What is something you learned in college that continues to be useful (personally/professionally)?
My sophomore literature seminar leader, Chris Braider, used to begin every seminar meeting the same way: he’d take one last sip of his Tab, set down the can, look around the room, say “So, Madame Bovary (or whatever the book was that week)”—then pause, light a cigarette, take a deep drag, exhale, tap the ashes into the empty Tab can, and resume—“what you think?” In that class I learned the value of open-ended questions, which I still love to use, although mine is usually some variation of “So, how do we make this text as interesting as possible?”
What attracted you to working in English/ the literary industry?
I was good at it, it came easily to me, and it seemed like a career where I could do pretty much what I wanted.
What was your first job out of college and how did that shape the trajectory of your career?
My first job out of college was as an Editorial Assistant at the Boston Phoenix, an independent weekly like the Village Voice. I answered phones, sorted mail, brought people lunch, and got the chance to do some freelance reporting and reviewing (books and music). I was making less per hour than I had cleaning toilets on dorm crew in college, but it gave the chance to learn a few important things: 1) I hated reporting, and was a terrible reporter; 2) rewriting a review to say what your editor put in the comments didn’t win them over the way that rewriting a paper incorporating your professor’s comments had always done; 3) the only kind of writing I really wanted to do was book reviewing—specifically, reviewing poetry. So even though I’d gotten very cynical about English in my senior year, and swore up and down that I’d never go to grad school, I went back to my old professors and asked for letters of rec—the only way I could make a living doing only the kind of writing I wanted was to make the living doing something else, and I figured being an English professor was the perfect context for becoming a poetry critic.
What is your best piece of advice for students looking for a career in English/the literary industry?
Don’t try to get a tenure track job as a professor. “These jobs are going, boy, and they ain’t coming back,” as the old Springsteen song says.
When you were our age (18-22ish) What did you do to plan for your future?
For my professional future, nothing at all. I never gave that much thought, and figured it would just work out. (It was the ‘80s—things were different then.) The only planning I did was for my personal life: sometime in that span (it was fall of ’85, so I was 21, I reckon) I realized I would be happy to marry my then-girlfriend, so I made sticking with her my priority—stayed in town after graduation because that’s what she was doing; only applied to California graduate programs, because that’s where she was going; went to the one where the two of us could be together, rather than trying to figure out which would be the best for my interests or career. Thirty-five years later, we’re still together, so I guess it was a good plan.
What is your number one life philosophy/ personal motto?
My grandmother had a life philosophy saying: “Life is not a dress rehearsal.” My father had one: “Make yourself useful, and try to have fun.” Me… I don’t think I have one yet, and if I have a motto, it’s the punchline of an old Jewish joke: “He had a hat.” It’s a good joke–you can look it up.
For those who are curious, here’s the joke told by Marilyn Sokol, one of the stars of the NPR series ‘Old Jews Telling Jokes’:
“All right. Mrs. Shapinsky takes her eight-year-old grandson to the beach. A giant wave comes crashing in and sweeps the little boy out to sea. She looks up at the heavens. God, she says, please. He’s my only grandson. I love him more than life itself. Please, bring him back to me. She looks up. Suddenly, the waters part. A ray of light shines from the sky. She sees a golden dolphin heading toward the shore with little Sammy on his back. The dolphin gently places Sammy on the beach, then swims away toward a beautiful rainbow. Mrs. Shapinsky looks at her grandson, around the beach, up to God: He had a hat.”
Interview by Maya Burris,
Contributor to The Underground