Building a Better Home for Storytellers

Although the Center for Fiction has roots in New York City’s literary scene that reach back more than two centuries, this unique institution is as relevant as ever as a home for readers and writers of all ages and backgrounds. Working together to carry out the center’s mission are two Rutgers graduates—Executive Director Traci Lester (left) and Senior Director of Public Programming Melanie McNair—who are committed to helping everyone share their stories.

Founded in 1820 as the Mercantile Library of New York in lower Manhattan, the Center for Fiction is now nestled in the heart of Brooklyn’s cultural district. It houses a lending library for members; a writers studio; a bookstore and café; and a venue for a lively array of writing workshops, author readings, and panel discussions.

Lester RBS’00 credits the center’s continued appeal, especially in complicated and unsettling times, to the power of stories. “It’s through storytelling that people make connections and understand the world around them,” she says. And while The center’s library contains more than 70,000 volumes, including a well-regarded collection of mysteries, Lester points out that the organization’s offerings are in tune with the broad spectrum of storytelling that extends beyond the written word to incorporate film, theater, and music. At a recent event, for example, playwright Sarah Ruhl joined composer Matthew Aucoin for a conversation about adapting Ruhl’s play Eurydice into an opera.

McNair’s role is to shine a light on voices that reflect and represent the diversity of the center’s members and visitors and the global literary community. Responsible for organizing and staging an average of three events a week, McNair GSC’15 seeks out “the experimental and the bold and the new that people have to take a chance on” to include in the center’s schedule. “We spend a lot of time reaching out to our community so we can uplift their stories in all their forms,” Lester adds. Evidence of this commitment is apparent in the center’s record of scheduling a diverse range of authors and panelists who are sometimes overlooked in public programming and in partnerships with organizations like the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival.

Support for emerging writers whose voices have been traditionally underrepresented is also evident in the Center for Fiction/Susan Kamil Emerging Writers Fellowship, which provides professional development, publishing, and reading opportunities, and in the center’s National Teen Storytelling Contests in partnership with The Decameron Project. (For the latter, three times a year, high school students are invited to submit a short story based on a specific theme.) In addition, each year hundreds of New York City schoolchildren benefit from KidsRead/KidsWrite, a program that partners with teachers and school administrators to encourage a love of books and writing through personal interactions with authors. This year’s author-participants include Jacqueline Woodson, Steve Metzger, Mitali Perkins, Dias Lorenzi, Ryan Calejo, and Katie Yamasaki.

Recognizing established authors is also a priority, with the center awarding prestigious prizes in a range of categories at its annual gala. Recent honorees include author Kazuo Ishiguro, who received a Lifetime of Excellence in Fiction Award, and film director Barry Jenkins and author Colson Whitehead, who received The Center for Fiction On-Screen Award for their adaptation of Whitehead’s book The Underground Railroad.

A shared commitment 

Lester and McNair share a dedication to social justice and racial equity and ensuring that the center’s programs reflect these values. Both women point to earlier experiences in literacy and education as influences on their work. In addition to honing her business acumen at Rutgers, Lester formed a valuable network of colleagues in her program at RBS. More than 20 years later, she says, “We’re all still in touch through email, helping one another stay on top of what’s happening in our [respective] sectors.”

McNair says her time in the master of fine arts program at Rutgers reinforced her interest in multiple forms of writing. While there, she helped found Rutgers Radicals, a group that advocated and supported international and LGBTQ+ students and students of color. When the opportunity to join the Center for Fiction arose in 2019, McNair says, “I saw the value of making connections with people who think deeply about various topics and putting them together on stage as a much more thoughtful [exploration of] the human experience than we get from media soundbites.”

Bringing the center into the future

Lester’s primary focus is not only on recovery from the pandemic, which had a marked impact on membership and other revenue streams, but on financial oversight and strategic planning for the years ahead. This means identifying and working with individual donors as well as forming and maintaining enduring partnerships with corporations and foundations. She cites her experience in the executive MBA program at Rutgers as helping her develop the skills needed to anticipate and respond to risk. Navigating rapidly changing public health directives on COVID-19 prevention is just one example.

For McNair, the goal continues to be identifying creative ways to make a broad spectrum of ideas and literature accessible to the reading and writing public through events like the ongoing National Endowment for the Arts Big Read of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Given the enthusiastic response to the center’s recently resuming in-person activities, it seems clear that the audience will be there. “The arts help you feel joy and to think creatively,” Lester says. “The more that people look at the intersection between art and other sectors of society, the more they’ll learn and perhaps adapt, change, and grow.”