Author, alumna recalls writing experience at Cornell College
When author Elizabeth Evans ’74 comes back to campus to talk with students on April 14, she’ll be visiting more than her alma mater, she’ll be visiting the place that helped her realize she could be a professional writer.
Evans, whose sixth book, “As Good as Dead,” came out March 3, started writing when she was young, and mostly wrote poetry. When she came to Cornell College, she got access to a faculty steeped in the love of literature, including the late Robert P. Dana, who taught English at Cornell for 40 years and served as Iowa’s poet laureate. The mix of faculty and dedicated students helped inspire her.
“There were other people interested in dedicating themselves to being writers,” she said. “No one thought they were going to make a lot of money doing it, but the idea that this was important was wonderful to have supported.”
Her move from poetry to prose came after she took a class on the work of Vladimir Nabokov with English Professor Samuel Schuman. His focus on the artistry of Nabokov’s writing was formative; she hadn’t read his work before, but he quickly became her idol. Schuman, too, remained an influence on her life—she named one of her dogs “Sam” in his honor.
After graduation Evans, who also majored in art, decided to pursue graduate studies in painting and sculpture. Eventually, though, she decided to focus on her writing, and went to the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. After graduating from the workshop she published her first book, “Locomotion,” and became a professor of creative writing at the University of Arizona. In May 2014 she was named professor emerita of the program for creative writing.
Evans has now written four novels, starting with “The Blue Hour” in 1995, and two collections of short stories. Each one has taught her something, she said, but each has been a fresh start, as well, presenting new challenges.
“Sometimes things come more easily, sometimes you have to really get in there with a pick axe and a jackhammer, and it’s tough,” she said. “But you’re aiming for something that makes readers feel as if something happened in their own lives.”
That can take time, and it always takes many revisions. “As Good as Dead,” for example, started out as a short story, which her editor read and loved, but thought would work better as a novel. So Evans went back and revised, added in things that she’d previously excised, and added further layers to the life of the main character. When she was finished, the book had a much different ending than the one she had originally planned. One of the ways she knows a book is finished, she said, is by reading widely. She loves Nabokov still, as well as Alice Munro and Grace Paley.
“You learn so much about when things are working because you have studied other models of effective writing,” she said. “You might not want to write sentences like Dickens, but you know the kind of depth they can achieve. If you have ambitions to write something terrific, you need to have a lot of reading under your belt. I think it makes people much more fluent.”
Evans will be on campus April 14 to meet and dine with students interested in writing careers. She is holding a reading at Prairie Lights in Iowa City at 7 p.m. on April 13 and at Beaverdale Books in Des Moines at 2 p.m. on April 12. More information about Evans’ work and her book tour is available at elizabethevans.org.