Michael Parker published his first book the first year he taught at UNCG, 1992. He published his 10th book as he retired from UNCG earlier this year.
”I’ve always loved teaching the undergraduates here,” he said. “They’re very open-minded. They’re fun to teach, because they don’t get offended. A lot of them have full-time jobs, and they have other lives, and when they’re writing fiction, they have stuff to write about.”
The nationally prominent MFA in Creative Writing program attracts high-caliber graduate student writers. They are drawn to plenty of one-on-one opportunities with the faculty, he said.
The novelist was the first to hold the Nicholas and Nancy Vacc Distinguished Professorship. As he spoke, he turned to the distant Vacc Bell Tower, named for the Vaccs. “I’ve been lucky enough to be the recipient of their generosity for the past five years.”
He has received the UNCG Senior Research Excellence Award, as well as the Mary Hobson Award in Arts and Letters, the North Carolina Award for Literature, and the R. Hunt Parker Award for significant contribution to the literature and culture of North Carolina.
His latest book, “Prairie Fever” from Algonquin Press, is set in the Midwest prairies a few generations back.
“Like a lot of my books, it’s based on an anecdote, or actually an image, really, just an image. It comes from my grandmother, who I did not know.”
She grew up in Oklahoma. She and her sister would get on a horse and their mother would pin blankets around them.
“The horse knew the way to school and would take them to school. It was four or five miles because they lived out in the country. And then the teacher would be waiting to unpin them, and then they would do the same thing on the way home. So I had this image of these two girls, a year apart, in school. What was it like under that blanket in the freezing cold? What did they say to each other?”
What was your favorite book, as a young person?
“I think I already knew I wanted to be a writer, but I think reading ‘As I Lay Dying’ at maybe age 15 or 16 and trying to figure out what the hell was going on, but also being really seduced by the rhythm of the prose and by the mastery of the structure of the novel, and understanding without being able to articulate that something really masterful and powerful was going on.”
The most influential book you read during your formative years?
“‘Madame Bovary,’ that’s the book for me. That’s the book that tells you what you need to do to be a fiction writer. Because Flaubert sort of invented all the stuff like free and direct discourse, and close third-person. All the stuff that we just take for granted now, he was the first one to do it. … Also it’s really funny.”
What’s the most memorable piece of writing advice you ever received?
“I was really lucky to study with the novelist Lee Smith. … One time, I said, ‘I’m serious, I really want to do this! Is there any advice that you can offer?’
“And she said, ‘Yeah, write every day for ten years.’
“I said, ‘Ten years? Every day for ten years?’ She said, ‘Yeah,’ and she said it like, ‘Oh, that’s just what one does.’ And so I did. I wrote every day for ten years. I wrote on the day that my daughter was born, I wrote on the morning that I got married. I wrote when I was deathly ill. I wrote when I had terrible hangovers.
“Years later I ran into her and I said, ‘You know, I can’t thank you enough for giving me that advice. I feel like it made such a difference in my discipline.’
“And she said, ‘Oh, you didn’t. I was just kidding. You didn’t believe me, did you?’”
By Mike Harris
Photography by Martin W. Kane