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. My most recent book publication is the prismatic novel Crowsong for the Stricken (2017), which consists of twelve pieces (each published independently) orbiting the uncanny events in a small Midwestern village. The title piece, in addition to appearing in the Noctua Review, won the Flyleaf Journal Editors’ Reprint Award in 2015 and was published in an illustrated number (Issue #20). Crowsong also won the International Book Award in Literary Fiction from Bookfest 2018, as well as the American Fiction Award, and it was a Kirkus Reviews Best Indie Book of 2017. My novel Mrs Saville, which originally appeared serially at Strands Lit Sphere, was released in August 2018. It won the Manhattan Book Award in Literary Fiction and was an Awards Finalist for the Best Book Award in Literary Fiction from International Book Fest. My most recent novel is The Artist Spoke (excerpts appeared in Floyd County Moonshine, Lakeview Journal, Adelaide (two issues), Central American Literary Review, and LitBreak Magazine.
I remain interested in the world of Crowsong, and have subsequently added material to the narrative: the short stories “Vox Humana,” “Weird Soliloquies” and “The Cold Dark March to Winter.” Also, I’m at work on a new novel — very tentatively titled “Where O Death — and episodes have appeared in North American Review, Sequestrum and Belle Ombre. Wordrunner is bringing out an abbreviated collection of three episodes titled First Kings and Other Stories.
I have often written poetry in the service of my prose, but I decided to write a sonnet sequence to my father, Vince, who passed away suddenly in 2012. I think of it as the Laertes Sequence. To date, poems in the sequence have been picked up by the tiny journal, Bellevue Literary Review, Grand Little Things, Prime Number Magazine, and at Haunted Waters Press.
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 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 2019 I published A Concise Summary and Analysis of The Mueller Report. 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 review of Middle C and The William H. Gass Reader for North American Review. My Gass papers are archived at my 12 Winters Blog.
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.