The Visiting Writers Series (VWS) will host its last writer with a reading by Creative Writing Professor Dan Pope. A former lawyer who went for his Master of Fine Arts (MFA) at the writer’s workshop program at Iowa University, Pope recently published his book, “In The Cherry Tree,” before coming to the College to teach upper level creative writing classes.
Pope answered a few questions for The Signal before his reading, which will be held at Brower Student Center 202 East in November, exact date TBA.
JG: Where are you from and how has that environment influenced your writing?
DP: I’m from a suburb outside of Hartford – West Hartford – which is the town described in my novel, ‘In the Cherry Tree.’ All the stores mentioned in the novel – those are real places that used to be there but aren’t anymore, like Mayron’s Bakery, which is where my father took us to get pastries as a treat when my brother and sister and I were little.
Part of my goal in writing that book was to try to preserve all that long-gone stuff, the world of my childhood, which it seems is a different type of childhood than kids have today. We didn’t wear bike helmets, for example. The idea of bike helmets seems pathetic to me. I mean, you bang your head on the pavement, you lose a few IQ points – that’s good for a kid.
And cell phones, hate those things – at least how people think they have to have them “in case something happens.” Stuff is supposed to happen, and you deal. Now I see people wearing them on their head – these cell phones with headsets – while sitting in coffee shops, like some sort of dunce cap. I mean, you wouldn’t want to miss that call from the telemarketer, right? I know a woman who had a GPS device implanted in her daughter’s neck. Her bulldog too. The whole family is GPS-ready, like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Back when I was a kid my mother would open the door and say, ‘Get out. Don’t come back for a long time.’
Growing up in the suburbs, well, that’s been the backdrop of some of the things I’ve written. Richard Yates once said, ‘Life forever is the great lie of the suburbs.’ I like that. Where you grow up, your family – that’s the hand you’re dealt, as a writer. Flannery O’Connor said that, ‘Anyone who’s been through childhood has enough material to write about for a lifetime.’ Or at least one or two books, I would say.
JG: You worked as a lawyer for several years. When did you decide it was time to focus on your writing?
DP: The lawyer stuff – that was all the other, robot side of my brain. I didn’t really work as a lawyer. I sort of dabbled. I specialized in writing briefs for other lawyers who don’t know how to write. I did some stuff in court, which I liked mostly because I got to dress up in Brioni suits and slick my hair back and say things like, ‘Under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur’ – I would throw in as much Latin as possible, always. But most of the time it was me sitting at home in my underwear, plagiarizing other court briefs at the cost of $150 per hour.
I always believed I was writing fiction, but then I realized, sometime around when I turned 30, that I’d worked approximately six years on a 20-page short story called ‘Lydia’s Ex.’ It’s a funny little story, I suppose, but six years! It should have taken about one week. That’s when I quit the legal stuff, started eating at a lesser grade of restaurant and began writing a lot more.
JG: What is ‘In the Cherry Tree’ about, in your opinion?
DP: It’s about leaving boyhood – crossing that bridge out of innocence. Primarily.
JG: How did Timmy, the main character of your novel ‘In the Cherry Tree,’ develop? Was he a planned character or did he spontaneously appear on the page?
DP: I found him in my diary. I kept a diary when I was 13. I came across it a few years ago – one of those my diary books with a little latch and key – and opened it to this page that said: ‘Steve and I ate 408 cherries. It was the greatest cherry eating day in history.’ Bingo, Timmy was born. That was once the first line in my book, but it got pushed back a few chapters in the final draft. But the voice was there, in that old diary – short, staccato, factual, emotionless, deadpan, absurd.
JG: If you could meet any writer who inspired you, dead or alive, who would it be, and why? What would you say to them?
DP: I discovered the work of James Salter about eight years ago. He’s written these wonderfully sad and elegiac stories and novels – ‘Light Years,’ ‘A Sport and a Pastime.’ You gotta read this guy. It just blew me away. He writes sentences that just stop you in your tracks. I read some stories, like “American Express,” over and over, and then realized I was learning how to write from him, although I’d thought I already knew how to write.
Then a few years later he came to a crummy used bookstore in my town to do a reading, as a favor to the owner of the store, and I showed up and said, ‘Hi, I’m Dan Pope, I really like your books’ – and he literally jumped out of his chair and said, ‘Dan Pope! My God, it’s so good to finally meet you! What an honor.’ He grabbed my hand and began shaking it. I said, ‘Ah, um, er.’ Turns out, he had been corresponding for years with some other dude named Dan Pope from New York. A case of mistaken identity. It took a while to get that straightened out, but now we correspond by letter as well: he and the two Dan Popes.
JG: You wrote an essay called ‘The Curse of the Second Novel,’ detailing how you spent time trying to decide on your next piece, and how you often would find new ways to procrastinate, something every college student can relate to at one point or another in his or her college career. Has the curse been broken yet?
DP: The curse lives on, sort of, mainly because I’m writing short stories now, even though my agent and publisher are waiting for the novel. I just have to get these stories off my desk. Then – onward.
JG: Who are you currently reading?
DP: Shirley Hazzard. My god, where has this woman been my whole life? She’s in her late 70s or early 80s. Her last novel, ‘The Great Fire’ is just so good. And ‘The Bay Of Noon’ as well. You read her and you say, ‘Well, I’ll never be that good.’ It’s humbling, but exhilarating.