The back cover describes Academy Gothic as “hardboiled mystery meets academic satire.” How did you come to blend these two seemingly disparate genres?
The year I started Academy Gothic I was living on a steady diet of novels by Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Those writers are remembered in part for their world-weary tone, and to a slightly lesser extent for their plots, but I’m not sure they get as much credit as they deserve for their sense of humor. This was around the time my teaching colleagues and I endured a never-ending procession of what might charitably be called indignities. Our offices, for example, were relocated to a former swimming pool in the school’s abandoned gymnasium. That our move paralleled the fate of the title characters from Revenge of the Nerds did not go unnoticed. A few of us, recognizing the futility of anger, appreciated the Kafkaesque qualities of our plight and persevered accordingly.
Since you mentioned Chandler, he famously praised Daschielle Hammet for rescuing the murder mystery from tea rooms and rose gardens, returning it to the underworld where people “commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” What might Chandler make of a mystery set on the campus of a small liberal arts college described as one of the nation’s worst values in higher education?
Those who have attended a meeting among faculty and administrators of a college, failing or otherwise, are familiar with a facial expression one might characterize as muted rage. Throw in a student body whose graduation dates keep getting pushed back due to a constantly changing curriculum and you have a climate no less combustible than a red light district overrun by gangsters. Call them institutions of higher learning if you like, but colleges are businesses like any other, and whenever money enters the room, greed and resentment aren’t far behind. From greed and resentment come, well, you get the picture.
In your book trailer, you say the fate of a school like Parshall College isn’t as far-fetched as some readers might think. Which parts are real and which parts are exaggerated for comic effect?
To be honest, I’m not sure any aspects of Parshall College, no matter how bizarre or seemingly far-fetched, are beyond the realm of possibility. That so many absurd characteristics converge on the campus of one school probably make Parshall seem like an academic dystopia, but early readers have been surprised when I tell them which parts are inspired by reality. For the record, Parshall College is not a stand-in for any school where I have ever taught. A better reference point might be another school in the city where I live, one where I have never been employed, that was recently purchased by Bank of America when it couldn’t pay its own bills. And just this year we’ve seen Sweet Briar College in Virginia, a far more reputable institution than Parshall, to be sure, nearly shutter its doors before deciding at the last minute to reopen as a drastically reshaped, significantly smaller school.
Parshall College is located in the fictional town of Grayford, North Carolina, a state recently ranked fiftieth in America for its treatment of educators. Was that a factor in setting the school where you did?
Parshall is a private school, so it’s theoretically unaffected by state budgets and government intervention. But watching our current governor over the past few years, and the Republican legislature before that, eviscerate budgets for North Carolina’s primary and secondary schools absolutely informed the novel’s climate of despair.
But isn’t the budgetary crisis in higher education the result of the 2008 economic downturn?
Isn’t it pretty to think so? Every year, tuition goes up. Nearly every year, enrollment increases. Nearly every year, a new multimillion-dollar construction project begins on the campus of nearly every state school. Faculty salaries never increase. The number of faculty rarely goes up. And if the quality of the average college education is in decline, credit the amount of time faculty have to spend justifying their curricula because the powers that be in the state capital have always maintained an unhealthy suspicion of academics.
College faculty tend to be more liberal than other samples of the population, but isn’t education inherently progressive? And if the goal of a college education is the well-rounded student with an ability to generate original, intellectually viable ideas, this is absolutely antithetical to North Carolina’s current governor, Pat McCrory, who has stated his belief that the leaders of corporations should be driving the agenda, as well as the curricula, of all our schools.
So it’s no coincidence that the narrator of Academy Gothic is a business instructor.
I began this novel before our current governor took office, but it’s no coincidence that Tate Cowlishaw has a business background. I wanted a narrator who stumbled into the teaching profession, someone whose outsider status allows him to regard the so-called Ivory Tower with a generous helping of skepticism. Also, because Cowlishaw and I already share one big characteristic, I wanted to put some distance between his specialty and my own writing background.
What characteristic is that?
Tate Cowlishaw has significant blind spots in his central field of vision, which is the visual impairment I’ve had since I was sixteen. It’s a pretty rare condition called Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy—rolls off the tongue, no?—and it’s essentially an early burnout of the optic nerves. People sometimes ask why I don’t wear glasses, as though that hadn’t occurred to me. It’s not a matter of nearsightedness, farsightedness, or astigmatism. Whatever I look directly at is a kaleidoscopic spider web of shifting shapes. But because I have peripheral vision, I can get around well enough, at least as a pedestrian. Driving is impossible. Reading, if it’s less than a few sentences, requires a strong magnifier. For anything longer, I use my computer or various gadgets to convert text to speech.
Seated across the table from me right now, you seem to be looking me in the eyes.
Shadows, even some colors, sneak through the blind spots, enough to feign eye contact at close range. This depends a bit on the lighting. Actually, you’d be surprised how much a visually impaired individual can fake while pretending to be fully sighted. You’d also be surprised—I still am—how important this passing as fully sighted was to me for many years. It strikes me now as absurd that I tried so hard to hide what was probably more obvious than I allowed myself to acknowledge, and it’s this stubbornness, this refusal to come to terms with his own disability, that dominates much of Tate Cowlishaw’s interaction with the world.
Was it therapeutic to write from the point of view of a visually impaired character?
I’m not a huge fan of the word therapeutic, but for lack of a better descriptor, sure, it was probably helpful to objectify that element of my own biography. But doesn’t all fiction do this, regardless of how autobiographical the traits or events depicted? All of us, writers as well as readers, are looking for the parts that sound true even when—maybe especially when—the only relatable parts are emotions.
Without spoiling anything, the final chapter of Academy Gothic suggests you might not be done with Tate Cowlishaw. Is that the case?
I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t fantasized about the many scenarios and plots in which this character might find himself. I’ll say that Word documents have been created and leave it at that. At the moment, I’m finishing a different kind of mystery about a fame-obsessed fifteen-year-old girl from my home state of West Virginia. I’m also working on a nonfiction project—a memoir, I guess—about the weird world of visual impairment. But I’ll say this: if readers of Academy Gothic were willing to accompany Mr. Cowlishaw on another adventure, I’d consider myself the luckiest writer in the world.
JAMES TATE HILL’S debut novel, Academy Gothic, won the 2014 Nilsen Prize for a First Novel and was published in 2015 by Southeast Missouri State University Press. He is Fiction Editor and Book Reviews Editor for Monkeybicycle and lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Lori. Find out more at his website or follow him on Twitter.