The second annual “Authors in Action” brought Gallatin alumni back to campus to share their stories as professional authors on February 4th, 2014 in the Jerry H. Labowitz Theatre at Gallatin. Organizer James Gain (MA ’12) presided over a panel featuring authors Maryrose Wood (BA ’96) and John Searles (MA ’94). Wood and Searles each gave a reading from their latest publications before taking questions from aspiring authors in the audience.
Searles’s literary life had an unlikely start in the summertime roadtrips he would take as a teenager with his father, a cross-country truck driver. The father-son rite of passage had unintended consequences. “Those trips didn’t really make a man out of me,” Searles joked. “But they made a reader out of me.” Searles would pass the time on the open road with his mother’s old paperbacks, picking up new ones off the rack at truck stops along the way. “I have such a wide range of appreciation for all different kinds of stories,” Searles said. “As long as they’re well-told and make the reader want to turn the page.” This early, democratic taste still informs Searles’s writing, especially his latest novel, Help for the Haunted, which the Boston Globe and Amazon named one of the best mystery/suspense books of 2013. “I always joke that Help for the Haunted is a combo of Sidney Sheldon’s plot twists, Stephen King’s eeriness, and John Irving’s quirky characters,” Searles said. “It’s an odd combination.”
Wood’s own persona as an author, meanwhile, was born less from odd combinations than from her own competing interests. “My journey to writing involved me dropping out of school to be an actor, and gradually becoming frustrated with the life of the actor because I wanted to play all the parts,” Wood said. “Then I thought, ‘What I really want to do is direct, and then I did that for a while, and then I thought, ‘No, I actually want to make it all up.’” And make it all up she has. Wood is the author of a projected six-book series for young readers, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place. (The fourth installment, The Interrupted Tale, was just published at the end of last year.) But even if Wood’s incorrigible ambitions have more or less taken her out of the theater, theatricality itself has never left her. “I’m still an actor at heart,” Wood said. “To me, writing is like this process of imagining myself as the character, and so it’s an acting exercise.” Exercises, indeed: Wood preaches what she practices as a part-time instructor of children’s fiction here at Gallatin, where the same theatrical identification with character that informs her writing also informs her teaching. “It’s something that I tell my writing students all the time,” Wood said. “Every story is really about this kind of internal transformation of your character.”
What about an author’s own internal transformations? “My life is one accidental adventure after another,” Wood offered. “Serendipity is my north star.”
But is there method in this madness, especially when it comes to the elusive writing process itself? “To this day as a writer I really trust the unexpected impulses much more than I do the things that I planned in advance,” Wood said. Searles totally agreed. “When the unexpected happens, that’s really fun,” Searles said. “That’s when you stay up all night working, and you’re really excited by it.”
For all its excitement, however, authorship often entails toil, and even tragedy. In Searles’s case, the untimely death of his sister was an early and unexpected turning point. “It made me realize that life is short,” Searles said. And so he dedicated himself to making the difficult transformation from an interested amateur into a professional author. “I had always wanted to be a writer, and I thought, ‘I’m going to try to figure out a way to do this’,” said Searles.
Indeed, making one’s way as an author can be as mundane as it is momentous. “You find a way,” Wood said. “You find a library, you find a coffee shop, you find time to do it.” The mechanics of timing and location are crucial, then, to the magic of intention and inspiration. “I think the important thing is to have an intention that ‘now’ is my time to write,” Wood said. “Inspiration strikes after you’ve been in the chair for about twenty minutes. You have to be there actually writing to kind of lure it in.”
Whatever its other allures, creative writing often comes down to counting. "I have a couple of hours each day that I say, 'that's my writing time'," Wood said. "Do the math: if you can write five hundred words a few days a week, at the end of the year you're going to have a novel." Searles agreed. Authorship is as much a job as it is a calling. "I would go to the NYU library like a job," Searles said about his writing routine.
Of course, routines are not strictly mercenary. “I always had such a happy feeling of coming over to this part of town,” Searles said. “It reminds me of my time at Gallatin.” Indeed, reminiscences of truth and beauty should not be underestimated. “If you can stick with writing the ‘truth’ of it, then I would try to do that,” Searles said about striking the balance between writing lives real and imagined. “Not to make it a business decision,” Searles added slyly, “but publishers love memoirs.”
"Authors in Action" was sponsored by Gallatin Alumni Relations and was introduced by June Foley, Director of the Gallatin Writing Program. The Program’s wide range of activities include: course offerings across the writing curriculum; the Writing Center, where upper-level Gallatin students serve as peer editors; a multi-faceted Literacy Project for community outreach and mentorship; Great World Texts, a collaboration between Gallatin and public high schools in New York City; two print publications, the Gallatin Review (an annual journal of student poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and visual art) and the Literacy Review (an annual journal of writing from adult literacy programs edited by Gallatin students); and Confluence, an online forum for student writing, art and research. As Foley put it, “I wonder which of the students involved in writing program activities now will be with us in the future as panelists at Authors in Action.”
- Cody Brooks Reis