Award-winning Alan Heathcock to speak about writer's life
Alan Heathcock left BGSU in 1996 with his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. He returns this weekend to speak at the Winter Wheat Festival of Writing and to read from his book of short stories, "Volt," which was named a "best book" of 2011 by national newspapers and magazines, was acclaimed by the New York Times and earned him many awards, including the recent Whiting Award in Writing, which also made him $50,000 richer.
The awards, the travel and the reactions of readers have been "a little bit surreal," Heathcock said by phone Wednesday from his home in Boise, Idaho, where he teaches fiction writing at Boise State University. "The life of a writer is you sit by yourself. There's not a lot of room in my intellect for thinking about what people are going to think about what I write or say about the book. I'm using all my intellect just to try to inhabit the characters."
Those characters, who are often trying to make sense of the world after family tragedies and grieving losses, have turned out to resonate with readers in a very powerful way. Heathcock recounts meeting a woman who had driven an hour and a half to meet him, having gone through a loss similar to one he wrote about. "The story allowed her to look at all this stuff that had been roiling about her. I'm very proud of that intimate connection with people and have come to think of it as a privileged experience and one of the highest purposes of my writing. I think now one of the highest purposes of art is to allow us to see ourselves in a way that's bearable."
To really get to that in his writing, he said, "I realized I couldn't be self-conscious about it. I had to go all the way in, which is a terrible and painful experience but a cathartic experience. The praise I've gotten is just kind of gravy."
The intensity of his work mirrors the intensity of his time in the Creative Writing Program. "I struck gold in coming to Bowling Green. I was so lucky to be among a group of people who were really talented and really invested in becoming better writers. It was an inspired environment and the kind I needed. A big thing that I don't take for granted is being here at that time."
A very good friend from BGSU is Anthony Doerr, who has also gone on to great success as an author. "We held each other accountable and kept working and pushing. I still feel we compete in the best possible way—if he gets an award I feel my team has won and I can dig in and get it done."
Heathcock said he benefitted from a number of great teachers whose words have had a lasting effect on him, both as a writer and as a teacher himself. Wendell Mayo was one. "I still quote things he told me."
Heathcock wants to impress upon today's aspiring writers the importance of the "community quality" here but also their own role in daily creating that sense. "It's hard to recognize when you're in it. It's good to be reminded of your role as an individual and encourage each other to do great things."