Tuesday, November 17, 2009

[Interview] Jonathan Vining

Jonathan Vining is the author of Diary of a First Year Grad Student, a work-in-progress which he describes as a novel about "the absurdities of academic life".

In this interview, Vining talks about what his concerns as a writer.

Is Jonathan Vining your real name or a pseudonym?

It’s a pseudonym.

Why are you using a pseudonym?

Like other books, mine will primarily be met either with praise, criticism, or indifference. Since the latter two possibilities would not exactly enhance my academic reputation and career, I prefer that Jonathan receive them instead of me.

Seriously, I think there is a non-trivial possibility that if Diary of a First Year Grad Student gets much attention, it could lead to the sort of needless academic brouhaha described in it. Some of my colleagues have been caught up in these, and they are not pleasant. So using a pseudonym here is intended as pro-active damage control.

Under what conditions would you reveal your true identity?

I might do so if the blog novel, by some miracle, receives a lot of praise -- or perhaps even if it receives only a little. I will decide whether or not to reveal my true identity when I post the last installment of the blog -- which will be in September 2010.

When did you start writing?

I started writing in 1971, shortly after the start of my last year in high school. My father had just died and our family finances declined sharply. We had to sell our home quickly. At a time when life was in chaos, what I wrote or typed on a sheet of paper was one of the few things that I could control. I valued that immensely. I wanted to publish what I wrote, but I soon found, of course, that that wasn’t so easy. None of my early writing was accepted by a publisher -- for good reason, I am sure.

How would you describe your writing?

I do different kinds of writing: academic, journalistic, and creative. The creative includes essays, travel narratives, and fiction.

My academic writing is targeted at specialists. My journalistic writing is targeted at a broader audience concerned with policy issues. I do creative writing just to please myself -- though I hope it will please others too.

Which authors influenced you most?

When I was younger, I loved what I thought of as the classic comic authors: [Miguel de] Cervantes, [Fran├žois] Rabelais, [William] Shakespeare’s comedies, Moliere, Jonathan Swift, Voltaire’s Candide, [Edmond] Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, and the like.

Later, I came to appreciate how George MacDonald Fraser weaved comedy with a deep knowledge of history in his Flashman series. I also love too many Irish comic authors to name, but especially Brendan Behan and Roddy Doyle.

More recently, I have come to appreciate some of the great 19th century English female authors: Jane Austen, all three Bronte sisters, and George Eliot. What I like about all these books is how the protagonist in each of them was able to overcome difficult circumstances partly by having a sense of humor.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

My fiction is based mainly on my personal experience with the many absurdities of academic life.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My main concern is not having as much quiet time as I need to write. I deal with it by writing when and where there is opportunity to do so.

The biggest challenge I face at present is that it is far easier for me to publish my academic and journalistic writing than my creative writing -- especially my fiction. Despite the absurdities of academic life that I alluded to earlier, one thing I appreciate about it is that if one’s academic writing is good, it is highly likely to be accepted for publication somewhere. Writing good fiction, by contrast, is not good enough to get it published. This is because, I believe, academic publishing is far less concerned about profitability than commercial publishing.

Do you write everyday?

Life is hectic, so I write when I can for as long as I can. I don’t have a set routine.

How many books have you written so far?

I am the author of five academic books and the editor of three more. I don’t want to talk about them here, though.

What is your latest book about?

My latest book is the blog novel that I am now posting: Diary of a First Year Grad Student. It is about the absurdities of academic life -- some of their own making -- that even what Americans call grad students (and Britons call post-graduates) can face. It only took about three months to write, but I never succeeded in finding a publisher for it -- which is why I am now publishing it as a blog novel.

The main advantage of this format is that since it is free, it is clearly accessible to anyone with an internet connection who wants to read it. The disadvantage, of course, is that blog novels don’t pay royalties (at least, not as far as I know). I am far more interested, though, in its getting some (hopefully positive) attention.

Which were the most difficult aspects of the work you put into Diary of a First Year Grad Student?

Two aspects of life in academia that my book deals with are, I believe, serious and sensitive issues.

One is how the concern that some academics express for the plight of minorities is based less on actual concern for them and more on a desire to use this issue for manipulative purposes, including discrediting others.

Another is how those charged with enforcing sexual misconduct rules at universities sometimes do not follow these rules themselves.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

As other fiction writers have reported, I enjoyed how the characters I created took control of the narrative as I wrote it. After a certain point, I felt that I was merely the instrument of their will. This helped make the writing process go by easily.

What sets Diary of a First Year Grad Student apart from other things you've written?

What sets it apart is that it is a work of fiction; what I mainly write and (more importantly) publish is non-fiction.

There really isn’t any similarity between writing academic non-fiction on the one hand and fiction on the other. Writing academic non-fiction requires a knowledge of what others have written. But fiction -- at least, the way I write it -- does not.

What will your next book be about?

I have written another novel about the trials and tribulations of the tenure process. I don’t think, however, that this one would lend itself to the blog novel format.

I started another novel about the hypocrisy of democratization efforts in the Middle East, but did not finish it. I was discouraged at not succeeding at publishing the other two novels, and distracted by increasing demand for my academic writing. If my Diary of a First Year Grad Student manages to receive positive attention, then perhaps I’ll finish it.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

That’s for others to judge.

Possibly related books:

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Related article:

[Interview] Bryce Beattie, author of 'Oasis', Conversations with Writers, July 6, 2009

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