Colson Whitehead

At the lecture: Colson Whitehead quoted The Jerk, played a Donna Summer song, contemplated life on other planets (“maybe they’re into haikus or something), and considered the neanderthal ancestors of both jerks and artists. He also discussed his childhood during which he liked to stay inside watching Twilight Zone and Outer Limits and read X-Men, Spiderman, and Stephen King. And he discussed his journey as a writer starting out at the Village Voice and becoming a novelist.

Bestselling author Colson Whitehead is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the author of seven books: The Intuitionist, nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award; John Henry Days, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Colossus of New York, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; Apex Hides the Hurt, winner of the PEN/Oakland Award; Sag Harbor, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award; Zone One, a New York Times bestseller; and new release The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death. The Chicago Tribune calls him “one of the country’s finest young writers.” Whitehead’s work has also appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Harper's, and Granta.

Click here to read Colson Whitehead’s “How to Write”

Mitchell Davis

At the Lecture: Mitchell Davis told us about traveling around the country reviewing restaurants and one particular trip in which he spent eight days in Chicago and ate in twenty-four different restaurants. He also discussed the diversity of American dining and creating a community of chefs at the James Beard Foundation. And he talked about his work helping to create the USA Pavilion at the Expo Milan 2015 World Fair. The exciting exhibition will include a working vertical farm, celebrity chefs, food trucks, and a restaurant that serves Sunday brunch and Thursday Thanksgiving dinners.

Mitchell Davis is the executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation, a cookbook author, a food journalist, and a scholar with a Ph.D. in Food Studies from NYU. With the Beard Foundation for 20 years, Davis has created and overseen many of the organization’s important initiatives, including the the JBF Annual Food Conference, a national dialogue of thought leaders on sustainability and public health in the food system, and the JBF Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change. In 2013, Davis led the team that was selected by the U.S. Department of State to create the USA Pavilion at the World Expo Milano 2015, the theme of which is American Food 2.0. In addition to his work at the Foundation, Davis frequently writes about and reviews restaurants. He holds a chair on the academy of the London-based World’s 50 Best Restaurants ranking program. He has written four cookbooks, including The Mensch Chef and Kitchen Sense (both Clarkson Potter), co-authored the ground-breaking electronic book My Provence (Alta Editions) with famed French chef Laurent Gras, which won two 2013 awards from the International Association of Culinary Professionals, including “Judges Choice,” and he is a regular contributor to the Art of Eating. Davis’s T.V. appearances include History Channel’s 101 Fast Foods that Changed the World, Food Network’s Food(ography), Throwdown with Bobby Flay, and Best in Smoke. Davis is host of Taste Matters, a weekly radio show (Wednesdays at 11 a.m.) on The Heritage Radio Network. In 2013 The Forward selected Davis as one of the 50 most influential Jews under 50 in America.

Click here to read the San Francisco Gate's review of Mitchell Davis' Kitchen Sense

Zadie Smith

At the Lecture: Zadie Smith asked the question "why write." Among her answers to this question was "because you desire to see things as they are" and "to express the reality of human capacities." Also, in exploring this question she talked about how people live and label themselves as "creatives"; the relationship between branding and creativity; and the ways in which class and race impact the relationship between art and capital. She told us that writing must not be done to fit an audience but rather it should "create its own taste."

Novelist Zadie Smith was described by The Philadelphia Inquirer as “not merely one of Britain's finest younger writers, but also one of the English-speaking world's best chroniclers of race, class, and identity in urban confines. Smith remains fearless, and there are moments that astonish. Her ambition and talent continue to awe." Her first book, White Teeth, is a portrait of contemporary multicultural London, told through the story of three ethnically diverse families. It won several awards including the Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. Smith’s second novel, The Autograph Man, won the Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Fiction and her third, On Beauty, won the Orange Prize for fiction. Her most recent novel, NW, was named one of the New York Times “10 Best Books of 2012. Newsweek says, “Smith has an astonishing intellect. She writes sharp dialogue for every age and race.” Smith also teaches creative writing at New York University.

Click here to read Granta’s interview with Zadie Smith

Erik Larson

At the lecture: Erik Larson remembered his first book signing—it was a Sunday afternoon in Lancaster, Pennsylvania complete with chocolate chip cookies. He told our audience that he doesn’t think of himself as a historian; he thinks of himself as “an animator of history.” He also thinks his books should be “read on a dark, stormy night with a glass of brandy” and hopes his reader “emerges with a sense of having lived in the past.” For him, a good writing project fulfills the following criteria: “it must be interesting; it must have a built in narrative arc; it must have a detailed and rich archival base; and there must be barriers to entry (in other words, complex enough that no other writer will do it).”

Erik Larson has written four New York Times bestsellers. His most recent is his portrait of the American ambassador and his family in Berlin during the first years of Hitler’s reign, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, which remained on the list for 35 weeks. His account of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, including that of a ruthless serial killer, The Devil in the White City, was on the New York Times hardcover and paperback lists for a combined total of over three years—it also won the Edgar Award for nonfiction crime writing and was a finalist for the National Book Award. His previous books, Thunderstruck and Isaac’s Storm, also became bestsellers. Among his other books are Lethal Passage and The Naked Consumer. The New York Times Book Review has said, “Larson is a marvelous writer…superb at creating characters with a few short strokes." Larson was also a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal and a contributing writer for Time magazine and he has written for The Atlantic, Harper’s, and The New Yorker among other publications.

Click here for the New York Times review of Erik Larson's book, In the Garden of Beasts

Rachel Kushner

At the lecture: Rachel Kushner discussed some of her inspirations for entering the worlds she created in her novels. She told our audience about a trip to Cuba with her mother and her aunt who is an artist. She said a novelist must move in and out of spaces in order to gain the stories that are not recorded and to examine how people are shaped by history.

Author Rachel Kushner has been a finalist for the National Book Award twice and is a recipient of a 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship. Her award-winning first novel, Telex from Cuba, was a New York Times bestseller and her second novel, The Flamethrowers, was named one of the Top Ten Books of 2013 by the New York Times. Novelist Karen Russell said “The Flamethrowers lives up to its incendiary title – it is a brilliant, startling, truly revolutionary book…” In addition her fiction and essays appear regularly in the New York Times, The Paris Review, The Believer, Artforum, Bookforum, Fence, Bomb, and Grand Street. Her novels and essays explore contemporary art, culture, revolutionary politics, modernism, and feminism.

Click here to read The Paris Review’s interview with Rachel Kushner

Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li's debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and the California Book Award for fiction. Her subsequent works have also won numerous awards including the gold medal of California Book Award for fiction for The Vagrants; finalist of the Story Prize for Gold Boy, Emerald Girl; and her most recent book Kinder Than Solitude was published to critical acclaim. Other awards include, Whiting Award, Lannan Foundation Residency fellow, 2010 MacArthur Foundation fellow, and 2014 Benjamin H. Danks Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She has also been selected by Granta as one of the 21 Best Young American Novelists under 35 and by The New Yorker as one of the top 20 writers under 40. Yiyun Li is also a contributing editor to the Brooklyn-based literary magazine, A Public Space. The New York Times says, “There's something about the poise, the tidiness, the seemingly effortless calm of Yiyun Li's writing that makes it easy to see her as an author who, like Jhumpa Lahiri, employs a Chekhovian neutrality to give the complicated, messy, ostensibly ‘colorful’ lives of her characters a kind of unthreatening watercolor ambience.”

Click here to read The Guardian’s interview with Yiyun Li