room of the College Union, and admission is free. Copies of her books will be on sale, and she will be available to sign them at a reception following the presentation.

Ciment has received critical acclaim for her works thus far. Her books include her most recent novel, Teeth of the Dog. She insists the dog in the novel is not her constant companion, a very small long-haired dachshund named Sadie. "She just never grew," Ciment explained. The two are inseparable, and Ciment insists that Sadie always appear with her in publicity photos.

Ciment has also written a 1996 memoir entitled Half a Life. Her first novel was The Law of Falling Bodies, and she published a book of short stories entitled Small Claims. In addition, she has published poetry and screenplays for two films.

One of those screenplays was an adaptation of Half a Life, which tells of her troubling early family life in Los Angeles. The family was flung apart by her mentally disturbed father, who avoided his wife and children through ceaseless gardening.

The family situation deeply affected Ciment's adolescence. Her mother took Jill and her brother on long, meandering car rides to avoid her spouse. Never very excited about school, Ciment cut classes to work for a sleazy market researcher, who paid her well to fill out fake surveys. As a teenager, she broke into cars and rummaged through glove compartments.

Without finishing high school, she went to New York to become an artist, and ended up working at a "modeling" agency posing nude for lowlife shutterbugs. She returned to California as a nearly illiterate truant, then cheated on her SATs to get accepted to Cal Arts College.

But she then began to straighten out her life. She earned her BFA from the California Institute of Arts in 1975 and an MFA in creative writing from the University of California‹Irvine in 1981. She moved to New York with her husband, Arnold Mesches, to whom she's been married for 28 years.

A New York Times review of her memoir stated, "She delineates the complicated emotional geometry of familial relationships with equal measures of wit and compassion."

Her latest effort, Teeth of the Dog, was published last year, and has been praised as "a riveting suspense story which actually calls to mind the work of Graham Greene. It deftly penetrates the heart of the all-too-human darkness that underlies the superficial allures of a tropical paradise."

Another reviewer wrote, "Ciment is an extraordinarily tactile and visual writer‹you can feel the oppressive heat, the jangled energy, the clamor, tumult and lust of the hungry sad tropics on every page."

The story concerns Helene, a New York City woman with a "negligent beauty" and a core of sadness. For 12 years she has been the pampered third wife of an eminent anthropologist very much her senior. When their vacation in the remote South Pacific goes tragically awry, Helene is swept up in monstrous events, and Ciment explores her multilayered predicament. With no help available, Helene faces the old challenge‹adapt or die.

Ciment commented, "I had just finished Half A Life and was sick of writing about myself. Teeth Of The Dog began as a personal and creative dare to myself. Would I have the nerve to write about the unknown in the guise of my deepest fear, the death of my husband, and at the same time, be able to maintain an aesthetic equilibrium?"

In addition to writing, she has recently served as guest professor at Columbia University and the New School for Social Research. She has taught fiction writing and other literature courses steadily since 1980 as adjunct or guest professor at several New York-area schools. "Teaching makes one very analytical about writing," she said. "As a writer, you have a different approach to literature than an academic scholar. You know a lot about how a book is made, rather than concentrating solely on its meaning, and that is valuable information to pass along to students."

Ciment has won an NEA Arts/Japan Cultural Grant for this year, and has garnered several previous fellowships and honors for her work.

She comes to Davidson as this year's McGee Professor of Writing. Through a gift by alumnus John McGee, the college hosts an outstanding writer each academic year to teach writing classes, help direct senior honor theses, and contribute to the life of the college through readings and other appearances. Previous McGee Professors have included Stephen Sandy, Pinckney Benedict, Maxine Kumin, Robert Morgan, and Sheri Reynolds.

For more information on Ciment's presentation at Davidson, call Professor Alan Michael Parker at 892-2441.

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