Saturday, July 18, 2015

Cynthia Kuhn: "Nothing Like Here"

I'm pleased to welcome Cynthia Kuhn as our weekend guest. Cynthia's work has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern; Literary Mama; Copper Nickel; Prick of the Spindle; Mama, Ph.D. and other publications. She blogs regularly at Mysteristas and is a member of Sisters in Crime, Guppies, and Mystery Writers of America. Lectured to Death, her first book in a new academic mystery series, is forthcoming from Henery Press in 2016. Visit her at cynthiakuhn.wordpress.com or @cynthiakuhn.

A woman of mystery -- who confesses she hasn't yet gotten her author photos done – Cynthia provided her profile image from Mysteristas.


Well-published as a professor, including scholarly books, Cynthia shares with us the challenges of writing an academic mystery. 


“Nothing Like Here”

There I was, in a bright, overly warm room, facing a group of professors who would soon vote on whether or not I should be promoted.  The interview went along pretty much as I’d expected—that is to say, I was increasingly dizzy and inelegantly chirpy as I described how much I loved the work. When the subject of my current writing project arose, I heard myself stressing that the setting was “A fictional university. Totally made up. Nothing like here.” That was the first moment I realized that writing an academic mystery while currently working in academia might not be the best idea I’d ever had.

I couldn’t help myself, though. Academia is paradoxical in the sense that while faculty expertise in the critical examination of ideas could be expected to lead to thoughtful and measured interactions, the result is often quite the opposite. Just a quick glance at The Chronicle of Higher Education provides ample evidence of plentiful conflicts, skirmishes, and battles. Contextually, it’s perfect for mystery plots.

When I began drafting Lectured to Death, I aimed to create hyperbolic versions of common academic experiences, pushing past the boundaries of typical professorial behaviors to (gently! lovingly!) satirize certain hierarchies and issues. Particular aspects may have been inconceivable outside of a fictional world, perhaps, but useful for foregrounding subjects worthy of consideration, I thought.

But as I continued to work on the book, some of those inconceivable things actually happened to people I knew at various schools. So all of it had to go. I came up with new inconceivable things. Then some of those happened, too. The line between satire and reality seemed disconcertingly thin. All I could do was revise yet again, acknowledging, like Inigo Montoya, that such things were (sadly) not inconceivable at all.

In the meantime, as word got out that I was working on an academic mystery, several colleagues suggested that I put this or that incident into the story. (I didn’t.) And one early reader said they’d enjoyed how I had turned so-and-so into a character. (I hadn’t.) The further into the project I went, the more I started to worry: could I write about any academic environment without everyone thinking that I was recording history rather than writing fiction?

Then a well-published author kindly explained that it didn’t matter because the people you know who read your fiction will think the events and characters are based on them, anyway.

Even though they aren’t.

19 comments:

Sybil Johnson said...

Nice to see you here, Cynthia! Can't wait to read your book.

Cynthia Kuhn said...

Thanks so much, Sybil! I'm honored to be here (thank you, Frankie!).

Julie said...

Cynthia - lovely post! I don't think "I recognize so-and-so" is limited to academia. The first time I was surprised, then I remembered that perception is reality and we all perceive things differently. So maybe a character does resemble a real person (I don't know)...So glad you're in the hen house!

Annette said...

Cynthia, my mother is always talking to me about my books and characters and will say "That character who is based on [fill in the blank]." And I'm clueless because none of them are based on anyone, really. So I guess it's something we all deal with.

Can't wait to read your book. I'm thrilled to have you as a fellow hen in the Hen House!

cynthiakuhn said...

Thank you, Julie and Annette!

Absolutely agree that it's not limited to books set in academia.

Do you have a standard answer for when that happens? Maybe I should start collecting them... ;)

Judy Penz Sheluk, author said...

Great post, Cynthia. I remember my mom saying that the couple in my short story, Plan D, was based on two people we knew years ago. I couldn't even remember the people, let alone their names! Can't wait to read your book when it comes out. It sounds great.

cynthiakuhn said...

Judy, that's funny! (And thank you for the kind words.)

Cindy Brown said...

Great post! And yep, people think they're in my book, too.They may be, but I'll never tell:)

Annette said...

Cynthia, I don't really have a "standard" answer. It depends on if I'm speaking to readers or writers. But generally I've been saying that people, situations, and places in my books are not BASED on someone, something, or someplace, however they might be INSPIRED by them. ;-)

Susan O'Brien said...

Great post, Cynthia. People do make a lot of assumptions about characters! Looking forward to your book!

Cynthia Kuhn said...

Cindy, how funny! Well, you do write mystery, so secrets abound!

Annette, that's a perfect response.

Susan, thank you for saying that. :)

Pam De Voe said...

Cynthia --

The world of academia is as full of personalities and conflicts as any small town. I'm glad your embarking on this series. What great fodder for your mill!

Cynthia Kuhn said...

Could not agree more, Pam, about the small-town qualities. And thank you for the encouragement!

Sybil Johnson said...

I like that response, Annette. Will have to store that one away for future use!

Tracy Weber said...

So great to see you here! I have the same problem. People inevitably think I'm my main character and that I'm writing about my real studio. Can't get away from it. ;-) Hope you got that promotion!

Cynthia Kuhn said...

Hi Tracy, great to see you too and thanks for the comment!

Vicki Delany said...

Thanks for visiting Sylvia. Great post!

Tiffany Yates Martin said...

What a relatable post! I agree with the other commenters that this isn't limited to academia, but I think it's hilarious that you are constantly rewriting to keep up with the broken barriers of outlandish occurrences that keep happening in real life. Looking forward to reading this story!

Cynthia Kuhn said...

Thanks so much, Vicki!

Tiffany, thank for the comment. (At one point, I worried that maybe I was conjuring them into being by writing about them! Just kidding. Mostly.)