A college professor who may or may not be on a killing spree? I’ve been asked, perhaps in jest, whether my latest novel Unreliable could be an autobiography…I always snicker and say, Ha!
After all, I’m a college professor, so I see the parallels. But I’m not Edwin Stith, my narrator who returns home to Richmond, Virginia…but wait a second. I’m from Richmond, Virginia. How much of this novel is made up and how much is—gulp—real?
The answer to that question is extremely tricky, because novels do not come with footnotes (except for David Foster Wallace’s). Attribution lies at the very heart of scholarship, and in fact Unreliable would have a very entertaining Works Cited page. Much of the book, including the most sordid events, comes from stories told to me by my former students.
For example, years ago, I had a student who was a Bosnian refugee and because she worked in the campus library, we got friendly and would chat in passing. She was beautiful, spoke five languages, and had a sister with a severe birth defect, yet somehow her family was able to make it out of war-torn Yugoslavia. This bright, eager student was the living embodiment of why teaching is a two-way street. I’ve learned far more from my students than I ever taught them.
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
One day I could tell she was very bothered by something, and I asked what was wrong. Often that is all required for the floodgates to open, especially if the student trusts you. She proceeded to tell me an incredibly bizarre story of how that very morning she’d been held at gunpoint by a jealous spouse, just a few hours before coming to work. I asked her why she didn’t call the police. Her answer: “Because she was a cop.”
I was floored. I knew she was seeing a man named Kenny, but now it turned out he was married. And it nearly led to a tragedy. This story sat inside my brain for seventeen years before I could ever find a place for it in a novel. But, in time, Unreliable became a kind of repository for all the strange stories I’d accumulated, because it was clear that my narrator somewhere had crossed a line and now occupied this terrible position where he could never go back and make it right. Or perhaps nothing at all had happened to him, because college professors by and large live very stable and predictable lives. Conferences, grading, lecturing, meetings, reading, writing—it isn’t hard to imagine someone like Edwin Stith getting completely lost inside a story like the one this Bosnian student told me, allowing his febrile imagination to take over while sitting in another boring committee meeting.
Then there is the Amorous Relationship Policy that all colleges and universities have in place, guidelines that spell out the conditions in which professors and students can engage romantically. I went to college in the 1980s, when no such policies existed, and I know for a fact that my Italian teacher was sleeping with half the women in the class, whereas I was sleeping with none. Had anyone found out, no disciplinary action would have ensued. If you look carefully at Higher Ed marriages, a good portion stem from the “They were my professor” category.
I remember thinking, when my college passed its first such policy: what happens if a professor truly falls in love with a student? Perhaps they never touch or engage in any overt sexual activity—their love, though illicit, would be chaste. The intent, of course, is to prohibit professors from using positions of power to coerce anything from students, which makes perfect sense. But rumors still fly, and I began to wonder what it would be like to be in your 30s and divorced and teaching in today’s campus climate. Throw in that marvel of technology, the cell phone, and you have the perfect storm of entanglement.
As a faculty, we still debate: give the students your cell number or not? I have to, because I take my students on many field trips and we need to be in touch. Other professors never would, under any condition. So even there the lines can get blurry, though with the advent of Snapchat, it seems like the students of late have retreated into purely private realms. Again, it’s not hard to imagine how a lonely professor could get sucked into an unhealthy relationship with a student—or slip into a mania where he’s convinced one exists.
It seemed appropriate, given what I was working on, to let my students be the very first readers of Unreliable. It was a rash decision, one I hastily made with little reflection. It seemed like a good idea to copy the first chapter and pass it out in class so that they might “grade” me like I’d been grading them. They were young and thus could detect the inauthentic from a mile away. If I had no hook, their reaction would tell me everything. If they yawned or fidgeted, I’d abandon this crazy book that was unlike anything I’d ever tried to write.
In effect, I put my future as an author into their hands. I still don’t know that I should have asked them to shoulder this burden. What if they had hated it? Would I have held it against them? I insist I never would have, but who’s to say? It’s easy to sound noble, much harder to live up to your expectations. But I trusted them and was genuinely curious how they’d respond. They turned out to be great critics, in that they caught errors (the restaurant chain is TGI Friday, not TGIF), offered suggestions (do we need to know so much about the new stepfather so soon?), and urged me to continue (they liked it!).
Herein lies a bittersweet irony: most novelists who teach at a university are in the creative writing department, where they are the ones passing judgment on student work—offering hope, crushing dreams—while I completely flipped the script and threw myself at the mercy of my students. I would have dedicated this book to them, but when I considered the subject matter, that homage struck me as creepy. Edwin would have done it, but I’m not Edwin. Honestly.
Featured image: Anna Ismagilova/Shutterstock.com