SLA Spotlight: Professor Tommy Zurhellen
Tommy Zurhellen is the author of Apostle Islands (2012), Nazareth, North Dakota (2011), and numerous short stories, essays, and reviews. A veteran of the United States Navy, Tommy received his M.A. in English from Western Washington University and his M.F.A. from the University of Alabama. He fosters student creativity at Marist not only through his courses in creative writing, literature, and composition, but through his active participation in campus life and his mentoring of aspiring writers.
Q: Have you always thought of yourself as a writer?
A: Since grade school, I've always loved to write down stories -- in notebooks, book margins, old letters, you name it. I can remember filling up my composition notebooks in the sixth grade with my own version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, until my teacher, Ms. Giaccio, begged me to stop. But I didn't know how much actual crafting goes into serious fiction until much later, when I attended a writing conference in Aspen, Colorado, in 1997. There I met the eminent writer Ron Carlson, and he showed me the incredible work ethic involved in telling a story. I had no idea so much work went into something that looked so fun. That weekend in Aspen changed my life, and he's been a big influence on me ever since.
2. What are your big creative or scholarly preoccupations these days?
I just finished my second novel, Apostle Islands, which is the sequel to Nazareth, North Dakota, which is a modern allegory for the story of the young Messiah, set in the Badlands and prairie of North Dakota beginning in the 1980s. Apostle Islands comes out in September and has already received positive reviews from Publishers Weekly and other readers. My next project will be a nonfiction book, Tales from the VFW, where I travel across the country to a number of VFW posts to record the stories of our veterans. I'm excited to get started!
To me, research is such a vital part of creating a story. Getting to see the nuances of a particular place -- experiencing first-hand the unique sights, sounds, and smells -- can really jump-start a story and choose the direction where it's going to go. With Nazareth, North Dakota, for example, I didn't have a story until I went to North Dakota myself and felt the place out for myself, sitting in diners, walking the back roads, letting it all soak in.
3. Students are often both excited and anxious about expressing themselves through creative writing. How do you address this in your teaching?
Every semester, I'm amazed at the level of creativity and hard work from my students in Fiction Workshop. We have English majors and non-majors alike in workshop, and after a few weeks together, the group takes on a life of its own. Once in a while, I'll see a student in workshop who not only becomes a better writer, but also makes other members of the workshop better, as well.
We've added something we call a Zero Journal to many of our Creative Writing classes here at Marist, and so far it's been a popular and vital addition. We call it a "Zero Journal" because everyone knows how much pressure can come with a first draft -- it has to look like something. With the Zero Journal, we take a step back from that, so there's no pressure at all for the writing in there to look like anything. Students add all kinds of things to the mix: doodles, recipes, random thoughts, you name it. It all comes together in one place, and after a while that mixture can turn into something unique and fantastic, like a writing compost pile. Viva la Zero!
4. How about other writers…Have you read anything good lately?
My favorite book of the year so far is Michael Martone's Four for a Quarter, which I can only describe as a unique collection of stories and observations, each dependent on the number four. It's funny and weird and completely enthralling. But I read a lot of different stuff: I just finished Errol Flynn's autobiography and two how-to books on hobby farms. If it makes me turn to the next page, I'll read it.