Interview/Article for “The Miamian” (alumni magazine for Miami University, Oxford, Ohio) Summer 2016
FORMER MIAMI PROF TRANSLATES LOVE OF LITERATURE INTO AMBITIOUS WRITING PROJECT
Robert Bowie, Ph.D., who taught Russian literature, language and culture at Miami for thirty years (1970-2000) has recently begun publishing numerous books, mostly in the genre of literary fiction. Bowie now lives in Gainesville, Florida, and writes under the pen name U.R. Bowie. He is fiction editor for the literary journal Bacopa. His list of publications now includes eight books, the last four all published over the course of one year (2014-2015). In answer to a question about his sudden productivity, Bowie says, “It’s not that I wrote all those books in one year. I’ve been writing fiction for thirty-five years, but only now have I started publishing it.”
The four works of fiction by U.R. Bowie, all available for sale on Amazon, are as follows: (1) Anyway, Anyways (a collection of short stories, all set in the U.S.) (2) Disambiguations: Three Novellas on Russian Themes (3) Own: The Sad and Like-Wike Weepy Tale of Wittle Elkie Selph (the story of a school shooting in Georgia, as told by the shooter himself, fifteen-year-old Elkin Selph; Elkie’s nickname is Own, and his favorite book and movie is A Clockwork Orange, the language of which is featured prominently in the novel) (4) The Tale of the Bastard Feverfew (a novel about a riot in an Ohio prison, based on the Lucasville riots and hostage-taking in April, 1993; Bowie retells the tale in fictional form, moving the time into the twenty-first century and the setting to a fictitious SW Ohio).
Three other previously published books are also available online: R. Bowie, A Roast for Coach Dan Spear (memoir about growing up in Florida and playing football); Andrei Moscovit, The Judgment Day Archives (spy novel translated from the Russian by R. Bowie); Ivan Bunin, Night of Denial (short stories and novellas, translated from the Russian, with extensive notes and a critical afterword, by R. Bowie. Ivan Bunin won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1933. This collection is the largest selection of Bunin’s works ever published in English, and the critical article is one of the most extensive treatments of Bunin in English).
Bowie did the research for the Feverfew novel, his only book set in Ohio, while still teaching at Miami, but wrote the book over a four-year period between 2001 and 2005. He has three more books in the final stages and hopes to publish at least two of them in the year 2016: (1) Googolgogol: Stories from the Data Base of Russian Literature, Inc. (2) Hard Mother: A Novel in Lectures and Dreams (3) One Ton: The True and Heart-Rending Tale of a Fat Boy’s Triumph (a comic novel on the subject of obesity). “I have about ten more books of fiction I want to publish,” said Bowie, “if I live long enough. Many of these are already written, at least in early draft stages.”
Asked which is the favorite of his books, Bowie replied, “I suppose that Hard Mother holds a special place in my heart. I first wrote this book in Oxford, in 1985, had an agent try to sell it in the New York market. Nobody would take a chance on publishing it, although I received a lot of laudatory rejection letters from big publishers, all of which concluded by saying no.” Over the years he has expanded Hard Mother, which is in the genre of “encyclopedic postmodernism.” The writing is influenced, says Bowie, largely by Russian literature: “Bunin, Chekhov, Bulgakov, Nabokov, and Gogol, Gogol, Gogol.” Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is also a big influence on the novel. “The text of Hard Mother runs to over 150,000 words now, and I don’t suppose anybody will read it when it comes out, but, for all that, it’s probably the best book I’ll ever write! And, after all, Tolstoy’s War and Peace is at 560,000 words.”
After his retirement from teaching at Miami, Bowie spent several years working as a consultant for Western businesses on Russian mentalities. His last year of teaching took place as a Fulbright Scholar in Novgorod, the oldest city in Russia. When asked what he misses about Miami, Bowie said, “Let me think. The Upham Hall arch. Good ole Irvin Hall. Mother Miami Herself. The big persimmon trees in front of the old Alumni Library, and the lovely ginkgo trees on the Spring Street side of that building. My old department, which when I first arrived in Oxford was The Department of German and Russian, later became GREAL, and now is, I believe, called the ATFL Department (for ‘All Them Fureign Languages’).
“No, seriously, I miss a lot of the profs I worked with, many of them no longer with us now, and I miss classroom interactions with students. The biggest mistake I made was not keeping in better contact with the students who passed through my classes, even those who most impressed me with the enlightenment of their minds. I’m on Facebook now, though (under U.R. Bowie), so anybody who still remembers me can friend and unfriend and friend me back again there.”
Bowie’s most popular course at Miami was “Russian Folklore.” In reference to this course, the professor used to tell his students, “It’s about Russian folklore, that’s true, but it also features world folklore, mythology and anthropology, as well as why you put your pants on one leg at a time and how come you sit in the same place in class every day. In fact, this course is about everything. A confession up front: I’m a hard hard grader, and you may not make it through this course. But those of you who do will have things to keep your mind occupied for the rest of your life.”
Asked what he treasures most about his years in retirement from teaching, Bowie says, “I treasure the fact that my brain has still not gone west on the Pony Express, not yet anyway, and I nurture as best I can the same old wacky, warped sense of humor I’ve always had.”
Interview with David Cohea
Mount Dora Citizen, June, 2016
BOBBY BOWIE RAN FAST FOR THE HURRICANES. NOW HE WRITES LIKE THE WIND
Author Robert “U.R” Bowie grew up in Mount Dora, playing football for the Golden Hurricanes under legendary Coach Dan Spear, who took his team to four conference championships in the 1950s. After graduating from high school, Bowie hit the road to attend college, enter the military, teach, and ultimately write. His 1998 book “A Roast for Coach Dan Spear” offers a wonderful window on life in Mount Dora in the ’50s. He now lives in Gainesville where he writes full time. Recently we caught up with Bowie to find out how one home town boy made his way in the world, and what of Mount Dora he took with him.
You grew up in Mount Dora in the 1950s. What was that like?
It was much hotter than it is now; in fact, it was unbearably hot, sometimes even in September. In the dead of summer our whole family slept out on the back porch, since the inside of our little block house on Seventh Avenue was an oven—at least until three or four in the morning.
Well, it wasn’t really any hotter than it is now, but this was the era before air conditioning. I still remember when we had an icebox, and the iceman cometh twice a week to deliver a huge block of sparkling ice—hustling it into the house on enormous tongs. Then again, we bought a television set only in 1956, so I had the wonderful privilege of growing up, largely, without that goof box in the house. In those days we didn’t have what they call “play dates,” and children could wander the streets unsupervised. When I was four or five years old my mother sent me off down Highland Street to Fifth Avenue, to play with Billy Moon. Nobody worried that I would be kidnapped on the way there or back. In a word, halcyon days!
Of course, it’s hard answering a question like that. I used to go to Russia all the time, and when I returned people would ask, “What was Russia like?” I’d say, “Hold on. I’d have to write a whole book to answer that.” But, in the case of Mt. Dora in the 1950s, I havewritten a book—A Roast for Coach Dan Spear—so there’s where you’ll find your answer.
A Roast for Coach Dan Spear centers around a single football game you played on Nov. 1, 1957, under Mount Dora’s legendary high school football coach. What was it like playing football back then?
Football was still the same game sixty years ago, but a lot of things were different. We played in pads and modern-style helmets. We in the ’50s just missed the era of the leather helmets. We didn’t have protection for our faces in those days; it was only in my senior year that we got to wear a little bar that jutted out for some protection.
The schools in Central Florida in those days were small. Enrollment at Mt. Dora High was such that you didn’t have to “make” the team. If you came out for football you were on it. Of course, Dan Spear was a difficult taskmaster, and a lot of players couldn’t take the discipline and quit.
We all played both offense and defense in those days; there weren’t enough players to specialize, like today. Another thing is that the players were small. We didn’t have weight rooms, and nobody was bulked up. A big lineman would weigh, at most, two hundred pounds, and in 1957 I don’t think we had anyone on our team that big. I played my last two seasons as a running back at 155, and that was a decent size for a high school running back in those days. Our captain, center and middle linebacker, Billy Moon, weighed in at about 125.
One other big difference: the schools were segregated back then, so we had no black players on our team, nor did any team that we played.
Of all the things Coach Spear drilled into you, what has proved the most durable?
Dan Spear taught us that you have to be tough, and that you don’t quit, even when adversity is in the ascendancy. It’s a good lesson to take with you through life.
Mount Dora was a much more segregated town back then. How did you see it as a kid?
Very strange place. Racism dripping from the humid air. Racial tension everywhere. Strong feelings against “carpet-bagging Yankees, trying to force integration down our throats.” Sheriff Willis McCall versus crusading newspaperwoman Mabel Norris Reese. The Groveland rape case, the Platt affair at Mt. Dora High School. Interesting times.
Where did your story take you after left Mount Dora?
Gainesville (University of Florida), then the U.S. Army—South Carolina (basic training), Monterey, California (studying Russian at the Defense Language Institute, nine-month intensive course), Virginia (voice-intercept training), Germany (three months of living in a field tent, overlooking the East German border), England (two years stationed at Menwith Hill, West Yorkshire, 13thASA Field Station)—Orlando (taught ninth-grade English for one year at Maynard Evans High School), New Orleans (Tulane University, M.A. in Russian), Nashville (Vanderbilt University, Ph.D. in Russian), Oxford, Ohio (Miami University, taught Russian language, literature and culture for thirty years), Great Novgorod, Russia (one year teaching on a Fulbright Scholar Grant), South Carolina (in retirement, twelve years, working as a consultant in Russian mentalities to people doing business with Russia), Gainesville (retirement, writing fiction).
What did you take with you from Mount Dora? How has it affected your teaching and writing?
I suppose that a lot of things went with me subconsciously; your early, formative years are always an important part of the life that is to come. I know I took with me the kid I was back then. Your basic sense of self never changes. In essence, I’m still that weird, introverted child of eight, not comfortable in his own skin, who was walking down Grandview in 1948, looking at the blooming flame vine on the fence and thinking, thinking, always thinking. As our principal at Mt. Dora High School, Prof. Roseborough, used to say, “Huh, huh, now that Bowie, he’s a thinker.”
How much has Mount Dora of 1953 changed from the one of 2016?
Mt. Dora has gone from a redneck citrus town to a yuppified, gentrified artsy kind of place these days. Practically all the people I knew are gone. Most of them dwell at the far end of Donnelly St. So if I’m looking for the city fathers/mothers of my childhood and youth, as well as plenty of friends from my own generation, there’s where I have to go to find them. The air still smells the same, though—humidified, semi-tropical—and the Spanish moss still hangs down with that same lugubrious blowing in the breeze, the mourning doves still coo, and the camphor berries still crunch underfoot when you walk Seventh Avenue.
A Roast for Coach Dan Spear was published in 1998, but it had a history before that. How did you come to write that book?
It started out with an actual “roast,” held to honor Coach Spear in downtown Mt. Dora—in April, 1994. I was living/working in Ohio then, and could not attend, but I sent a short written reminiscence of my years living in Florida and playing football. They read this, or at least part of it, at the roast, it was favorably received—even circulated around town—and after that I decided to expand it into a book, which I published three years later.
You had once thought that the book would make a good movie.
Yes. I had hopes of having it made into one of these formulaic Hollywood football movies. I sent copies to Burt Reynolds and Billy Bob Thornton, who, unfortunately, did not reply. They are busy men and still may not have read my book, but I expect to hear from them any time now.
Have you kept in touch with any of your teammates?
We had a big reunion in 1997, to celebrate the forty-year anniversary of our victory over Bishop Moore—which is detailed in the book. People who still remember that, however, are hard to find these days. I’m still in touch with Billy Moon (captain, star center and middle linebacker on that team), Earle Williams (guard), and Neil Stoothoff (quarterback). Billy Vanzant, another teammate, died this May.
What other books have you written?
I have a total of eight books in print now; the last four, all published over a period of one year (2014-2015), are stories (literary fiction). Several of my books have a Russian angle, as I have spent my whole life trying to understand Russia. My most recent novel is The Tale of the Bastard Feverfew, the story of a prison rebellion in Ohio. I write fiction under the pen name U.R. Bowie, and all of my books are available for sale on Amazon.
Many of your characters seem pretty hard-scrabble. Did you find them in Mount Dora, or further on down the road?
I didn’t find any of them in Mt. Dora, other than people in the Dan Spear book. Most of them I invented, conjuring them up out of my own hard-scrabble imagination! You might note, by the way, that I spell the name of the town “Mt. Dora,” which, I gather, some residents frown upon these days. Back in my time everyone wrote it that way. “Mt. Dora” suggests the idea of an actual mountain, puts us “Dorans” way high up, on a first-name basis with, say, Mt. Whitney: “I climbed Mt. Dora.” And I have, many times over!
Can a reader of Russian literature better understand a small town like Mount Dora? Or did growing up in Mount Dora help you understand Russian Literature?
I suppose that to really understand Russian literature you have to be a bit warped. If you’ve ever been around many Russians you’ll understand what I mean. Me, I was “different” from childhood on. It didn’t have anything to do with living in Florida or in Mt. Dora. Some of us are just born that way!
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a wild comic novel about obesity, called One Ton. It features a young man who aspires to be the first human being ever to attain to 2000 pounds. I hope to have the book in print by the end of this year or early next year. It’s funny! Well, I least I think it’s funny. While writing it, I have to pause periodically, to roll on the floor, clutching at my sides and laughing out of control.
Anything else that’s new?
I have a “presence” online now. Which would be great if anybody ever went looking for me on line! I have a blog (U.R. Bowie on Russian Literature), a website (urbowie.com) and an Amazon author page. I’m the fiction editor now of the literary journalBacopa, published in Gainesville. I get to read all the fiction submissions. Of every 200 stories I read I find one good one. Immediately I burst into tears of joy and call up the author—to thank him/her with all my heart for the gift of her/his art!
All of U.R. Bowie’s books, including “A Roast For Coach Dan Spear,” are available at Amazon.com
See also: “Remembering Coach Dan Spear”, Mount Dora Citizen, Oct. 30, 2015
David Cohea, Writer (email@example.com)
U. R. Bowie interviews himself with advice for writers.
Do you have an MFA in creative writing?
Oh, God, no. But I do have a Ph.D. in Russian literature.
Yeah, but that didn’t teach you how to write.
Reading Russian writers taught me how to write. That and forty years of practice.
What was the subject of your Ph.D. dissertation?
I wrote my dissertation on the Russian writer Ivan Bunin. He is canonical in Russia, still not well known in the West, although he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1933. I have published two books of my translations of Bunin’s stories and novellas.
Was it hard, writing a Ph.D. dissertation?
It was so long ago that I can’t even remember! No, seriously, I didn’t find it hard writing the dissertation. I was keenly interested in the subject, and I’ve always enjoyed writing.
Who do you see as your potential audience as a writer?
That’s a hard question. I would welcome anyone who wants to read my stuff, but, realistically speaking, I suppose most of my readers would consist of people who love highly creative literary fiction. I don’t really write in any other genre (crime novels, romance novels, detective novels, domestic literary realism).
What’s “domestic literary realism”?
That’s the life’s blood of the MFA writer. The kind of stuff you see published, for example, in the New Yorker.
You don’t like New Yorker fiction?
It’s okay. They publish three or four stories every year that are really good.
You seem to be prejudiced against MFA writers.
No, not entirely. Keep in mind that one of my favorite writers, Flannery O’Connor, studied creative writing at Iowa. She later remarked in an interview that the program didn’t much influence how she wrote. She already knew how she wanted to write before she went to Iowa. She benefitted mightily, however, by being advised as to what great writers to read. She, for example, had never heard of Nikolai Gogol, but after she read him at Iowa, she was strongly influenced by him. Then again, at Iowa she made the kind of connections that would soon smooth the way for her publishing debut as a creative writer.
So you do see potential benefits for writers to complete an MFA program.
Yes. They can benefit just by being in an atmosphere where they are encouraged to write every day. You have to develop a habit of writing daily to get good at writing. But, then again, you don’t have to be in an MFA program to make yourself write every day. On the other hand, being in a community of writers has great potential benefits. Later on, when you begin to play the perennial game of sucking up to journals, book publishers, and agents to get your stuff in print, it will help to have the connections. In fact, having connections is the best way of “going forward,” not just in the writing game, but also in any profession at all.
What kind of connections did you take advantage of in order to become a published writer?
I’ve never had any connections whatsoever and still don’t. After living a long life I still don’t have a clue about “networking,” or “going forward.” I’ve carried that monkey of non-networking on my back forever. Let us pause for a moment while I weep and bewail my fate.
Are you ready to go on?
Yes (blubber). As for the MFA programs in creative writing, I do agree with Flannery about one other thing. She once said that the MFA industry was cranking out far too many mediocre writers. She’s been dead fifty years and the situation is much worse now. The system perpetuates itself. Universities all over the U.S. have academic programs in creative writing. Mediocre writers have to find a job teaching creative writing in universities; then they help create more mediocre writers, who, in their turn, have to get a job teaching creative writing in order to create more mediocre writers. Of course, within that huge glomp of un-creativity there will be, occasionally, writers who are good. Meanwhile, writers are founding so-called literary journals all over the place, because the MFA folks, in order to get tenure as teachers of creative writing, have to publish their, in large part, mediocre stuff. And so it goes, “moving forward.”
You don’t seem to like that expression, “moving forward.”
I hate clichés. And I tend to doubt that there is really that much “moving forward” in American society, which is obsessed with linear movement and “progress.” Deep down I believe that human beings do a lot more of going round and round in circles than they do of “moving forward” along straight lines to getting somewhere. The MFA game is a good example of that: it, for the large part, is a whole lot of going round and round.
What advice would you have for a young person who wants to be a writer?
Hmm. It depends on what kind of writer that person wants to be.
Let’s say a young person who wants to be a really really really really good writer of highly creative literary fiction.
Number One: read read read read really really really really great writers (Shakespeare, Nabokov, Gogol, O’Connor, Robert Penn Warren). Don’t read second-rate writers. How can you tell the difference between first-rate writers and the second- and third-rate types? It might be hard at first, but if you train your mind in reading (by extensive reading) you will learn the difference. Then you can stop wasting time reading the mediocrities. And the real writers, if you read them carefully, will spark your creative mind and help you learn how to write.
Explain how that works.
Great writing lights up your brain. You take the spots lit up in your brain by great writing and you work with those spots. Practically all creativity comes out of developing previous creativity. It’s a sort of plagiarism, but not really, because you are not copying verbatim the creative passages of great writers. You are starting with those passages and then working off in a different direction, creating great passages of your own.
I see. You got to Number One above but not to Number Two.
Number Two: write write write every day for at least two-three hours. If you keep doing this diligently, doing your daily due diligence, you will eventually get good at what you’re doing. If you have the brains. And if you don’t have the brains to start with, there’s not really any reason ever to start. Get a job doing something else and give up trying to be a writer.
Are you inspired to write? Where do you get your inspiration?
Inspiration comes (as I was just saying) from reading great writers. It also comes out of the deepest wellsprings of the brain. We don’t even understand it very well. Romantic writers used to say that God was doing the writing for them, guiding their quill pens as they wrote. Recent studies in neuroscience have discovered that maybe it’s not God. There are zillions of neurons operating deep in our brains, and those neurons, unbeknownst altogether to us on the conscious level, are making decisions constantly about how we live our lives. That’s kind of scary, but, on the other hand, it’s good for a writer to have those inspired neuron-friends guiding his pen as he writes. You sit there sometimes and you think, Now where in the world did THAT idea come from? Why did my hero decide to do THAT? But it’s a good feeling nonetheless, when God or the neurons take over and the inspired writing flows out.
How does a writer nowadays get published?
Well, I already talked about this a little bit. The vast Writing Establishment has its literary journals, its writers’ retreats, its writers’ contests, agents, its MFA degrees. Joining up, tooting your own horn and beating your own drum on the Writing Establishment Bandwagon is the traditional way to get started. Say nice things about other writers, write nice reviews of their stuff (even if it’s awful), by way of getting them to write nice things about your own (awful or not awful) stuff. Go through an MFA program, suck up, network, send your writings off to contests, preferably tipping off one of your MFA professors in advance, which professor knows the professor who is judging the contest and will put in a good word on your behalf.
Is that how you got your fiction published?
No. I never went through an MFA program, so I made none of the valuable contacts. I never learned how to network, or win writing contests, or get an agent. Actually, I once had an agent, years ago. She got my first novel read in the big New York publishing houses. They praised the novel (I still have the letters), but none of them wanted to take a chance on it. My stuff is highly uncommercial, and, after all, in the publishing world, as everywhere else in America, it’s all about making money. I can’t argue with that. Why would they want to publish a book and NOT make money?
So how did you get around your lack of success playing the literary game?
Well, I was getting on in years, already retired from my job as Russian professor. I had reams of fiction written and unpublished, forty years worth of stuff. I knew it was good. I never doubted that, but I had almost resigned myself to never getting any fiction in print in my lifetime. Then a wonderful new development came along. Amazon, with its imprint called Create Space, suddenly made it possible to self-publish your works in a new way. Self-publishing always had come with a kind of stigma. The idea is that if you had to publish it yourself it must be devoid of literary merit. But suddenly people all over the place are publishing through Create Space, and some of them are making big money.
Once again money is the main thing.
Unfortunately yes. Me, I’m not that interested in making big money. I’ve got enough to hold me for the duration, but making money is a way of getting recognized. People who make money self-publishing are suddenly getting calls from agents, who want to get them contracts with the big publishing houses, the few that are still left out there.
Wouldn’t it be better to publish your books with those big publishing houses?
Maybe so. But I didn’t have that option, I was getting nowhere playing the same old game, and suddenly I had a way to publish my books. Since last November I have published four works of fiction through Create Space. You can find them all listed under my Author Page (“U.R. Bowie”) on Amazon. Then again, publishing a book with a big-time publisher isn’t always all that advantageous. In the first place, publishers don’t have the money to put into promoting your book. If they came up with $10,000 for publicity, publishing with them would be a big advantage. But now, the way it usually works is they might publish your book, but then they expect you to put up all the money and all the effort to promote sales. So here’s my question and the question asked by many who have decided to self-publish: if you’re doing nothing to promote my book, why should I pay you any royalties? Same goes for having an agent: if I can publish and promote my book by myself, why should I pay an agent? In the second place, publishers might publish your first book, but then, if it doesn’t make any money you are, in effect, banned from further publishing. Punished for your inability to generate filthy lucre.
But doesn’t it cost you huge money for printing your books?
No. Create Space covers the printing costs by printing on demand. That’s a stroke of genius. If you wanted to self-publish a book, say, twenty years ago, you had to cover the cost of a first printing (1000 copies, 2000 copies). Not any more. Publishing with Create Space makes the whole process easy and inexpensive. You can do your own interior layout by cutting and pasting your text into a template provided by Create Space. They are very amenable to helping you get through the process. Their paperback books look highly professional, and they also ease you into the process of putting your work up as an e-book. My latest novella, Own, is also available as an audiobook. That too, was an easy and inexpensive thing to do. I recorded the novel with myself as reader. Cheap.
Given the self-publication of your fiction, would establishment writers tend to sneer at you, denigrate your efforts?
Possibly so. Sneering is, after all, endemic in the human race. But if they put aside their prejudices and just read my stuff, with an open mind, the sneers would soon fade from their physiognomies. I’m talking about people who love literary fiction and know how to read it. As I’ve mentioned somewhere else, I can’t expect inveterate readers of, say, Stephen King, to have any interest in what I write. I’d be a fool to have such expectations.
Are you hoping that your books will some day make you famous?
No. Not really. I’m not sure I’d want to be famous. Fame can bring a lot of problems with it. Can you imagine how awful it would be to be, say, Brad Pitt, who can’t go anywhere without being recognized, who can’t really determine who is his real friend and who is trying to use him? No, I don’t want to be famous. But I would like a few good readers to read my books.
Bowie interviews himself to help readers get to know him.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Even as a child I liked words. I later came to love words, and I chose as my lifelong profession philology. That’s a fancy way of saying I became a teacher/professor of language and literature (Russian). A philologist is a “lover of words” (from Greek PHILO- [love prefix] +logos [word]). In my opinion the most important thing for any writer—especially of fiction—to be is a word lover.
Some writers think the social message is the most important thing.
Do you want me to respond to that?
How did you learn Russian?
It’s a long story, since nobody learns Russian overnight. I started out studying Russian at the University of Florida. Took the basic two years of Russian, and came out saying little more than “hello” and “good-bye.” Didn’t even say “hello” very well, because it’s a hard word in Russian: здравствуйте. Then I went into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War era. Didn’t want to go, but they made me, and that turned out to be a tremendous stroke of good fortune for me.
Why would you be able to say only “hello” and “goodbye” after two years of studying Russian in a university?
Because the way foreign languages are taught in universities makes no sense. To learn a foreign language you need extensive practice, but in universities the students are exposed to the language only three-four hours per week. Meanwhile, they are taking four or five other courses, so they can’t find the time for language study. Late in my teaching career (at Miami University) I tried to get the Russian curriculum changed radically. I suggested having Russian-language students return early for the fall semester, two weeks before the term began. The band and the football team and the cheerleaders are already doing this; it’s nothing that unusual. During those two weeks, so my plan went, first-year Russian students would be exposed to Russian eight hours per day, in courses taught by native speakers. In only two weeks they would complete the whole first year of Russian. Besides that, they would learn and retain a lot more than the students who piddle around with meeting only three hours per week, over the course of a semester, in classes taught by professors who prefer to teach Russian in English.
They teach Russian in English?
Yes, plenty of professors still do. It’s a terrible mistake. They think they need to explain the grammar in English. They don’t. The textbook already explains the grammar in English. All Russian language classes should be conducted solely in Russian.
You sound vehement about this issue.
I’m vehement about almost everything; it’s just my personality. I’m a maximalist.
You never finished telling about how you learned Russian.
Yes. So I tried to revise the curriculum radically, so as to teach beginning Russian in a more sensible way, but none of my fellow instructors would go along with that.
Because college professors are arch-conservatives. They get into their little niche, and they don’t want anything changed. Of course, they profess to be flaming liberals, they go for despicable Nazi/ “liberal” practices such as “political correctness”—in an attempt to stifle free speech and free thought and force everyone into “proper” modes of thinking—but they don’t really want anything changed.
So you don’t believe in PC?
I despise PC, I loathe PC, I spent my whole university teaching career fighting against the excesses of PC. Now I’m retired from teaching, and that’s probably a good thing, because the excesses of PC, which were already ludicrous 15-20 years ago, have now been pushed, in universities all over the U.S., to a position far beyond the ludicrous.
Tell me more.
No. I can’t stand talking about PC. The situation is just too sad. Ask me a different question.
You never finished telling about how you learned Russian.
The last bastion of free speech on university campuses resides in the fraternities, where drunken and callow frat boys spout out racist ditties. Now how’s that for irony?
How did you learn Russian?
As I was saying, during the Vietnam War era I had to go in the army. What luck. They sent me to the best language school in the country, the Defense Language Institute, in Monterey, California, for a nine-month intensive course in Russian. I served three years in the army, working in the rather unintelligent field of endeavor called “intelligence.” During my work hours I sat behind a desk and did %$^^&***((())% (passage redacted out for reasons of national security). I got all my work done in three hours of an eight-hour shift; then, for the other five hours I read books in Russian.
So after Monterey you were already fluent in Russian?
Oh no no no no no. Getting “fluent” in Russian is a matter of a lifetime. Nine months of intensive study is only the bare beginnings. I read all the time to pick up a good reading vocabulary. After I got out of the army I went to graduate school to study Russian. But what I really studied was Russian literature and linguistics, because you don’t normally study the language in a graduate program. I got an M.A. at Tulane, then a Ph.D. at Vanderbilt, and I began teaching Russian language and literature at Miami University.
So then were you fluent?
Actually, no. I could read Russian well, I knew the rules of grammar, but getting fluent in speaking and listening takes extensive practice in a language, and that practice was not available.
We were smack in the middle of the Cold War. It was hard to go to and remain for a lengthy stay in the one place where you could get the extensive practice: the Soviet Union. I first went to the country in 1972, with a group of American professors on a study program at Moscow State University. I was there ten weeks, but still did not get immersion in the language. Why? Because Russians were afraid to associate with Americans. We were the enemy.
Is it different now?
Yes. Unfortunately, we are still the enemy. In that respect things haven’t changed. But Russians in the modern-day Russian Federation are not as scared as they once were. So if a young American wants to learn Russian he/she can visit the country for a lengthy stay. Or go in the Peace Corps—to Ukraine, or to any of the former Soviet republics that still have Russian as a national language. It’s much easier to achieve fluency than it was in my time. There are also a lot more Russians resident in America. I attained to near-native fluency in spoken Russian only in the nineties, after the U.S.S.R. collapsed and finding Russian contacts became much easier.
What’s Russia like?
Hah. You want me to write an encyclopedia?
I’ve heard that basically, deep down, everyday Russians are just like Americans.
Stop. Don’t do this to me. I’m rolling on the floor, HAR, HAR, stop it…Tell me this: what do you know about Russia?
Um. Bears, ice and snow, vodka, gloom, Putin the bad guy.
Yes. That’s exactly what 99% of Americans know about Russia.
Okay, let’s change direction here. Do you get writer’s block?
I just don’t. I guess it’s because I’m a graphomaniac.
I see. Tell me this: who are your favorite writers?
I’m an elitist and a snob. I read only really really really really good writers. Don’t insult my intelligence by mentioning most contemporary American writers to me. I love all the great Russian writers—Tolstoy, Chekhov, Bunin, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Gogol, Gogol, Gogol, many more. I love Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf, Phillip Roth, Rebecca West. Lots of others. I think, to name just one novel, that Don DeLillo’s White Noise is beyond wonderful.
Why do you live in Florida?
I’m not sure. I just kind of ended up here, where I started out. I have lived all over the place, kept on the move for many years, hoping to outrun bad luck and death. I’ve lived in California, Virginia, South Carolina, Germany, England, Russia, Ohio.
Did you outrun bad luck and death?
So far I have. Фу фу фу, дай Бог не сглазит!
What’s that you’re saying?
It’s a Russian expression that you use to ward off the evil eye.
I see. What’s your favorite, of all the places you’ve lived?
Hmm. That’s a hard question. I still have a soft spot in my soul for good ole Ohio. Also love South Carolina. I suppose my favorite state of all is California. I never get enough of going back there, to the ice plant, to the arfing and yelping sea lions of Monterey Bay.
What are your views on religion?
Ew. Ew, ew, urghh.
What do you mean to indicate by making such noises?
Religion is a sore point with me. I grew up in a household where a Hundred Years’ War was being waged over religion. I had a Catholic mother and a Protestant father. They were on opposite sides in that war.
It was a draw. Or maybe right this moment, somewhere in the Afterlife, they’re still fighting their war. As for me, late in life I decided to find some middle ground: I joined up with Russian Orthodoxy, which is a branch of the oldest Christianity on earth, Eastern Orthodoxy. I have a prayer book with some great prayers in it. They’re in the Old Church Slavonic language, which is the language God speaks.
Hmm. I always thought God was multilingual.
He is, but He has His preferences. Take football. God is, by and large, not a football fan, but He does watch a bit of Notre Dame on a Saturday afternoon, and He can’t resist waving a fist in the air and cheering for the Irish.