President's Report

Writer treads familiar territory in second novel

Writing a second novel is a lot like having a second child.

Associate Professor of English Drew Perry knows a lot about both. His second child, a son, was born earlier this year and his second novel, Kids These Days, is expected to be released in early winter.

“The first child blows your life up,” Perry says. “The second baby is just sort of another puppy under the roof.”

Likewise, when Perry started writing his second novel—the story of a man reluctantly facing first-time fatherhood in the midst of losing his job and relocating to Florida—he understood the writing and publishing process better.

He knew how to shape a story and what it meant to write long-form narrative. In addition, his debut novel published in 2010, This Is Just Exactly Like You, was a finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction, which gave him confidence that people enjoyed reading his work. “I wouldn’t say it was easier, but it was more familiar,” Perry says.

His work is undoubtedly infused with autobiographical tidbits. Much like Walter, the main character in Kids These Days, who agrees to having a baby without really wanting to have a baby, Perry, at one point, faced his own trepidation about taking on the responsibility of fatherhood.

The book is set in a Florida beach town, a place where he has vacationed every year since childhood, and the opening scene of a veteran dressed in a blue leather flight suit flying by in a motorized parachute is based on a image he couldn’t get out of his head —a man he saw on the beach one year.

Through his writing, Perry delves deep into what it is about life that frightens him. “It’s not that I’m trying to account for living a life of fear,” he says. “I’m aiming toward those places where we make mistakes, and I’m also trying to figure out how we account for those mistakes.”

Beyond the visual element of an Elvis-like character taking flight with a wire grocery cart propelled by a fan and parachute, Perry insists that something must always be happening.

“It’s not enough just to have image,” he says. “It’s not enough to have sound. Who is this man flying by? Who is watching him fly by? What is broken about them? What’s the space between what they want and what they have and is that fertile enough ground to find a story?”

From there, a novel is born.

Despite recent successes, in the literature, creative writing and composition courses he teaches, Perry steers away from his work and introduces students to other published authors. But he doesn’t abandon the lessons he’s learned as a writer—the good and the bad—when engaged in the classroom.

“I hope the fact that I am working and publishing gives me the confidence not necessarily to teach my students how to write, because I'm not certain that's at all possible—but the confidence to say, 'Here’s what it looks like to be struggling through this,'” he says. “... This is work. It’s wonderful work, but it’s difficult work.”

Perry makes a point to dedicate himself to the task at hand as if it alone is the most important in his universe, whether it’s writing, teaching or raising his children. Sometimes it seems none of them quite mesh, but figuring all of that out is what breathes life into his work.

“I’m forever wrestling with how to make space for each,” Perry says. “They are not quite symbiotic, but they are also not quite at war. I think the artist part of you wants to live in a cave with no children and no dogs and no wife and no mail service and no teaching so you can just write your books. But that means you are not in the world, so those books are going to be about nothing—so things like teaching aren't unfortunate. In fact, it’s an incredible privilege to get to talk about art with students who want to talk about art.”

Perry joined Elon’s faculty in 1999. He received a bachelor of arts in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s of fine arts from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In addition to the two novels, he’s had numerous short fiction, poetry and nonfiction pieces published in magazines and journals.

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