I grew up in West Cornfield, Ohio. Don’t look for it on a map; it’s unincorporated. When you have a cornfield for a backyard, soybeans across the road, and no classmates for a mile in any direction, books become your
My early literary infatuations were Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain. I think fifth grade is perfect for Kidnapped or Tom Sawyer; at least it was for me.
I studied English at Dartmouth College and then Michigan State University, moving forward from the eighteenth and nineteenth to the twentieth century in the process. My academic writing has concentrated on twentieth and eventually twenty-first century British, American, and Irish figures and movements—James Joyce, William Faulkner, Seamus Heaney, John Fowles, Derek Mahon, Eavan Boland, modernism and postmodernism. But I read and taught lots of other writers and periods: Shakespeare, Sophocles, Homer, Dickens, Hardy, Poe, Ibsen, Twain.
I taught literature and writing starting in 1975, the last twenty-seven years at the University of Michigan-Flint before retiring at the end of 2014. In that time, I learned more about literature from my students than in all the classes I ever took. Amazing what questions, explanations, and the odd doubting look can accomplish.
I have published several books with HarperCollins: How to Read Literature Like a Professor (2003, revised 2014), How to Read Novels Like a Professor (2008), Twenty-five Books that Shaped America (2011), How to Read Literature Like a Professor—for Kids (2012), and the forthcoming Reading the Silver Screen (Summer 2016). Before those books, I published Form and Society in Modern Literature (Northern Illinois University Press, 1988), Seamus Heaney (Twayne, 1989), and Understanding John Fowles (University of South Carolina Press, 1994). If you’ve never heard of those, you’re part of a very large club.
Since retiring, I spend my time piddling around with my English setters, whom I take hunting in season and snowshoeing in the winter, fly-fishing for smallmouth bass and kayaking in warmer times, and looking for new writers in all seasons. And they’re out there, brilliant young novelists and poets who complement old favorites. I’ll share some names with you in a bit. Oh, and writing more books. Don’t say you weren’t warned.