10 Questions for Robert Crossley
- By Abby MacGregor
"But to find women in heroic tales whose roles embrace something beyond spousal identity and dogged faithfulness, we need to move outside Mediterranean and Anglocentric circles. We must look north."
—from "Alone in the Center: Brynhild and Brünnhilde", Fall 2018 (Vol. 59, Issue 3)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
The second piece I ever published happened to be for The Massachusetts Review back in 1976. Titled “Culture and Controversy,” it explored two debates about the roles of science and literature in the formation of culture—the nineteenth-century debate between Matthew Arnold and T. H. Huxley and the twentieth-century debate between C. P. Snow and F.R. Leavis. It was very much the work of a novice teacher trying to figure out what teaching was all about, but I realize now that it was also a forecast of my future writing interests in relating science to literature, culminating in my most recent book, Imagining Mars: A Literary History.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I’m drawn to essayists who know how to write for “the general reader” or “the common reader.” Important models for me have been Samuel Johnson, Virginia Woolf, and Paul Fussell. Two fiction writers that I admire greatly have also been important influences: H. G. Wells (for his utopian and cultural writings) and Ursula LeGuin (for her literary essays and for the fascinating, pointed, and often quite funny blogs she wrote late in life after she retired from fiction).
What did you want to be when you were young?
Well, I wanted to be a journalist since I was editor of my high school newspaper, but I didn’t get in to either the Columbia or the Marquette journalism schools. Not getting in was my salvation, since becoming an English major/Classics minor turned out to suit me much better. I did, however, have my one and only fling with professional journalism in a summer job during my college years. I was a sportswriter for a modest-sized daily newspaper in Pennsylvania. Though I didn’t return to journalism, the sports editor at that paper was the best writing teacher I ever had.
What inspired you to write this piece?
The origin of “Alone in the Center” goes back about 15 years when I included both the Icelandic Saga of the Volsungs and Wagner’s Die Walkure in a graduate seminar on the Epic Imagination. The Icelandic saga was great fun for me since I have a pretty good background in medieval literature but Die Walkure was a stretch since I have no expertise in opera, but it turned out to be an exciting venture both for me and for most of my students (who were as innocent as I was about Wagner.) After I retired I finally had the time to immerse myself in The Ring and found myself raring to write about it.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
The essential imaginary locale for me is Utopia—the good place that is no place at all. When I am writing well that is the place I inhabit. I am also drawn to the eloquence of H. G. Wells’s utopian sentiment about place and identity: “I am English by origin but I am an early World-Man and I live in exile from the community of my desires.”
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
It depends on the particular writing project. In the case of “Alone in the Center,” I listened, of course, to a lot of Wagner—played loud.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
When I need to really bear down on a piece of writing I open (and sometimes finish) a bag of Bachman’s pretzels—the food of the gods.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My wife Monica McAlpine is a medievalist, a poet, a painter, and a terrific and unsparing critic of writing. After she gives a draft a reading I find myself paring back my prose, simplifying some of my more tortuous sentences, and cutting over-the-top excesses. She has a great sense of literary tact.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Glass! In retirement I have been taking workshops in fused glass and stained glass design with a very patient teacher, Michel L’Huillier. Much of my work is crude by comparison with what others in the workshop are producing but I love the experience of designing, shaping, and creating in a medium other than words.
What are you working on currently?
I’ve got two projects going. One is a piece on re-reading Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa; when I read it, unabridged, thirty years ago I thought I’d never pick it up again. But now I have—and I found myself drawn more deeply into that fictional world than I was in my first reading. The other project is an essay about several twenty-first century women who have written novels that retell ancient epic poems from the perspective and in the voice of a marginal character: Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, Ursula LeGuin’s Lavinia, and a pair of novels by Madeline Miller—The Song of Achilles and Circe.
ROBERT CROSSLEY, emeritus professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston, is the author of Imagining Mars: A Literary History. His recent essays have appeared in Southwest Review, Swanee Review, and The Hudson Review.