This will appear soon, possibly in an extended or shortened form, on the Patreon page of Drunk Monkeys:
MR: Is “Take Gutman” inspired by a real teacher? If so, what was it about her that stuck with you?
LV: Yes, the story has some parallels to actual events, though I’ve added a lot to it that’s pure fiction. As a college sophomore, I did transfer from a small Catholic women’s college in Baltimore, to Barnard in New York. Pre-Internet, there was no way to find any rating system, to learn who the best teachers were, beyond hearsay. I kept hearing this one professor’s name from student orientation leaders, and even though I had little interest in very early American Literature, I signed up for her course. She was intense, skinny, a little disheveled—and an electric lecturer. I took a second course with her the next term, and it was there that she really captivated me—her lectures were stunning: full of literary theory, biography of the authors, close readings of the texts that I think must have been hers, not something she dug up in scholarly articles by other professors. Her optional weekly discussion sections, subdivisions of the large (80 + students) lecture in that course, were limited to about 12 students per section, and she led each one. She had a remarkable way of welcoming each student, no matter how shy or inexperienced, into the conversation. And she did die quite suddenly, after that year I took two of her classes.
MR: What made you feel that this was a story that you needed to tell?
LV: I wrote a short account of the real-life professor and her influence on me, in response to a call a few years ago, sent out by my college reunion committee, for a Moth project that was planned for reunion. My idea wasn’t accepted, but a booklet of all the submission was circulated after reunion, to class members. The husband of one of my classmates (someone I didn’t know—it was a rather large class, and as a transfer student I probably knew fewer of my classmates than those who began together as freshmen) sent me a short note saying how much he’d liked my remembrance of the teacher. I put it all aside, and found it a couple years ago, and thought it might be a good starting point for a work of fiction.
MR: As a teacher yourself, do you ever wonder what sort of impact you’re having on your students?
LV: Every day. I care about and wonder about how I am affecting each one of them in my courses. And I appreciate it when they tell me, with candor, while they are still in my classes, though it’s also nice to hear back from them years later, when they’ve had some mileage on them and they can view their time in my writing class with a more seasoned perspective.
MR: How would you want your students to remember you in twenty years?
LV: I just saw “Whiplash,” so my first thought is– not like Terence Fletcher!
I hope they would remember me as totally committed to the teaching, wanting very much to guide them in becoming better writers, no matter what their path is after college, and also interested in them as people—where they have come from, what major life questions they are grappling with at college, how their past informs their academic journeys. I hope they would also reflect now and then that my mantra was always, while not everyone can be the next Toni Morrison or F. Scott Fitzgerald, we can all be writers of something we can be proud of—with a lot of thought and even more revision, revision, revision.