1. How did you come up with the setting for your novel?
Well, I had always wanted to write a novel about the rise and fall of American civilization, and of course the American community college was the most obvious choice for the setting. The fact that Cow Eye Community College is located in a region that is itself in decline--with unprecedented drought conditions, changing demographics, a dying ranching industry, and an uneasy community struggling to come to terms with it all--made it even more perfect for my purposes. Plus, the year I spent in Cow Eye Junction was really an amazing experience, and I truly enjoyed my stay there; by the time I left, I knew for sure that this was the place to set my novel. And the rest, as they say, is history.
2. I don't think I've ever read about the college accreditation process in a novel before. What were the challenges of writing about this process?
Of course the main challenge is that it's an incredibly dull subject that is not really worthy of literary consideration. Most people, if they're going to take the time to read fiction at all, will generally prefer to read stories about interesting personalities and events. So, yes, it was definitely a challenge. But as an author I also saw it as a great opportunity. Because if you can write about regional accreditation in a new and exciting way--if you can somehow make it sexy--then that would surely qualify as an accomplishment worthy of literary immortality.
3. Would you tell us a little bit about the main character of Cow Country?
Sure. The main character is a man named Charlie who moves to Cow Eye Junction after a series of failed jobs and fruitless personal relationships. He's the kind of person who tends to be a lot of different things yet none of them entirely--in other words, the type who willingly chooses to go into educational administration. Over the course of the novel, we see Charlie trying to do his job while also attempting to leave a meaningful legacy of some kind. But the world around him is changing so fast that he can't keep up. Ultimately, he fails in rather spectacular ways, as is so often the case with educational administration.
4. What is your own experience with community college?
I am, in fact, a community college faculty member and administrator, and so a lot of what happens in the book does come from my own personal experience. The castration scene, for example, and the focus group--not to mention the creative writing workshop, the tantric discovery session, and the Christmas party where faculty members are treated to a cow blowing demonstration--all of these are based on situations that I've found myself in, or that have happened to me in my career. With Cow Country, I really tried to leave no stone unturned in depicting the contradictions of American life, and I've been extremely fortunate to be able to draw so extensively upon my professional experiences in academia, and specifically my time spent in the community college environment.
5. As someone who teaches at a community college and struggles to find time to write, I have to ask you: where do you find time to write?
It's not easy, that's for sure! As a community college instructor, you really have to make a concerted effort to find time for your writing, even if it comes at the expense of student learning and success. At least, that's the approach that I take, and I've found that it works quite well for me. Otherwise, I tend to catch myself exerting incredible amounts of time and creative energy--all my artistic exuberance really--on my students. In my younger, pre-tenured days I devoted myself entirely to my teaching, and I did it in the most tireless and self-effacing way. And now when I look back on that time of my life, I think, you know, those years are gone, and I will never get them back--and I feel a tremendous sadness.
Probably the turning point in my evolution came when I hung a Japanese calendar over the narrow window in my office door so students couldn't see that I was in. This was such a simple and understated act of liberation--yet it immediately felt as if a great burden had been lifted from my shoulders! Since then, I've developed countless other strategies to help me cope from one semester to the next. For one, I avoid the composition classes like a plague. But if I do happen to get one, I always make sure to give minimal handwritten feedback on student essays, and those comments that I do give I tend to focus mostly on grammar and punctuation and other issues of syntax that don't require much concentration on my part. In class I have the students work in small groups to correct each other's drafts and provide peer feedback (previously I would provide the feedback myself) while I circulate around the room ostensibly overseeing group discussion but in fact working out important issues of character and plot development in my mind. I also have a system of coded symbols for feedback, and I use a five-point scoring rubric to simplify grading. (I just have to check boxes!) If a student needs individualized help with a particularly difficult concept being covered in my class, I don't hesitate to refer them to the tutoring center for a detailed explanation. And of course I try to incorporate as much technology in the classroom as possible--online instructional materials, web resources, automated graders and the like--to streamline the teaching process and to make it more efficient, which really helps to free up more time for my writing.
Of course it's never easy to balance one's creative endeavors with the mind-numbing and creativity-sapping drain that is effective classroom instruction at the community college level. But I think after many years of struggle, I've finally found that balance for myself. And in fact, Cow Country is a wonderful testament to that compromise, evidence that even the most impossible creative feat can be accomplished if you just set your mind to it!