Next Big Thing

Sonya Huber, my friend and author of Opa Nobody (U of Nebraska), Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir (U of Nebraska), and The Backwards Research Guide for Writing (Equinox), asked me to participate in this blog-tagging thing, which she calls “all writer anarchy,” where I answer a bunch of questions about my recent book, and then tag a bunch of writers with book’s out, writers I deem “the Next Big Thing.” Thanks, Sonya! I enjoyed speculating about who would play Southwestern High School in the movie of my book.

What is the title of your book?

Teaching in the Terrordome: Two Years in West Baltimore with Teach For America

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

An idealistic twenty-two-year-old joins Teach For America—a program that thrusts eager college graduates into America’s toughest low-income schools—and she learns to rely on grit, humility, a little comedy, and a willingness to look failure in the face in order to survive as a teacher in West Baltimore.

What genre does your book fall under?

Creative Nonfiction

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I was a poet before I wrote nonfiction. A very young poet. Writing very mediocre to somewhat bad poems. When I joined Teach For America, the stories I encountered were so messy and complicated that I realized I had to learn how to tell a story through prose—with all the words and the small margins that prose affords. So I went to Ohio State’s MFA program. Which was good. Because not only is the program awesome, but it turns out Columbus is a fantastic town.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I tried writing the book in the first two years after my Teach For America experience. I wrote 100 pages and didn’t even reach my first day in the classroom. Then I tried writing a book proposal, having heard  “that’s how you publish a nonfiction book.” The proposal took me at least six months, and I sent it to one agent. She rejected it. I understood why. It wasn’t ready. The proposal wasn’t compelling. My writing was too talky back then, and I didn’t have a good sense of where stories began and ended, and what should be included and what should come out.

At that point I just got stuck. I didn’t feel like I knew how to write a book. I had tons of scraps, and I had loads of journal entries and notes, and now a bloated 100-pages and a book proposal I hated. But how to make a book? I learned at Ohio State. MFA programs rock. Or at least mine did. I wrote a lot of shorter, non-Baltimore-related pieces for three years, experimented with styles, wrote one solid essay that turned into a book chapter, but otherwise didn’t touch the material. Once I graduated, I committed myself to the book—the first draft took about a year. I wrote between the hours of 5 and 7 am, before I taught classes at UC Berkeley. I did more significant revisions and rethinking on weekends, when I had longer stretches of time. Then I printed the first draft out–300-some pages–and laid it on the living room carpet, smack in the center of the room, and admired its messy glory.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Many things. My former students. The sad, strange building I taught in. The cemetery I taught beside. The terrible movies Hollywood still makes about teacher-triumph in inner-city schools. The contrast between my experience and that Hollywood narrative. Anyone in Columbus, Ohio who heard me read my single, decent chapter, who then demanded I keep writing about west Baltimore. The nagging feeling I get whenever I sense that I have to get something down—the knowledge that I’ll feel release once it’s set on paper.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Neither. I found a home with Clair Wilcox and the awesome U of Missouri Press. Which was nearly strangled by the administration just as my book was to come out. But which is still alive and kicking thanks to the press’s many champions.

What other works would you compare this book to within your genre?

I hope it resembles Ted Conover’s Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. That sense of being inside a place that a lot of folks don’t step into, and trying to make sense of it with compassion and intellect.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

The school is the biggest character. I would choose the love-child between John Malkovitch and Queen Latifah, but only if their love-child was a very large, multi-headed beast-creature. The school was a beast-creature.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The title comes from Wire-creator, David Simon. The first thing I learned about the school was that, in Simon’s book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, the school’s referred to as “The Terrordome.” If you liked season 4 of The Wire, you might just like the book.

And now for the tagging. I believe these folks, all Buckeyes too, are The Next Big Thing. They might be so big already that they don’t have time to answer these questions. But that’s okay. They’re still really big:

Ida Stewart

Jon Chopan

Natalie Shapero

Doug Watson

and Joe Oestreich