& A with Alum, MacArthur Fellow
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 . 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
Events: When did you realize you wanted to be
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.
How did your Smith experience prepare you for your
life as a writer, especially in the creative nonfiction genre?
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.
You spent more than 10 years gathering information
for Random Family. What would be your advice to current
Smith students considering long-term projects?
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
What are some of the lessons you learned while working
on Random Family?
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.
What was your reaction to winning the MacArthur grant?
How might you use the stipend?
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.
What's your favorite memory from your years at Smith?
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.