The Power of the Pen
Bowling Green State University is having a literary “moment.” Enter any bookstore in the United States these days and you will likely see books by BGSU alumni and faculty prominently displayed.
Alumni Anthony Doerr ’99, Beth Macy ’86 and Luke Nichter ’99,’08 are making headlines with their latest works, and the August issue of O, the Oprah magazine, listed creative writing faculty member Dr. Sharona Muir’s new novel among the “10 Books You Must Pick Up This August.”
Much-admired creative writing faculty member Dr. Wendell Mayo, mentor to many successful alumni including Doerr, last fall released an award-winning collection of short stories.
In works ranging from imaginative writing to historical fiction to nonfiction, all share the power of a story to transport readers. They also represent the power that deep research brings to storytelling, and stories’ ability to inform while entertaining. And many reflect the power of faculty mentors to draw out students’ talents.
If you read the latest from BGSU writers, you will learn about:
- the lives of children in World War II, from Doerr’s novel “All the Light We Cannot See”;
- how one Virginia business owner challenged the Chinese manufacturing juggernaut and won, from Macy’s “Factory Man” — soon to be an HBO miniseries;
- the internecine world of former president Richard Nixon, from Nichter’s “The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972”;
- the interwoven characteristics of people and other animals, from Muir’s “Invisible Beasts: Tales of the Animals That Go Unseen Among Us”;
- and the sad state of life in Lithuania following the collapse of the Soviet empire, from Mayo’s “The Cucumber King of Kedainiai.”
And that is not even counting recent years’ output.
Dr. Lawrence Coates, current chair of the highly regarded Creative Writing Program, set his third novel, “The Garden of the World,” in Prohibition-era California, weaving rich detail about the production of wine into an archetypal story of family bonds and rivalries in the tale of a winemaker father and his two sons. The book won the 2013 Nancy Dasher Award in Creative Writing. Coates has two more books under contract.
Although he is best known for his historical fiction rooted in the American West, an incantatory short story about women in northwest Ohio earned Coates the grand prize in the prestigious Barthelme Prize for Short Prose competition. The award is presented by the literary journal Gulf Coast. Coates’ story “Bats” was published in the spring 2014 edition of the journal.
Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See,” published in May 2014 by Scribner, almost immediately hit the New York Times best-seller list and has since been named a finalist for the National Book Award. Readers have been moved by the tale of two children, a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and the German boy Werner, from very different backgrounds, whose lives converge in the small Brittany coastal town of Saint-Malo.
Doerr explained that the story is about radio and the way it was used as a tool both of control and resistance in World War II. “But it’s also about the lives of children, about color and light, and about wonder,” Doerr said. “If I had to choose a central theme, I’d probably say it’s the same question Werner’s sister asks him early in the novel: ‘Is it right to do something just because everyone else is doing it?’”
The book took a decade to write because it required so much research, including three trips to Europe. In most of Doerr’s previous fiction, he was working with contemporary settings. “But now I was working in the late 1930s and early 1940s,” he said, “and didn’t immediately know, for example, what sort of meals German orphans would be eating in 1937, or what a blind French girl’s schooling situation might be like.”
It was also difficult subject matter. “The Nazi regime committed atrocities on so many different levels, and reading about them in such detail tended to make me feel lousy. So I wrote two whole books (‘Memory Wall’ and ‘Four Seasons in Rome’) just as procrastination from writing this novel, really as a way to take a breath and step away from the material,” Doerr said.
When he is not traveling the world, Doerr lives in Boise, Idaho, which has also become the adopted home of his friend and fellow Creative Writing alumnus Alan Heathcock ’96. Heathcock’s searing collection of short stories, “Volt,” 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 prestigious $50,000 Whiting Award in Writing.
Beth Macy, a former award-winning reporter with the Roanoke Times, also conducted hours of interviews and research for “Factory Man,” a best-seller since it was released by Little, Brown in July 2014. The BGSU journalism alumna stumbled upon the saga through a Virginia neighbor who pointed her to what had been missed by the major newspapers: how in 2003 John Bassett III, the owner of the Bassett Furniture Company, once the world’s biggest wood furniture manufacturer, filed the largest-ever lawsuit against Chinese furniture manufacturers for “dumping,” which is exporting a good to a foreign country to capitalize on the price. He won, ultimately saving his company and hundreds of jobs.
“The first day I was in the factory and I met John Bassett, I learned he’s a great interview — fascinating, annoying and totally himself, which is rare in a CEO these days,” she said.
“What he had done was really fascinating. It was bold and allowed him to give China the middle finger — in a way only he could do it. He was a great character to write about, almost Wagnerian. He’s a multimillionaire at birth; he doesn’t have to work; and he does this. Why did he do this? That’s what I set out to answer.”
It didn’t take long for Macy to realize that Bassett’s story was more than just a great profile. “You could tell his story and the history of how this industry was built, as well as this contemporary story of great social relevance when everything went offshore.
You could tell this recent economic history all through this one character.”
Macy took a yearlong leave of absence from the newspaper to work on the book. Before she handed it in to her publisher, she learned she had won the 2013 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award administered by Columbia and Harvard universities, which brought with it prestige and a $30,000 prize.
The story proved so compelling that Tom Hanks not only promoted Macy’s book on Twitter, giving it “142 stars,” his production company, Playtone, recently announced it will produce an HBO miniseries based on “Factory Man.”
At BGSU, Macy showed early promise when, in her Introduction to magazine writing class, with Vickie Hesterman, her essay about the death of her father was published by Seventeen magazine—earning her an automatic A in the class.
She credits Dr. Ray Laakaniemi, now associate professor emeritus of Journalism, with teaching her how to do an interview.
“Ray was great, and the big lesson I learned was to talk to regular people,” she recalled. “You can look at this book and say it’s about globalization, but it’s more about the workers and regular people. I do not let CEOs push me around and I won’t let them decide the story. I think that’s the strength of the book and I learned that from him.”
The trust she’s built in her community opened the door to her next book project, about a long-hidden occurrence in a former sharecropping community outside of Roanoke called Truevine.
Secrecy and closed doors are at the heart of “The Nixon Tapes,” by Luke Nichter and co-author Douglas Brinkley. Published by Houghton Mifflin, the book is the result of countless hours of listening to the famous tapes commissioned by the enigmatic former president.
As a BGSU doctoral student in 2004, Nichter, now an associate professor of history at Texas A&M University-Central Texas and a nationally recognized expert on the Nixon tapes, buried himself in the basement of Williams Hall, headphones on, immersing himself in the turbulent times of the Nixon presidency. Exposed to the voices and discussions behind the curtain as Nixon and his secretive inner circle dealt with domestic issues, international affairs and political foes, he began to feel he had been at the White House, in the Oval Office, along with Henry Kissinger, H.R. Haldeman, John Dean and Alexander Haig. With no transcript to follow, it took him about six months just to be able to recognize all the voices, he recalled.
“It was a ‘time machine’ experience in many ways,” said Nichter. “It’s as if you are there when all of these critical conversations took place, and you are listening in as it all unfolds. For someone who loves history, it is an incredible experience.”
Encouraged by Dr. Douglas Forsyth, an associate professor of History, to explore the political and cultural phenomenon of previously sealed records being released to the pubic, Nichter found his scholarly path.
“You have to find something that motivates you, something that is going to get you out of bed on a cold morning. I found the right thing to match my temperament when I found Nixon,” said Nichter, who received his bachelor’s degree in from BGSU in business administration and his doctorate in history. His dissertation on the Nixon tapes won the Ohio Academy of History’s Dissertation Prize for outstanding doctoral dissertation in 2009.
The curiosity and fascination with Nixon initially led to trips to the National Archives, and then to those sessions in Williams Hall. However, he questioned the importance of what he was finding, given how much had been written about Nixon and Watergate.
“The more I listened, the more I realized that there was so much more to learn about Nixon, and his days as president,” Nichter said. “It’s something I think about a lot. Nixon really is a man of extremes, sometimes crude and bigoted, and at other times brilliant and uncannily skilled at dealing with international affairs.”
Nichter explores the international aspect of Nixon’s leadership in his forthcoming book “Richard Nixon and Europe: The Reshaping of the Postwar Atlantic World,” to be published by Cambridge University Press in 2015. The book is based on multilingual archival research in six countries. A founder and former executive producer of C-SPAN’s American History TV (seen in 41 million homes), Nichter’s work has appeared in or has been reported on by the New York Times, Washington Post, Vanity Fair, and the Associated Press.
As Nichter learned, the infamous tapes go well beyond Nixon and the early 1970s. When he was elected president, Nixon already had almost a quarter century of political life behind him, so the tapes reveal a “cross-section of American life and American society” from that wider era, Nichter said.
Dr. Sharona Muir’s first novel, “Invisible Beasts,” is strangely compelling, drawing readers into its world of creatures that, though unseen by all but those with a special ability, nonetheless play a vital role in the lives of humans, as humans do in theirs. Muir based her creatures on scientific fact, creating a blend that leaves one wondering where the real leaves off and the fantasy begins.
Published in July 2014, “Invisible Beasts” found its match in Bellevue Literary Press of New York University, which specializes in books at the intersection of arts and sciences. The novel began attracting attention even before it was published, from the most serious literary journals to popular magazines.
For Muir, working at a university and having ready access to experts in the biology department was a rich resource for learning in detailing her invisible beasts. “I have an interdisciplinary outlook,” she said. “I see my work as imaginative writing, not in the strict genre of science fiction or fantasy. I learned science and biology as an artist, and make it the food of the imagination.
Works from BGSU authors win literary awards, are featured on the New York Times best-seller and Oprah’s top 10 lists, and have been picked up by Tom Hanks’ production company for an HBO miniseries.
“It’s intoxicating because you learn so much — there’s miracle after miracle after miracle. The fables are my fictional tie to all the facts of this astonishing thing called life.”
Sophie, the protagonist of the story, is an amateur naturalist with the inherited ability to see the beasts — a quality she keeps secret even among her otherwise close family. But, faced with mounting evidence of environmental degradation that threatens the creatures we cannot see as well as those we can, she is compelled to break her silence. The result is a personal bestiary, like those of medieval times, detailing the qualities and characteristics of the fantastic creatures.
Though it is often troubling in relating a wondrous world being lost due to human carelessness, “Invisible Beasts” also playfully celebrates the quirks and foibles both of people and animals. By turns cerebral and sensual, it reflects the qualities shared by living beings as they try to make their way in the world.
Although life in post-Soviet Lithuania is all too real, it often seems surreal, as Wendell Mayo vividly presents it in the piercing short stories in his “Cucumber King of Kedainiai” collection.
The six stories are vignettes of contemporary life in the former Soviet republic, where the past way of life is gone, the new way is unsettled, and in some ways there is, Mayo says, “a horrible sense of absence,” even for a cucumber king — a character based on a real personage.
The collection was published in October 2014 by Subito Press, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, and won the Subito Press Award. Mayo has taught in the Creative Writing program since 1996.
Mayo’s first book about the country, “In Lithuanian Wood,” published in 1999, reflects the “sudden welling-up of a desire for independence and freedom,” he said. “The Cucumber King” sees Lithuanians in the globalized present, where “in a country formerly of 3.7 million, 700,000 have moved away and are not coming back.”
Those left behind are in the strange position of having to learn to do things most of the rest of the world takes for granted. “Every aspect of life has changed” with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Mayo noted. On one of his many stays in Lithuania, his landlady, a nationally famous soap opera star, asked him to help her write checks to pay bills, never having had to do such things before. “How could I not be fascinated?” he said.
Fortunately for their readers, BGSU alumni and faculty writers continue to pursue their personal fascinations, fueled by their intense intellectual curiosity and creative impulses. As their awards and book sales attest, their interests resonate with readers and they will stand as examples to young Bowling Green writers yet to come.
Today, with students flocking to the Creative Writing program, BGSU’s increasing focus on interdisciplinary studies, and expanding opportunities as the School of Media and Communication prepares to move into its new home in South Hall, the ranks of BGSU writers will only continue to grow.
With contributions by Jen Sobolewski, Ann Krebs, Matt Markey and Ian Smith.