Author Michael Parker, whose novel “Prairie Fever” will be released May 21 by Algonquin Press, will retire from UNC Greensboro at the end of this semester. Tuesday, he led his final class.
“I actually published my first book the first year I was at UNCG, so my career coincides with my career here. So it’s really wonderful to be publishing my tenth book right before I leave, because I’ve written all ten of those books here,” he said, in an interview at Alumni House.
The first to hold the UNCG Nicholas and Nancy Vacc Distinguished Professorship, he has taught in the MFA Program in Creative Writing since 1992.
”I’ve always loved teaching the undergraduates here. They’re really an interesting bunch. It’s a very diverse population. They’re very open-minded. They’re fun to teach, because they don’t get offended. A lot of them have full-time jobs, and they have other lives, and when they’re writing fiction, they have stuff to write about.”
The nationally prominent MFA in Writing program attracts high-caliber graduate student writers, he notes. “Top-notch students who publish really tremendous work,” as he says. “The excellence of our alumni is the result of the legacy of program directors Jim Clark, and now Terry Kennedy, both of whom are geniuses when it comes to bringing us talented students, and the teaching of former faculty Bob Watson, Fred Chappell, Lee Zacharias and Tom Kirby-Smith, as well as my current colleagues – Stuart Dischell, who has been here as long as I have, Craig Nova, Holly Goddard Jones and Emilia Phillips. We’ve had some wonderful visitors over the years as well who have helped shaped the program.”
He explains the program offers a unique approach to teaching creative writing. “When I arrived they had a tutorial system in place, where you work with the students one-on-one, weekly or bi-weekly, in their last year of the program. You get to ask questions in tutorials that you can’t in a workshop: ‘What were you thinking? What are your models for this work? How can we make this more clear?’”
Students are drawn to plenty of one-on-one opportunities with the faculty, he says – and you get to know most everyone in the department. “There’s just a great deal of community here that doesn’t exist in other places.”
As he speaks, he turns to the distant Vacc Bell Tower, named for Nancy Vacc and the late Nicholas Vacc. “I’ve been lucky enough to be the recipient of their generosity for the past five years, because they established the Vacc Distinguished Professorship. It was tremendously helpful to me, not only in my research, but also in just what I was able to do to use the money to help out with the MFA program. … I was able to use some of their money to fund the graduate students doing summer research trips.”
In 2009, he was awarded the UNCG Senior Research Excellence Award for his body of creative work. During his tenure at UNCG, he has received three career-achievement awards: the Mary Hobson Award in Arts and Letters, the North Carolina Award for Literature, and the R. Hunt Parker Award for significant contribution to the literature and culture of North Carolina.
In the coming months, he’ll move from his current Saxapahaw home to Texas. And he’ll give readings for his new book.
What can readers expect? “Like a lot of my books, it’s based on an anecdote, or actually an image, really, just an image.”
“It comes from my Grandmother, who I did not know. She died a few months before I was born. She grew up in Oklahoma, and the one thing I knew about her at an early age – I always knew the story and I have come to know a lot more about it, but this is one thing that was sort of the most salient thing I knew about it – was that in the winters in Oklahoma, in the really cold weather, she and her sister would get on a horse and their mother would pin blankets around them, all the way around them because it was so cold …
“The horse knew the way to school and would take them to school. It was four or five miles because they lived out in the country. And then the teacher would be waiting to unpin them and then they would do the same thing on the way home. So I had this image of these two girls, a year apart, in school. What was it like under that blanket in the freezing cold? What did they say to each other? Were they fighting? Did they have a secret language, you know?
“Really all you need to write a novel is just one image. I mean, Faulkner said about ‘The Sound and the Fury’ that someone asked him where he got the idea and he said, ‘I saw a girl climbing a tree and she had muddy pants.’ And if you’ve read ‘The Sound and the Fury,’ you know that’s not what it’s about. It’s about a lot more than that, but you just need – at least I just need – one little, simple image or line of dialogue.”
I asked if he thinks readers will be surprised with this novel. “This whole thing is set in Oklahoma, Wyoming, and then a little bit in West Texas, which is high prairie. And so really it’s landscape and I feel like I accessed a different kind of language because I believe that language comes out of landscape. That these two things are really deeply connected. That people, the way they talk, the way they communicate, comes out of where they’re from and their relationship to land …
“I hope that they’re surprised by it. Because you want readers to be surprised. If they’re not, they’ll close the cover and you’ve failed.”
On Friday, May 3, at 7 p.m. in the UNCG Alumni House, Michael Parker will read from his latest novel, “Prairie Fever.” The event will be followed by a reception and champagne toast honoring Parker, who is retiring from UNCG after 27 years. The event is free and open to the public.
Interviewed by Mike Harris.
Photograph by Martin W. Kane.