The Heart and Soul of Our Poetry Community

smDYcolorOn Friday, April 8, poets from across the country will read at Austin Museum of Art downtown in a benefit honoring The University of Texas at Austin’s  Livingston Endowed Chair in Poetry Dean Young, beloved poet and teacher who faces a heart transplant.

Nationally acclaimed poets Tony Hoagland, Thomas Lux, Dobby Gibson, Barbara Ras, Stuart Dischell, David Rivard and Joe Di Prisco are volunteering their time to fly in for the free event and will read along with a raft of local poets, including visiting professors Tomaz Salamun and Mary Ruefle, and members of the University community Kurt Heinzelman, Judith Kroll, Roger Reeves and Malachi Black. Each reader will read a favorite poem by Dean and a piece of their own.

Dean joined the university’s permanent faculty in 2008 as the first of two distinguished chairs created by the Michener Center for Writers and Office of Graduate Studies.  A professor in the Department of English, he teaches poetry workshops and seminars in both creative writing programs.  Among one of the most prolific poets of his generation, celebrated for his energetic and inventive style—a mercurial blend of  tragedy and joy, the surreal and the minutely observed—he has more than a dozen books of poetry and prose to his credit, including “Fall Higher,” forthcoming this year; “Primitive Mentor,” shortlisted for the 2009 Griffin International Poetry Prize; “Elegy on Toy Piano,” nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; and “Embryoyo,” as well as a critical work on poetry, “The Art of Recklessness.”

Dean’s imprint on the poetry program in English and the Michener Center has been immediate and distinctive.  English chair Elizabeth Cullingford calls him a “consummate teacher who’s brought dynamism and new ideas to our Creative Writing program.”   Leanna Petronella, a poet in her second year at the Michener Center, says that Dean uses “an odd and brilliant metaphorical language to get at what poetry does.”  MFA candidate Zebadiah Taylor, whose thesis Dean is supervising in absentia this spring, says “No other person I’ve encountered understands poetry as deeply.”

But the heart Dean Young puts into his teaching and mentoring is in trouble.  For the last dozen years or so, he has lived with congestive heart heartimageDYfailure due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a rare disease of the heart muscle.  Naturally spry and athletic, he was, until last year, able to spring back from periodic episodes of weakness.  Last fall, his condition worsened dramatically, until this spring he required surgery to place external mechanical pumps to take over the work of his heart.  He’s spent much of the last several months hospitalized, fighting infection and setbacks, and still he has kept up with his students, texting and answering emails, and meeting in person, when his health allows, to discuss their poetry.  He is at the highest priority on the transplant list at Seton Medical Center at Austin, and awaits only a suitable donor.  Despite his health insurance, out of pocket expenses are enormous.

Among Friday night’s readers is Joe DiPrisco, Dean’s longtime friend who chairs a fund-raising campaign through the National Foundation for Transplants, a nonprofit organization that has been assisting transplant patients with advocacy and fundraising support since 1983.  The organization will have information available at the reading about how supporters can help with Dean’s medical needs.

Donations are welcome, but the reading is free at AMOA Downtown, 9th and Congress and begins at 6 p.m.

“Everyday Information” Views How We Seek and Use Information


All day, every day, Americans seek information. We research major purchases. We check news and sports. We visit government Web sites for public information and turn to friends for advice about our everyday lives. Although the Internet influences our information-seeking behavior, we gather information from many sources: family and friends, television and radio, books and magazines, experts and community leaders.

In  the newly-published “Everyday Information: The Evolution of Information Seeking in America,” co-edited  by William Aspray, professor in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin, the editors discuss how patterns of information seeking have evolved throughout American history and are shaped by a number of forces, including war, modern media, the state of the economy, and government regulation. This book examines the evolution of information seeking in nine areas of everyday American life.

Chapters offer an information perspective on car buying from the days of the Model T to the present; philanthropic and charitable activities; airline travel and the complex layers of information available to passengers; genealogy, from the family Bible to; sports statistics, as well and fantasy sports leagues and their fans’ obsession with them; the multimedia universe of gourmet cooking; governmental and publicly available information; reading, sharing and creating comics; and text messaging among young people as a way to exchange information and manage relationships. Taken together, these case studies provide a fascinating window on the importance of information in the past century of American life.

A number of students in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin contributed to the volume including Rachel Little, Arturo Longoria, Sara Metz, Beth Nettels, Jameson Otto, George Royer, Gesse Stark-Smith and Cecilia Williams.

Michener Alumna Tells a Story Worth Telling in her Fourth Novel: “Maxine Banks is Getting Married”

MaxineBanksLori Aurelia Williams, a 1996 graduate of The University of Texas at Austin’s masters program in Creative Writing/English and one of the first distinguished Michener fellows on campus, has just published her fourth novel, “Maxine Banks is Getting Married,” with Macmillian’s Roaring Brook Press.

Since the 2001 release of her debut novel from Simon and Schuster, “When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune,Williams has been recognized as one of the freshest and most powerful voices in young adult literature.  Her books, all set in the Houston’s 5th Ward where Williams grew up, tell the stories of young people caught up in circumstances that propel them too early into adulthood.  “Kambia” is narrated by 12-year-old Shayla, an aspiring writer whose sharp-eyed account of her runaway sister Tia and their tragically abused neighbor Kambia captivated readers. Its first printing sold out immediately, and it was voted #1 Young Adult Book by and received the Best Book Award of the American Library Association.  “Shayla’s Double Brown Baby Blues,” a continuation of Shayla’s story, followed in 2003. “Broken China, whose protagonist gives birth to and loses a child by age 14, came out in 2005, supported by a PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship. Alan Cheuse selected it that year for his NPR summer reading list.

“Maxine Banks” picks up threads from her first two novels:  Maxine is Tia’s best friend and follows her example of marrying at 17 to escape the parade of sorry men her mother brings into their lives, only to have her plan backfire. But as troubled and difficult as the lives of all Williams’ characters are, their stories are told with lyricism and verve. A sense of family and community is always strong, and even their most desperate situations are graced with humor.

Lori Aurelia Williams

Lori Aurelia Williams

Williams continues to call Austin home.  When she is not writing, she supervises an after school program at a local high school.  She answered a few questions for ShelfLife @Texas recently about the new book and her work.

Did you set out to write Young Adult fiction as a deliberate career choice, or was it more a case that the stories you were drawn to tell found their natural expression in books for young readers?

I don’t sit down to write books that specifically target a group. YA fiction is actually fiction written for younger adults and teens, and because my characters are youthful they just naturally fit into that category. To be honest when I write I consider only one thing, will my work make a real difference to anyone, young or old? If I think I have a story worth telling, I tell it, and let the publishers decide how to market it.

To be clear with readers who don’t know your work:  you address very mature themes of sexual abuse and exploitation, violence, unplanned pregnancy, infidelity.  Have you ever faced any censure from your editors or publishers?

I have definitely been censured. My first book, “When Kambia Elaine Flew In From Neptune,” was on a list of the most banned books in Texas a few years back, and I’ve shown up to readings only to have school personnel ask me not to read, but simply talk about the book. I have to admit, I get upset when this happens, because I write about things that many young girls have gone through, and I don’t believe we can stop our children from experiencing the ugliness of the world by simply forbidding them to read about it.

You’ve used the neighborhood of your own childhood, Houston’s tough 5th Ward, as the setting of all of your novels so far.  How did growing up there shape your fiction?

I loved the neighborhood that I lived in, and was really unaware of how other people saw it until I grew up and settled into another town miles away. To me the poverty and the violence was a normal way of life, and it was offset by the strong sense of kinship that I felt with the other families who lived around me. Today those families have also moved on, and the shacks that most of us lived in have been torn down. When I write I incorporate bits and pieces of my childhood neighborhood into my work, and try my best to make it something that readers in my old and new life can be proud of.

Nearly all your reviews praise your wonderful talent for dialogue, for capturing the rhythms and speech of your characters. How do you feel you developed that particular gift?

Even as a little girl I loved to hear people talk, and you have to have that love of the spoken word in order to create good dialogue. If you can hear the beauty in Southern drawls, mispronounced words, broken speech, urban slang, and just about anything that can come out of a person’s mouth you can write good dialog. After I’ve written a very talk heavy scene, I read it aloud for clarity and sound. This helps me create characters that sound like people you might meet shopping at a grocery store or walking down a busy street.

What are you working on now?

I just finished the first draft of my fifth book and shipped it off to my agent, so right now I’m just enjoying a little free time to catch up on my reading.  It’s a new book, set in a new place.

Keene Prize Play Goes on to U.S. & U.K. Premieres

FCSnowThe Keene Prize selection committee of The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Liberal Arts may have been among the first to recognize the power of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s work when they awarded her their $50,000 literary prize.  But they are far from the last. Her prize-winning play “Lidless” will soon be seen on stages both in the United States and abroad.

The 27-year old Cowhig has been in an eddy of career opportunities and artistic accolades since winning the Keene Prize and completing her Master of Fine Arts with the university’s Michener Center for Writers (MCW) in 2009.  “Lidless” which powerfully and poetically tells the story of a Guantanamo detainee who confronts his female interrogator 15 years later — was also selected by David Hare for the 2009 Yale Drama Prize and published by Yale University Press.

In readings and workshops at theatres across the country — among them Yale Rep, Ojai Playwright’s Conference, Houston’s Alley Theatre, and L.A.’s Open Fist Theatre — “Lidless” has captivated audiences.  Over the past year it has also been produced at two major playwriting festivals, the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, W. Va., and the High Tide Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, where it won the Fringe First Award.  Reviewing the play, The Scotsman said, “If Henrik Ibsen had been alive in the era of Guantanamo, he’d surely have written a play every bit as scintillating as ‘Lidless.’  Reframing global politics on a domestic scale, [Cowhig] turns headline news into a modern-day tragedy.”

This coming year, though, “Lidless” has its fully staged regional U.S. premiere at Interact Theatre in Philadelphia—city of the playwright’s birth—running from Jan. 21 through Feb. 13.  Then only weeks later, it opens on the London stage at Trafalgar Studios 2 Theatre, a noted venue for new work, running from March 15 through April 2.

Cowhig has lived largely out of her backpack since leaving Austin eighteen months ago. For several months, she moved between distinguished writers’ residencies—Yaddo, MacDowell, Ragdale and the Santa Fe Art Institute — then spent another half a year traveling throughout China, Taiwan and Mongolia. The daughter of an Irish-Catholic U.S. diplomat and a Taiwanese-Daoist, Cowhig credits her cross-cultural, transient childhood for the fluidity of her work, which always seeks to push boundaries and examine the personal in light of the political.

She is currently settled in Oakland and in January begins a stint as Playwright-in-Residence at the Marin Theatre Company (MTC) in Mill Valley, Calif., as recipient of its 2010 David Calicchio Emerging Playwright Prize. There, she will judge MTC’s writing prizes and shape the company’s upcoming season, and her newest play, “Sunspots,” will get a workshop treatment.

It’s no less than anyone who knows her work from the university expected of her.  “Frances’s talent was apparent immediately,” MCW director James Magnuson says.  “Because she’d gone to Brown and had done a lot of work in experimental theater, I was concerned about her being a little on the ethereal side. But once I started seeing her work in class, I was blown away by how bold and gusty she is. And she’s such a craftsman!  She works as hard as any young writer I know.  Honestly, the sky is the limit for her.”

An Incurable Talent

SmSkibellJoseph Skibell, a native of the Texas Panhandle, was an accomplished playwright and screenwriter living in Los Angeles when he joined the first-admitted class of UT’s Michener Center for Writers in 1993.  Switching his emphasis to fiction after a year in the program, he graduated in 1996 with a novella submitted as his thesis, which grew into his debut novel, “A Blessing on the Moon,” published by Algonquin in 1997.  Skibell joined the English Department/Creative Writing faculty at Emory University in 1999, where he now serves as the director of the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature.

We spoke with him about his third novel, A Curable Romantic,” out from Algonquin this fall. O Magazine calls the book “An irresistible romp about a lovelorn 19th century doctor who falls in with Sigmund Freud—and some dangerously attractive women.”   Skibell will read from the book and sign copies on 7 p.m., Thursday, November 4, at BookPeople, located at the corner of West 6th Street and North Lamar.

How does a Texan, exiled to Atlanta, end up immersing himself in turn of the 20th century Vienna, Freud, and Esperanto?

ThumbCurableWell, I grew up in Lubbock, and as the great wealth and diversity of creative people from Lubbock will attest, a 360-degree horizon seems to be good for the imagination.  I guess I was interested in how different the turn of the last century was from the turn of our century.  In the wake of the 1900 World’s Fair, people really seemed to believe that humanity was on the lip of perfecting itself. The great advances in science, underscored by enlightenment philosophy, coupled with the internationalization of railroad systems and Braille and the codes of weights and measurements, really made people think that war and national hatred was a thing of the past. No one would ever have had similar thoughts in the year 2000. So I was interested in the difference between their naivety and our cynicism. And, of course, the terrible answer to their naivety was the carnage of World War I, which may have something to do with our cynicism.

What interests or obsessions or curiosities fueled such a research-intensive novel? The bibliography, available on your website, is enormous. Did you actually learn Esperanto?

Yeah, I tell people it was a bit like taking a bar bet. You know, write a book that includes Sigmund Freud, Dr. Zamenhof and Esperanto—oh, and the Warsaw Ghetto.  It did require a lot of research, much of it in Esperanto, which I did learn. It’s a beautiful and easy-to-learn language. There’s an extensive literature in Esperanto, including some really marvelous stuff.  There’s an Esperantan poet of astounding genius named Kalman Kalocsay.  In answer to someone who charged that Esperanto couldn’t possibly be a real language because it didn’t contain any dirty words, Kalocsy wrote 50 highly erotic—actually, very smutty—sonnets called La Sekretaj Sonetoj (The Secret Sonnets).

Did you worry about “getting it right” as far as period details?  After all, Freud is a nearly mythical personage to turn into a character, and his life and times are so fully documented.

I felt it was only fair to the reader for me to try to get it right. I remember meeting a playwright once who had written a play about Stephen Foster stealing all his tunes from an unknown black composer. I asked him if this was historically accurate and he said, “Well, no, but white artists have always plundered black culture.” I didn’t want to invent anything in “A Curable Romantic” that skewed the historical truth, and fortunately, the truthful things I wanted to write about—like Dr. Zamenhof’s belief that a universal language would create a universal brotherhood, or Dr. Freud’s good friend Dr. Fliess’ belief that the nose is the center of the human soul and that by operating on it, he could cure neurosis, etc., etc.—were in themselves dramatic enough that they didn’t need tweaking.

As for Freud, I was happy to be dealing with only about a year of his life, even less, really.  There’s so much known about him. Between his letters, the autobiographical sections of “Interpretation of Dreams” and his other work, and what other people have written about him, you could probably draft a day-by-day calendar of sixty years of his life. The hard thing was trying to fit as many little gems I learned about him into the novel without retarding the narrative flow.

Was there any snippet of serendipity that may have either led you to this story or altered your writing of it in some profound way?

There was nothing but little moments of serendipity throughout the writing of this book. For instance, Freud had this “bromantic” crush on Wilhelm Fliess, a total crank who believed all sorts of weird things. He believed that by removing the left middle turbinate bone of the nose, he could cure Emma Eckstein’s hysteria. She was Freud’s first analytic patient, and she’s a major character in the novel. Well, Freud hands her over to Fliess, and Fliess nearly kills her. He left a meter of surgical gauze inside her nasal cavity.  Dybbuks also play a large role in the book and, at one point, the protagonist Dr. Sammelsohn and Dr. Freud believe that Fräulein Eckstein’s hysteria might actually be a dybbuk possession. When I started researching the history of dybbuk possession and exorcism, I discovered an account of a dybbuk being exorcized through the victim’s nose. So in the novel, this forms a credible counter-story to the historical account of how Emma Eckstein’s nose came to be destroyed.

Your publisher has brought out a new paperback edition of your first novel “A Blessing on the Moon,” which you began as an MFA candidate at the Michener Center. How do you feel about that book now, 14 years later?

It feels good to have it back in print. I read it not too long ago, because the composer Andy Teirstein and I were adapting it into the libretto for the opera he’s writing based on it.  I hope this doesn’t sound immodest, but I was impressed by how fearless I was as a young novelist.  I don’t think I’d have the courage to write that book now.

Playwright-in-Residence’s Work Featured

MyattBWThe UT Michener Center for Writers will sponsor a reading of the award-winning play The Happy Ones by its current Michener Residency Author,  Julie Marie Myatt, at 7 p.m., Thursday, October 28, at the Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302 on the southeast corner of 24th and Speedway.

Myatt is a Los Angeles-based playwright whose most recent productions include Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter, the story of an amputee GI and her difficult return from the war in Iraq; Boats on a River, which deals with Cambodian sex-slave trafficking; and Someday, a piece about reproductive rights, commissioned by Cornerstone Theater for its Justice Cycle.  But Myatt can’t be pigeon-holed as the author of “issue plays”—her work is much subtler than that. “Julie says everything she wants to say . . . without really having to say it,” Cornerstone’s artistic director Michael John Garcés says.

Living the dream life in suburban Orange County, California, in 1975, The Happy One‘s protagonist, appliance salesman Walter Wells, is a man who has it all—until sudden calamity descends on his perfect life.  At the same time, the area is experiencing its first influx of refugees from the fall of Saigon, and an unlikely friendship develops between Walter and Bao Ngo, a refugee who bears his own recent sorrows.  Across a cultural divide, the two look to each other for a way back, if not to happiness, at least to peace.

c. 1972 Bill Owens from SUBURBIA

c. 1972 Bill Owens from SUBURBIA

Myatt’s own early life was shaped by the Vietnam War, where her father served two tours of duty during her toddler years. But personal history alone wasn’t the impetus for the play. She became interested in the undercurrents beneath idyllic family lives when she saw the photography of Bill Owens in his seminal book, Suburbia, published in 1973. His was the first major photographic exploration of middle-class lives and the book, according to an LA Times review at the time, “rouses pity, contempt, laughter and self-recognition.” Echoing Owen’s themes, Julie says of her subjects, “I want to write about what is interesting in American life and what is dead about it.”

The Michener Residency Author program brings distinguished writers to campus for three-week stays, during which they mentor students in workshops and manuscript conferences. Myatt is the first playwright to be selected for the program.

The play will be read by five actors, and the event is free and open to the public.

A Weird End Run for the Pulitzer

HardingthumbIt’s the story of the Little Novel That Could.  Paul Harding was an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate with a slim manuscript about a dying new England clock repairman and a drawer full of rejections.  After three years of shopping around his novel Tinkers, he finally sold it to the tiny nonprofit Bellevue Literary Press for an advance the size of a big publisher’s paperclip budget.  They printed 3500 copies.  Still, the struggling author was glad to have his work in print.  Harding and his family were getting by on his wife’s teacher salary and his unemployment, and he was still driving the eighteen-year-old clunker station wagon which had served him since his days as drummer for the rock band Cold Water Flat in the 90s.

Bellevue is a curious hybrid, a literary press housed in the infamous eponymous hospital, a part of New York University’s School of Medicine.  Created by doctors, the press seeks to illuminate “the human experience in medicine,” and they bring out one fiction title a year alongside titles exploring the intersections of science and the arts.

TinkersBut Bellevue editorial director Erika Goldman utterly believed in Harding’s book.  “I found myself,” she says, “weeping for the beauty of the prose.”  Goldman passed a galley to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, who likewise couldn’t put it down and gave it a coveted starred review.  Sales reps and staff of independent bookstores on both coasts who read the novel got behind it and began word of mouth campaigns.  There were no press kits, no media blitzes, no book tours.  Reading groups formed around dinner tables in friends’ houses, where Harding was invited to read.  Rave reviews came in from the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe and an NPR story got the attention of Random House, who offered Harding a deal on his next two books. Bellevue printed more copies.

So, naturally, as Tinkers went on to win its ultimate recognition, the story had more strangely homespun twists.  The Pulitzer Prize committee waived the $50 submission fee from Bellevue in consideration of their nonprofit status.  Astounded enough at his book’s inclusion by the prize jury, Harding says things became entirely surreal when, as announcement time drew near, he got online to check the Pulitzer website and found his own name there as winner.  No thrilling phone call.  No crisp letter or telegram as in olden days.  Not even an e-mail.  He calls the whole experience “this weird end run from noble obscurity to a Pulitzer.”

Tinkers is the first such end run since John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, published by LSU Press, won the fiction Pulitzer in 1981.  In a time when book sales are dominated by powerhouse sellers and shaped by the bottom line, a win for a fledgling author and a nonprofit press is heartening news.  Critics praise the book’s quiet lyricism, the powerful evocation of family history and memory, and Harding’s stunning sentences. “There are few perfect debut American novels,” says NPR’s John Freeman. “Walter Percy’s The Moviegoer and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird come to mind.  To this list ought to be added Paul Harding’s devastating first book, Tinkers. . . . Harding has written a masterpiece.”

There are a quarter of a million copies of Tinkers in print now, and Austinites will get the chance to hear Harding as part of the Michener Center for Writers’ annual reading series on Thursday, September 30 at 7:30 pm on campus in the Avaya Auditorium. ACE 2.302. Parking is available in the nearby UT garage at 24th and San Jacinto.

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Historian William H. Goetzmann Dies

41E1B2M6M6LHistorian William H. Goetzmann, professor emeritus of history and American studies, died Sept. 7 at age 79.

A specialist in the American West, Goetzmann won both the Pulitzer and Parkman prizes in 1967 for his seminal book “Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West.” He later authored with son William N. Goetzmann “The West of the Imagination,” which became a PBS series in 1985. His most recent book “Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism,” focuses on American intellectual, political and literary history from the United States’ birth to the end of the 19th century.

Goetzmann chaired the History Department from 1968 to 1969, directed the American studies program from 1964 to 1980 and retired in 2005 as the Jack S. Blanton Chair in American Studies and History.

A native of St. Paul, Minn., Goetzmann earned his bachelor’s degree and doctorate from Yale University, where he met Tom Wolfe, who presented the Texas Book Festival’s lifetime achievement award, the Bookend Award, to Goetzmann in 2001.

A memorial service will be held 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 12 at St. Austin’s Catholic Church, 2026 Guadalupe Street in Austin.

Visit the Department of American Studies website or the Department of History website for more information about Dr. Goetzmann.

Irish Author Colm Tóibín Reads on Campus

Colm-HBAcclaimed Irish author Colm Tóibín is on campus as a guest of the Michener Center for Writers and will read at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 25 in the Avaya Auditorium, ACES 2.302.

Tóibín, a former visiting professor of the Michener Center’s master’s of fine arts program, began his career in journalism before turning to novel writing.  His first novel “The South” was published in 1990, followed by “The Heather Blazing,” “The Story of the Night” and “The Blackwater Lightship,” which was shortlisted for the distinguished Booker Prize in Fiction.

His most lauded novel to date “The Master was again shortlisted for the Booker in 2004 and won the 2006 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Los Angeles Times Novel of the Year.  The novel builds upon biographical research and speculation about Henry James to re-imagine the author’s interior life.  Reviewing “The Master,” writer Michael Cunningham said “Tóibín takes us almost shockingly close to the mystery of art itself. A remarkable, utterly original book.”

Tóibín’s most recent books include a collection of stories: “Mothers and Sons,” and the novel “Brooklyn,” a sparely written account of a young woman’s emigration from Ireland to the United States in the 1950s.  The novel recently won out over Booker-winning author Hilary Mantel’s much-lauded “Wolf Hall” for the 2009 Costa Prize for the Novel.  He has continued to publish widely as a journalist, literary critic and essayist.

While at UT, Tóibín will also visit with Professor Brian Doherty’s Plan II freshman world literature students, who are reading his short stories, and graduate fiction students in the Michener Center’s master’s of fine arts program and the Department of English’s master’s of arts  in Creative Writing program.

The reading is free and open to the public.  The ACES building is located on the southeast corner of 24th and Speedway on campus and parking is available in the nearby garage on San Jacinto.


Brian Hart, author of "Then Came the Evening"

UT alumnus Brian Hart likes to work against the grain. Maybe that explains why he was able to sell his first novel in the aftermath of Black Wednesday—December 3, 2008—when many of publishing top names announced layoffs, firings, suspended acquisitions, salary freezes, or major restructurings. A week later, Hart signed a deal with Bloomsbury for his debut work “Then Came the Evening.” The book released in December 2009 with a coveted starred review from Publishers Weekly and advance praise all around, and an author tour brings Hart to Austin on January 21, 2010.

A 2008 graduate of the UT Michener Center for Writers’ MFA program, Hart grew up in rural Idaho and put off college for a series of vividly blue-collar jobs across the American West—trapper, fisherman, drywall hanger, line cook, trim carpenter, welder, and hotel desk clerk are among those variously mentioned in his biographical blurbs. Then in his late 20s, he completed a Bachelor of Arts  at Portland State and joined the Michener MFA program in 2005. At the end of his first year, he won the $90,000 inaugural Keene Prize in Literature from The University of Texas at Austin. Doomsayers predicted it was enough cash or hype to ruin a budding author, and, sure enough, agents and publishers came calling right away for stories or novel pages, but Hart held back. He stuck to his old work habits and finished his MFA in May 2008 with the novel all but done and an agent willing to wait for the final draft.

Set in Hart’s native Idaho, the novel opens as Vietnam vet and local troublemaker Bandy Dorner wakes up from a bender to find his cabin burned to the ground and his pregnant wife dead, or so he believes. Two cops are killed in his ensuing rage, and Dorner serves eighteen years in prison. But his wife isn’t dead, and when Dorner returns home to a son he never knew, the three damaged characters struggle for reconciliation and forgiveness.

“‘Then Came the Evening” is an edgy and affecting debut from a writer already bursting with promise and achievement. His novel of love squandered and oh-so-nearly retrieved is a triumph,” says author Jim Crace, the distinguished visiting novelist with whom Hart worked during his final year of the MFA.

As Hart waited for the book’s release, he went back to framing houses and trying to carve out writing time for a second novel every day—one way or the other, hammering away at it. “Published novelist” can now claim a spot between “potato sorter” and “roofer” on his colorful resume.

His reading and booksigning is at 7 p.m., Thursday, January 21, 2010 at BookPeople, on the corner of West 6th and North Lamar.