Archive for August 2011

Remembering T.A. Alley – NMU’s English Department

August 23, 2011

Eighteen years ago today–August 23, 1993–I attended Teaching Assistant orientation at NMU and was hired to teach freshman composition in the English department while I worked on my Master’s Degree. So I thought it appropriate to post my memories of those years (1993-1995) at NMU from My Marquette:

The English Department
Below the library in the academic mall were the offices for many of the professors, including most of the English Department until early 1995 when the department moved to Gries Hall. In 1993, as I completed my bachelor’s degree in English, I did not know what to do. My plan had been to write novels while earning my bachelor’s degree and end up published and famous by the time I graduated so I could begin my career as an author. While I did write and send my manuscripts out for publication, I was not successful finding a publisher. During these years, I completed writing the first draft of The Only Thing That Lasts which I had begun in high school as well as the original version of Narrow Lives and another long-winded novel that remains in a drawer.

Upon graduation, and still not a famous author, I decided I would get a Master’s Degree, and when I learned that being a teaching assistant paid $4,500, I was thrilled since I had spent most of my undergraduate years working at McDonalds and NMU’s Writing Center for minimum wage which over a year had averaged about the same as the teaching assistant wage. And better yet, the teaching assistants got a gigantic raise that semester, so I felt quite prosperous making $6,000 a year and living at home while I earned a Master’s Degree. After a few weeks of teaching, I found I liked it and decided I would get a Ph.D. and become an English professor—again, until I became a famous author.

As a teaching assistant, I was given my own little office down a hallway off the academic mall along with about a dozen other new teaching assistants (T.A.’s) who were working on their M.A. degrees. We dubbed our new office space T.A. Alley and set about becoming great friends. Some of my best and longest friendships began during those two years.

I have nothing but good things to say about the education I received at Northern Michigan University, and especially in the English Department. And beyond the stellar professors I had, what I most appreciated and failed to find later at other universities was a real camaraderie among the students and professors. I’ve been in other English departments where you walk down the hall and all the doors are closed, but at Northern, the professors’ doors were always open. Most of them spent several hours a day in their offices and were always available to their students. Professors and students passed each other in the halls, we all knew each other, and we always talked to one another. Even if I did not have a class with a professor, I never felt I couldn’t talk to him or her. While I was just a graduate student, nevertheless, I felt accepted as part of the department and encouraged in my teaching and academic goals. I saw none of the snobbery or competitiveness among graduate students or professors I unfortunately witnessed elsewhere in academia. I don’t think I could have had a more fulfilling start to my career than being part of that supportive, learning environment, and while I have long since left academia, those years remain frequent and pleasant memories.

I did not party a lot in college. Yes, I did occasionally hang out at the Shamrock with my friends, and we had parties at friends’ apartments, and the camaraderie added a great deal to the general happiness of those years, but part of what made me so happy was the learning environment. My classes at Northern fulfilled my intellectual needs without making me feel stressed about competing with others. Sitting in Dr. Maureen Andrews’ Survey of British Literature class, where I was first introduced to the poetry of William Wordsworth, was like having rockets go off in my brain. Dr. Peter Goodrich was the insightful director for my master’s thesis King Arthur’s Children in Fiction and Tradition. I enjoyed working under Dr. Mark Smith at the Writing Center and also being a teaching assistant under Dr. Bill Knox. Although I eventually left teaching in an official way, today as an author and editor, I continue to teach people as well as entertain them, and I feel highly fulfilled as a result; without the education I received at NMU along with a little creative entrepreneurship, I wouldn’t have been able to start my own business Superior Book Promotions (, writing, editing, reviewing books, and basically, doing what I most love to do.

TA. Alley

Photos from my TA years, including the Alexander Family, Becky Shusta and Stephanie Hill at Presque Isle; Jill Nelson, Larry Alexander, and Chris Rencontre in TA Alley; Tyler, Larry, and Jill on graduation day April 29, 1995; Max Alexander

Many of my college friends remain my friends today—Stephanie, Becky, Tom, Chris, Paul, Dana, Greg, Jill, and Larry. Hopefully I have not forgotten any. Larry Alexander ended up sharing an office with me when the English Department moved to Gries Hall. In those days, he and his wife, Ann, had a newborn son, Max, whom Larry would bring to school with him. I ended up volunteering to babysit Max while Larry went to teach his class. The paternal instinct unexpectedly blossomed in me at that time. I changed many diapers, but it was all worth it whenever Max fell asleep with his head propped on my shoulder. Time goes by too fast—Max is sixteen today—but time’s passing shows that friendships last a long time. And little did I know then that someday Larry would design my websites as well as the layout for this book.

I cannot discuss every professor and student I knew at Northern, nor all my friends I had in college. I hope it is sufficient to say that whether I was teaching a class, hanging out in T.A. Alley, having lunch at Bookbinders, attending a play at Forest Roberts Theatre, sitting in a class at Jamrich Hall, studying in the library, or walking across campus, I was happy at NMU, and everyone I knew there contributed to that beneficial experience for me. It’s been said before a million times, but for me, the college years truly were the best years of my life.

When I finished my Master’s Degree, I moved to Kalamazoo where for five years I worked on my Ph.D. at Western Michigan University. While I found a couple of good friends there and I appreciate the excellent education I received, the atmosphere was not as friendly as what it was at NMU. Partly I’m sure the experience was different because doctoral students have more stress than undergraduate and M.A. students, partly because I didn’t know anyone in Kalamazoo when I moved there, and partly I felt displaced from my native environment, but I think the truth is ultimately that Northern Michigan University, like all the U.P., is a superior place.

Sinking of the D.M. Clemson

August 10, 2011

In honor of Maritime Month in August and the five year anniversary of the publication of my novel The Queen City: The Marquette Trilogy, Book Two, I am posting the passage from that novel about the sinking of the Clemson in 1908.

First, a little word about the background of my writing this scene. Initially, I had planned a scene of a shipwreck in the novel, but I was going to depict the sinking of the Henry B. Smith in the great storm of 1913. The 1913 storm resulted in the sinking of many ships so it seemed more dramatic and signficant, but the events in the novel required a scene to occur earlier for the sake of the events propelled by the sinking for the other characters, particularly Will and Margaret Whitman – Will’s brother Clarence sails on the Clemson in the novel. I struggled with choosing between the 1913 sinking and an earlier one for many months as I wrote other sections of the novel. I already knew about the Clemson sinking in 1908, particularly from the wonderful song by Mark Mitchell, “Say Goodbye to the Clemson” on his album The Trees Fell (Mitchell is a fabulous Marquette musician best known for writing the theme song to the TV show Discovering. You can purchase his wonderful music at MI Upper Hand). I listened to Mark Mitchell’s music over and over again as I wrote The Marquette Trilogy. Then one day in early 2001, I was listening to the song and it hit a deep chord with the line, “A ship may sail through a great storm or two, but she never comes back from the third.” I felt like that ship, and the storms had been my moves to Kalamazoo, and Clemson, South Carolina, where I was teaching at Clemson University. I was miserably homesick at Clemson University and foreseeing having to continue moving to find a tenure track position. I felt if I kept moving around, I would end up sinking like the Clemson. That was when I decided I would symbolically include the Clemson rather than the Henry B. Smith in the novel.

That was the year I made one of the most difficult decisions of my life–to leave academia and return home to focus on my writing. Obviously, it has all worked out, but it was a horrible year for me and I honestly felt like life was ending, no matter what decision I made since I didn’t think I’d be able to support myself in the U.P. Still, I had to leave Clemson University, so I felt it appropriate to write about a ship named Clemson going down, just like I felt my life was going downhill. Somehow, by the grace of God, I had the courage to leave that job and return home and everything has worked out wonderfully. The first few years back were difficult, but once I started to publish my novels, everything in my life has been up, up, up, and there’s been no looking back. I’m afraid the same can’t be said for the good ship Clemson and its crew. But I’m always a sucker for a happy ending, as you’ll see.

Happy Maritime Month!

The Queen City: The Marquette Trilogy, Book Two

The Queen City: The Marquette Trilogy, Book Two

From The Queen City:

            Clarence found himself too ill to stay aboard ship. When his boat docked in Ohio, two of Clarence’s shipmates took him ashore to a boarding house where he was placed in the landlady’s capable hands. Clarence suffered from a fever for several days, and the doctor came to attend him frequently. When he recovered, he refused to rest, but insisted he would go home for Christmas. The landlady and doctor argued that he was too weak, but he soon found work on another ship, the D.M. Clemson. After loading coal in Lorain, Ohio, the Clemson began its journey on November 28th, north to Duluth. From Duluth, Clarence planned to find passage on another ship to Marquette, so he could spend the holidays and the winter with his brother’s family.

He could feel his immune system failing him throughout the trip, but he also had a strange sense of fearlessness. He felt he had been wrong to act so courageous and not tell his family how sick he was. He became resolved to see his new nephew or niece. If God would grant him one more month of life, he would spend the holidays with Will’s family.

Two days after leaving Lorain, Clarence’s ship passed through the Canadian Soo Locks at nine-thirty in the morning. Four hundred miles of Lake Superior would need to be traversed before the ship reached Duluth.

The Clemson was a modern state of the art sea vessel. The old schooners that had brought Clarence’s grandparents to Marquette nearly sixty years before had long since been replaced by wooden steamers, and even those had become obscure in the last decade. By the start of the twentieth century, it was more economical to build ships from iron and steel than wood. Vessel size had also increased until nineteenth century schooners were viewed as unseaworthy beside the solid steel giants that now coursed the Great Lakes. The Clemson could hold five thousand tons of iron, steel, or coal and deliver its cargo in record time.

But Lake Superior mocked the growing strength of these industrial mariners. Many a lesser ship the lake had swallowed, and it was not yet willing to relinquish dominance over its own waters. Shortly after the Clemson passed through the Soo Locks, a terrible gale rose up. The storm was not the first the ship had passed through. The previous October a strong current had pushed the ship into a pier while entering the harbor of Ashtabula, Ohio; although ten hull plates were smashed and the water tank on the starboard side badly damaged, repairs were made and the Clemson had sailed again. Then a month later, a sharp Lake Superior gale had covered the ship completely in ice, but it had sailed on without major damage done. Twice the Great Lakes had tried to destroy the ship, and twice it had failed.

Now Nature’s enigmatic forces surged up to create the most vicious storm yet. As the tempest began, Clarence struggled to help secure the ship. He well knew Lake Superior’s fury after five years of riding through torrential storms; he knew better than to mock Superior’s power. Today, struggle as the sailors might, the waters were determined to show themselves masters. The ship’s past repairs became its weak spot as roaring waves and high winds tossed it up and down upon rough waters. The tumult soon shifted the cargo, then slid it completely to one end; whipped up and down and around in circles, the ship could not bear the pressure of sliding cargo as it tilted upward on towering waves.

Then Clarence heard the deafening tear of metal; he knew the ship was ripping apart. Within seconds, the hull filled with water; the weight snapped the ship in two pieces which immediately separated into the waves. Water engulfed everything. For a second, Clarence watched in horror as his fellow sailors were hurled beneath the pounding waves; then he felt terror as his body was pulled down beneath the water. Somehow the current swept him out of the sinking ship, and after what seemed an eternity, he managed to surface. For a second, he bobbed above the water until a massive wave lifted him up, then catapulted him into another wave, which hurled him again below the surface. Pain surged through his body. Something hit his back, perhaps a wave, perhaps a piece of the ship, either would hurt equally in that tremendous storm. He knew his back was broken. As he gasped from the pain, his lungs filled with surging water. He blacked out. He felt himself sinking.

Then came light. It was impossible. He knew he should be dead now. He could feel the water inside his lungs. Had he resurfaced? Was it moonlight he saw? Something brushed against him, but it was not water, not debris from the ship. He felt a hand on his shoulder. He opened his eyes. A beautiful woman’s face was before him. He did not understand. No woman had been on the ship. She was not one of his drowned comrades. Could she—a mermaid? Could she be such a creature? She was beautiful, like the photograph he had seen of his mother.

Her lips did not move, but her face said, “Be not afraid.”

She need not speak. Her presence brought him unspeakable peace.

Then he knew death was not punishment, nor was it an end. His debilitating disease was nothing to fear. His spirit was eternal. He was leaving life when it would most benefit those he loved. The mermaid, or whatever grace she was, took his hand and led him toward the glowing light. He floated beside her, all his pain, fear, anxiety washed away.