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Alumni Visit

John Henderson Wray ’89

Acclaimed “Lowboy” Author Returns to Share Story by Nina Barone Author and alumnus John Wray ’89, also known as John Henderson ’89, visited Nichols on May 5 to talk about the winding path that led him to the resounding success of his latest novel, “Lowboy.” John, named one of the best American writers under age 40 by the literary magazine Granta, shared amusing anecdotes about his adventures in writing – and not writing. John, recounting himself as an eighthgrader, shared his first writing experience in the form of a whodunit murder mystery. When he brought this work to his parents, who he described as quite supportive, they questioned his use of the word fart in the first sentence. Following this incident, John claims he gave up extramural writing altogether for a long time, not pursuing it fully until college. At this time, John said he realized people could be taken seriously when writing, and making music and art, so he started writing again while he moved around the country. He eventually moved to New York City to attend graduate school at New York University for poetry. After one year, being generally excited to live in NYC, John changed his mind about writing poetry and left school. He began playing in his friends’ bands, serving as a placeholder for whichever position was lacking – be it guitar, bass or drums. “Two things made it possible for me to write my first novel,” John said. “Being raised right by my parents and getting a good education. And, when I was 25, in the span of a month, I was fired from my job, kicked out of my sublet in Chelsea and dumped by my girlfriend.” Being at completely loose ends for the first time in years, John began to believe he could take on writing a whole novel. Figuring that a 300-page novel was made up of 300 one-page pieces, John reasoned that he could write a novel by writing one page a day for a year and still take some days off. Recognizing that his first stimulating experiences with novels occurred at Nichols,

John said Mr. Desautels’ and Mr. Stratton’s classes included some novels that got him really excited to write. To begin writing his novel, John moved into a tent in the basement of a warehouse in Brooklyn where his friends played band practice. Two years later, John went back to school at Columbia University. He developed good friendships with people there, including a teacher who gave him the name and number of her agent so he could send the draft of his first novel, “The Right Hand of Sleep.” Fortunately, the agent was interested in his work and he obtained a publishing contract one year later. While John could hardly imagine his book was being published, it turned into the first challenge of several. Although he was lucky to have critics and book reviewers like it, he needed more widespread appeal for sales. When his second book, “Canaan’s Tongue,” debuted, critics offered positive praise again, but fewer people bought it. “I thought I might have to throw in the towel,” John said. “It was a really tough time.” Happily, John says he realized he wasn’t good at any other job and he wanted to keep writing. He had the idea, years earlier, to write a book about a 16-year-old boy who has schizophrenia and believes he can save the world. His latest work, “Lowboy” was born from this concept. John said he wanted to explore a different genre following his second novel. “Lowboy,” a thriller, was fun for him to write. Evidently, readers are enjoying it just as much; the novel is having great success in sales, and is presently among the most commonly reviewed and praised books. In order to craft its main character, “Lowboy” required a great deal of research. John noted that he did not want to get the portrayal of schizophrenia wrong, so he worked especially hard to shed light on an often misunderstood mental illness. He read clinical literature, physicians’ manuscripts,

and memoirs of people who had family members living with schizophrenia. Furthermore, John actually reached out to the large number of homeless New Yorkers living with mental illness: “You can learn a lot if you’re willing to talk to them and if they are willing to talk to you…some wanted to talk, some didn’t.” In February, the novel was reviewed by The New York Times; it was named Amazon Best of the Month in March. Months after its release, “Lowboy” continues to receive accolades for its gripping story, filled with tragedy and brilliance. “Looking back on the past 10 years of my life, I don’t think I would do it differently,” John said. He continued that he enjoys not having a boss, wearing whatever he wants and writing about whatever he wants. Perhaps most strikingly, John credits not only the good choices he made, but the moments of failure, with his success. He said it was when he thought he was doing the wrong thing or that he drew the short end of the straw that got him to where he is. “Maybe I would have done something different, if I’d been good at algebra…” John explored. But, John said he was not good at algebra and his Nichols math teacher led him by the hand through all the algebra problems that mystified him. John, with his distinctive humor, is not shy about how many careers he explored and the number of eclectic jobs he held before becoming a published novelist. He told the audience about his various majors – biology, anthropology, studio art, and finally, English “by default” – and he discussed the adventures that led him to fishing, driving a taxi and delivering pizzas. “It’s great to be one of those kids who knows what they want to be from age eight,” John said. “But it’s okay if not, too. That’s often what your 20s are for.” John’s message resonated with students and faculty members alike. His winding path from Nichols to today is as inspiring as he is witty. Summer 2009

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Summer 2009  

Summer 2009 Toaxnoes

Summer 2009  

Summer 2009 Toaxnoes