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10 Questions for Patrick Thomas Henry

“Perhaps, academic criticism attacks the “feedback loop between critical theory and artistic practice” to unconsciously deflect attention from a fear common to literary critics: that the humanities have become a cerebral echo chamber in an institutional environment that privileges STEM fields, the corporate university, and its investment portfolios. This is the fear: we write to each other, read each other, and yet fail to com­municate effectively to the general readership. Outside that circle, our scholarship doesn’t even incite negative reactions.” —from “A Defense of the Artist-Critic, Part One” Winter 2017 (Vol. 58, Issue 4), Part 2 can be found in Spring 2018 (Vol. 59, Issue 1)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
So many of my early pieces were really a search for what prose should do. I remember some of my truly awful freshman-year writing. I had this short story set in a bar (and I’d never been in a bar), because it seemed like a thing that a short story should be about. I was told to check out the Best American Short Stories, and to read for how characters are developed. One of my first English seminar papers was bogged down with metaphors and block quotes. (Same reason: I thought that’s what essays did.) I was told to look at the kinds of essays and long-form reviews that literary mags published. In each case, reading was an epiphany. I had so much to learn.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
As an essayist, I’m most inspired by writers who generate intimacy with the reader while still providing a honed critique. Zadie Smith’s work in the New York Review of Books, Roxane Gay’s essays in Bad Feminist, Thomas Mallon’s essays in The New Yorker, or Porochista Khakpour’s recent pieces in VQR—their voices have shaped how I think through questions about literature and culture.

Also, every prose writer should consume a healthy diet of poetry. Our sentences can benefit so much from the grace of the lyric.

What other professions have you worked in?
I’ve had the usual teenager and twenty-something odd jobs; I was a roadie for a sound engineer, a warehouse worker for an ice cream distributor, and—during a bad, lean summer—even went against my better judgment and worked as a Cutco knives salesman to pay for gas, groceries, and my phone bill. (I’m not proud of my stint with Cutco, but I’ll own up to having that gig.) But I’ve also—happily—had better work as an editorial assistant for the Bucknell University Press and as a copy editor (and now fiction and poetry editor) for Modern Language Studies. If I weren’t teaching and writing, I would be dedicating myself to a career with university or independent presses.

What did you want to be when you were young?
Short answer: Indiana Jones, but with books.

Long answer: even when I was a kid, I remember lots of talk about getting a career and doing better than your parents’ generation. A lot of teachers and adults in my life pushed “career tracks” and argued for a strenuous life path that would’ve been a dull slog through some kind of professional training—law school, med school—because the outcome pays well.

It wasn’t exciting. All that chatter seemed intensely focused on making zombies of us all.

But during those teenaged years, I was realizing that I didn’t really care so much about the mechanical “career track.” (The words even connote automation—conveyor belts, assembly lines, a final product.) I was increasingly interested in people’s stories, what was happening in folks’ inner lives, what Virginia Woolf calls that “innermost flickering” of the soul. It dawned on me during my junior year of high school that this kind of storytelling could be a part of my life. I had attended a Writing-in-Action Day at Susquehanna University, where I saw Jayne Anne Phillips give a reading before attending workshops and talks led by Gary Fincke, Tom Bailey, and Karen Holmberg. And I thought, “Okay. This is what I want to do.”

What inspired you to write this piece?
While working on my dissertation, I experienced—as many graduate students do—a crisis of faith. Who was my audience? Who I was interested in reaching with my research? It’s a question that academics and researchers have continuously grappled with, especially as certain strains of populist thought have expressed a vote of no confidence in academic research. So there’s a clear problem here: how do we communicate and share the essential work being in done in humanities departments with non-specialists? As I continued my doctoral research into British modernism, I gravitated toward those writers—Virginia Woolf, W. B. Yeats, E. M. Forster, Hugh MacDiarmid, Catherine Carswell—who were writing creative and critical works. (These are the figures I call “artist-critics” in my essay.) Zadie Smith’s essay on Forster’s radio broadcasts—which you can find in her collection Changing My Mind—pushed me to think about how these different genres allow artist-critics to hold conversations, simultaneously, in a number of venues, with a number of audiences. From there, I wanted to explore how the example of the artist-critic might lend itself to some of the current methodological discussions in literary studies and the humanities, writ large.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Edinburgh, Scotland, looms large in my imagination. It’s misty, steeped in history, and yet there’s a constant ideological struggle between modernity and a romanticized take of Scottish history. (Scotland’s craggy affect also reminds me of rural Pennsylvania, where I grew up. And Appalachia also has the same tussle between its present and a romanticized past.)

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I let myself get distracted. I make tea, I carry the cat around the apartment, I hum to a few bars of music or talk back to the radio. I let myself clean off the desk, wash dishes, or clear away clutter—space-clearing gestures that, oddly, clear any debris or anxiety from my thoughts. Then, when nothing exists in my mind except the topic (for an essay) or the characters (for a story), I begin writing.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I tend to be very stingy with my drafts. Before anyone sees a piece, I’ve usually run it through a complete rewrite and a few heavy edits. I tell myself that this is a service to my readers, that their comments will be more targeted and that it will feel like a meaningful investment of their time. (This may be a good time to mention that, yes, I have the stereotypical Scotch-Irish Catholic over-developed sense of guilt.)

For fiction, I have a few close friends—fellow fiction writers—who will give me an honest take on the draft. And I share nonfiction with my faculty writing group.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I’d love to be a solid member of a wind ensemble. Not a soloist—good Lord no—just a dependable third- or fourth-chair instrumentalist. I played brass instruments—trumpet, French horn, euphonium—throughout high school and college. I just never had the chops to make a career of it. (Not to mention the ear for pitch: I’m completely deaf in my left ear, which made marching band…interesting.)

What are you working on currently?
I’ve recently finished drafts of a short story collection and a novel. Both of these book-length projects are set largely in rural Pennsylvania, and I’m especially drawn to finding intersections between folklore, oral storytelling, history, and the present.

I have notes and some early drafts of essays on video games, Virginia Woolf, and teaching creative writing. I’m also researching for a book on artist-critics, with particular attention on how their nonfiction reacts to certain watershed events in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

PATRICK THOMAS HENRY is associate editor for fiction and poetry at Modern Language Studies. His fiction and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Fiction Southeast, Souvenir Lit, Duende, and Sugar House Review. His scholarship and reviews appear in European Romantic Review, Response: The Digital Journal of Popular Culture Scholarship, South Asian Review, and Necessary Fiction. He teaches creative writing at the University of North Dakota.

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