I was supposed to be a lawyer. My father was and so was my maternal grandfather. As the matter of my vocation was settled at birth, I didn’t have to think about it. It seemed inconsequential when I was assigned to a 10th-grade Honors English class and fell in love with a reading list of long books by three authors: Cervantes, Flaubert, and Dostoyevsky. Apart from wanting to read everything I could—as an adolescent I read lots of good books in a bad, escapist way—I didn’t suppose my immersion in literature had implications for my future. In twelfth grade, after I’d contributed two embarrassing short stories to the school’s literary magazine, my teacher asked me what I intended to do with my life. I said I was going to become a lawyer. Mr. Hill smiled as if he knew something I didn’t. “Read Franz Kafka,” he said. “Kafka was a lawyer.” I grasped the implication and I read Kafka. I’ve never gotten over Kafka.
In college, I took lots of philosophy for fun. In fact, I studied everything from religious thought to music history to economics and declared a major in English and American literature. It didn’t matter as there was no pre-law curriculum. But then, one bright blue morning in October of my sophomore year, I woke to an aural hallucination. A deep and resonant voice that seemed to surround me asked, “How would you like to get up and be a lawyer all day?” Before I could reflect on either the hallucination or the question, the answer burst from me: “No!”
So, law school having been eliminated by my suddenly verbal unconscious, an abyss opened before me. What to do? I never decided; that is, I kept on doing what I was doing. I stayed in school and, in the fullness of time, found myself with a doctorate and sitting on the other side of the desk at the front of the classroom. I had painted myself into an academic corner.
But through all these years, the urge to write something other than seminar papers and lectures, to try even to add to those books I read so voraciously between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, simmered away like a half-forgotten stew. Once I was sufficiently secure in my job, I began to turn out stories, poems, and essays. Writing took over my summers and winter breaks. After a while before I began to send my work out to journals and some of it was accepted which served as a validation, a reason to go on writing. And so, little by little, I forged my double life as teacher and writer.
That I felt a drive to write, and the misery of not doing so, doesn’t mean that writing has ever been easy for me, no more than teaching has. I take comfort from Thomas Mann’s reply when he was asked how he’d define a writer. “That’s easy,” he said. “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” The same might be said of professing for professors.
Regal House will be publishing a cycle of stories I began years ago with what I thought would be a one-off experiment. It was inspired by a footnote in an essay by Primo Levi which told of an ancient Chinese emperor sending a secret message by having it inscribed on the scalp of an illiterate peasant. “Hsi-wei’s Skull,” was the result. Here the peasant boy Chen Hsi-wei, having delivered his message, is offered the customary rewards but chooses instead to get an education. This turns him into a rarity, a poet who is also a peasant. I kept returning to Hsi-wei, discovering more about his life and character, inventing more experiences and adventures for him, and building each new story around one of his poems. I learned more about the brief Sui Dynasty, about Chinese history and customs, painting, and poetry—all to make more Hsi-wei tales. These stories violate the principle that you should write what you know. For me, it’s usually been the other way around and most of all in the case of Hsi-wei: I only know what I’ve imagined.
I am professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. I have published five fiction collections, Life in the Temperate Zone, The Decline of Our Neighborhood, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, Heiberg’s Twitch, and Petites Suites; two books of essays, Professors at Play and The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal; essays, stories, and poems in a variety of journals, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction in 2008.