Two weeks after graduating from Northwestern in 1973, Timothy O'Grady flew to Ireland to explore a tiny deserted island off the coast of Donegal. The Chicago native, who had never been to Europe, had an offer too good to pass up: a house to live in as long as he liked.|
"The island was called Gola, and it was a very eerie place," explains O'Grady (WCAS73). "The last people had left about four years before I got there, and it was as if everybody had just evaporated."
O'Grady stayed on Gola for several months and left smitten with the exhilaration of living in a dramatically different country and culture. He later became an Irish citizen, while keeping his American passport, and eventually ended up in London to pursue a writing career.
Motherland, O'Grady's premiere effort, was published in 1989 by Chatto & Windus in England and won the David Higham Award for First Novels. (It was most recently published in 1995 by Vintage.)
Today, O'Grady lives in Valencia, Spain, with his wife and infant daughter, but he was back in America in March, promoting the paperback edition of his latest book, I Could Read the Sky (Harvill Press hardcover, 1997). A lyrical novel about Irish emigration, it's an unusual collaboration between O'Grady and British photographer Steve Pyke, with an introduction by noted British writer John Berger. A film was made of the story in western Ireland and London late last year.
O'Grady has probably lived and written in more exotic places than most other contemporary fiction writers and poets who studied at Northwestern. However, he's not the only one who has found success and satisfaction in a profession well-known for its challenges and pitfalls.
Making it as a writer has always been difficult, requiring enormous talent, stamina and passion. Fortunately, the rigorous training at Northwestern prepares writing hopefuls better than many, if not most, institutions of higher education. Several University departments -- far beyond such traditional redoubts as English, as good as that one is -- are liberally stocked with literature-oriented faculty members who impart first-rate training, guidance and insights in equal measure. In fact, many on the teaching staff are themselves widely published authors.
Nonetheless, getting established as a creative writer is decidedly more difficult today than in the past, believes Reginald Gibbons, professor of English at Northwestern and a former editor of TriQuarterly, the university's literary magazine.
"Anything that doesn't look very commercial to an editor and a sales director has a very hard time getting published," says Gibbons. "[Many] good books don't get published because they won't sell enough copies."
He relates an incident about Amanda Urban, a famous New York literary agent, reportedly telling her equally famous client, Allan Gurganus, author of The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (Ballantine paperback, 1996), that she would not handle more stories from him because his previous collection had sold "only" 50,000 copies.
"For anyone else," says Gibbons, "50,000 copies would be way more than adequate. But that's the way things are in publishing now."
It's also harder today to get a good teaching job, a profession many authors have traditionally relied on to subsidize their writing careers. More professors are staying in their posts longer, leaving fewer openings for young people, says Gibbons, and the workload in many teaching positions is much heavier. American universities have produced more PhDs than jobs, and Gibbons no longer encourages his writing students to seek doctorates.
The process of writing itself is so solitary that it takes a special kind of person to do it, adds Fred Shafer, a lecturer in fiction writing at Northwestern's University College. "You're alone and your work proceeds by inches. It's virtually impossible to emerge from a day's work and show it to anybody, and that could go on for several weeks or months -- or years. And there are times when your work moves so slowly you doubt your own ability.
"The big problem for a writer," says Shafer, "is no real expectation or certainty of making a living or gaining recognition. What it takes is knowing that the work is worth doing for its own sake. And the ones who stick to it are the ones who enjoy the work, including its uncertainties and obstacles."
Among today's prominent writers who have survived those challenges are a number of Northwestern alumni:
Nobel laureate Saul Bellow; Robert Olen Butler, winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; Ivan Doig, whose Montana upbringing inspired This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind (Harcourt Brace hardcover, 1992) and other books with a Western setting; screenwriter-turned-blockbuster novelist Sidney Sheldon, who had to drop out of Northwestern after six months and found his niche in Hollywood; Kathy Reichs, author of Déjà Dead (Pocket Books, 1998), a thriller that became an international best seller; Marge Piercy, an activist, novelist and poet; and two deceased writers of note: Margaret Walker, who translated her experiences as a black woman into the best-selling Jubilee (reprinted in 1999 by Houghton Mifflin), and Terry Southern (WCAS48), who co-wrote Easy Rider (Signet paperback, 1969), hung out with the Beatles and influenced a generation.
Still other Northwestern graduates with impressive writing credentials include novelist Leslie Pietrzyk and short story writers Joyce Hinnefeld and Dan Chaon; and poets Angela Jackson; Mary Kinzie, a Northwestern English professor; Susan Hahn, TriQuarterly magazine editor; Paulette Becker Roeske; and Jack Anderson.
Though hardly a complete list, its representatives come from many different literary genres, time periods and walks of life. But almost all the ones who are living agree that attending Northwestern played a big role in what they're doing today.
Saul Bellow (WCAS37, H62), who of course went on to become one of this century's leading American novelists and critics, saw his first published short story printed in the Daily Northwestern in 1936 as part of a campus-wide literary competition. Called "The Hell It Can't," the piece was a response to Sinclair Lewis' novel It Can't Happen Here (Signet reissue, 1993), which dealt with the possibility of a fascist takeover in America. Bellow's youthful but affectingly impassioned effort took third place.
Among the younger generation, one in particular who feels the Northwestern experience was crucial is Angela Jackson (WCAS77). She is a Chicago poet whose second book of poetry, And All These Roads Be Luminous, was published last year by TriQuarterly Books, an imprint of Northwestern University Press. "Northwestern was the reason I became a writer," says Jackson, who started out on a premedical scholarship but got interested in African American literature in classes with visiting professors Walker and Hoyt Williams Fuller.
An editor, writer and critic, Fuller became Jackson's mentor and invited her to join a writing workshop on Chicago's South Side, where she attended weekly sessions for 20 years. Jackson still lives in the city, in the same house where she grew up, sharing it with her mother and many family members. Her first poetry collection, Dark Legs and Silk Kisses: The Beatitudes of the Spinners, published by TriQuarterly Books, was named one of the four best Chicago books of 1993 in a competition sponsored in part by the Chicago Sun-Times. Henry Kisor, the newspaper's book editor, called it "a compendium of exquisite poetry about race, women and spiritual experience."
Like Jackson, short story writer Dan Chaon (WCAS86) also found a mentor at the University -- Reginald Gibbons. In high school, Chaon sent Gibbons a story for TriQuarterly. The story never got published, but Gibbons encouraged Chaon to attend Northwestern. Chaon did, graduated with honors and went on to Syracuse University for further studies in creative writing.
Today, Chaon is himself a professor, teaching creative writing at Oberlin College in Ohio. His first collection of short stories, Fitting Ends and Other Stories, was published in 1995 by TriQuarterly Books. A New York Newsday review pronounced him "a major talent." Now he's working on a second collection, plus an anthology of forgotten 20th-century short story writers.
Gibbons' observation that writing by itself isn't a living, except for a fortunate few, resonates with the other Northwestern writers. The majority who must work outside writing are academics; several, however, write for newspapers and magazines -- Jack Anderson (S57) is a dance critic for the New York Times and Susan Hahn (WCAS63, GSESP 65) edits TriQuarterly and co-edits TriQuarterly Books.
Leslie Pietrzyk (WCAS83), who had perhaps the most unlikely job of all for a creative writer, worked until last spring for the Arlington (Va.) Chamber of Commerce.
"It seems like a strange match," acknowledges Pietrzyk, "but it really worked well. I learned so much about sales and marketing my book."
She quickly realized the value of one marketing tool and constructed a Web site on the Internet. Pietrzyk's first novel, Pears on a Willow Tree, made a big splash when it was published in hardcover last year by Avon. The work, which was widely reviewed, is a multigenerational saga about a large Polish American clan. When Pietrzyk got numerous requests for information about herself and the book, she put it all together on a handsome site that receives a good number of "hits."
Similarly, Anderson finds his job as a dance critic compatible with his mutual vocation as a poet. "Poetry and dance share certain characteristics," says the author of nine books of poetry and seven of dance criticism. "They are both arts of rhythm, the rhythms of the speaking voice in the case of poetry and the rhythms of moving bodies in the case of dance. They're arts of movement, either of words across a page or bodies across a stage."
Anderson's latest work, Traffic (New Rivers Press paperback, 1998), features his first collection of prose poems.
Among those lucky enough to devote themselves full time to writing are Sidney Sheldon (WCAS38), Marge Piercy (G58) and Ivan Doig (J61, GJ62). "To try to make a living as a midlist writer is exceedingly difficult," says Piercy, whose many novels include The High Cost of Living (Fawcett paperback, 1985); Gone to Soldiers (Fawcett paperback, 1995); The Longings of Women (Fawcett paperback, 1995); and two new collections of poetry. "But I've done it now for 25 years or so."
Still, Piercy has a second job of sorts: She spends a lot of time on the road holding readings and running workshops. She must, as she puts it, "hustle and work six days a week."
Born into a working-class neighborhood in Detroit, Piercy was the first person in her family to go to college. Along the way, she got involved in the civil rights and later the women's movements, struggling through years of poverty to become a novelist. She survived two bad marriages before meeting her current husband, writer Ira Wood.
What kept her going all those years was "sheer stubbornness, I think," she says from her home in Wellfleet, Mass. "I couldn't imagine doing anything else [but writing]."
Doig has also managed to carve out a full-time writing life, thanks initially to his wife, Carol (J55, GJ56), who supported him for the first 10 years of his career. They met at Northwestern.
"I have made a living as a writer since my fourth book, English Creek [Peter Smith reprint, 1992], was published in 1984," says Doig, who lives in Seattle. That novel won him a $20,000 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and doubled his income for the year. It was also the first of Doig's highly acclaimed trilogy about the homesteading experience in the West, ending with Ride with Me, Mariah Montana (Penguin paperback, 1991).
Doig spent his early years bouncing around Montana towns and ranches with his father, a hired hand. A scholarship to Northwestern, where he washed dishes in a women's dorm for four years, was his chance for a better life. The experience taught him something that all the Northwestern authors say is crucial: the need for discipline.
"I've never missed a deadline," Doig notes with some pride. "And that's across a career in newspapering, magazine work, a couple of hundred freelance articles and now nine books [including a sixth novel, Mountain Time, published in hardcover in August by Scribner]."
Considering the still-conventional arrangements of most marriages, discipline is, if anything, even more necessary for women writers, especially those who work full time. Finding balance in their lives is often an elusive goal. "It is extraordinarily difficult to juggle life and work," says Mary Kinzie (WCAS67), director of Northwestern's creative writing program. "It is even more difficult to juggle life and work and art."
Yet Kinzie, a single parent, has found time to write eight books, including five collections of poetry. Her most recent work, A Poet's Guide to Poetry, was published earlier this year in hardcover by the University of Chicago Press.
"I think of it as a three-way stretch," says Paulette Becker Roeske (G68), who teaches English at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Ill. She, too, is a single parent but somehow finds time to write.
How? "I write every day, first thing," explains Roeske, whose second collection of poetry, Divine Attention: Poems, was published in 1995 in hardcover and paperback by LSU Press. "That works best for me, not to let anything else get in the way. You can make progress even if you spend an hour or two. It's a habit I've kept up many years, even on vacation. If you let it lapse, it's very difficult to return to work. That habit -- discipline -- is one of the hardest for students to accept. You can be a writer if you're disciplined, not just if you're divinely touched."
Like Roeske, Joyce Hinnefeld (G85), an assistant professor of English at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa., tries to write in the morning. "I have to write then or I fade out," she says. "I'm sort of the writer where I teach, and it brings lots of nice attention, but it's a full-time job with a lot of demands."
Hinnefeld, who is married with no children, is the author of Tell Me Everything and Other Stories, a strong debut collection published in hardcover last year by Middlebury/Bread Loaf/University Press of New England.
In contrast with the early birds, Susan Hahn likes the late hours, after the phone stops ringing. "I've always been a night person -- and I work all night," says the busy woman, who spends afternoons and evenings reading and editing manuscripts at TriQuarterly. "I literally have to force myself into bed around 5:30 or 6 a.m. or I'd be completely out of sync with the world." After a pause, she adds, laughing, "I said to my husband the other day, 'I feel like a three-ring circus.' He said, 'Well, that's only because you are.'"
Hahn's third poetry collection, Confession, was published in 1997 in hardcover and paperback by the University of Chicago Press.
Kathy Reichs (G72, 75), who teaches anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and has three college-age offspring, has an additional issue many authors would love: what to do with all the money she made after her first book, Déjà Dead, became an international best seller. "My agent always kids me," says Reichs. "Having signed these multimillion-dollar contracts, I buy nothing. I bought a vacuum cleaner. I live in the same place. I drive the same car."
Her earnings, however, do provide her an annual income and make it possible to take unpaid leaves so she can work on her books. Reichs' second thriller, Death Du Jour (Scribner hardcover), which continues the adventures of forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan, came out in June.
Reichs is also a rarity in that it was relatively easy for her to get established. Before sending out her manuscript, she decided she would accept 50 rejections before giving up on the idea. As it happened, however, the first publisher who saw it, Scribner, accepted the book.
Most writers, of course, even Pulitzer Prize winners like Robert Olen Butler, aren't so lucky. Before he finally found a publisher in 1981, his first book, The Alleys of Eden (Holt hardcover, 1994), was turned down 21 times. And before that novel was published, he had written five others.
Still, despite all the difficulties, more people than ever are interested in writing, says Northwestern's Fred Shafer, and he can't find enough room in his classes for all the students who want to enroll.
"They think writing is every bit worth doing," he says. "Even without getting published, they find it satisfying and stay with it. Writing seems to be something important for them to do."
Elizabeth Bennett, former book editor at the Houston Post, is a freelance writer living in Houston.