What do a historian, two lawyers, and an information developer at IBM have in common? They’re all successful, published writers with not a single M.F.A. in the bunch. Here’s a look at how they did it, along with excerpts from their popular books.
The Intersection of Journalism and History
“I realized I wasn’t cut out to be an academic historian. I was suited to be a writer,” says James Tobin (’78, M.A. ’79, Ph.D. ’86), author of Ernie Pyle’s War: America’s Eyewitness to World War II. Published in 1998 by Free Press, the book won a National Book Critics Circle Award.
Tobin spent his undergraduate years working as a reporter for the Michigan Daily alongside ambitious students determined to work as journalists after graduation.
“The Daily was the social experience of my time as an undergrad, but it was also the intellectual experience,” he says.
That intellectual challenge was mirrored in the coursework Tobin completed as a history major. Deeply influenced by professors like Gerald Linderman—“a first-class teacher and first-class writer whose lectures really struck a chord with me,” Tobin says—he was captivated by topics like the Civil War. In fact, he wrote his senior thesis, a narrative-style piece that differed from the traditional academic research paper, on Civil War soldiers from Michigan. This may have been the first hint of what was to come later for Tobin.
Even before he became a journalist for the Detroit News, the intersection of journalism and history would prove valuable to his writing. His doctoral dissertation about the U.S. involvement in World War II contained a chapter on the revered war correspondent Ernie Pyle. It was this topic that Tobin ultimately decided to expand into a biography.
Along with Ernie Pyle’s War, James Tobin is the author of To Conquer the Air (Free Press, 2004), the story of the Wright Brothers.
Click below to view an excerpt from Ernie Pyle's War:
A Dream Deferred
Becoming a writer was the furthest thing from Meg Waite Clayton’s mind during her time at U-M. As an undergraduate, Clayton (’81, J.D. ’84) had excelled in subjects like math and science, where students could seek and find one right answer. English classes, on the other hand, seemed intimidating; she even took one class pass/fail for fear she wouldn’t be able to handle the work. For Clayton, the logic and systems of psychology and history—her two majors—felt like a better fit.
But even then, Clayton was learning the skills of a novelist. “I was fascinated with psychology, which really is the study of how and why people behave the way they do,” she says. “When I’m writing, I am always looking at what has shaped my characters.”
Her history studies also seemed to prod her toward storytelling. In addition to standard academic texts, a course on 20th-century American wars required her to read Tim O’Brien’s fiction about the Vietnam War. O’Brien—most famous for his story collection, The Things They Carried—made a profound impact on Clayton. Years later, she would study with him at the Sewanee Writers Conference.
After graduating, Clayton attended law school and worked as a lawyer. She had been married to her husband for ten years when one day he asked her a question: If she could do anything under the sun, what would it be?
“I want to be a novelist,” Clayton told him. She realized that she had been afraid to give writing a go for a long time. Suddenly, failing didn’t seem so scary. “I felt I had to try.”
Meg Waite Clayton is the author of The Language of Light (Ballantine, 2011), The Wednesday Sisters (Ballantine, 2009), and The Four Ms. Bradwells (Ballantine, 2011).
Click below to view an excerpt from The Four Ms. Bradwells:
Books and Big Ideas
It would be ten years after graduation before Christina Meldrum (’90) would publishMadapple, a literary mystery about a girl with an unusual and isolated life in rural Maine. Before becoming a novelist, Meldrum went to law school and worked as a lawyer; she also married and had two children. But her academic preparation kept writing in her mind.
Meldrum’s encounters with Dostoevsky, Camus, Sartre, and Nietzsche in a philosophy class planted seeds for the kind of thinking that would lead to her life as a novelist.
“Everything I learned as an undergrad and in law school came into play. The kinds of novels I write are like a big puzzle, and the ability to make an argument and to think in a big-picture way while keeping track of all the pieces are skills I learned from studying the law,” she says.
Meldrum took a few English classes as an undergraduate, but her double major in comparative religion and political science didn’t give her much time to study literature in the classroom. She was never far away, though, from the books she loved.
“I was always reading, through high school, college, law school, always nurturing that part of my mind,” she says. “Books have been hugely important in my life.”
Christina Meldrum is the author of Madapple (Knoph, 2008) and Amaryllis in Blueberry(Gallery, 2011).
Click below to view an excerpt from Amaryllis in Blueberry:
Numbers and Letters
The endless stacks at David’s Books on State Street were more appealing to Steve Hamilton (’83) than his computer science classes, and he admits to giving in to temptation more than once.
“The allure of that bookstore was strong enough to make me skip class,” Hamilton says. “There were books everywhere, and I just wanted to crawl through them.”
As an undergraduate, Hamilton led a double life as a man of numbers and letters. When he began his freshman year the economy was in terrible shape. Even though Hamilton knew he wanted to be a writer, he thought majoring in computer science would give him a better chance of finding a job after graduation. But the freedom offered by his LSA education made it possible for Hamilton to squeeze in some creative writing classes on the side. He even found time to write a short novel that won a Hopwood Award in 1983.
Winning the award was a thrill for Hamilton, and it gave him a hint that he was on the right track with his work. “I put on my polyester suit and walked over to the ceremony at Rackham,” he says. “The wonderful writer Maxine Hong Kingston gave the address, and I remember thinking, ‘Someday, I’ll be up there.’”
After ten years of stops and starts with writing, a colleague at IBM mentioned that he belonged to a writing group that met at the local library. He asked Hamilton to join. About five years later — and fifteen years after receiving his Hopwood — Hamilton published his first novel, A Cold Day in Paradise.
Steve Hamilton is the author of the seven-book Alex McKnight mystery series (St. Martins Press), as well as Night Work (Minotaur Books, 2007) and The Lock Artist (Minotaur Books, 2010).
Click below to view an excerpt from The Lock Artist: