Historian Matthew Hedstrom Details the Evolution of ‘Post-Protestant Spirituality’

13687246In “The Rise of Liberal Religion” historian and University of Texas at Austin alumnus Matthew Hedstrom attends to the critically important yet little-studied area of religious book culture, paying special attention to the popularization of religious liberalism in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.

By looking at book weeks, book clubs, public libraries, new publishing enterprises, key authors and bestsellers, wartime reading programs and fan mail, among other sources, Hedstrom provides a rich, on-the-ground account of the men, women and organizations that drove religious liberalism’s midcentury cultural rise. In doing so, Hedstrom demonstrates how the religious middlebrow expanded beyond its Protestant roots in the post-WWII period and began using mystical and psychological spirituality as a platform for interreligious exchange.

This history of religion and book culture not only shows how reading and book buying were critical 20th century religious practices, but also provides a model for thinking about the relationship of religion to consumer culture more broadly.

Hedstrom recently answered some questions for ShelfLife@Texas about the progression of religious thought in midcentury America and how “The Rise of Liberal Religion” offers both innovative cultural history as well as ways of seeing the imprint of liberal religion in our own times.

How did your interest in this project develop?

I was a graduate student in American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, looking for new ways to think about religion in the modern United States. Basically, I wanted to think about religion as a phenomenon not just of churches or other formal institutions, but as a part of culture more broadly. Also, in a related way, I wanted to think not just about official theology and ritual, but about religious sensibilities—about spirituality.

As I was thinking about all these things, I came across a set of sources about religion and reading in the 20th century and thought, “Ah ha! This is how I can access the stories I want to tell.” So I began studying the history of religious books and reading in the 20th century, because I quickly came to see this as one of the most important ways that religion happens outside of church, especially in a consumer-oriented society like ours.

Can you clarify what you mean by “religious liberalism?”

That’s an important question, because I think for many people, the word “liberal” immediately brings to mind our polarized political environment of liberals vs. conservatives. But in religious terms it means something else. Religious liberals, from the 18th and 19th centuries to the present, have been those who have worked to reconcile their faith traditions—first Protestantism, but also Judaism and Catholicism—with the social and intellectual changes of the modern world. So religious liberals are those who have embraced science, including evolutionary biology, cosmology and psychology; have embraced historical critical study of the Bible; have engaged in interfaith dialogues; and in other ways have sought to modernize the intellectual life of their traditions.

Liberalism also contains a strong, related element of individualism. Liberalism in political philosophy emphasizes individual rights, and liberal economics, in the traditional usage of the term, embraces the free market. Likewise, liberal religion sees the individual conscience and experience as the ultimate arbiter of truth, above the teachings of any church or creed.

Why do you think such a large portion of American religious history assumes that the decline of mainline Protestantism indicates a failure of religious liberalism, and how did you go about demonstrating the cultural ascendancy of the latter?

First of all, the decline of the mainline has been dramatic, and deeply traumatizing for many. There really was something worth calling a Protestant establishment in this country, and it really has gone away. Many scholars of American religion, especially in previous generations, were born and raised in that establishment, and were committed to it. They experienced the decline in number and influence of their denominations very personally.

But with a bit of distance from that moment of loss—a period stemming at least from the 1960s, and by some measures back to the 1930s—we can see that religious liberal sensibilities have not suffered the same decline as the mainline did demographically. My study of book culture provides one window into this phenomenon. I show that as more and more Americans used the tools of the consumer marketplace—in this case, books—to inform and practice their faith, religious liberalism spread even as liberal churches declined. Churches still matter greatly, but the energies that religious liberals once channeled into church life are now directed into a much broader array of outlets, from social work to politics to the arts.

What do you most hope readers will take away from “The Rise of Liberal Religion?”

I hope my book raises questions for my readers about the power of consumerism in our society. I hope my readers will come to see that the categories “religious” and “secular” are not very easy to disentangle—that psychology and spirituality, for example, often blur. And I hope my readers will look at religious liberalism as a significant religious tradition in the United States, one with strong ties to Protestantism but not limited to Protestantism. Much of the vitality in modern American religious life is in what might be called post-Protestant spirituality, and I want my readers to learn to see the contours of this phenomenon and to understand where it came from.

What are some primary sources you researched that you would recommend to readers interested in the evolution of liberal religion?

At the top of the list is the great classic of William James, “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” In this work, from 1902, James gives the clearest and most influential statement of religion as fundamentally individual in nature, as rooted in the solitary experience of the divine. So much of 20th century liberal religion stems from James’s categories.

A few other works I highly recommend are Rufus Jones, “Social Law in the Spiritual World;” Harry Emerson Fosdick, “As I See Religion;” and Joshua Liebman, “Peace of Mind.” They are all highly readable works that address the mystical, aesthetic and psychological dimensions of religious life.

Though my book covers the 20th century, I’d also recommend going back to some great works from the 19th century, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Divinity School Address,” or the poetry of Walt Whitman.

You have said that your overarching interests include the social history of religious sensibilities and the cultural mechanisms of their production and propagation. Can you give us some other specific examples of what these interests address?

The best examples I can give are the questions I sought to address in my book. I had read extensively about 19th and early 20th century religious liberals—about the transcendentalists, for example, or the organizers of the famous World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893—and I knew that these folks were the elites of their day, a religious avant-garde.  And I also knew the research, mostly from sociologists, about the religion of the baby boomers and later generations from the 1970s to the present showed how deeply religious liberal ideas had penetrated by that point.

But I wanted to know: How did this happen? How did our religious culture change so much? How did ideas about the utility of psychology to spirituality, or about the religious value of learning from other faith traditions, go from a radical fringe to the American mainstream over the course of the mid-20th century. This is what sent me looking for “cultural mechanisms,” and I think I found those in American consumer capitalism, especially that most important of religious commodities, the book.

Can you tell us a little bit about your new project on race and the search for religious authenticity from the Civil War through the 1960s?

This book project explores the crossing of racial boundaries for the purposes of religious exploration and inspiration in the century after the Civil War. In the final decades of the 19th century, increasing numbers of Americans began to cross racial boundaries in search of spiritual authenticity. Religious liberals, such as Unitarians, transcendentalists and members of the emerging modernist wing of American Protestantism, led the way, as they found themselves increasingly alienated from traditional sources of meaning in a rapidly modernizing society.

As evangelical piety lost its hold for many young educated Americans, in other words, new sources of spiritual vitality needed to be found—and a surprising number of Americans in the era of Jim Crow found that spiritual vitality in the religious lives of African Americans and Asians. I plan to place the growing white fascination with African American culture—a phenomenon in popular culture, but also in religion—alongside the lesser-known stories of Asian religious influences. I have just begun to study the Japanese Christian Toyohiko Kagawa, for example, who became a celebrity among American Protestants between the world wars, and I am also researching the uses American church leaders made of Gandhi. We’ll see where it all goes!

Truths Universally Acknowledged: English professor reveals how Jane Austen’s characters and settings are fact as well as fiction

BarchasIn “Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity,” (The Johns Hopkins University Press, August 2012) Janine Barchas, associate professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin, boldly asserts that Jane Austen’s novels allude to real names of glamorous people and places.

The first scholar to conduct extensive research into the names and locations in Austen’s fiction, Barachas offers scholars and ardent fans of Jane Austen a wealth of historical facts, while shedding an interpretive light on a new aspect of the beloved writer’s work. Other projects Barchas is working on include a website titled What Jane Saw that reconstructs a museum visit attended by the Austens in 1813 as well as an investigation into the marketing of Jane Austen through book cover art from 1833 to the present.

Barchas kindly answered some questions for ShelfLife@Texas about Jane Austen’s “subtle manipulation” of celebrity culture, current trends in Austen studies, and why timeless classics like “Pride & Prejudice” and “Persuasion” continue to fascinate readers.

In your opinion, why do Jane Austen’s novels remain on best-seller lists? Have you noticed a modern resurgence in her popularity?

Well, her novels are really good, so quality may play a role! In addition, the many Hollywood movies and BBC bonnet dramas have further propelled Jane Austen to literary stardom in recent decades. As someone who also teaches many lesser knowns (such as Samuel Richardson who, alas, has no action figure or major motion picture to promote his fine novels), I am delighted that Hollywood is recruiting students to our English Department who want to follow up a film by reading the original book. We now cannot supersaturate the demand for classes on Austen in, well, Austin.

How did you come to realize there might be a strong connection between actual high-profile politicians, contemporary celebrities and famous historical figures to the characters in Austen’s novels? Can you describe your research process?

As a researcher of “the long 18th century,” I found myself initially distracted when teaching Austen (who published her first novel in 1811) by the historical associations conjured up by the leading names and settings in her stories. For example, the real-world family of Dashwood (also the name of protagonists in “Sense and Sensibility”) was a notorious and disreputable lot, who in the 1750s and 60s became known for a Hell Fire Club and a naughty landscape garden with female shapes and priapic statuary. At first, I dutifully shook off such well-known associations from my own “historical field” as unsuitable to her Regency fiction.  But once these associations reached a tipping point, I began to wonder whether or not they were part of the fun that a historically savvy Jane Austen had intended to create with her stories. Her stories are so daring and witty if you know the reputations and names that she is reworking into her fictions. The collection at the Harry Ransom Center was such a key element in the early stages of my search for books about history, travel and famous landscapes that Austen could or would have read.

Could you elaborate more on Austen’s “subtle manipulation” of the celebrity culture she saw around her?

Austen is minute about location, taking her characters to street corners in Bath where famous people lived or specific locales where great historical events of national importance occurred. Real history is then allowed to intrude upon her stories in animating ways. Her leading names are also as if plucked from the history books, resonating with celebrity associations. For example, one famous political family in Austen’s time, the Wentworths of Yorkshire, included on its family tree the names of Woodhouse, Fitzwilliam, Darcy, Vernon, and Watson (all leading names in Austen’s stories).  Imagine a novel today about, say, a fictional Kennedy family with a plot that takes a son named John to Cape Cod.  Would you not wonder what other knowledge might be rewarded by such a cheeky reference to history?

Why do you think other scholars had yet to make this important connection?

There was a unique delay in the literary reputation of Austen, who was not popular in her lifetime. Even after her death in 1817, her reputation slumbered until she began to be reprinted in 1833. And only in the 1850s did her work become truly celebrated. So Austen — born in 1775, writing in the 1790s, and published in the 1810s — was not taken seriously until after 1850. I argue that she has been read out of time. As a result, scholars must combat the narrow Victorian view that saw her stories as confined merely to the domestic, because decades of delay in her popularity muted her daring historical and political allusions. Austen died long before Queen Victoria took the throne, and yet she is often grouped with Victorian writers like the Brontës who published decades later. I am simply resituating her in the culture, stories and history of her own youth by pulling her back into the 18th century. You see different things if you look at her as a Victorian precursor than if you look back over the books and stories that influenced her own work.  We know from her brother Henry that Jane was a keen history buff.

What are the current trends in Austen studies, and do you see your book affecting them?

Historicizing is back. New editions are encouraging the reading of Austen’s novels in their original historical context, with new notes and increasingly fuller explanations of how a contemporary reader might have understood a detail of dress, money or manners. This is a different impulse from the prior view of celebrating Austen as “timeless” (that view is only partially true).  My own book is part of a trend in scholarship that would historicize Austen to her time and place.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

That Jane Austen was even smarter and more politically daring than they’d thought! That every detail in her stories deserves to be savored and pondered — in the same way that scholars acknowledge similar details in James Joyce or Shakespeare.

What’s next for you and Ms. Austen?

I have started new project called “Jane Austen between the Covers,” which tracks the marketing of Austen through book cover designs from 1833 to the present.  Because of Austen’s broad and sustained popularity since the invention of publisher’s bindings in the mid-19th-century, her cover art not only generates local insights into her reception history but also tells us how novels, as a popular genre, were marketed and consumed during the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Peter LaSalle’s new novel looks at life in the shadows

M song smPeter LaSalle uses a single book-length sentence in his new novel, “Mariposa’s Song,” to tell of a twenty-year-old Honduran woman in the United States without documentation.  Mariposa is working as a B-girl and taxi dancer in a scruffy East Austin nightclub called El Pájaro Verde in 2005, and her story takes readers into the shadowy world that undocumented workers are too often forced to live in due to current immigration laws.

“‘Mariposa’s Song’ is a tragedy that rings distressingly true to the bone,” says novelist Madison Smartt Bell in a prepublication comment, “and never has Peter LaSalle’s prose sung so melodiously.”  And Publishers Weekly notes: “LaSalle’s new novel is brief, but it feels expansive with its continued breathlessness.”

The novel is published in The Americas Series from Texas Tech University Press.  Edited by Irene Vilar and with a national advisory board, the series issues mostly work by Latin American writers in translation—recent releases include Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal and Brazilian novelist Moacyr Scliar—but also the occasional original book on a Latino subject that reflects the series’ stated mission of “cultivating cross-cultural and intellectual exploration across borders and historical divides.”

LaSalle will talk about “Mariposa’s Song” at the Texas Book Festival on Saturday, Oct. 27 in a three-author panel discussion on immigration narratives, “Nunca Volver: New Lands, New Lives,” moderated by Melissa del Bosque.  An excerpt from the novel will be featured in the December issue of The Texas Observer.

PeteAs the Susan Taylor McDaniel Regents Professor in Creative Writing at UT, LaSalle teaches in both the English Department’s New Writers Project and the Michener Center for Writers. He’s the author of several books of fiction, including the story collection “Tell Borges If You See Him,” winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award, and his work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, Best American Travel Writing, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, among many others. A new short story collection, “What I Found Out About Her and Other Stories,” is forthcoming from University of Notre Dame Press.

ShelfLife@Texas asked LaSalle a few questions about “Mariposa’s Song.”

Did you do intensive research, or how did you come to know about the lives of undocumented workers?

In recent years I got to know quite a bit about the world of the undocumented. I did so through time spent in the Mexican bars and nightclubs that used to line 6th Street in East Austin and now have all but vanished—almost overnight, actually, in the sudden so-called gentrification of the area. I also spent some time in the home of an immigrant family in Austin’s Dove Springs neighborhood, where I went with a friend who volunteered as an English instructor to new arrivals from Latin America. I think that those experiences, meeting the people I did in the course of it all, made me begin to better understand what it’s like to survive in the United States without documentation.

So you decided to write about it?

Looking back on it, I guess I almost had to write about it.  I remember that I saw a rather absurd locally produced TV show celebrating the supposed urban wonders of downtown Austin.  One sequence showed a group of happy young professionals (does anybody say “yuppie” anymore?) who had just come out of a trendy bar at maybe 2 a.m., guys and girls. They were filmed standing on the sidewalk, gazing up at what they saw as the wondrous beauty of a scene—men working construction on a new downtown high-rise, the site lit up bright in the darkness. I realized that those people, and a lot just like them, had no idea what life was really like for such workers, that there was nothing romantic about their long hours of hard labor, sometimes even right through the night. Having worked a job in construction myself at least one summer during college, I could assure them of that. More significantly, many of those workers were probably without documentation, facing life every day with the added threats posed by our outdated and thoroughly contradictory immigration policies. I don’t know if that was exactly when I decided to start writing “Mariposa’s Song,” but it was one thing that contributed to my decision to use a novel to maybe tell others what I knew about such lives, including those of the young women who worked in the East Austin bars, hustling drinks for the owners or dancing with customers, like the old dime-a-dance arrangement.

And the entire novel is basically a single book-length sentence. Can you explain how that works?

Well, first of all, I hope it does work. I’ve written and published several short stories that use just a single sentence, though this is my first time trying it on something longer. The novel takes place in the course of one Saturday night in a rough East Austin nightclub, where my protagonist—a gentle, pretty, and very hopeful young woman from Honduras named Mariposa—works as a bar girl and gets in a nightmarishly bad situation when she meets the wrong guy at the decidedly wrong time, a smooth-talking Anglo from out of town who calls himself Bill. In starting to write, I soon found that a single continuing sentence captured perfectly the cadence of a night at that club, where the norteño and cumbia music the DJ plays goes on uninterrupted, no breaks between songs, flowing. It also seemed to capture the way Mariposa’s own thoughts meander through her mind, maybe her soothing personal song of herself, very much a music, too.

Well, it certainly seems like a fresh idea.

As said, I sure hope so.

A Q&A with Kathleen Marie Higgins, Author of “The Music Between Us”


978-0-226-33328-1-frontcoverFrom our first social bonding as infants to the funeral rites that mark our passing, music plays an important role in our lives, bringing us closer to one another. In “The Music between Us: Is Music a Universal Language?” (University of Chicago Press, June 2012) Kathleen Marie Higgins investigates this role, examining the features of human perception that enable music’s uncanny ability to provoke — despite its myriad forms across continents and throughout centuries — the sense of a shared human experience. Her interdisciplinary and richly researched study showcases the ways music is used in rituals, education, work, healing, as source of security and, perhaps most importantly, joy.

Higgins, who is a philosophy professor at The University of Texas at Austin, recently answered some of our questions here at ShelfLife@Texas about the transcendent power of music – and how it is one of the most fundamental bridges in human society.

What is your musical background, and how did you become interested in the philosophy of music?

I was a music major as an undergraduate, playing piano and organ. I was especially interested in the way music related to ideas and culture more broadly, and taking a course in the music of India led me to start reflecting on the differences among musical traditions. I did graduate work in philosophy, but among my philosophical interests from the beginning was philosophy of music.

What are some modern discussions being held by philosophers who study music?

One set of issues concerns the ontology of music — questions about what constitutes music, musical performances and musical works. Another focuses on why music affects us so powerfully. Philosophers of music consider such issues as whether or not emotional arousal and/or expression is the purpose of music or whether these are simply byproducts; the basis for the connection between music and emotion; whether music that expresses given emotions also arouses these same emotions; and what the object of the emotion is in the case of emotion generated through music.

Philosophers of music also discuss the ways that music relates to ethics. Can it make us a better or worse person, and if so how? What is involved in musical understanding? For example, how much attention to structure is essential? How music is like or unlike the other arts? How music is like or unlike language? What is the proper basis for evaluating and valuing music? How and why music functions politically? And what does music reveal about our minds and our world? I’m tempted to say that music offers an angle on just about any topic in philosophy.

In the book you mention the qin, a Chinese unfretted lute, which is so sensitive that ambient air currents can produce sounds and even the grain of the musician’s fingerprints on the strings can be heard. What other unique musical instruments or musical techniques have you encountered in your research about the universality of music?

Probably the most interesting I’ve come across is a practice in one New Guinea society of putting drone beetles in one’s mouth in order to use one’s own body as a resonator for the sounds of the beetles. Another New Guinea people, the Kaluli, perform duets with various natural sounds, such as those of waterfalls and cicadas. The ghatam, a South Indian instrument, is a clay pot. One of the things I notice when I encounter instruments and techniques such as these is the tendency to find musical possibilities in materials and phenomena in everyday life.

I’m often struck by the various timbres utilized in music, whether produced by instruments or the musical voice. The first time I heard a crumhorn, I found the character of the sound rather humorous, even though the crumhorn was not designed for that purpose. I also find highly nasal vocal styles a bit comical, but in some cultures they are standard and highly prized. My reactions in these two cases makes it clear to me how much the musical practices of our own society determine what we take to be the norm, and how sounds that aren’t utilized (or utilized much) in those practice can strike us as aberrant.

In my opinion, one of the most interesting chapters in your book is “What’s Involved in Sounding Human?” At the risk of being reductive, can you explain some of the research you included in the chapter to answer the question, “What is it to sound human?”

The question itself suggests that human beings employ only a subset of the available sonic possibilities in music, and this is certainly the case. Not surprisingly, we make music in the area where the human powers of hearing are most acute. The octave above a note is treated as the “same” note in most respects. Human beings prefer intervals of relatively simple ratios of frequency vibrations, and the simplest (the octave and the fifth, in particular) tend to be prominent in most musical systems around the world.

Human beings typically make music in “pieces.” We tend to use a centering tone (called the tonic in the West), which is perceived as the tone of a scale that is the most stable, and other tones have various degrees of relative instability by comparison. Music tends to employ lots of repetition within a piece and within smaller components of a piece. There is some tendency in most musical cultures for musical utterances to end with a descent in pitch. All these tendencies show up virtually everywhere that people make music. Human beings have a signature way of making music, just as songbirds and humpback whales do.

What do you find most fascinating about the connecting power of music?

What interests me most about all this is the fact that even though music from another culture might be formulated on very different principles than the music we are most familiar with, and even though it might sound exceedingly foreign, it is geared to our perceptual faculties and is structured of patterns that can be recognized quite readily if one is familiar with the musical idiom. This is not to say that it is easy to “get” foreign music right away; some of our perceptual habits may even interfere, as when we are expecting one kind of tuning or rhythmic organization and encounter another. But it does suggest, and some experimental evidence bears this out, that we can improve in gaining an orientation in foreign music in a relatively short time. So we shouldn’t conclude from the fact that it is challenging that an unfamiliar type of music is foreclosed to us. The popular claim that music can communicate across cultural boundaries may understate the challenges in some cases, but the basic idea is right.

Are there any non-musical societies that we know of? Or are there societies scholars consider decidedly less musical than others?

No, it appears that music plays a role in every human society, and that it serves a cluster of functions (creation of social cohesion, emotional regulation, indication of socially significant occasions and promoting health, for example) virtually everywhere.

What’s next for you and philosophy?

I’ve been working on issues in the philosophy of emotions, in particular on the nature of grief. I’m interested in how grief motivates and is expressed through art and other practices that have an aesthetic dimension. Music plays an important role in this connection; lamentation is one of those ubiquitous ways that we humans use music. So although this new project isn’t about music as such, music will be a part of it, and no doubt other projects I pursue in the future.

A Poetic Q&A with Author, Activist and Alumnus William J. Cobb

“Bill Cobb’s The Bird Saviors is a stark modern-day Old Testament story in which the evil that men do is barely balanced by the good that a few manage to achieve.  It’s a gritty harrowing story set in a dust-blown Colorado town that seems filled with vivid characters.  Cobb’s expert story-telling compels us forward scene by scene to a final satisfying redemption.” – Kent Haruf, author of Plainsong

William J. Cobb (MA English, ’84) is a novelist, essayist and short fiction writer whose work has been published in The New Yorker, The Mississippi Review, The Antioch Review, and many others.

Before his most recent novel, “The Bird Saviors,” Cobb authored “Goodnight, Texas,” “The Fire Eaters” and a book of short stories titled “The White Tattoo.” He has received numerous awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant, the Sandstone Prize, an AWP Award for the Novel, and the prestigious Dobie-Paisano Fellowship — a prize sponsored by the Graduate School at The University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Institute of Letters that provides solitude, time and a comfortable place at J. Frank Dobie’s Paisano ranch house for Texas writers who have written significantly about Texas.

Set in a time of economic turmoil, virus fears, climate change, fundamentalist cults and illegal immigrant hardship, “The Bird Saviors” is a visionary story of defiance, anger and compassion, in which a young woman ultimately struggles to free herself from her domineering father, to raise her daughter in the chaos of the New West, and to become something greater. It is an elemental and timely vision of resilience and personal survival, but — most of all — of honest hope.

From his home in Colorado, Cobb kindly answered some questions for ShelfLife@Texas about his life, writing and teaching styles, and what he hopes readers will take away from reading”The Bird Saviors.”

We recently reviewed the book of an alumna that was set in Galveston, Texas — a city with which she has long had a fascination. You seem to have a strong interest in the American West. Where did that come from and how does it affect your writing?

I am totally (and unabashedly) fascinated with the West (both New and Old), and see myself much more as a Western writer than anything else. Most of my childhood was spent on the northwest side of San Antonio (near Olmos Creek), and that landscape of cactus, juniper and oak trees, limestone hills and clear-flowing rivers and creeks enthralled me. I’ve written essays about how it seemed I was growing up on the border of the Old West, which I later found out to be quite true: A couple years ago I read S. C. Gwynne’s “Empire of the Summer Moon” (2010), about the history of the Quanah Parker and the Comanches, and there were many references of Comanches in that area of the Hill Country. But my obsession with Colorado really began when I was about nineteen years old, on my first trip there, en route to Montana: We slept on the floor of a group of archeologists involved in a dig near Cortez, Colorado, and I thought the mountains (and the people) were wild and beautiful. For the past thirty years or so I’ve spent some or all of my summers in the West, and for ten years now I’ve owned a second home in Colorado, which I think of as my real home.

The West influences my writing greatly now, like an Appaloosa I like to ride. In particular I’m obsessed with that mixture of the past and the present — of outlaws gone, remembered and soon-to-be — of a landscape in flux. The summer of ’99 I lived in Creede, Colorado, and was jazzed to learn that Bat Masterson (I love the name.) once owned a saloon there. Robert Ford — “the man who shot Jesse James” — was shot to death there (in 1892, I believe) and was at one time buried in a cemetery through which I would often take my dog for a walk. I think of myself as something of a Western landscape writer, certainly not an “urban” writer. There are plenty of those in New York, but someone must celebrate the importance of the plains and the mountains far west of the East Coast. I’m glad to be one who does that.

In 2004 you received the Dobie Paisano Jesse H. Jones Writing Fellowship: How was that experience for you personally and for your writing? Did you learn anything new about yourself or your writing process?

My time at the Paisano Ranch was nothing short of bliss. That year (2004) had a wet spring, so Barton Creek flowed the whole time and my wife and I went for swims daily. Until the heat of summer set in, the air was cool, the fields were green and the wildflowers gorgeous. Although the ranch is only about seven miles from town, it was quiet and peaceful. At night, the most distinctive sound we heard were the lions roaring in a small zoo that was located near the entrance to the property, about a mile away. The bird life was amazing. In late April we started hearing a lovely trilling sound outside our bedroom window, and soon came to find a family of Eastern Screech Owls lived in the Elm Oak beside the patio. If you shone a flashlight over the fields, you could see just their glowing eyes as they hunted insects. We liked to say those were the souls of Comanches floating over the fields. I have a long list of Paisano birds sighted, which includes the remarkable sighting (by my wife) of a juvenile Whooping Crane (traveling along the Colorado River flyway, no doubt), Ospreys, Painted Buntings, Black-Billed Cuckoos and a Golden-Cheeked Warbler, which is extremely rare. The Chuck-Will’s Widows could be so loud at night we’d have to close the windows to get some sleep.

My Paisano Fellowship came at a good time, when I was burned-out from teaching and needed some time to write: I finished the novel “Goodnight, Texas” there. What I learned most from that experience is to value the time free to write. People don’t realize how demanding the role of being a writing professor can be, how full your days can become, with no time to write. If I had the chance, I’d love to go back to Paisano and spend another spring there writing. We had a trio of longhorn steers that came to visit us regularly, and although I’m sure we weren’t supposed to, we left the gate open so they could come inside and eat the sweet grass close to the house. My wife even hand-fed them now and then. They liked her cornbread the best.

Although you were raised in Texas, you live and write in Colorado and teach writing at Penn State, correct? Can you tell us a little about your teaching style in the classroom?

I tell stories. One of my teaching assistants in a large-lecture class I taught not long ago said, after a few class sessions early in the term, “I have to come up with some anecdotes to tell.” Since most of what I teach is about storytelling, I think it’s a good way to approach the subject matter, by doing it as well. I love the anecdote related about Vladimir Nabokov in his “Lectures on Russian Literature,” in which he is said to have asked all his students to give a reason why they were taking his course, and his favorite was, “Because I like stories.” Right now I’m reading the great evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson’s new book, “The Social Conquest of Earth,” and although much of the material is rather cerebral and analytical, he still manages to tell a lot of stories, such as anecdotes about his adventures as a field biologist studying ants in South America. I don’t think of this as “lite” or “easy,” either. Great storytelling is a rigorous endeavor. We understand the world through the stories we tell, the tales we share with another. In explaining the evolutionary steps to the development of human consciousness, E. O. Wilson cites the role of the campfire and hearth as central to our development. We became human, after millennia of sitting around the campfire, telling stories. It’s the essence of what makes us special.

How did your idea for “The Bird Saviors” develop?

Two things kicked this novel into being: At some point I heard a voice in my head — Ruby’s voiceover in the beginning of the novel — and I jotted that down, which contains the first line: “Lord God is talking again. He does love to hear himself speak.” Her voice stuck with me for a long time, and I began with that. Yet I didn’t conceive of this as a singular story, but rather multi-voiced, with an ensemble cast of characters to provide a complex vision of this world. So the second seminal moment for “The Bird Saviors” occurred when I heard an anecdote about a young woman engaged to be married, then after her fiancé cancelled the engagement, he asked for the ring back. She refused. Soon afterward her apartment was burgled, and the only thing stolen was the engagement ring. Naturally her family suspected the fiancé was the culprit. I was fascinated by the story, by the gall of the fiancé to ask for the engagement ring back, and even more so to break into her apartment to steal it back. That was the catalyst that set everything else in motion: Once I understood Ruby’s and Becca’s characters, the other people and events developed naturally. I always pictured it in the not-too-distant future, too, when the landscape is parched and dusty by drought. Unfortunately, in Colorado that’s only too true right now.

You have described yourself as “committed naturalist and card-carrying member of the ABA (American Birding Association),” and although it’s by no means heavy-handed, there is an environmental conservation theme running through this book. Can you tell us about how some of your personal passions find their way into your fiction?

I certainly hope I never use a heavy hand in my approach, but I want my fiction to be engaged in the world, and not to be about only my life, say, or my petty likes and dislikes, but things that matter. As a father, I’m concerned about the way I see the world changing now, and am worried about how much we might alter the natural balance of the world, particularly in the Southwest, which is focal point, to some extent, for climate change. I have no patience for climate change deniers or so-called “skeptics.” Too often mainstream media outlets are giving space to kooks and shills who have some dubious if not despicable agenda. The evidence for climate change is now overwhelming. There’s a deadly epidemic in the background of “The Bird Saviors,” and one of the dangers of climate change is that it may well alter habitats in ways we don’t understand, and push viruses into the human population that have been secluded or dormant for years.

For those interested, one of the best books I’ve read recently on the subject is Michael Mann’s “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars” (2012), which tells the story of Climategate from the scientist whose emails were stolen and distorted. I certainly believe that writers should speak out, should touch on what is close to their hearts, and what concerns the rest of the world. Right now I think the biggest issue facing the world is environmental and economic collapse, and I touch on both of these in “The Bird Saviors.” Some of my fiction has seemed prophetic at times, such as my previous novel — “Goodnight, Texas” — imagined a great storm hitting the Texas coast, and was written before both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ivan. That said, I don’t have a prophetic bone in my body. But I read much science-related nonfiction, and perhaps because of that, I can read the writing on the wall.

What do you most hope readers will take away from “The Bird Saviors?”

I like that idea of “taking away” something from a book. One of the things fiction (and all writing, actually) does best is to give something to its readers. So what do I hope I’m giving readers? That image of a young mother lost in a desert town blanketed with pink snow, at the novel’s beginning, when Ruby flees her father and walks miles across the prairie and through town to reach her mother, just as a dust storm collides with a cold front. Or the gutsy strength and artistry of George Armstrong Crowfoot — a Native American who functions as a kind of avenging angel and chronicles this changing world by painting petroglyphs on a mesa’s cliff-side. Or the scheming pawn shop owner Hiram Page, who likes to quote various philosophers and kings as he cheats people and bilks the needy and desperate. He’s despicable, conniving, and the rest of the world has to move quickly to keep up with him. And Jack Brown’s squishy morality as he somehow justifies to himself that kidnapping a toddler in exchange for a pickup truck is not a reprehensible act. Or Fufu’s trashy love for Officer Israel James. And much, much more.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m off from teaching for eight months and plan to write the first draft of a new novel tentatively titled “The Donkey Woman.” It’s loosely based on the donkey woman folktale I heard while growing up in the Texas Hill Country, which I later learned was a retelling of the famous La Llorona folktale from Mexican culture. I’ve got the itch to write it, which is always a good sign.

For Audra Martin D’Aroma, Location Is Everything

3-1Spanning a little over a century, “The Galveston Chronicles” (Rozlyn Press, February 2012) is the story of four generations of women who feel an intense pull to the island of Galveston, Texas even though their lives continue to be interrupted by hurricanes. The novel opens in the stifling days before the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, when the wealthy Isadora Khaled begins to dream about catfish and murdering her daughter, setting off a chain of events that will not be resolved until Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Isadora’s descendants are defined by and eventually named after the hurricanes that shape their lives: Fatima, who enters into a doomed relationship with a visiting artist in 1961; her drug-numbed daughter Carla, desperate to get home in 1983; and Carla’s daughter Alicia, reunited with her heritage on a modern island embracing disaster culture in 2008.

Though she and her family were from Houston, author Audra Martin D’Aroma visited her grandparents’ house in Galveston throughout her childhood, developing a strong attachment to the island and an interest in how the people responded to hurricanes. Interested in what these reactions say about the places people are from, D’Aroma has maintained a lifelong fascination with the psychological landscape of the Gulf Coast.

This University of Texas alumna (English, ’99) and up-and-coming author chatted with ShelfLife@Texas about “The Galveston Chronicles” and what the future holds for her writing career.

How did you develop such a strong love for Galveston and hurricane culture?

When I was younger, my grandparents had a vacation house on the West end of Galveston and we spent a lot of time there. It was way less developed back then. I think Galveston is a really fascinating place because it has an interesting mix of characteristics that make for strange bedmates — a Victorian aesthetic mixed with an existential, end-of-the-world feeling.

I was also fascinated just how much the island lives in the shadow of the 1900 Storm. In that way it is almost polar opposite of its neighbor Houston, where I come from. We take pleasure in tearing down any signs of our history and starting over while Galveston at some point made a decision that it was better to be defined by a tragedy than to risk having no identity at all.

As for hurricane culture, I think that the way we react to hurricanes says a lot about us — about our ideas of private property, our inherent distrust of government and our nervous energy. In fact, sometimes I think that if an anthropologist were to come to this region 1,000 years from now and try to dig up signs of what we were like as a culture, they might think that hurricane season was a religious season like Lent.

Why did you choose to major in English and Art History instead of Rhetoric and Writing? How do you feel this selection of majors prepared you for your professional writing career?

Sadly, I think I chose English because I wanted to be able to read as much fiction as possible while getting my degree. I was originally a political science minor but then switched to art history after taking an introductory class freshman year and falling in love with Caravaggio. I think that, through the direction of my studies, I developed an idea about craft as something to be learned from the Old Masters, either in the visual arts or in writing. I took one writing class at UT from Peter LaSalle, and it had a huge effect on me. I think he’s writing some of the most interesting and experimental fiction, but in the class nothing was about finding your own voice or tapping into your own creativity. He just taught the fundamentals of the craft. It instilled in me the idea that one thing had to come before the other was possible.

What gave you the idea for the unique plot of “The Galveston Chronicles?”

I can’t really remember. I started writing it in 2005 (before Hurricane Katrina), and I think the whole story came to me in a flash and then it took almost seven years of backtracking to try to hammer the plot down. I didn’t want to have a single character carry the story like a lot of people suggested, so I relied on this idea of ancestral memory to link the episodes. I’ve always noticed that on Galveston, people frame their stories using the hurricanes as markers.

Did you do a lot of historical research on the city throughout the writing process?

I did, but I also relied on a lot of other people. My mother is a history buff, so she helped a lot with it. There are a few writers, namely Gary Cartwright and Stan Blazyk, who did a great job of capturing the history. My editor was ruthless in taking out historical details that didn’t add to the story.

Diane Wilson, author of “Diary of an Eco Outlaw,” reviewed “The Galveston Chronicles,” and said that you “weave Galveston Island and those hurricanes into [your] story like Faulkner wove Yoknapatawpha County into ‘Absalom, Absalom!’, where the land was always not far behind in any dealings that the characters hatched up.” How do you think giving agency to a setting or location affects your novel, and do you have any other locations you feel could serve as the basis for a novel?

I would almost go as far to say that the entire reason I write is to explain to myself what it means to come from East Texas-West Louisiana, meaning the 360 or so miles between Houston and New Orleans. I think we have three of the ten largest oil refineries in the world in that area, and so you grow up in this environment where nature and industry are almost inextricably combined. I am interested in how that affects both our ideas of beauty and our personality. I can’t really tell you how that is, but I do know that I like to write about people watching oil refineries being lit up at night and missing hurricane season more than positive holidays.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

An idea of the mood and the sense of place that made me write the book.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a novel about the reverse immigration of a down-on-her-luck young mother in Lake Charles, Louisiana who is accused of a crime and escapes to Beirut and [of the immigration] of her great-great grandmother who escaped the Ottoman Empire to Lake Charles a century earlier.

A Q&A with Michael Erard, Author of “Babel No More”

Babel-No-More-The-Search-for-the-Worlds-Most-Extraordinary-Language-LearnersHow do some people have the ability to master a multitude of languages? What makes them tick? Are their brains wired differently from ours?

These are just a few of the questions alumnus Michael Erard (M.A. Linguistics, ‘96; Ph.D. English, ‘00) tackles in “Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners” (Free Press, 2012).

While gathering research for his book, Erard traveled to far and distant lands – from Mexico to South India to California to Belgium – in search of hyperpolyglots, people who speak at least 11 languages. In the process, he analyzes the cultural role of language, and where it resides in the brain.

Erard begins his quest by investigating the most famous hyperpolyglot, Giuseppe Mezzofanti, a 19-century priest who allegedly spoke 72 languages. Legend has it, the venerable multilingual defeated Lord Byron in a linguistic cursing contest. And after he died, people all over Europe vied for his skull.

In search of modern-day Mezzofantis, Erard aims to answer the age-old question: What are the upper limits of the human ability to learn languages?

Erard, who considers himself to be a “monolingual with benefits,” sat down with ShelfLife to discuss his interest in language acquisition, the mysterious phenomenon of multilingual dexterity, and the importance of breaking language barriers on a rapidly globalized planet.

What spurred your interest in studying polyglot linguistics?

I’d been working as a journalist, writing stories about languages, and a author_photo_cropped_michaeldiscussion popped up on a linguistics listserv about who the most lingual person in the world was, as well as the possibility of language learning talent as a heritable trait. Nearly no research or serious writing had been done about people who were gifted language learners and massive language accumulators, though when some people on the listserv said these people didn’t exist, it became terribly intriguing.

Why do some people pick up multiple languages so easily?

One reason is that they’ve already picked up multiple languages – they have a lot of knowledge about the basic patterns they’ll see in a grammar, and they know a lot about how they learn. (That is, if they’ve learned languages from a lot of different families.) Another reason is that they have powerful higher-order cognitive skills like working memory and executive function, which helps them use a lot of languages. They may have the ability to store memories and retrieve things from memory more quickly, as well to hear the differences between speech sounds.

Did you come across any surprising findings during the research phase?

Many, many surprising things on this journey! For instance, when I went to Bologna, Italy, to visit the archives of Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, a 19th century priest who is credited with knowing dozens of language, I found a lot of documents and other things which hadn’t been described before that shed light on his abilities as well as his myth. Going to South India where communities are naturally multilingual was very eye-opening. I loved talking to people who are language learners of all types and stripes. But I was perhaps most surprised by how difficult it is to say what it means to know a language when one has a very large repertoire of them. A language isn’t a unit of measure like an inch or a pound, so does someone with six languages really have more in his or her head than someone who only has one?

What are some interesting techniques hyperpolyglots employ when teaching themselves new languages?

Some were quirky in the sense that you wouldn’t encounter them in a standard language classroom, such as eliciting language from a native speaker, as an anthropologist or linguist traditionally would do. You can very rapidly build a mental model of all the language’s sounds and basic sentence patterns, all without a textbook or dictionary. Some methods were quirky in the sense that they look and sound odd. There is “shadowing,” which involves listening to foreign language material and attempting to reproduce it at the same moment one is hearing it, all while walking around outside making exaggerated gestures with one’s limbs. Someone suggested hanging out and playing games with kids who are native speakers in the language you want to learn – the language will be simple and repetitive, and if you’re fun to play with, the kids won’t care that you don’t sound like them.

Are there any downsides to being a polyglot?

One downside is that most professional contexts don’t reward you for learning more languages, so the happiest hyperpolyglots were ones in multilingual work settings where learning a language is a part of the job. Another one is that they have to work especially hard to find time for interests besides language, which can quickly consume you and be the only thing that you do. There’s the way people are always challenging you to perform in all of your languages, or to divulge the number of languages you speak. That seems to wear on them, because people don’t necessarily want to hear the details about what you can do.

What message do you hope your readers will take away from this book?

I hope that people take away the notion that successful language learning happens because of how the brain changes, not because an individual has more willpower, motivation or some other individual trait. I want to take foreign language learning out of the self and put it back into the brain. The goal is to illuminate the neurobiology of learning, which is an exciting area of research right now. One implication is that developing a globally competent workforce requires public support in order to create the environments and curricula for successful foreign language learning – individuals can’t be left to learn foreign languages on their own. I also hope that people take away the notion that even as adults they are capable of a considerable amount of learning, if only they abandon the notion that the native monolingual speaker is a meaningful standard or goal.

How did your experience at The University of Texas at Austin shape your interests in becoming an author and studying linguistics?

How did it shape me? Immensely. I received so much encouragement and interest from people both in and out of the classroom – it’s incredible. Having access to the library collections was a huge influence too. I spend a huge amount of time in the library for both of my books (not to mention my dissertation). Probably the biggest impact came late in grad school, in 2000, when I realized that I would be happier as a writer, not as an academic. That realization was spurred by my involvement with the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program, then housed on the Graduate School. Then, in 2008, I received the Dobie Paisano Writing Fellowship, a gift that provided what every writer needs: time and solitude.

What are you working on now?

I am going to be promoting this book for a while. I’ve been working on it since 2005, so I would really like for people to know about it. Then I’ve got other book ideas to develop. Since 2008 I have worked as a researcher at a think-tank in Washington, D.C., and I would like to be able to focus on writing up some of my ideas in that realm. Writing a book with a day job basically means you have two jobs, and I’d like to have just one for a while.

About the author:
A native American English speaker, Erard lived in South America and Asia, where he learned to speak Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. His books and essays on language and culture have appeared in The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, the Economist and Rolling Stone. His first book, “Um…:Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What they Mean” is a natural history of things we wish we didn’t say (but do), as well as a look at what happens in our culture when we do (and wish we didn’t).

A Q&A with Ashley Hope Pérez, Author of “The Knife and the Butterfly”

recentheadshotashleyperez1Inspired by her teaching experience at Chávez High School in Houston, English alumna Ashley Hope Pérez writes about disadvantaged teens struggling to meet their obligations at home and follow their dreams. However her newest book “The Knife and the Butterfly” (Carolrhoda, Feb. 2011) is about the students she didn’t get to teach, the ones who slipped through the cracks in the system or dropped out of school.

The protagonist, Salvadoran Martín “Azael” Arevalo is one of those fallen students. The story unfolds when Azael wakes up in a locked cell after a gang fight in a Houston park. Unable to piece together the events that landed him behind bars, yet again, he realizes that something is not right.

Things get really weird when he’s assigned to secretly observe another imprisoned teen named Alexis “Lexi” Allen. Despite their personality clash, the two troubled teens soon find themselves inexplicably linked in this gritty paranormal thrill ride.

This up-and-coming young adult author was kind enough to chat with ShelfLife@Texas about how she learned the inner workings of street gangs, the connection between teens and the paranormal, and how she surprised herself with a twist ending.

How did you come up with the title “The Knife and the Butterfly”?

Massive confession: the series of articles that initially inspired the novel—run by The Houston Chronicle back in 2006—was titled “The Butterfly and the Knife.” Luckily for me, 12306694there’s no copyright on titles! I switched the order of the knife and the butterfly in the title after an astute reader pointed out that male readers would be more likely to pick up a book with a title that begins with “knife” rather than “butterfly.”

The duality expressed in the title was a focusing one for me as I wrote. As I say in my author’s note for the novel, I wanted to show Azael and Lexi’s world as much more than a patchwork of crime and violence. In addition to the very real threat of their circumstances and the danger of poor choices, I tried to capture these two teens’ vulnerability and their potential for redemption.

What made you decide to dabble in the realm of paranormal fiction?

It wasn’t as simple as a decision, exactly. Yes, there is a “paranormal twist” to “The Knife and the Butterfly,” but much of the novel (say 90 percent) is occupied with the gritty world Lexi and Azael live in on the fringe of mainstream society in Houston. The paranormal was a bit of a surprise to me, too.

That is to say, I didn’t set out to incorporate paranormal elements in my novel; they became necessary for me to change the rules of my characters’ world just enough so that they could make different decisions… so they could have the second chances that are built into the system for many middle-class teens.

You mentioned that you even surprised yourself with the twist at the end. How did this come about?

The ending developed unexpectedly out of exploratory writing I was doing about Azael’s street art. This whole thread—Azael and his relationship to spray paint and the walls of his city—was a challenge for me. I am very much a rule follower, so it took me a lot of effort to rethink graffiti as “street art” and to come to understand what it meant to Azael to write right on the faces of the structures around him.

Anyway, I was writing about Azael’s thoughts as he was drawing, and then all of sudden I was writing the ending. And once it was there on the page—and I knew it was the ending—it was the only possibility that felt right to me. It went through plenty of revision and development, but the thrust of the final part of the book didn’t change. I embraced it with its paranormal baggage.

Why do you think young readers are so enthralled by the paranormal?

You’d think I’d have an ironclad thesis after teaching a course on vampire literature for two semesters, but to be honest, I’m not sure. Within YA, I tend to shelve myself alongside contemporary realists, not fantasy writers. Still, if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say the paranormal provides novel ways of thinking through and dramatizing teen (and human) issues. In fact, one of my favorite student papers interpreted one vampire in literature as an eternal adolescent.

How did you familiarize yourself with inner-city gangs?

Because Crazy Crew is a “home-grown” Houston gang, details related to it came mostly from news coverage and other local sources. MS-13 (La Mara Salvatrucha), on the other hand, is an international gang that has been described by some as “the world’s most dangerous gang.” I did extensive reading about MS-13, including many first-person accounts, but I focused on the particulars of the gang’s activity in Houston, which are generally not quite as extreme as what you might see in the heart of Central America.

For both gangs, I needed to learn specifics: their hand signs, the “rules” of initiation and involvement, linguistic patterns and so on. I would never want to trivialize or glamorize gang involvement, but at the same time I think some media portrayals are a bit exaggerated and fail to capture the nuances of actual teens’ experiences. For example, readers will notice that—contrary to most Hollywood portrayals of gang violence—there’s not a single gun involved in the fight that opens “The Knife and the Butterfly.” This is pretty consistent with the two gangs portrayed. I’ve found that when I ground my writing in particulars, a lot of stereotypes fall away.

The story is primarily narrated from the point of view of Azael. How were you able to capture the language of a poor teenage gang member in Houston?

You found a very nice way to ask something that some teen readers, upon meeting me, put a lot more bluntly: “How did YOU write THIS?” They pick up immediately on the fact that I am not someone who, in conversation, would describe a package of Cheetos as “spicy-as-f**k” (Azael’s words). How, then, can such words come out of my pen?

A lot of it was shameless cribbing from what I heard kids in Houston say, both in the hallways of the high school where I used to teach and in the taquerías and hangouts of working-class neighborhoods. I spent a good amount of time in the areas where the novel is set (mainly the Montrose area and a run-down stretch of Bellfort). I also paid attention to the language used in the interviews I read and would sometimes mimic patterns of phrasing.

Now, in terms of emotional truth in Azael’s language, I chalk that up to a willingness to imagine experiences and ways of seeing that are unlike my own. I recently heard Lionel Shriver talk here in Paris, and she said that for her, writing from a male point of view is not the big leap; the big leap is getting inside another head, period, and discovering those individual particularities, the quirks of mind inside the many big things we have in common. I agree, and I think you could substitute “poor” and “gang member” for “male” and still find the notion to be true.

What message do you hope your readers will take away from this book?

I’d love readers to leave the pages of “The Knife and the Butterfly” with a sense that second chances aren’t doled out equally. And I hope that they will feel a bit more urgency about being a positive presence for those who, as far as they had thought before, don’t even deserve to be redeemed.

What are you working on now?

I’m knee-deep in a very messy first draft of a historical novel set in 1930s East Texas, near where I grew up. There’s an explosion, an interracial romance, a pair of twins, and a significant shoe. That’s all I can say without transgressing certain foolish writerly superstitions.

About the author: During her time at The University of Texas at Austin, Perez won several writing awards including a $5,000 George H. Mitchell award for her essay on Anne Sexton. She went on to teach high school English in Houston – sending a number of students back to The University of Texas at Austin. She is now finishing a doctorate in comparative literature at Indiana University and teaching English in Paris. She also teaches undergraduate courses for her department, including literature about vampires and a course on women writers of the Caribbean. Her first young adult novel, “What Can’t Wait,” is also inspired by her Houston high school students.

A Mark Twain for Our Age

AllanGAllan Gurganus, author of “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” “Plays Well with Others,” and other works of fiction, will teach on campus as Michener Residency Author this February for three weeks.  He is slated to meet with MFA students in weekly craft seminars and to hold manuscript conferences to discuss their work individually.

He will also read at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 9, 2012 in the Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302, on the southeast corner of Speedway and 24th Street on campus.  The event is free and open to students and the public.  Parking is available in the nearby UT Garage at San Jacinto and 24th.

Gurganus’s work has been translated into twenty languages. His first novel sold two million copies. Adaptations of the fiction have won four Emmys, his books awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the O’Henry Short Story Prize.  Paris La Monde said of Gurganus, “A Mark Twain for our age, hilariously clear-eyed, blessed with perfect pitch.”

With this type of endorsement we thought no one would be a more suitable interviewer for his Q&A than Gurganus himself. ShelfLife@Texas is proud to present an interview with Gurganus, by Gurganus.

Welcome to campus. You yourself studied with authors as gifted and various as Grace Paley, John Irving, Stanley Elkin and John Cheever. Do you bring their examples into your classroom?

Their voices and wisecracks go with me everywhere. Sentence by sentence, I know what each of them would say about my next line. This holds true in my own classes and student conferences.  I can literally hear what the now-deceased Grace Paley is urging me to tell a given student.  The one way to repay great teaching is trying to perfect that art yourself.

By now, my students are growing famous as my teachers were. Elizabeth MacCracken of the Creative Writing Department here, was my own pupil a few decades back at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She remains not only among the most gifted students I’ve ever taught; she is also easily the kindest.  I remember where I was sitting when I read certain of her start-up stories.

Have you looked over the fiction of your UT students you’ll work with during your residency?

Oh yes. I’ve covered pages with many checkmarks and, to earn my keep, some questions. I’m now eager to see if each of them resembles the person I imagined wrote each tale. (Sometimes I can pick a writer out of a group of other strangers on the basis of her prose. Just showing off!)

One thing that wowed me—how different each writer is. Here there is no median talent or typical story. Everybody seems wildly themselves. Talent! For me, that is the holy of holies. I literally worship it, valuing it over physical beauty. It sure lasts longer.

Though I will be in Austin less than a month, I hope to encourage students to build upon their own best instincts. Everybody is launched already, and obsessed.

After writing myself for forty-four years, I’ve bumped into certain technical shortcuts, some simple insights that—if presented dramatically and modestly—might prove useful.

You are slated to give a reading on campus on February 9th. Will you be offering a selection of “Oldest Living Widow,” your most famous work?

Oh no. Just as students find the nerve to show me brand-new work as yet unpublished, I’ll return the favor. Only fair. No matter how many books a writer has in print, the blank page never grows less abashing. In fact, that whiteness leaves you ever more snowblind. You have used up all your charm and tricks; you fear you’ve already plundered the true ore of autobiography.

It is important to demonstrate to students that I’m still a student. I’ll read from a long novel in progress called “The Erotic History of a Rural Baptist Church.”  It investigates the confusion between spiritual longing and the raw upsurge insistence of sexual desire. That makes for a combustible mix. I plan to read a passage based on an actual incident from my hometown circa 1900. A baby elephant escapes from a visiting circus. It gets pursued by a posse of local boys and girls and farmers. It takes a local preacher to pray over this event, to try and justify or explain the random violence we all wade in daily.

What advice can you offer beginning or graduate writers? It seems a field with one long apprenticeship, then rewards unevenly distributed.

Well-said. Yes, people write because they have to. There is no other excuse for it. American culture only valued Faulkner once he’d won the Nobel, once Hollywood hired him to make his own brilliant novels terrible movies. His books were out of print. Suddenly he became ‘hot’ then valid.

I’ve been needing to put things on paper since 1966. If tomorrow I learned that no other word I wrote would ever be published, my daily schedule would not change. I’d still rise at six thirty and cohabit with my desk till early afternoon. I rarely even take the Sabbath off. Stopping and starting is the hardest part of writing. Far better never to turn off the tap.

Universities provide one essential ingredient all writers need: an interested enlightened audience. I encourage people to find a group of others, working at their same level of experience. To meet alternate weeks at least and read new work aloud. Sometimes our ears know more than our brain does. There are two of them! Music is truly what we seek to write. Fiction rests somewhere between being a Law and a Song. By hearing other people hear your work, you learn to make it rock or sway or pound. The goal is helping others Laugh, Cry, Wait and Know.  Seeing that happen, in real time, thanks to sound-waves, is one great reason to endure all its attendant tortures.

History Professor Reveals Intriguing Private Letters of a Discounted American President

Nellie_coverAs far as historical presidential power couples go, the Tafts aren’t likely among the first to come to mind, but based off of Lewis Gould’s edited collection of their personal correspondence during William Taft’s most trying years in office, perhaps they should be.

My Dearest Nellie: The Letters of William Howard Taft to Helen Herron Taft, 1909-1912″ consists of 113 letters that “not only reveal the inner workings of a presidency at decisive moments but also humanize a chief executive to whom history has been less than kind” says Gould, Eugene C. Barker Centennial Professor Emeritus in American History at The University of Texas at Austin.

Filled with his commentary on current political issues and rationale for his decisions as well as his growing distaste for Theodore Roosevelt, frustration with his weight and golf score, and even the hottest gossip from the nation’s capital, Taft’s collection of letters to his wife Nellie are rivaled only by those between Harry Truman and Bess.

Gould recently sat down with ShelfLife@Texas to talk about Taft, the value of letter writing, and the birth of the modern United States.

“My Dearest Nellie” is the most recent in a long list of books you have written or edited about the presidents of the first two decades of this 20th century. What draws you to this particular topic in American History?

I had teachers at both Brown and Yale in the 1950s and 1960s who explored the national politics of the Progressive Era in fascinating ways. Soon I was intrigued by, and then committed to understanding, the period when the modern United States was emerging. I came to it after studying state politics first in Wyoming and then in Texas, but even in writing those books I was interested in the interaction between public life on the national level with developments in the states. But turning to Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson felt like coming to a natural area of emphasis.

Watch Lewis Gould discuss his new book on C-SPAN Book TV.

Watch Lewis Gould discuss his new book on C-SPAN Book TV.

What is the value in reading the private letters of presidents past, and why do you think no one had really taken the time to look at those between President Taft and his wife Nellie before?

The cliché is that historians read other people’s mail for a living, and the quality of letter writing in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era was more impressive than in our own day. With email and Twitter, there is not the care and thoroughness with which people once conveyed their thoughts. President Taft wrote many of his letters in longhand. Others he dictated to a secretary at the end of a busy day. Either way, speaking to the one person he trusted above all others, he conveyed his problems, gripes, and accomplishments with a high degree of freedom. In the process, he revealed much about his relations with Congress, the press and the public. He was very direct and often indiscreet, and his letters turned out to be fascinating. Unlike Theodore Roosevelt, whose letters have been published in eight volumes, and Woodrow Wilson, whose papers have been published in almost seventy volumes, Taft’s letters are still available only on microfilm. This small volume of 113 letters is my attempt to redress the balance.

You say that although these letters will not warrant calling him a great President, they do reveal a more thoughtful occupant of the White House than scholars have acknowledged. Can you give us an example? Did anything you read surprise you, even as an expert of this historical period?

The extent to which Taft involved himself with legislation was a surprise. In the various battles of his administration over the tariff, for example, in 1909 and 1911, the President courted lawmakers, used leaks to the press, and wielded patronage to get his goals enacted. Things didn’t always work out as he planned, but it was not because he was aloof. Many people have argued that Taft was lazy. He procrastinated a good deal, but when he put his mind to it he could produce speeches, messages to Congress, and letters to other politicians with great efficiency. He was also well read — not the speed-reader that Roosevelt was, but a man who knew the classics and Western literature. How many recent presidents could toss off an allusion to a Latin poet in the course of a letter to their spouse?

What do you most hope readers will take away from “My Dearest Nellie?”

Taft was a very unpretentious and down-to-earth chief executive. The wife of a Texas congressman called him “the most perfect everyday gentleman” she had known among the presidents of her time. His letters are filled with human touches and an awareness of his own foibles. In the summer of 1912, when it was clear that the American people were not going to give him a second term, he wrote to Nellie: “I have held the office of President once, and that is more than most men have, so I am content to retire from it with a consciousness that I have done the best I could, and have accomplished a good deal in one way or another.” The rationalization of a losing candidate? Sure. But it also reflected a lack of bluster and arrogance that one rarely finds among modern politicians. Spending a decade reading Taft’s mail was a rewarding experience.

The idea for this book came to you while you were writing another book called “The Modern American Presidency.” Did any new ideas strike you while writing his one?

Right now I am resting from the work of editing the Taft letters for publication and writing a brief biography of Theodore Roosevelt that has just been published by the Oxford University Press.