Arts and Culture | Local

Brandeis Book & Author event spans locales, genres

Naomi Benaron
Naomi Benaron

An acclaimed first-time novelist, an award-winning mystery writer, an internationally best-selling author and the reporter who wrote “A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State” will highlight the Brandeis National Committee’s 17th Annual Book & Author Events. The committee’s Tucson chapter will host a buffet dinner at the Skyline Country Club on Wednesday, March 6 at 6 p.m. Four book and author presentations, along with a buffet lunch, artisan boutiques and book sales, will take place at the same venue on March 7 from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Tucsonan Naomi Benaron’s debut novel, “Running the Rift,” was the winner of well-known author Barbara Kingsolver’s 2010 Bellwether prize for unpublished, socially engaged fiction. In fact, says Benaron, the prize —with the assurance of publication by Algonquin Books and a $25,000 cash award — was part of the impetus for Benaron to finish “Running the Rift.” The book is the story of a young Tutsi long-distance runner from Rwanda who aspires to compete in the Olympics in the time leading up to the genocide of 1994.

Kingsolver called Benaron’s book “truly fearless writing: ambitious, beautiful, unapologetically passionate,” and said “it conveys the impossibility of remaining neutral within a climate of broad moral compromise — even for purportedly apolitical institutions like the Olympics.”

“I wanted to win the Bellwether prize the way my character wanted to win the Olympic race,” Benaron told the AJP. Herself an Ironman Triathlete, she notes that the process of writing her novel was “gradual. The first bead of the necklace was watching the 2000 Summer Olympics in Australia” when Eric Moussambani Malonga from Equatorial Guinea swam in a 100-meter freestyle wild card heat, which encouraged developing countries to send athletes to the Games. “It so moved me. It stuck in my mind. I decided to go back to my first love, which was writing.”

Benaron, 61, who grew up in Boston, holds a bachelor’s degree in earth sciences from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in earth sciences from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. She was a research geophysicist in Texas and California before moving to Tucson in 1995. Benaron took her first writing class in 2002 at Pima Community College; one of the first assignments was to explore a place she didn’t know. She had met a student from Burundi at the University of Arizona and began writing about a swimmer from that country. That same year she began working with African refugees as a volunteer with Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Southern Arizona.

Also in 2002, Benaron took an unexpected trip to Rwanda with a friend. “From the minute I touched down I was falling deeply in love with the country,” she says. “We were landing through the mist. We were going to see gorillas. We were so excited.” Two years later, Benaron attended a genocide conference in Rwanda. By then, says Benaron, “I knew I would be writing about Rwanda.”

Benaron dove into writing “Running the Rift” while pursuing a master of fine arts degree, which she received in 2006 from Antioch University in Los Angeles.

When she won the 2010 Bellwether prize, Benaron noted, “In my writing, what has always mattered the most is to carry the human consequences of injustice to the reader’s heart and thus in some small way, bring healing.”

Now working on her second novel, Benaron says, “in a way I wrote about Rwanda because I wasn’t ready to face my own history.”

“I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust,” in which most of her mother’s family was killed, says Benaron. Her new novel juxtaposes life in the Terezin concentration camp with the present. Terezin was different from other concentration camps, notes Benaron, because of its inmates’ involvement in the arts, which expressed defiance. The main characters in her forthcoming novel are a grandmother who had studied ballet and survived Terezin, her daughter who is a doctor and a granddaughter who is a hip-hop dancer. “The mother is kind of repressed,” says Benaron. “The granddaughter has the same wild, crazy personality as the grandmother.”

In addition to Benaron, three other authors will speak at the Brandeis luncheon. Tucson native Tom Zoellner’s latest book is “A Safeway in Arizona,” which the Boston Globe called “a masterly work of reporting, historical analysis, and sly cultural criticism.” Zoellner also wrote about defiance and Rwanda in his New York Times best-seller, “An Ordinary Man,” which chronicles the life of the man who inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda.” Zoellner has penned three other nonfiction books. He has worked as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Arizona Republic, and is now an associate professor of English at Chapman University in California.

Craig Johnson is the author of eight novels in the Walt Longmire mystery series, which have garnered many awards, among them the Western Writers of America’s Spur Award. The latest in the series is “A Serpent’s Tooth.” His Walt Longmire novels are the inspiration for the A & E television hit, “Longmire.” Two of Johnson’s books were New York Times best-sellers. He lives in Ucross, Wyo., population 25.

An internationally best-selling author of six novels, including “How to Talk to a Widower” and “This is Where I Leave You,” Jonathan Tropper is also a screenwriter. He is the co-creator and executive producer of the HBO/Cinemax television show “Banshee,” which will air on Cinemax this year. His most recent novel is “One Last Thing Before I Go.” Tropper’s books, several of which focus on Jewish characters, have been translated into more than 20 languages.

Peter Likins, a former president of the University of Arizona and author of “A New American Family: A Love Story,” will be the moderator. All proceeds from the Brandeis Book & Author Events will benefit Sustaining the Mind, a Brandeis National Committee endowed fund supporting neuroscience degenerative disease research (ALS, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s), and scholarships for Brandeis University science students.

The Brandeis National Committee author buffet dinner on Wednesday, March 6 is $75 for members; $85 for nonmembers. For more information, call Harriet Kronman at 205-1658. The lunch with author presentations on Thursday, March 7 is $70 for members; $80, nonmembers. For more information, call Sheila Rothenberg at 232-9559.