Award-winning author, professor shares his success

By LauraNalin

Once a month, The Chronicle profiles people on campus who are doing interesting or important things.

We’re always watching for faculty, staff and students with a story to tell. Here’s someone you should know.

Fiction writing professor and award-winning author Joe Meno has written five novels, two short stories and still finds time to spend with his family.  Meno, who earned both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Columbia,  has been published in both The New York Times and Chicago Magazine. The Chronicle talked with Meno about his work and his advice for aspiring writers.

The Chronicle: When did you first realize your passion was writing?

Joe Meno: I started writing in high school. I played in different bands—really bad metal and punk bands—and I realized the thing that was most interesting to me about playing music was the writing aspect. From that, I started writing really bad poetry.  When I got to college I knew I wanted to write, but it seemed unrealistic, so I started studying film because it seemed like a way to be a writer.

The Chronicle: How did you make the transition from film student to an established fiction author?

JM: I was studying film at University of Illinois [at Urbana-Champaign] for two years until I realized I wasn’t really learning the craft.  I heard about Columbia’s fiction writing program and I was just like, “This is the place for me,” so I transferred my junior year.  I  just  kept   on   writing, and with the help and influence of the department, I was able to start getting my work published. The benefit of going to a school like Columbia is you make contact with people working in the field. I had a couple teachers who suggested where to send my work. I think it was literally my first semester at Columbia that I sold my first story,  which looking back seems really incredible, but I thought it was normal at the time.

The Chronicle: What does it take to become a fiction writer?

JM: It’s all about practice. Whether you are a writer,  filmmaker, dancer or a fashion designer, it’s all about the amount of time you spend doing your craft, not about the time you talk about it.

The Chronicle: What do you like to read?

JM: I like reading my students’ stories actually. I don’t mean to be pedantic or cute,  but I feel like the writing I read in my workshop  classes is as risky,  intelligent and just as thought provoking as anything in The New Yorker or Harper’s.  Sometimes it is infinitely more  engaging because they’re 21,  22 and their  writing is just totally fearless, and that’s inspiring to me.

The Chronicle: Who is the inspiration for your work?

JM: William Faulkner is actually my favorite American author because he was completely willing to reinvent himself with each book that he wrote, and he challenges the readers to be smarter people.

The Chronicle: Where do you get your story ideas from?

JM: You know, writers live these pretty safe lives, almost as if we are the observers. A lot of the best work comes from the people that you know and the places that you know. I get a lot of ideas from my students and their conversations.

The Chronicle: What is the development process like for your characters?

JM: I’m actually working on a book right now and I’m trying to answer that question myself. You may start with three things, and once you start writing, you see where it takes you. It’s really good when [the characters] start doing things you didn’t plan. It makes you feel lucky because that means there’s complexity there.

The Chronicle: What messages are you trying to convey through your novels?

JM: To me,  a book is an actual, physical place—almost like a spot in the woods or a place in the city where you can draw an X—except you pick it up and you carry it around with you.  As you get older, there are less opportunities for people to use their imagination, and I think it’s important for people to have those opportunities.

The Chronicle: How do you balance your professional life with your personal life?

JM: It’s actually gotten easier over the years. When I was in my 20s all I did was write and play music—I’m not sure if there was any balance. Once you get married,  have a kid and have a straight job, you have these reasons to force yourself to divert your time elsewhere. To me, playing with my daughter is almost, if not just as important, as reading Faulkner.