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Communication & Media

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Fact and fiction topic of talk


NEW PALTZ -- John Darnton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling author, will discuss how writers are increasingly blurring the lines between fact and fiction when he gives a talk at the State University of New York at New Paltz at 5 p.m. on Nov. 9 in McKenna Theatre.

Titled "When Fact Fights Fiction," the talk will explore why there are so many recent instances of creative writers turning to history and journalists turning to fiction. It is free and open to the public and is sponsored by the Friends of the Sojourner Truth Library and the Department of Communication and Media at SUNY New Paltz.

Darnton, who recently retired from The New York Times, where he worked for 38 years, is the college's fifth James H. Ottaway Professor of Journalism. His most recent novel, "The Darwin Conspiracy," published this fall by Knopf Publishing, is about the odyssey of scientist Charles Darwin.

Darnton has written four novels, but first earned fame when he won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1982 for dispatches smuggled out of embattled Poland. He has won numerous awards for his reporting in a career that began on the streets of New York City and has led him through Africa and Europe. He spent his final six years at the Times as its cultural editor.

In commenting on his most recent novel, Darnton says the book might "outrage serious scholars while retaining just enough plausibility to make one wonder. Besides," he adds, "at the end of the day, what is history? In the words of Thomas Carlyle, history is 'a distillation of rumor.' "

Chui-chun Lee, director of the Sojourner Truth Library, noted how perfect Darnton is to address the recent melding of fact and fiction, which some see as a troubling development in both journalism and fiction. Darnton's novels "draw on both fact and the imagination," she said, "but his journalism was honored for its allegiance to the high standards of factuality embodied by The New York Times."

Paul Brown, chair of the college's Friends of the Sojourner Truth Library group, said it would be particularly interesting "to see how a writer who is highly regarded in both fact and fiction describes the relationship of the two." The Friends is an association of faculty, students, parents, alumni, and community and business members dedicated to promoting and enhancing the Library as a shared resource.

Born in New York City in 1941, Darnton graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1967. He began at the Times in 1966. Darnton's first foreign assignment was to West Africa, where he was based in Nigeria. After 13 months, he was jailed and deported for articles unpleasing to the military government. He later covered a civil war in Rhodesia; anti-apartheid riots in South Africa; guerrilla movements in Ethiopia, the Congo and Somalia; and the fall of dictator Idi Amin in Uganda.

Darnton twice won the prestigious George Polk Award for foreign reporting. He subsequently was the Times' London bureau chief and from 1996 to 2002 served as the Times' cultural editor.

His novels include the "Neanderthal" and "The Experiment," which were both best sellers.

A more detailed profile of Darnton can be found at