I was born and raised in Galesburg, Illinois (also the birthplace of Carl Sandburg). After graduating from Galesburg High School in 1980, I received a BS in English education from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale (1984); then earned an MA in English with a concentration in fiction writing from SIUC (1995). While at Southern the first time around, I studied creative writing with Philip Graham. For my thesis I wrote part of a novel, “Nudes in Natural Light,” and my committee was Kent Haruf (chair), Beth Lordan and Ricardo Cortez Cruz. (None of my thesis has seen the light of publishing, by the way, but I wrote a few stories based on the characters from “Nudes,” including “Missing the Earth,” which was a Top 25 Finalist in one of Glimmer Train Press’s fiction contests, and the story was eventually published in Oak Bend Review, March/April 2009. Also, “The Composure of Death” appeared in Pisgah Review.)
In 2002, I was accepted into the PhD program at Illinois State University, and earned my doctorate in English studies in 2009 with the successful defense of my dissertation “Zeitgeist and the Zone: The Psychic Correlation between Cultural Trauma and ‘Postmodern’ Literature.” My committee was Robert McLaughlin (chair), Curtis White and Susan Kim. My primary scholarly interest is postmodernism, and I’ve published and presented conference papers on Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis and, especially, William H. Gass.
I grew up around the newspaper business as my father and uncle worked for the Galesburg Register-Mail, and I was a sports writer there, part-time, for seven years during high school and college. I also did some graduate work in journalism at the University of Iowa in the mid 1980s — news and feature writing, photojournalism, and page layout and design, too.
My combined interests in English, creative writing, and journalism and publishing led to my founding a small literary journal, A Summer’s Reading, in the late 1990s; I published seven annual issues between 1997 and 2004. I put the journal on (apparently permanent) hiatus to pursue my PhD. In 2007, however, my friend and colleague Joanna Beth Tweedy asked me to help her launch a new literary journal, coupled with a public-radio program, which led to the establishment of Quiddity international literary journal and public-radio program. I was involved in editing four issues of Quiddity before resigning to devote more time to my own writing and publishing. I’m happy to report that Quiddity is still going strong in my editorial absence. I have maintained my connection to Quiddity by reading fiction submissions.
Like just about everyone who cuts his writing teeth in a university program, I was taught to write contemporary literary fiction — meaning stories set in the “here and now” — and my earliest short stories tended to be contemporary. However, for the past fifteen years or so I’ve been attracted to a different literary form, a form which is often labeled “revisionist.” Revisionist fiction is based on earlier, well-known pieces of literature. In essence a writer will take a “classic” novel and use its plot and/or characters to write something new. I became aware of revisionist fiction per se while working on my master’s, and Jean Rhys’s novella Wide Sargasso Sea, which is a prequel to Jane Eyre, may have been the first piece of revisionist fiction that I read while being fully aware of its revisionist nature. About that time I also read J. M. Coetzee’s Foe, which is a retelling of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (and other lesser known Defoe texts).
I was totally mesmerized by both Wide Sargasso Sea and Foe, and I’ve read them many times since those initial encounters. The intertextuality of revisionist fiction has been endlessly fascinating to me. That is to say, I’ve been fascinated how the contemporary works can stand on their own as meaningful and beautiful pieces of literature without the reader’s awareness of their being revisions of classic novels (and I’m sure there have been many admirers of both tales who had no idea they were reading narratives that were inspired by earlier narratives); but I’ve also been fascinated how an awareness of the earlier texts affects a reader’s reception of the revisionist works.
I was hooked and have sought out revisionist fiction ever since. Perhaps the revisionist text that has had the most direct impact on my own writing is John Gardner’s Grendel, a retelling of Beowulf from the monster Grendel’s perspective, as it appealed to both my interest in revisionary literature and my interest in the poem Beowulf, which wound up being a key text in my dissertation as I devoted two of the seven chapters to Anglo-Saxon history/culture and to Beowulf itself. The novel Grendel, though, was a direct inspiration for my writing “A Wintering Place,” which is a sequel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, told from the creature’s first-person perspective. [SPOILER ALERT] At the end of Frankenstein, the creature claims he is going to kill himself, but he drifts out of sight on his ice raft before the narrator, Robert Walton, witnesses his death. What if, I wondered, the creature doesn’t kill himself and in fact ends up wandering around the Arctic and far-northern Russia? What would that story be?
I liked “A Wintering Place” very much, and the next thing I began working on turned out to be Men of Winter, which is also revisionist fiction in that it’s a sequel to a classic piece of literature — though not as obviously so as the short story’s connection to Frankenstein. I prefer writing historically based fiction, like my novel An Untimely Frost, which came out in January 2014 — it’s set in 1830s London and was inspired by Washington Irving’s quasi courtship of novelist Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. In 2014 I also brought out the novella Weeping with an Ancient God (a sort of fictionalized biography of author Herman Melville). I also wrote the novelette (or long story) Figures in Blue, which is set in early twentieth-century Germany. When writing stories in the present, the here and now become the “back there” and “then” so quickly, it’s difficult to get one’s aesthetic bearings. Ever-changing technologies (computers, cell phones, GPS, etc.) are constantly changing the dynamics of the way we live our lives and how we relate to each other. By the time one conceives of a story, writes it, revises it, shops around for a publisher, and so on — the lynchpins of the narrative may have completely rusted and crumbled away to the point that the story doesn’t even make sense anymore.
The past, however, remains the past, regardless of whether it takes six months or six years to complete a narrative. Besides, to borrow from the film Amistad, who we are is who we were.
In addition to my creative writing, I also enjoy academic or scholarly writing. In 2012, I put my creative writing aside and wrote The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters for Edwin Mellen, whose editors awarded the monograph the D. Simon Evans Prize for Distinguished Scholarship. The book has been acquired by over 650 university libraries around the world, including the British Library, the Library of Congress, Notre Dame, Duke, Purdue, Australian National University, and American University in Iraq, among many others. Most recently, the publisher of my Beowulf book has also brought out a revised edition of my doctoral dissertation, retitled Trauma Theory As a Method for Understanding Literary Texts (2016). In addition to Beowulf, I’m also a devotee of the American author William H. Gass, and I’ve presented several conference papers on his work in addition to writing a review of Middle C for North American Review. My Gass papers are archived at my 12 Winters Blog.
As far as my creative work goes, I’ve completed a collection of linked stories, titled Crowsong for the Stricken, that will be coming out once the final stories are published independently (presumably in 2017). The story “Erebus” has been taken by Everest, and “Sheol” is slated to appear in Southern Humanities Review. The other ten stories in the collection have appeared in various journals (see my “Short Stories, Essay, Etc.” page for a complete list). The collection’s title story, “Crowsong for the Stricken,” besides appearing in Noctua Review, also won the Flyleaf Journal Editors’ Choice Reprint Award 2015 and is Issue #20. In 2015 I began work on a new novel, with the tentative title “Mrs Saville.” In the fall of 2016, the editors of Lakeview Journal offered to publish the first section of Mrs Saville in their February 2017 issue. Because they were interested in bringing out the first section, I proposed the idea of their publishing the entire novel (mostly unwritten) in serial installments. They were interested in the project but thought it more suitable to their companion online site, Strands Lit Sphere, so the first installment came out October 5, 2016, with installments to follow weekly. Links to the novel in progress can be found here. I had interrupted work on Mrs Saville in 2015 to pursue what I thought was a short story, but it turned into something longer, at least a novella. Its working title is “The Conspiracy of Isolation.” Lakeview Journal will bring out an excerpt of the second part of “The Conspiracy of Isolation” titled “The Glance of Orpheus” in their February 2017 issue.
Finally, in 2012 I founded Twelve Winters Press, modeling it after Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s legendary Hogarth Press, with the twin missions of bringing out my own hard-to-place work as well as the excellent but difficult-to-pigeonhole work of others. Since 2015 I have co-directed the press along with my wife Melissa Morrissey. We expanded the press in 2015 to include the imprints Shining Hall and Maidenhead Hall.