Paul Hanstedt is a Professor of English at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, a father of three, a writer, an educator, and a traveler. Besides his text book, GENERAL EDUCATION ESSENTIALS, his academic work has been published in MLA’s The Profession, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Liberal Education. He regularly travels throughout the country and around the globe working with faculty and administrators on general education/liberal education reform, curricular design and development, course design and development, and assignment and assessment design.
Part Two of our Interview with Paul Hanstedt
Jan: Let’s begin this part of interview by talking about our mutual fear of flying. I must confess I laughed, but I really did connect to your blog essay, “Confessions of a White-Knuckle Flier.” Roanoke has an ‘interesting’ airport nestled in between those hills. So you too hate to fly, and yet you love to travel. Can you talk about this paradox? How do you manage this contradiction?
Paul: I can’t stand flying. Can’t stand it. Takeoffs and landings are the worst: the arms of my seat will be soaked in sweat. My hands will be clammy. I’ll be able to hear my own breathing. I’ll feel every bump. It doesn’t matter if I’m sitting next to an engineer who can explain about how much stress wings can take or a pilot who can tell me about how technology can defeat wind sheer before it even starts: All of those things are meaningless compared to the image of myself plummeting thirty thousand feet straight down.
But then the flight ends. And I’m somewhere really cool. The food is different, the drink is different. I’m surrounded by a language I can barely understand. The quality of light is different. I’ve got a whole new place to explore. I love that feeling, and it’s a big enough feeling, one that lasts for a long time, that it will drown out the immediate and finite fear of flying.
Or it will, at least, until that one final fatal flight where my plane is ripped in half and I plummet, along with 300 other people, to the rocky ground below. : )
Jan: Recently you returned from a conference in Korea and you’ve written about the challenges of traveling when you don’t speak the language. So how ‘do’ you manage when language barriers exist?
Paul: It depends: if I’m alone, I just muddle through it. I’m clumsy, I’m awkward, I’m a buffoon, I talk too loud or not loud enough, I make weird gestures, I exaggerate my expressions—I do all of these things until I’m used to the place and things become a little easier, until I know enough phrases or enough about the culture that I can get by okay.
When I’m with my wife, her energy sort of pulls me forward. She’s a very open person and very good with languages, and people respond to her well, so I’m able to ride on her coattails some.
And when we’re with our kids, none of the rest of it matters: people will approach us, they’ll talk to the kids, they’ll look at us and smile, they’ll shake our hands, they’ll give us food. Waitresses will cluster around my sons and waiters will nod seriously at my daughter. And somehow they’ll be more patient with us. It’s like the kids are a universal language, a sign that everything’s okay, that it’s okay to talk to these people, to help them out. I’d like to think that it’s the same way here in the US when others come to visit, but I don’t know for sure. A few years back, though, we had some friends from France visit right around Halloween, and when we went to shop for pumpkins, the guy running the stand—a big farmer with calloused hands and a few teeth missing—was about as gracious to those kids as I remember seeing anywhere.
Jan: You’re author of a well-received text book, General Education Essentials and many people know you more for that and your essay readings on Virginia Public Radio, but as you know I’m a fiction person, so I’d like to know more about the other creative work that you’ve published in Beloit Fiction Journal, Puerto Del Sol, and Confrontation. Which of your recent short creative works is more in tune with your larger writing aspirations?
Paul: I’d say the last story I wrote, called “Lists” and published in the Beloit Fiction Journal maybe six years ago. It’s a story told completely through a series of—surprise!—lists, and I liked it for a couple of reasons: first, it let me have a huge cast of characters for a fifteen page story. It just moved so quickly and I was able to revisit characters so often that it felt like the cast of a Dickens novel to me. (I got my PhD in Victorian literature, and love that stuff). Second, it allowed me to have a “messy” ending, one that didn’t really tie up very neatly. I can be a bit anal at times, a bit too organized, and my fiction often felt too symmetrical, too predictable to me. This one felt less so.
All of that said, there’s a reason why I haven’t written a story in six years: creative nonfiction, by its very nature, gives me the unpredictability that I crave. I can’t control where a story goes, I’m stuck with what’s there. I like that. I feel like the power has been taken away from me, and that allows me to do some things that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. Like, for instance, speak directly to the reader, saying, “What I want to give you here is X. X would feel good, and we both know it. But what actually happened is Y.” And I like the aesthetics of that, the way it can surprise the reader.
Jan: Is there a must read book on writing that you would recommend to any aspiring writer?
Paul: E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. It’s short, clean, and almost every sentence in it is a keeper.
Jan: What are you reading now? What are the top four books on your ‘to read’ stack?
Paul: I’m not fudging on this, I’m telling the absolute truth:
1) Rory Nugent’s The Search for the Pink-Headed Duck. It’s such an event-filled journey through India that I sometimes wonder if it’s all true. But it’s funny and beautiful and powerfully written. He’s got one passage where he talks about the power of the Brahmaputra River, and how it’s so strong that you can actually hear the river changing the shape of the islands as you drift by. Great stuff.
2) Chris Gavaler’s School For Tricksters, about the Carlisle School for Indians, and a pair of students, Ivy Miller and Sylvester Long, who pretended to be native Americans in order to get an education there. It’s set during the time of Jim Thorpe, “Pop” Warner, and Marianne Moore, who taught typing there. It’s just so well imagined, so authoritative, so well researched, so powerfully written on the sentence level—just so accomplished. It makes me feel like I should be handing out milk and cookies with my book.
3) Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari. Theroux is obviously one of the best travel writers alive today. I’m not sure I’d like to hang out with him—and I’m positive he wouldn’t want to hang out with me—but he does a great job of bringing hidden corners to the page. It’s slow going sometimes, so I pick this book up and set it down again, but I always come back to it happily.
4) M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Maid. Pure cotton candy, but damn I do love her Hamish Macbeth series. Just quirky, funny, lightly told but compelling. You can see the world she’s describing, you get her characters, but you never get bogged down. I have a 50-mile commute to and from work every day, so I usually listen to her books in the car.
Jan: Wow. That’s a great list. I think I will add a couple of these to my reading list. What’s the best writing advice you have ever been given?
Paul: The best advice I ever got was from Christopher Tilghman who is (or was) the chair of the creative writing program at the University of Virginia. I’ve never met him, and he doesn’t know he gave it to me, but nonetheless. It happened a few years ago when I was stuck in an administrative job that was pulling me away from my writing time. A friend of mine who studied under Tilghman told me how Tilghman was once asked if he didn’t resent his administrative responsibilities, if he wouldn’t rather be writing instead. According to this friend of mine, Tilghman’s reply was, “All writing is writing. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing a memo or a personnel evaluation, it’s all writing. It’s all good, it’s all practice.”
That helped me, I think. I was writing a lot of curricular models, a lot of powerpoints, a lot of rationales. This made me think about how I wrote those things, allowed me to have more pleasure in writing them, in making the language work the same way I would if I were writing a story.
Jan: And what advice did you decide to ignore?
Bad advice? I’m sure I’ve received some . . . but honestly, I don’t remember any of it. I suppose that says something, right?
Jan: Finally, I wanted to ask this one question for a while. If you could be a literary super hero, what would your super power be?
Paul: Making people laugh out loud with one sentence, then cry with the next. And taking them to a place that they’ve never been before so thoroughly that it almost feels familiar to them. Or is that three powers? I always want too much.
In addition to HONG KONGED, his nonfiction memoir about a year in Asia with three kids under the age of ten, Paul Hanstedt has published creative works in the Beloit Fiction Journal, Puerto Del Sol, and Confrontation, among other journals. He is a regular essayist and can be heard on Virginia Public Radio.
Jan: Thank you, Paul, for your wonderful interview. Readers can order your books online or request them from a local or university book store. Happy Travels!
Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers. Learn more at: