On a personal note and in yet another attempt to hitch my wagon to his star, I will always consider Justin Cronin as a personal mentor.
When I was a freshman in college, the class schedule handbook printed the wrong time and the wrong location for one of the most popular courses on campus: A personal essay class with Dr. Marsha Recknagel. I’d heard that her classes usually attracted nearly a hundred students on the first day and that she only chose ten to fourteen students based on the quality of their writing samples. But there was a rumor that Rice printed the wrong information about her class. An upperclassman told me to show up at 2:30 on Tuesday in the new Humanities Building.
Fifteen people showed up. She took nearly all of us in.
Today, nearly a decade later, I am still very close friends with at least four people that I first met in the class, including Marsha. (The next semester, by the way, Rice printed the correct time and location for her class, and as usual, she had to wade through dozens of writing samples before determining who would make the cut. I was lucky, in many ways).
One month into the class, my father died, suddenly and unexpectedly. When I returned to Rice a week afterward, I took solace in Marsha’s personal essay class. Marsha and the class inspired me to pursue writing.
The next year, as a sophomore, there was an opening for a new fiction writing professor. Rice had selected a short-list for open, classroom-style interviews, and for whatever reason, I was allowed to sit in as a student. Each candidate would read a sample from his or her latest published book and then answer a barrage of questions from the audience (“What do you think of Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ series?” “Explain what postcolonial literature means to you,” etc.). Even for a member of the audience, the whole thing seemed intimidating.
Justin Cronin, the one candidate who went to Harvard and the Iowa Writers Workshop, was the third or fourth interview. He’d just won the Pen/Hemingway Award for Best New Work of Fiction for his book Mary and O’Neil. He began by reading a passage from his book, and I promise to you: By the middle of his reading, you could hear people- grown, adult professionals, most of whom had never read his book- weeping aloud. It was a little crazy; I was in awe.
The passage from which he read was about a wife giving birth, told from the perspective of a husband who hadn’t entirely reconciled the deaths of his parents. It may sound benign, but it was gut-wrenching, poignant stuff.
After his reading, I chatted with him outside. I think I may have told him that I’d never seen anyone make a group of professors weep like that. He seemed like a nice, personable guy, even with a 19-year-old punk like me.
I doubt it made any difference. I wasn’t a voting member of the selection committee. I was a student observer. But I remember lobbying, though I wouldn’t have used that word at the time, for Justin to be hired. After hearing his reading and then actually reading his entire book, I wanted to campaign for him.
It turns out: I didn’t need to. Justin was hired almost immediately.
Without a doubt, Marsha Recknagel and Justin Cronin were the most influential college professors in my own undergraduate career. Marsha taught me to be fearless, yet always fair and ethical in how I express myself. Justin taught me how to be analytical, self-critical, balanced, and real. He instilled within me a deep appreciation for contemporary fiction. He didn’t just teach me to love writing; he taught me how to write. (Writing is different than blogging, and for better or worse, I taught myself how to blog).
My point is: Justin Cronin isn’t only an amazingly talented writer; he’s also an incredible teacher and a caring friend.