Crossing into fiction BY CHELSEA DRAKE
I‟ve heard that being a storyteller is a complicated way of life. Author Anais Nin observed that it‟s also a way of tasting life twice, in the moment and in retrospect. But it wasn‟t until recently, when I got the chance to interview the award winning author, Eugene Cross, that I heard, “If you put the work into the craft, and you know that‟s the best you could do at that time—and somebody validates that—then I think that‟s sort of the goal.” He‟s talking about the day that Dzanc Books accepted his first story collection, Fires of Our Choosing. Although it was released just a year ago, he stills laughs when people tell him he‟s going to be a star, or at the very least, somebody‟s literary hero. You might recognize Cross with his wide smile and optimistic attitude, but if you‟ve ever picked up Fires you‟d know he is capable of darker, sadistic thoughts. As an Erie, PA native, Cross exposes and embraces the dirt and diamonds of his hometown. Talking about Buffalo, he says, “It‟s similar to Erie in a lot of ways. It‟s been through some tough times but it‟s got a lot of that stick-to-itiveness.”
Even the cover of the book—which depicts fire rising from the soles of two black shoes—is intriguing, and unlike most publishing situations, using the image was Cross‟s choice. “In some way it‟s representative of the book and one of the themes I felt kind of ran throughout the book, and that‟s people taking accountability for their lives and the decisions that they make.” Not only is it the name of the collection, Fires of Our Choosing, but it is also the title of the center story, which is just one of the clever ways Cross hones in on his skills. “In the book, the story that I‟m telling, it‟s my story—the story of the friends I grew up with, the people I knew, the stories I grew up hearing and telling, the story that I wanted to hear, you know, and I think that‟s what I was really focused on. Everything I write is based in reality, however, it just takes on a life of its own once it hits the page,” says Cross. And although he‟s well-versed in describing his writing process, he‟ll soon be reading the book, as well as speaking it, to an eager audience at the Fredonia State campus on Thursday. Luckily, it‟s not out of the ordinary for Cross to be in front of crowds, talking about creative writing. He teaches in the fiction department at Columbia College in Chicago, and as of late, he is also a visiting assistant professor of creative writing at Northwestern University in Illinois. So I had to ask, “Can you actually teach creative writing?” “That‟s sort of the million dollar question right? George Saunders, who I love, said, „Every writer has a certain amount of tricks up their sleeve,‟ and it‟s just learning how to use those in the best way you can.” When I ask him about what it‟s like to open his own book and read an excerpt aloud to room full of quiet, waiting listeners, he says, “It‟s certainly been surreal. It‟s fun to talk about the work, but it‟s still sort of strange to think anyone would want to hear anything I have to say, outside of the classroom where my students kind of have to listen.” Humble in his responses, about rejection and success, Cross also talks about his father, whom the book is dedicated to. “Certainly his influence runs throughout the book. He passed away before the book was published and he always encouraged me to do what I loved. I never would have been a writer without him, so I just felt it was appropriate. He always encouraged me as a writer, even when I was down on myself, you know, getting turned away from MFA programs, getting rejections in the mail. He was always kind of upbeat about it and never questioned my decision. He said, „Do what you love,‟ and yeah, that was it. I feel like that‟s the best lesson you can give.” Eugene Cross will be reading and talking craft at an open to the public event at the Fredonia State campus in McEwen Hall, Room 202 on March 14 at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.