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Interview with Sam Pickering
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Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 5.1 (2003) 192-207

When Sam Pickering was a student in the early '60s at The University of the South (Sewanee), he didn't consider himself a creative writer, certainly not an essayist. That was something other students did. At one point he even considered going into business and becoming a banker. Instead he went on to pursue graduate degrees in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English literature, specializing in children's literature from that period. He received master's degrees from Cambridge and Princeton universities and a doctorate from Princeton.

Since publishing his first nonacademic essay in 1973, however, Pickering has written hundreds of "familiar" and "review" essays, as he calls them, and more than 12 books. His familiar essays have appeared in, among others, Creative Nonfiction, Southwest Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, The Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Essays, The Signet Book of American Humor, The Anchor Essay Annual, and The Best American Essays annual, where his work has also been cited numerous times as a Notable Essay of the year. In 1985 he published his first collection, A Continuing Education. Since then he has published 11 additional volumes, including The Right Distance (1987), May Days (1988), Still Life (1990), Let It Ride (1991), Trespassing (1994), Walkabout Year (1995), The Blue Caterpillar (1997), Living to Prowl (1997), Deprived of Unhappiness (1998), A Little Fling (1999), and The Last Book (2001). Walkabout Year and a forthcoming book, Waltzing the Magpies: A Year in Australia, are based on two separate years he served as a research associate at the University of Western Australia. His other nonfiction books include The Moral Tradition in English Fiction, 1785-1850 (1976); John Locke and Children's Books in Eighteenth-Century England (1985); and Moral Instruction and Fiction for Children, 1749-1820 (1993).

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1941, Pickering spent time as a child visiting his grandmother and grandfather Pickering in nearby Carthage, Tennessee, the small country town he has immortalized—and fictionalized—in his essays. Pickering's essays are difficult to categorize, in part because he unabashedly blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction. In fact, his work is reminiscent of an earlier age of essay writing in which periodical writers such as Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Eliza Haywood invented personas for their prose. In the essay "Crank" Pickering writes: "Truth is often small. In my essays I embellish days. I stretch truth to make life colorful." Like his antecedents, he creates colorful, and colorfully named, characters—Slubey Garts, Turlow Gutheridge, Googoo Hooberry, Malachi Ramus, Loppie Groat, Proverbs Goforth, and Baby Lane—who wander in and out of his essays and from book to book. Then there's Josh, bawdy and outspoken, the irreverent "so-and-so" whom readers love or hate. Pickering writes in the essay "January": "Josh does not discriminate against people impoverished by wealth or success. He spares no one." The fictional episodes in Pickering's essays are sandwiched among the ordinary: Pickering's true-life meanderings in the woods and fields surrounding his home in Mansfield, Connecticut; the comings and goings of his wife, Vicki, and three children, Francis, Edward, and Eliza; and old family stories.

In 1989 Pickering reluctantly became something of a celebrity with the release of the movie Dead Poets Society. The year before attending graduate school in Cambridge,Pickering had taught the movie's screenwriter, Tom Schulman, at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville. Schulman based the character of Professor John Keating, played by Robin Williams, on Pickering, who remembers "standing on desks and in waste cans" and teaching from outside the window. But, he writes in "Celebrity," "I did such things not so much to awaken students as entertain myself." The movie's publicity—and the subsequent demand for his philosophies on education—threw him. He writes: "The life I had shaped and the little things I achieved seemed lost. Instead of being the books I wrote or the family I cherished, I was a creature of publicity. . . fathered by a newspaper and nurtured by an ego." Pickering has spent the last decade trying to distance himself from the publicity generated by that movie...

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