A visit with Sam Pickering, whether its through
one of his books or in an interview, is at once familial and welcoming but
also giddy and reckless. Reading his work is like being taken by the intellectual
hand and led down a twisting path through commonplace observations of mushrooms
and catbirds and descriptions of religious table napkins and a package of
cheese crackers to retellings of folk tales and anecdotes from the inhabitants
of Carthage, Tennessee, with acid interjections by his family members. Though
readers follow him readily through his meanderings, they always seem to show
some caution, not for fear that they would find something untoward or offensive,
but that they just dont know whats around the next bend. Always.
though, Pickering takes his readers to a place where they can laugh at human
nature, at the absurdity of civilization and their own pretensions in it,
and come away feeling that they have had a good constitutional.
Pickering is a prolific essayist with eleven books to his credit (number twelve is coming out next year), three books of criticism, and nearly 200 journal and magazine credits. A member of the English faculty at the University of Connecticut for sixteen years, he is a much sought after speaker, mostly for his wit and his writing expertise, but sometimes for his inadvertent connection with Hollywood. Sam Pickering was immortalized in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society. His teaching many years ago at the Montgomery Bell Academy, a boys prep school in Tennessee, had so inspired a young student named Tom Schulman that when Schulman came to flesh out the character of Professor John Keating for the screenplay, Schulman amply drew from his experience with Pickering.
After receiving degrees from the University of the South (Sewanee, Tennessee), Cambridge University, and Princeton, Pickering explored and taught eighteenth and nineteenth century English literature, childrens literature, nature writers, and of course the familiar essay. His extensive list of publishing credits reads like a literary writers market: Georgia Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, Southwest Review, Chicago Review, Yankee Magazine, New Mexico Humanities Review, Kenyon Review, Texas Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Chattahoochee Review, Northeast, Chariton Review, Dartmouth College Library Bulletin, South Carolina Review, Missouri Review, and the Sewanee Review (I know the editor, Pickering says.) Thrown in with these literary journals are contributions to the Hartford Courant and the New York Times (Connecticut Weekly) and some submissions to English language research journals, a psychological journal or two, and lots of reviews for A. B. Bookmans Weekly.
With credentials like these, one would expect Pickering to be sententious or ponderous, at the least. That was definitely not the case when Critique recently tracked down Pickering in Perth, Australia where he is on sabbatical. Having just returned from an 850 kilometer trip to Exmouth where he enjoyed some snorkeling, Pickering explained that he was back in Australia with his wife, and two of his three high-school-age children. His oldest son is in Florence, Italy, expanding his horizons.
When asked, Why Australia?, Pickering says, Why not? He further explained that curiosity had brought him to Australia seven years before. He said that he had always been fascinated by the country and came to enjoy the people there. They are the nicest, most generous people in the world, Pickering says. So he came back. He is writing about the land, the Australian people, and his familys reactions. He is also teaching a class or two at the University of Western Australia.
Packing up his entire household for a year in a foreign land, at half salary and much out-of-pocket expense, is the only way a sabbatical could be interesting for Pickering. A consummate observer, his writing life is intertwined with the mundane and the familial. He flourishes when his family members react to something in the environment or look over his shoulder and tell him that no one would believe what he has just written.
Pickerings particular affection with the ordinary, he reports, began with his experiences as an inept athlete in high school. Instead of dreaming of being a football star, he began to appreciate small victories such as being put into a game for only three plays. The reality of that acceptance so colored his view of life that the ordinary and the mundane became imbued, not necessarily with significance and deep moral themes, but with the fullness of living. Life is wonderfully rich, Pickering says.
The essay was the form of choice for Pickerings philosophical wanderings. I think in essays, Pickering says. It is also a literary form in which Pickering can sustain interest. A novel, for instance, seems like a formidable task to him. An essay, I can see the end of, he noted.
When Pickering began writing thirty years ago, the essay did not have the variants available now. Today, readers can find scientific and theological commentaries, philosophical and opinion-based essays, and newspaper editorials. Even the average How-To type magazine also has pro and con essays. The modern literary essay, however, is different, and, to some readers, very perplexing. It clearly is a bounding from one idea thread to another until all of the threads are braided together into one ultimate analysis. The influx of the first person narrative and memoire from the likes of Bailey White and others has personalized this intellectual medium in the past decade and a half, making it much more accessible to readers. This is the age of the essay, Pickering declares. His rendering of the essay combines nearly all of these variants, sharing natural observations and philosophies, exploring opinions and ideas, and leavening it all with the earthiness and humor of homespun characters and his familys irreverent comments.
Pickering writes by a definite personal standard. Though he may describe or ruminate on uncomfortable sights and happenings, he never leaves the reader there. He manages to pull the audience back into the absurdities of life that make one want to keep exploring and finding something else down the path whether Pickering is along or not. According to him, his essays are funny stories that are fairly gentle. He advocates no violence to women, no depictions of gore, no mistreatment of children. I try not to put things in that will hurt people, he says. Essays are excursions in thought to Pickering. He says the literary form allows him to break life into bits and look at those pieces. Only through experience, he declares, can one really write an essay. Its the forum for people who have lived a bit, he says.
Using a pencil and a pad of paper, Pickering links those bits of life together in rich poetic language, not the medium one would have expected of the essay. I like playing with words, seeing where the words will take me. However, he doesnt dwell in ivory tower intellectualism or get lost in his own importance. I dont try to push things very far, he says. Regularly, he reads his work out loud and lets his wife and children comment, often leaving himself wide open for a few potshots.
Further, Pickering views the difference between writing fiction and an essay as a matter of telling the truth. I can say anything in an essay, attribute some tale or story to anybody, he states, but in fiction, you have to tell the truth. The characters may be fictionalized but their experiences are true, are real. Fiction tells stories about the experiences of human beings as they encounter lifes problems. Whether people behaved badly or well is a true reality. In contrast, for Pickering, writing an essay is painting a colorful lie his view of the world and his skewed interpretation of life. I prefer brights lies to drab truth.
Some of those bright lies take the form of his off-beat characters from the fictional town of Carthage, Tennessee, Pickerings own Lake Wobegone. Appearing with names like Googoo Hooberry, Slubey Garts, and Loppie Groat, they slip in and out of Pickerings writing with juicy aphorisms: Eight and a half men out of ten are women, and a dead cat will do a respectable job of keeping rodents down. Pickering draws the seeds of many of these stories from his extensive research of 19th century periodicals, mixes them with other bits of stories, and interjects rustic creations in various places in the essay as needed, sometimes attributing them to an ancient Macedonian folktale. Though Pickerings work is widely known within literary circles and becoming more so to the general reader, he has not experienced the financial rewards nor the distribution one would expect. In 1997 royalties from ten books brought me $100.25, or .000401 of what my friends assume I make, he says. Part of the reason for this has been a decision he made early in his career to stay with university presses. I turned down every agent who approached me, he says, and kept sending his books to university presses because he felt they were stable and would give him legitimacy among his peers. Unfortunately, small presses like these only print 1,000 to 2.500 copies of a book. The decision to stay with small presses has limited his ability to distribute his work and therefore make money from it. Today, he says that he would advise young writers to send their work everywhere and get it published in as many markets as possible.
In other advice to new writers, he shatters the myth of talent. Genius is diligence, he says, You just have to work hard. Yet, during all that hard work, he adds this caveat: Dont take yourself too seriously. Writing is just words. You are not taking care of a child or your aged mother. To him, connections to people and caregiving are noble pursuits. Writing, though work, is not necessarily a vocation that bears a calling from God, according to Pickering. Ive written enough to be humble, he confesses. You realize after a while that there are many people out there who write better than you. The Southern Literary Messenger has called Sam Pickering the last Southeastern humorist. The label of humorist, though, is limiting because often humor boils down to comedic lines, jabs at groups or individuals, or totally farfetched situations. Rarely does humor take readers on a romp through the mundane and the idyllic while scratching their heads about the doings of the Carthage courthouse idlers and wondering where anyone would use gospel napkins. Both the Kirkus Review and the Harford Advocate have likened his work to a good shot of sipping whiskey, smooth but promising a warm kick. So, pour yourself a finger of Sam Pickering and enjoy having your mind carried off and addled for a while.
Janie Franz holds a BA in anthropology and has worked as a freelance writer and/or editor for publications including High Plains Reader, Grand Forks Herald, and Red River Valley Magazine. For the past eight years, she has been employed as the owner of J. Freeman Franz Writing Services, thus garnering extensive experience in ghost writing, manuscript preparation, and editing.