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BU Prof Is Indie Darling

CGS novelist reads from award-winning book tonight

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"I’ve always had some trouble connecting publication, an outward thing, with writing, an inward thing," says Robert Wexelblatt, who reads from his latest work tonight at Barnes & Noble at BU. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

A professor who has acquired what he calls “the habit of being a generalist” would seem uniquely suited to teaching humanities in the College of General Studies. That’s certainly been the case for Robert Wexelblatt, who has achieved noteworthy success both in the classroom, where he won BU’s highest teaching honor, the Metcalf Cup and Prize for Excellence in Teaching, in 1983, and in the literary world, where his recent novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the 2008 Next Generation Indie Book Award for Fiction.

Zublinka, Wexelblatt’s protagonist, bears some similarities to his creator: both are academics who write critical work, fiction, and poetry and employ a variety of pseudonyms for their own expression and amusement. Wexelblatt, who will give a reading tonight at Barnes & Noble at Boston University, spoke with BU Today about the relationship between writing and teaching and about his newest role as a paragon of the independent publishing world.

BU Today: Do you find common themes in your work in the classroom and your work as a writer?
Wexelblatt:
I suppose the source of both my living and my social life must bear on what I write in all kinds of ways, not all of them conscious. What I teach is related most directly to the scholarly and informal essays I write. My fiction and verse are not so obviously related to my life as a teacher — I’m assiduous about keeping the teacher and the writer distinct, as if one were ashamed of the other or one were the other’s secret identity. The teacher springs to life in a noisy classroom, the writer in a quiet study; the professor is almost gregarious, the writer a half-hearted hermit; the professor flourishes during the months of the academic year, while the writer’s blood really flows only during vacations. Anyway, it’s not clear to me if I teach things like literature and philosophy because I once conceived the ambition to produce more of them, or vice versa. Perhaps it’s just the case that the writer needs to redeem the professor as the professor does the writer.

But like you, your protagonist in Zublinka Among Women is a professor and a writer. How much of your fiction is inspired by life at BU?
Zublinka Among Women is not really an academic novel, in my opinion, although the title character is a recently retired academic, a professional logician of some renown in his field. There are scenes in classrooms, even portions of lectures, there are university settings, but these are purely imaginary, not fictional depictions of my own experiences or situation. And Zublinka produces professional scholarship, but the novel focuses more on his imaginative work, which, like mine, is separate from his academic labors.

Most of my fiction has nothing at all to do with my life as a professor — in fact, I often think of it as an alternative to that life. Zublinka’s fiction serves a similar function for him.

How does that sense of fiction as an alternative relate to your, and Zublinka’s, uses of pseudonyms?
College teaching is one of the few professions in which arrested development, an unresolved adolescent crisis of identity, can be a positive virtue. It’s easier to relate to the trials of postadolescent students when one has not passed successfully through them oneself into unadulterated adulthood, where certain questions of life are settled matters. The use of pseudonyms is a way of extending one’s authorship, experimenting with aspects of oneself. I found there were things I could write as someone else that I was unable to write myself, essays as well as fiction and verse.

Zublinka was conceived as someone who had been doing this all his adult life. At a time when I felt I had reached an impasse in my writing, he came along, fully realized, in a story I wrote for my first collection — a book that came out about the time my current students were being born. Both of us were inspired by the same master of pseudonymous writing, Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard published a series of astonishing books under various pseudonyms, but these were not simply pen names behind which he concealed himself: they were complete personalities, parts of himself he created to write the books. I too have been using pseudonyms (or they have been using me) for some time now. Perhaps it was this shared practice that, in part, motivated me to return again to this character and write more stories about him, and finally this novel. I found him to be good company, a complex character whose portrait required a large canvas.

When the book was finished, you went with an unconventional digital publisher, Ken Arnold Books. Why?
My publisher, Ken Arnold, is unconventional in a sense, but he has been a professional publisher for 40 years. We first became acquainted when I submitted work to him when he was the director of Rutgers University Press. A year and a half ago, he and his wife moved to Portland, Ore., where they conceived the idea of applying the new technology of publication on demand via digitization to create their own small firm. Ken contacted me to ask if perhaps I had a novel he could consider. I sent him Zublinka Among Women, which he liked, and published four months later. I believe the new technology he employs will quickly replace the old, chiefly because of cost. He and his talented wife, Connie, are also experimenting with new modes of marketing and reviewing; they are, in short, pioneers and risk-takers. The publishing industry is in a state of flux at the moment and brave, smart people like Ken are pointing the way to its future.

Do you think that writers need to consider new ways of publishing their work now?
I’ve always had some trouble connecting publication, an outward thing, with writing, an inward thing. But it’s obvious that new outlets are springing up all the time: electronic publication, books in new formats, downloadable books, books published on demand. The old, established, and more costly model is under strain, and the new formats are still uncertain and regarded with suspicion. It is one of those moments when people sense the old way of doing things is dying and the new is struggling to be born. It will take some time for things to sort themselves out. The best situation for a writer, of course, is to find a publisher who believes in his or her work and with whom collaboration will be a joy.

Robert Wexelblatt reads tonight, Wednesday, February 25, at 7 p.m., at Barnes & Noble at BU, 660 Beacon St., Kenmore Square. The event is free and open to the public.

Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.

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