Shelf Life

Empowering writers

Stephen Puleo’s history on the rise of Boston as a major city includes a look at various uses of the Old State House. Stephen Puleo’s history on the rise of Boston as a major city includes a look at various uses of the Old State House. (A City So Grand)
By Jan Gardner
Globe Correspondent / July 4, 2010

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In the world of publishing, the Grub Street writing center is the little engine that could. Since its inception in 1997, 53 instructors, including New York Times bestselling author Jenna Blum, and 22 students have published books. In recent months, the pace has picked up. New books include Blum’s second novel “The Stormchasers,” Jonathan Papernick’s story collection “There Is No Other,” Lynne Griffin’s “Sea Escape,” and Michelle Hoover’s “The Quickening,” the subject of a starred review in Publishers Weekly.

More books are on the way, including “Knowing Jesse,” a memoir by Marianne Leone of “Sopranos” fame; Bruce Machart’s “The Wake of Forgiveness,” praised by National Book Award winner Tim O’Brien; and Daphne Kalotay’s debut novel “Russian Winter.” Kalotay’s manuscript unleashed a bidding war that landed her an advance of more than $500,000, according to Eve Bridburg, Grub Street’s founder.

No one could be prouder of Grub Street’s successes than Bridburg. Enrollment has grown from eight students for the center’s first term to 450 for the most recent winter session. This summer Bridburg returned to the nonprofit as executive director after a stint as a literary agent. With publishing undergoing major changes, Bridburg said, “I felt it was time to get completely on the side of writers. Writers will need to take more responsibility, and I think Grub Street can do a lot to empower writers.”

Grub Street’s annual budget of $800,000 comes from grants, donations, and membership dues as well as fees for classes and its signature event, the annual Muse and the Marketplace conference, attended by 500 writers and publishing professionals. With sessions focusing on the craft and business of writing, the conference has proven fruitful for literary agents seeking new clients. Such is the case for Cambridge agent Sorche Fairbank, who has signed five writers from Grub Street over the past year.

Headquartered on Boylston Street near the Boston Common, Grub Street reaches far and wide. Free monthly writing workshops attract teens from more than 40 communities. Grub Street’s Memoir Project has hosted writing classes for older residents in 10 Boston neighborhoods. A third anthology of essays written by Memoir Project students will be published later this year.

One of Bridburg’s top priorities is developing a sufficiently ambitious five-year plan for Grub Street. “We blew through the last one in three years,” she said. Not many nonprofits can say that.

Birth of a city
Stephen Puleo, a historian of Boston who has written about the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 and the Italian community in the North End, takes a wider view in his new book, “A City So Grand: The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston 1850-1900” (Beacon). The cast of characters includes Frederick Douglass and Alexander Graham Bell. The Big Dig equivalents are the opening of the city’s underground subway system and the Great Boston Railroad Jubilee marking the beginning of train service to Montreal and Chicago.

Coming out
■ “What Is Left the Daughter” by Howard Norman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

■ “The Cookbook Collector” by Allegra Goodman (Dial)

■ “Kings of the Earth” by Jon Clinch (Random House)

Pick of the week
Janis Brennan of Main Street Books in Orleans recommends “Hamlet’s Blackberry” by William Powers (Harper): “It’s both a practical guide to managing and optimizing digital communication devices in our lives and an intellectual foray into the ideas of thinkers through the ages (Plato, Shakespeare, and Thoreau, among others) which apply to this quest. It’s very readable, thought-provoking, useful, and, dare I say, spiritual. You’ll see what I mean when you read about the Internet Sabbath.”

Jan Gardner can be reached at