Investigating Characters’ Pockets With Academy Gothic Author James Tate Hill

James Tate Hill

James Tate Hill

By Daniel Ford

Author James Tate Hill doesn’t need me to sing the praises of his novel Academy Gothic. In 2014, it won the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel and Publisher’s Weekly celebrated it as a “dead-on parody of academic jargon” and a “mystery worth reading.”

As I told Hill on Twitter recently, Tate Cowlishaw, his snarky, legally blind main character, is my spirit animal. His investigation into the death of the dean of crumbling Parshall College in Grayford, N.C. is both deliciously bizarre and scathingly hilarious. Fans of noir and dark comedy will love every page of this fantastic debut.

Hill answered some of my questions recently about how Jack London inspired him to become a writer, what inspired him to write Academy Gothic, and how it went about making his mystery tale original.

Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

James Tate Hill: In seventh grade, when our English class read the Jack London story “To Build a Fire,” I was so enamored that I wrote my own version in which a man ventures into the desert to photograph a rare cactus. After losing his mind in the heat—rather quickly, if memory serves—he meets his demise by impaling himself on the very cactus he had been looking for. Fast-forward to high school, where I stumbled upon “To Build a Fire” again and was no less enthralled. This time, thankfully, it didn’t inspire me to write another awful story, but to seek out some of Jack London’s books. Oddly it wasn’t his famous dog stories—I’ve still never read White Fang—but his dark, autobiographical novel about a working-class writer who finds unhappiness in fame, Martin Eden, which tripped a switch in my brain. Reading that novel brought me the same thrill I had been getting for years from comic books. Every time I sit down to write, I hope against hope that some reader of my work will feel how I feel when I’m reading a book I can’t put down.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

JTH: I do 90 percent of my writing in the morning. When time permits, I write every weekday. Aside from a handful of short stories, I’ve been working exclusively on novels for the past dozen years, and forward momentum feels crucial when working on something whose finish line can often seem hypothetical. Since getting my first laptop not that long ago, I’ve done the lion’s share of my writing in public places for reasons I’ll explain below. I used to allow myself the luxury of music only during revision, but fairly recently I developed the super power to write first drafts with music playing, and since then that certain dread that accompanies the blank screen has diminished quite a bit. I don’t outline, but do have destinations in mind. As often as not, however, the destinations I reach aren’t the ones I had circled on the map.

DF: What inspired your debut novel, Academy Gothic?

JTH: I don’t remember which came first, my binging on the novels of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald or the day my colleague and I arrived to the campus where we taught to find the only parking lot with vacant spaces completely cordoned off. We both started laughing—a little manically, to be honest. Think Walter White when he learns Skyler spent the money he was going to use to purchase new identities for the family. Months before, our offices had been moved from one of the campus’s smallest buildings to the side of a gymnasium that had once been a swimming pool. With state budget cuts coming hard and fast, I imagined what was happening to us hitting a smaller school that much harder. Watching faculty lose their shit, noticing students increasingly frustrated by an ever-evolving curriculum, a plot began to take shape.

DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters in the novel? How do you develop your characters in general?

JTH: I hope none of my former students see me in Tate Cowlishaw’s utter indifference to teaching. People who know me, however, will recognize my visual impairment, central blind spots that leave peripheral vision my only useful eyesight, in the narrator of Academy Gothic. I was 16 years old when doctors correctly diagnosed my rare condition, after which I learned to read with my ears rather than my eyes. I can read small amounts of text with a high-powered magnifier, but I consume my books as recorded audio or digital speech converted from text through a computer or Kindle. I hope I’m not as world-weary as Cowlishaw, but his sardonic sensibility probably isn’t far from my own.

As for the other characters in Academy Gothic, any similarity to actual persons, past or present, blah blah blah. Some similarities to people one knows are inevitable, but I tend to believe writers when they call their characters a composite of different people, some real and most fictional. A writing teacher once told me I should know what’s in a character’s pockets even if we never see inside them. She meant that our characters, even the supporting characters, need to have lives beyond the page, and this advice isn’t far from my mind whenever a new character enters stage left.

DF: How long did it take you to write the novel and get it published?

JTH: I think it was close to its current form after about a year and a half, factoring in edits after feedback from first readers. I spent about six months querying agents with a number of requests but no takers. Naively I had thought finding representation would be easier with a mystery than it had been for my previous project, a weird speculative novel with four point-of-view characters. With Academy Gothic, unlike with previous projects, rejection didn’t lessen my belief in the book, but the energy it takes to keep sending emails into the ether, few of which even receive a form response, can be toxic to the energy needed to write. Thus, I entered Academy Gothic in some book contests and moved ahead with another novel.

DF: Murder mysteries have certain built-in tropes that can steer authors into tired clichés if they aren’t careful. How did you ensure that your tale was original?

JTH: Good question. That aforementioned buffet of Chandler, Macdonald, and other authors who helped define and redefine classic noir made me aware of a certain voice and tone, to say nothing of recognizable characters and familiar turns in the story. If anything, instead of avoiding those tropes—those of murder mysteries as well as those of gothic novels of the eighteenth century—I tried to incorporate some of them and see how they played in a somewhat different context, namely that of satire.

DF: Academy Gothic won the 2014 Nilsen Prize for a First Novel and has garnered positive reviews from a number of literary sources. What has that experience been like?

JTH: The whole process, from the first phone call from my publisher to say I had won the Nilsen Prize to the recent arrival of my own copies on my doorstep, has been surreal. Writers who publish with small presses are grateful for any kind of attention we receive, so when Publishers Weekly and Booklist both weighed in, positively no less, I literally couldn’t believe my luck. I do mean literally. I came upon the PW review during that time-honored writerly tradition of Googling myself—the review had just gone up, my publisher having not yet been notified by PW—and an hour later, trying to send someone a link to it, the review was gone. I genuinely thought I had hallucinated the review. Apparently, different Web browsers use different search engines, and what had shown up on Firefox simply hadn’t yet shown up on Internet Explorer.

What’s been most rewarding is the kindness I’ve experienced from friends, family, and fellow writers. Whether it’s a writer I admire agreeing to say something nice about my book for the back cover, Writer’s Bone asking me to do an interview, or friends I first met on Twitter posting pictures of their copy of the novel, I’m still growing accustomed to feeling so grateful so often.

DF: Academy Gothic doesn’t feel like a book published by a university press. How would you describe your university press experience?

JTH: I’ve been lucky to work with a publisher, Susan Swartwout, who both knows what she’s doing and has a progressive view of the publishing landscape. I don’t know how many university presses would be game for murder mysteries that skewer the state of higher education, but the kind of fiction being published by university presses is certainly evolving. The big five New York publishing houses, not unlike Hollywood studios, are increasingly averse to risk and unknown properties, leaving plenty of projects for smaller presses to snap up. In fact, because there’s so much high-quality fiction and nonfiction out there, the only difference between presses like Coffee House, Graywolf, Sarabande, Tin House, et al., and larger New York houses is their annual operating budgets. Some of the university presses who have been publishing interesting fiction for years include LSU Press, University of Nebraska Press, University of Georgia Press, and West Virginia University Press, just to name a few.

DF: You’re really active on Twitter and your comments about the publishing industry always make me chuckle. How do you balance promoting your work and developing your social media personality with your writing schedule?

JTH: I thank you for the premise of this question, that I have, in fact, balanced Twitter and writing. I cannot, repeat: cannot, write effectively if there is Internet on my computer. I paid $10 for that ridiculous Freedom software a few years ago, a program whose efficacy depends on one’s willingness not to restart the computer. To borrow a phrase from the great Patton Oswalt, my weakness is strong. For this reason in 2011, when I was beginning Academy Gothic, I finally broke down and bought a laptop to take with me to coffee shops and libraries. I can only visit places with password-protected wifi—my poor eyesight prevents me from seeing any posted passwords—and if I ever overhear someone say the password, I have to leave.

That said, I have met so many cool writers on Twitter. If one limits social media to the time one isn’t writing, I don’t see anything wrong with it. Interacting with fellow writers, many of us socially awkward people who wouldn’t be nearly as voluble in person, makes the necessary loneliness of the morning writing time much more bearable.

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?

JTH: Write a book you’d love to read, not a book you think someone else wants to read. Your first draft is the time to listen to yourself. After that, listen to people you trust. By this point, you and your readers should be able to see what you’re trying to do, and if your readers are objective and honest, they are the bridge between first draft and final. Most importantly, though, and this is easier said than done, persevere.

DF: What’s next for you?

JTH: I’m in the line-editing phase of another mystery, this one about a fame-obsessed 15-year-old whose seemingly chance encounter with an unhinged actor turns violent. I’ve begun work on a nonfiction project about the long, strange process of adapting to visual impairment. I hope I’m not done with Tate Cowlishaw, but his exploits finding their way into another novel probably depends less on my interest than that of readers.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

JTH: Large sections of my brain are occupied by the show “Beverly Hills: 90210.” In college, my roommates and I played a “90210” drinking game we found on the Internet: Steve raises eyebrows and whisks hands together, two sips! Claire looks too alternative for her own good: three sips! On our radio show, we provided updates to new episodes as well as the reruns. Lest this feel like a hipster’s ironic love of low culture, I’ll state without shame that half a dozen episodes have made me cry. Watch the one where Dylan’s new wife is murdered, his reaction, that moment when Brandon comforts him, that Lyle Lovett song playing over the whole scene, and see if you don’t succumb. Are you truly unmoved by the episode when Brandon leaves the gang after eight seasons for a job across the country, R.E.M.’s “Night Swimming” underscoring the raw emotion of a nation’s goodbye? Well, you must be made of a steelier substance than me.

To learn more about James Tate Hill, visit his official website or follow him on Twitter @JamesTateHill.