Rutgers Writer-In-Residence Crafts a Life in Words
Widely published author challenges his students to experiment with new approaches
Hemingway had his Spain. John Steinbeck had the California of the 1930s. Harper Lee found her muse among the ghosts of the Deep South.
Rutgers academic Paul Blaney looked east for the setting of his latest work of fiction, to Hong Kong in the 1990s, specifically the days and months leading up to midnight on June 30, 1997: the exact moment the territory was restored from British rule to Chinese.
Blaney was there – lived there, worked there. Handover, a novella featuring three interlocking stories of expatriate Brits, reflects the four years he served as an editor and freelance journalist for airline magazines headquartered in the frenetic city.
“Asia in general is loud, bright, smelly – it impresses itself on your senses. The setting imposed itself on me,” says Blaney, who in addition to teaching undergraduate classes in the Rutgers English Department is writer-in-residence for the university’s School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) Honors Program.
Available in electronic form only, reflecting Blaney’s conviction that digital publishing is the future of the industry, Handover offers Western audiences a flavor of geographic diversity in the former British protectorate – its islands, markets, mountains and almost unrelenting humidity.
The novella’s characters, based loosely on people the author knew, “are all trying in different ways to engage with Hong Kong – trying and mostly failing,” he says.
Blaney describes his writing as concise in the vein of Hemingway and Raymond Carver. He labors to use as few words as possible to tell his stories, he says, nurturing the same skill in students who take his classes in creative writing and creative non-fiction writing.
“I teach that writing is re-writing, actually,” the London native says. “I challenge them to look at the process. When I grade, I look for a student’s openness to revise his or her work, the ability to try different approaches.”
As SAS writer-in-residence, Blaney is in charge of thesis support, from design through actual writing. He’s not replacing a student’s academic advisor, he emphasizes; he’s looking at writing style rather than content.
He also helps seniors shape personal statements for graduate school applications, and, wearing his lecturer’s hat, leads students in the creative writing program to the East Sussex town of Lewes, England, each May, to walk the rolling South Downs and talk about the fine points of literature.
Blaney says the level of talent he sees in his classroom knocks him out; his students win prizes in English Department competitions and are published in literary magazines. “Some of these young writers are pretty exceptional,” he says. “You’d be amazed at what some of them have done, including one student who has written five novels.”
Count Judith Foo among the students whose work has been the beneficiary of Blaney’s mentoring. The junior from Parsippany took part in last summer’s trip to England, compiling a portfolio of poetry and other pieces based on her experiences in the English countryside.
“I tend to write with a cautious approach, even tempered,” Foo says. “He helped me take the ideas in my poems, stretch them out and make them a bit more fully formed and also bolder, through the use of metaphor and stronger language.”
And yes, there was plenty of re-writing, adds Foo, who is juggling three majors: English, political science and East Asian studies.
“He liked to see a lot of revisions,” Foo said. “Writers get so comfortable with what they’ve written, they don’t always see what they can do to improve. You’re too close. It helped to have his eyes on it.”
Even as Handover is receiving warm reviews on Amazon.com, Blaney is putting finishing touches on a novel called Mr. Spoonface, dealing with the issue of assisted reproduction and legislation in Britain allowing children born of sperm donation to trace the donor when they reach the age of 18.
“The book is about a young man who donates sperm, illegally accesses his file and finds out that five children were born as a result. It raises all sorts of questions, such as what makes a father,” the author says.
Blaneys’ shorter fiction appears in anthologies as well as at thepygmygiant.com and cafeirreal.com. A Hong Kong publisher recently asked him to assemble a chapbook of his stories; the result, Hellbent, is available free at omnilit.com/product-hellbent-1028499-236.html.
Blaney writes between semesters. During the school year, he concentrates on what he describes as “very short, micro fiction – maximum 2,000 words but often far shorter. That’s to say, I work on stuff that I can get finished in one or two shots. Longer pieces require more continuous concentration, so I leave them for the vacation.”
He and his wife Karen Alexander came to Rutgers in 2007; Alexander is a dean in the Office of Junior and Senior Year Programs at Douglass Residential College.
After receiving a bachelor of arts degree in classics from Oxford in 1990 and teaching just outside of Lisbon, Portugal for a year, Blaney was a journalist in Hong Kong. Then he headed to Eugene, Oregon, where he earned his master of fine arts degree from the University of Oregon in 2000.
He finds the actual work of writing satisfying, but hard.
“I sometimes find myself cleaning the stove or indulging in other avoidance strategies,” Blaney will admit. “I also seem to bite my nails a lot while writing. It’s a bit like running, or maybe the mental equivalent: You avoid it, you do it, you feel exhausted afterwards, but also content.”