By Kathlene McGovern
The setting is all standard college special-event: beige room, folding chairs, paneled lectern; the audience, comprised of students, faculty and plain-old lovers of great writing, chomp cookies, chug lemonade and eagerly await the first speaker of Pasadena City College’s Fall 2017 Visiting Writer’s series, Sean Bernard to take the stage.
This is my first foray into attending an event at school. As a returning student who has a lot (a lot) of years out in the world under my belt, I wonder what Bernard, who holds degrees from Arizona State, Oregon State and Iowa Writer’s Workshop, a winner of the 2014 Juniper Prize in Fiction and who serves as the Director of Creative Writing at University of LaVerne, will be like. The cynic in me prepares adjectives: elitist… overachiever… misanthrope. Hey, by his own admission, he writes “lots of nameless narrators who aren’t particularly nice…” I wonder why that is, Sean?
Then, he takes to the lectern and he is… lovely. Gentle, unassuming… the sort of guy you chat with when the Ralph’s line snakes halfway down the cereal aisle. I’m flummoxed. This is the guy who wrote a woman who feels “not a shadow of remorse” when a horse gets shot? The guy whose narrator goes into neighborhoods and demolishes the meager rainwater collections of a depressed population for a little under-the-table scratch? This is that guy? This is that guy.
He smiles, his eyes shifting as he shyly admits that he’s “not great at maintaining eye contact.” Then, he begins to read… It’s his short story “Water” from his collection Desert Sonorous. And almost instantaneously this modest Ralph’s shopper drops his audience smack into the center of the arid life of his nameless-Arizonian narrator.
The writing’s great. You’d be silly to expect otherwise, but as I scan the audience I’m also taken in by how far he’s taken us all in. His words and voice turn this ordinary space into a sanctum containing the machinations of the life of a Tucson public service worker whose “embarrassment and shameful awareness of how meager his job is” Bernard later explains, lead this narrator to tell his readers “You can get paid well to be an asshole. You don’t even need any training.” We’re hooked, my fellow audience members and I. There are closed eyes and slight smiles, vigorous nods and occasionally loud laughs as the minutes fly by. And then he’s finished. Bernard looks at us with careful smile and assures us of his goodness by asserting “It’s not me – not a true story!”
For the next twenty minutes or so he graciously takes students’ questions:
Q: Is it difficult to write a different gender?
A: Don’t worry about it from a creative point of view… but there’s a responsibility – make sure you’re doing it for reasons that are good.
Q: A lot of your characters are jerks. How come?
A: Misbehavior is interesting. People behaving in bad ways, is an interesting way to tell a story.
And he shares advice:
On some things writing programs look for in applicants:
A statement of purpose tailored to the program; strong technique and ambition of technique.
On getting published:
Read short story collections, then flip to the back and see where the stories you love or are similar to your work were first published. This will allow you create a roadmap that will help lead to publication. Also poke around www.newpages.com it’s a great online resource for literary journals, magazines, contests etc.
Gracious ‘til the end, Bernard signs books and continues to answer questions even after the event ends. In short, Sean Bernard delivered a stellar kick-off to this fall’s Visiting Writer series.
You can find out more about Sean Bernard by visiting his website: www.therealseanbernard.com
More about the Visiting Writers Series: