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News & Events

Q & A with Alum, MacArthur Fellow

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc ’86

After spending more than ten years shadowing and interacting with four troubled teenagers growing up in the Bronx, N.Y., Adrian Nicole LeBlanc wrote a poignant nonfiction book that illustrates their struggles and triumphs in an intimate-yet-impartial style. Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx, LeBlanc’s first book, was published in 2003 to widespread acclaim. A freelance journalist, LeBlanc’s articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and Esquire.

In September, LeBlanc was named among this year’s elite crop of MacArthur Fellows. The MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes referred to as the “Genius Grant,” rewards some two dozen creative Americans each year with stipends of $500,000.

LeBlanc recently responded to questions about her career as a writer and her memories of Smith.

News & Events: When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: I learned that I could be a writer in Mark Kramer's [a former instructor at Smith] seminar Writing About American Social Issues, (American studies), which I took my senior year. I'd been exposed to journalism, however, when I was in middle school. My sister's sister-in-law, a reporter for the Clinton, Mass., Daily Item, took me to her office one day and I was enthralled. It seemed too great to be true -- a job where you could talk to people about all different sorts of things, drive around (in a purple Gremlin!) and take photographs. I was also attracted to the independence and the camaraderie -- being surrounded by other writers as you sat at your very own desk.

My parents were great readers, so I'm sure their value of writing contributed to my interest as well.

N&E: How did your Smith experience prepare you for your life as a writer, especially in the creative nonfiction genre?

ANL: I was raised to think critically about the world but Smith refined and also expanded that engagement and equipped me to explore and utilize my curiosity. The seminars I took with Mark Kramer, then Tracy Kidder [a local nonfiction writer who has taught at Smith], were an MFA program in themselves. Such exposure to outstanding writers and their attention was invaluable.

N&E: You spent more than 10 years gathering information for Random Family. What would be your advice to current Smith students considering long-term projects?

ANL: All long-term projects require strong commitment. I can only write about subjects that absorb and, perhaps, obsess me. What helped me through the arduous times in reporting Random Family was the company and good will of the people I was writing about, the love and humor of my partner and his undying faith in the value of the work, and the interest and rooting of both strangers and friends -- especially a man named Edwin Cohen, who, in the hardest stretches, gave me money to
survive. But there was plenty of joy in the field work as well.

N&E: What are some of the lessons you learned while working on Random Family?

ANL: Random Family gave me my higher education as a reporter and writer. I learned lessons -- dynamic ones -- that will continue to feed me for the rest of my life. But here are a few of the hundreds: I learned that people need open-ended time to both show their complex character and tell you their stories. I understood, in intricate detail, the enormous responsibility one takes on in writing about other people's lives. I learned that failures and dead-ends are experiences to welcome. I learned that questions aren't necessarily useful. I learned to fully enjoy the opportunities to have fun. I also value, even more than I originally did, the mystery of the world -- even the ones you fully immerse yourself in.

N&E: What was your reaction to winning the MacArthur grant? How might you use the stipend?

ANL: I was rattled. Giddy and humbled and a bit heady for weeks.

I am going to continue to do the work that I'm doing -- with the glorious, opening freedom of unhindered years ahead. On a practical note, I am getting a platform built to level the floor where my desk sits so my office chair won't roll.

N&E: What's your favorite memory from your years at Smith?

ANL: I have many. What immediately comes to mind are my Russian Literature classes with Maria Banerjee [professor of Russian], which weren't only my most powerful intellectual experiences, but crucial to bolstering my fledgling writer's faith in the power of books. Also sitting in the hallway of Laura Scales talking with friends. I also remember one rare day of perfect synchronicity rowing in the Varsity Crew Boat. For the only time in months and months of practice, we were all in synch. I'll never forget the complete disappearance of the physcial exertion. For those moments, we were floating on air. Some days, my reporting feels exactly like that.

11/29/06   Compiled by Eric Sean Weld
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