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UC's Chris Bachelder on Writing Process, Award-Winning Book and Need for Empathy

UC English professor and award-winning novelist Chris Bachelder discusses how creative writing teaches students to tolerate complexity and report mindfully.

Date: 6/29/2017 8:00:00 AM
By: Jonathan Goolsby
Photos By: Getty Images

UC ingot   University of Cincinnati creative writing professor and resident novelist Chris Bachelder has just returned from a small book tour through Turin, Milan, La Spezia and Rome. His Italian publisher, Edizioni Sur, released a translation of The Throwback Special, his fourth novel.

“I’d never done a foreign book tour before,” he said, quietly, smiling shyly between sips of late-morning coffee. “It’s been a few days. I’m catching up.”

That’s OK. This’ll be an easy interview.

We’re not talking right now about the recognitions: a 2016 National Book Award Finalist in Fiction, winning the Paris Review’s 2016 Terry Southern Prize for Humor, or the $10,000 Award in Literature he received in April from American Academy of Arts and Letters. We may not talk about them at all.

Photograph of Professor Bachelder
Chris Bachelder, 2016 National Book Award Finalist, at the Ceremony Benefit Dinner

We just want to know what he’s thinking. Today, the premise is “premise” — which Bachelder says his writing is mostly concerned with. He has one for his next novel. He’s been thinking about it, probing it, mining it.

“My usual process is just to enter into a premise and try to get 20 or 25 pages and see if it feels right,” he explained.

When it doesn’t, he starts over, approaching the same set-up from another angle.

“There’s usually a series of false starts,” Bachelder said. “At some point, I feel like I’m far enough down the road that I trust there’s something there. That’s what happened with this last book.”

The something there in The Throwback Special is the ritualistic gathering, every fall, of 22 men who re-enact the infamous 1985 Monday Night Football play in which Washington quarterback Joe Theismann suffered a career-ending, compound right tib-fib fracture as he was tackled by Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor.

There’s no morality tale. There was no character destination or central quest in mind when he began writing it. It was just a bare Christmas tree, Bachelder said, that he slowly turned and decorated.

“I’ve always been more interested in the novel: in the space of it, the architecture of it, the bagginess of it,” he explained. “I love that novels have room for strange digressions, for strange lumps. I like the imperfections, that they give you space.”

“Paula Fox had this amazing novel called  Desperate Characters and, in the middle of it, the main characters are asleep, but the narrative continues. The point of view moves down to the kitchen and we see a mouse, scurrying around the kitchen, we see the neighbors and what the neighbors are doing. I love that, that Fox puts her characters to bed and then continues watching.

“Ambivalence is a good place from which to work as a novelist. If you have complications, that’s good, you want to sort them out,” Bachelder said. That our society seems to be gravitating right now toward gross simplification, he asserted, is a pressing flaw.

“We have so many shouting voices on television that are making the most profoundly difficult issues into easy talking points. That’s not a way to have a democracy,” he said. “We live in a culture that doesn’t tolerate complexity at all. And we live in a culture that is increasingly not empathetic.”

A writer’s primary role, he feels, is to report mindfully on developments in his or her characters’ lives.

“A story that begins with a bank robber, let’s say, and then goes on to say that robbing banks is bad, that you shouldn’t rob banks, and that anyone who robs a bank is a villain and a terrible person, it’s just not very interesting, right?

“The writer doesn’t need to be the judge and the jury. The reader knows it’s wrong. The writer’s job is to explore, ‘Well, who is this person who robbed that bank and why would they do that?’ And immediately lean into the difficulty of the situation, rather than the flat, easy, moralistic judgement,” he said.

Bachelder said that’s the lesson he wants every student to learn from his creative writing sections.

“Fiction’s not about the easy proclamation of what’s right and wrong,” he said. “If you treat as this thing where you might express yourself and it’s this kind of fun thing you do on the side, that’s fine, but if somebody’s majoring in it and studying it, it has to be more than that.”

But undergraduate fiction workshops, he cautioned, aren’t really about production.

“It’s not about writing publishable work. It’s learning to read well and think. It comes down to empathy and imagination — entering deeply into other people and thinking about them as a reader,” Bachelder noted. “You can be 40 and be a young writer.”

Thinking along that line, then, creative writing courses aren’t just for English majors. Writing — the patience and process of it — can help a student become a better observer and, thus, a better reasoner. And we know that employers today realize the value in that.

Like visual art studio and music performance courses, writing workshops wake one’s wonder at complexity. They can center the mind, help a student to harness his or her passions, and refine one’s understanding of an endlessly complicated world.
In a sense, they can help us to become better human beings.

Bachelder tapped on the table. He’d been thinking, silently.

“I think a student who is taking it seriously, and reading and writing well,” Bachelder said, gesturing with his cup, is “going to become a person who has more empathy and more tolerance for complexity. To me, that’s much needed.”

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