A Writer’s Life: Real, but Unlikely

After many years, alumni novelists Adam Ross and John Brandon find their voices, and much-awaited recognition.

Adam Ross, MFAW ’94, author of the critically acclaimed “Mr. Peanut,” read from and discussed his new novel for the Assembly Series/Neureuther Library Lecture, Tues., Oct. 19, in the Women’s Building Formal Lounge. (Jerry Naunheim Jr.)

One was encouraged to follow his dreams from an early age; the other knew not that writing was a life’s option. Both studied at Washington University in the storied creative writing program; then both swung for years between odd jobs and bouts of writing. The struggle to write recently paid off: Adam Ross and John Brandon had their novels — Mr. Peanut and Citrus County, respectively — published to critical acclaim. Both novels graced the cover of The New York Times Sunday Book Review in consecutive months this past summer.

Adam Ross: Mr. Peanut

Adam Ross, MFAW ’94, grew up in New York City, the son of artists who understood and supported his desire to write. He went to Vassar College and succeeded in being selected for a highly competitive senior creative writing thesis program — seemingly a good start on his career journey.

“I left Vassar in the spring of ’89 very determined to become a writer,” Ross says, “but having absolutely no idea whatsoever how I would go about that.”

He landed back in New York City, where he did a number of jobs to support his writing habit: computer consulting, teaching, waiting tables in a nightclub. But after two years, he got accepted into the Hollins University creative writing program.

“It was, in my mind, my first major writing success. It’s a highly reputed writing program and very competitive to get in, so I was really excited.”

After earning his master’s degree at Hollins, Ross won a full scholarship with a teaching stipend to Washington University’s creative writing program.

“I found myself, for my age, comparatively living large. I was still broke, but I had a stipend and was getting a free education and working with great people — Stanley Elkin and William Gass. I was living the life of the mind and the life of a young, young writer.”

Ross had hoped to have a completed, publishable novel manuscript when he finished his work at Washington University. But that was not to be.

“The novel that I was working on at Hollins and at Washington U. had some great parts but was inherently flawed. I had nothing.”

After completing his MFAW, he stayed in St. Louis where his wife, Beth, whom he had met at Hollins, worked as a paralegal and was applying to law schools.

“At that time I won a short story contest through Doubleday Publishing, and the editor-in-chief called me personally. He said, ‘Well, do you have a book?’ And I replied, ‘No, I don’t.’ That was one of the terrible moments early on in my career where the door flew open and I wasn’t ready.”

His wife was accepted to Vanderbilt Law School, and the couple moved to Nashville — a culture shock for the New York native.

“I took a job managing a bar, which left me a great deal of time in the mornings to write. I went through this very productive period where, unbeknownst to me, I had started what would become my novel Mr. Peanut.”

Over the next four years, Ross worked other jobs as well, including giving creative writing instruction at the YWCA, toiling in restaurants, and teaching in prep schools. Then in 1999 he took a job at the front desk of Nashville Scene, the city’s alternative weekly. That grew into a post as feature writer and reviewer.

Ross kept his hand in the literary world, but with little success. He was a finalist for a number of prestigious fellowships that didn’t pan out. He sent stories to respected literary magazines and got close to publishing some. “Little moments of hope,” sprung up, as when his magazine article “Lone Man on Campus,” depicting his year at Hollins, an all-women’s college, got optioned by Touchstone Pictures.

“Suddenly, with a thousand-word article I had made more money than I made in my whole career as a writer,” Ross says. But the frustration was building.

“I wasn’t totally disheartened,” he says, but after sending out stacks of stories without getting published, he settled on a new tack. “I’m just going to wait until I’ve finished a book,” Ross says. “I wasn’t going to continue in a torturous way. I decided, ‘I’m going to go for broke…’”

So he worked on his novel while writing for Nashville Scene — until it was sold and he lost his job. He freelanced. Then he landed a full-time job teaching at a prep school. The job consumed him, so he wrote during summers. But over the years the novel was “gathering a real kind of momentum,” Ross says. However, by 2007 he still had little to show for two decades of study and hard work.

“Then, out of utter frustration along with my wife’s prompting, I put together a couple hundred pages of the novel and 13 short stories and sent them to an old friend who was a literary agent,” says Ross, hoping his friend could give him some advice. His friend’s response: “I can sell this.” By fall, Ross had a two-book deal with venerable Knopf Publishers.

“It came when I was at my lowest point. I went from being absolutely nobody to having a 12-country international book deal with what is arguably the best literary publisher in America,” Ross says. “It was insane. Sometimes it’s hard to see how close you are to the finish line until a certain kind of fog lifts.”

Ross cites the aid of friends, family, mentors, classmates, editors and others with helping him along the way. “Success is not something accomplished by rugged individualism. You have to have very supportive people around you, and you have to have a great deal of dedication, and you certainly have to have some luck at the right time.”

For more on Adam Ross and his work, and to read a chapter of Mr. Peanut, visit http://adam-ross.com/.

Read The New York Times Sunday Book Review of Mr. Peanut at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/27/books/review/Turow-t.html?ref=books.

Alumnus Adam Ross’ novel, “Mr Peanut,” was featured in “The New York Times Sunday Book Review” in June 2010. (Background photo: Jerry Naunheim Jr.)

John Brandon: Citrus County

John Brandon’s second novel, Citrus County, takes place in rural, agricultural Florida, a land of pine forests and low horizons. A place he knows well, as it resembles in crucial ways his own Gulf Coast Florida hometown.

“I probably wanted to be a writer in high school but didn’t know it yet. Where I was from, it just wasn’t something that was in the air,” Brandon says. “I thought, well, I guess I just like to read a lot.”

But then, as a sophomore at the University of Florida, he got a story-writing assignment from an English professor. And with one step, Brandon, MFAW ’01, fell into the deep well of fiction writing.

“I realized that’s why I was reading so much, that maybe I wanted to be a writer. So I took it seriously, probably much too seriously,” Brandon says. “I thought: ‘There is no reason why this shouldn’t be the best story that’s ever been written — as good as all these Flannery O’Connor stories we were reading.’”

He took every creative writing workshop he could find, fiction and poetry — “even when they didn’t count for credit anymore.” But upon graduation he still was unsure what to do next: “I didn’t know what else to do besides try to keep writing.”

He eschewed advice to take a break from academe and get some life experience. “For me that would have been going back to New Port Richey (which he describes as a place for “retirees without money”) and working on a crappy fishing boat, being around everything that I already knew.”

But then came an offer from Washington University’s MFA program, to which he had applied. Familiar with college towns and state universities, he relished the chance to live in a big city and attend a private school.

“It accelerated my learning process,” he says. “It would have taken many, many years for me to get what I got out of those two years.”

Being around other writers, working with deadlines, learning how writers “go about their business,” and having his reading directed profited Brandon — albeit not financially. Upon graduating, he had a partial novel and few prospects. He reunited with his future wife, Heather, in Florida and followed her to Memphis, where she had a residency in occupational therapy. There, he taught high school for a semester.

“I couldn’t have done it any longer because I was just terrible at it,” Brandon says. “The kids walked all over me.”

But he also kept working on his novel and completed a draft, which he sent around to agents.

“They all had the same response,” he says. “‘The writing is really good, but it’s hard to say what’s the center of the book.’ When they turned me down, it took a while to get over, just because it takes so long to write a novel. At the same time, I knew I was young, and I knew that maybe I had learned how to write a novel while writing that one.”

He and Heather moved to Chattanooga, Tenn., where she had found a job at a hospital. He worked in factories and warehouses while starting what was to be his first published novel, Arkansas. But, isolated from other writers and the literary world, Brandon feared he was getting out of the loop.

Then, he and Heather went on the road when she linked up with a company that placed health-care professionals in temporary assignments.

“That became our routine for years,” Brandon says. “We would go into a new town where she would have her job waiting for her and where I would go to the temp agency and say, ‘I’m not picky; I want to work.’ The next day I’d be in some kind of labor job.

“I got into a great routine writing-wise,” Brandon says. “I’d ask for first shifts, and I’d be totally fresh to write in the evenings, because I wasn’t really using my brain at the warehouse — I was just moving things around.”

That routine allowed him to finish Arkansas and begin sending it to agents. But again he found no takers. “I started getting frustrated because I thought that Arkansas was really good, unlike my first novel.”

A few months turned into a year. Then a friend suggested Brandon send the novel directly to the San Francisco publisher McSweeney’s, so he sent the first 25 pages. They read that and then asked for the rest. Then they asked to publish it.

“At this point, we had been on the road for three years. It took me a couple of weeks to even tell my wife. It had been so hard over the years, and all I ever heard was ‘No.’ I hadn’t even gotten stories published,” Brandon says.

“It took me awhile to understand that they were going to send me a check, publish many copies of the book, and sell it for profit. You don’t know what that means. And then it turns out not to mean much.”

Brandon quickly realized that one book with a small press wasn’t going to appreciably change his life — no tenure-track professor job, no large royalty checks, no relief from manual labor. But he was over 30 and now committed to being a writer. “You’re at that point where you’ve been doing it hard for 10 years. There’s no way to back out of it,” he says. “By the time Arkansas came out, I already was far into my next novel.”

That next novel turned out to be Citrus County, also published by McSweeney’s, which is now winning Brandon widespread acclaim. As a result of his two book publications, he’s found temporary teaching at the University of Mississippi. “After seven years in factories and warehouses, this doesn’t seem like work at all,” he says.

Yet, he still sees his journey as just beginning.

“Maybe I was meant to struggle for a while and get rejected. I think it’s made me have a good attitude. I’m going to find a way to write the next book and do whatever else to pay the bills,” Brandon says. “That’s the only part that I can really control. They can refuse to hire you for a teaching job, and maybe they can’t make your book into a popular success, but they can’t stop you from writing the next good book. That’s all that counts for me.”

To learn more about John Brandon’s novels, visit http://store.mcsweeneys.net/index.cfm/fuseaction/catalog.detail/object_id/0c171b2c-e1cf-4b26-b9fc-a385ed37d8d1/CitrusCounty.cfm.

Read The New York Times Sunday Book Review of Citrus County at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/18/books/review/Handler-t.html?scp=2&sq=John%20Brandon&st=cse.

John Brandon blogs on SEC football for GQ magazine at http://www.gq.com/blogs/the-q/2010/09/novelist-john-brandon-previews-this-weeks-sec-football-matchups.html.

Rick Skwiot is a freelance writer based in Key West, Fla. His memoir on his developmental days as a novelist, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healingwas released this fall by Antaeus Books. You can read a sample chapter at www.RickSkwiot.com.

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