By Wes Cruse
In preparation for his upcoming visit to campus, I sat down with author and PSU English Department Chair Paul Collins to discuss his newest book and his thoughts about writing. Collins’ work has been published in The New Yorker, Slate, and The New York Times, and his books that have been translated into a dozen languages. They include Not Even Wrong: A Father’s Journey Into the Lost History of Autism (Bloomsbury, 2004), and Blood & Ivy: The 1849 Murder That Scandalized Harvard (W.W. Norton, 2018). Come hear him speak and read at the UP Bookstore on Monday, Oct. 8th at 7:30 pm. You won’t want to miss it!
Can you tell me about how your most recent book, Blood & Ivy: The 1849 Murder That Scandalized Harvard, came to be?
That came about in part because the last few books I’ve done have been historical crime books. With this particular case, a few things pulled me to it. One, the obvious: how unlikely it seemed that a murder happened in a medical school full of cadavers. It seems like the setup for a mystery novel, except that it actually happened. It was also historically significant. It was a significant turning point in medical forensics. The other pull to this story was that this was happening during the American Renaissance, the period during the 1840s and 1850s in and around Boston, Harvard, and Concord where there was this amazing blossoming of American literature. All of those authors are kind of intersecting at least indirectly with the principal characters in this case. The case was appealing as an opportunity to evoke that particular era.
What inspired you to begin writing?
Oh, wow. That’s a really good question. It was something that I always did. I started writing stories as a kid. But for me the moment where the light bulb came on was as a teenager. I might’ve been like 13 or 14, and I read Slaughterhouse Five. And I just was floored by it. I just sort of went ‘Wow, you can do that with narrative?!” And then my second reaction was, “I want to do that!” I think that was a lot of it for me. When I first started writing in elementary school, I just wanted to write funny stories. There were various humor essayists and columnists that I was reading as a kid who probably influenced me when I was really young. But in terms of having some adult notion of an art form and thinking “Wow, I want to do that,” that probably happened about the time of late junior high or the beginning of high school.
What excites you about your work?
For me, it’s the discovery process. I love working with the craft, writing a scene and nailing it. But that is a fairly ephemeral feeling, I think, for almost any artist. You know, you finish writing a scene, or composing a piece of music, or whatever, and you’re like “Yeah! I got that one.” Then, the next day you’re back to square one, facing a blank screen again. So it’s really more the process of doing the research that I really enjoy. I love finding new stuff and kind of bringing it back to life. And that’s true of writing articles, too. My favorite pieces are always the ones where it’s like a full-out resurrection of a book, author, or piece of history that just seems to have been forgotten. There are not many articles that really can rise to that standard. Usually you’ll find someone, somewhere who’s written something about it. But every once in a while, there’s a story where you just go “Wow, no one’s written a damn thing about this,” and I love that. I love finding stuff like that.
What are some of your hobbies besides reading and writing?
I love traveling, and I love music. I play the piano and I play the drums. Drums are really my main instrument. I try not to annoy the neighbors too much.
Out of all your works, which is your favorite?
It’s funny because some I feel are good on technical grounds, that the finish on them is really good. But the one that’s closest to my heart is Not Even Wrong, the one about my son. I’ll probably revisit that one someday. It came out in 2004, so I was basically writing it in 2002-2003. It’s a memoir about the first year after my son was diagnosed with autism, intertwined with a history of autism. Obviously, a lot has happened since then, for one. He’s taller than I am now. And also, just a lot in terms of the medical understanding of autism and a lot of information about the history of autism has come out of the last couple decades. So, it’s something I’ll revisit someday. I suspect that when I do, that will become my favorite book. It’s personally meaningful.
What advice would you give to writers?
A few things I guess. The first is the most hackneyed piece of advice of all, but it’s true: read. Read omnivorously and read a lot. There are two other things. One is that if someone is interested in writing books, you have to care about the subject, so don’t write about something because you think someone else will like it. You have to write about it because you like it. If you don’t, you won’t finish it; or if you do, it’ll be a miserable experience. So, you really just have to find the thing that you like or that fascinates you and go on the assumption that at some point someone else out there is going to be fascinated by it, too. It’s almost the only way to sustain a book-length effort.
One other thing I would encourage people to do is to try out different forms of writing. When I started out I was absolutely certain I was going to be writing fiction, that I was going to be writing novels. All the classes I took were in fiction. As it turns out, my almost accidental exposure to writing journalism was crucial. Later on, I decided to try to write a screenplay, and they wound up at the bottom of my desk right away. But, it was an incredibly useful experience because in screenwriting you have to think in scenes, and you have to learn how to write dialogue. It was one of the best things I ever did for my writing. It’s the same for anything like that. A journalist who takes a poetry class, or vice versa, they’re gaining a new set of tools, working a different set of muscles, and it’s going to be useful.