Thomas Mallon is in GW Today. Read the article below!
Wordsmith of Washington
Critically acclaimed novelist will lead GW's creative writing program.
By Jennifer Price
May 3, 2010
Thomas Mallon, who will become the head of GW’s creative writing program later this month, didn't start writing fiction until he was in his 30s.
As a young writer, he lacked the confidence to invent his own stories.
But after publishing a nonfiction book on people's diaries, he found the inspiration that sparked a career that includes seven novels, each touching on historical events such as President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, the McCarthy era and the early days of the American space program.
“More than anything I wanted to be a novelist, but it seemed like such a daunting ambition. It seemed preposterous to say to someone, ‘I'm going to be a novelist.’” says Mr. Mallon. “The odds seemed too high against it."
After receiving his bachelor’s degree at Brown University, Mr. Mallon went straight to Harvard University for his Ph.D. in English and American literature. He then joined the faculty at Vassar College, where he taught modern British literature and essay writing for 12 years.
“My literary inclinations got diverted to scholarship so most of my writing was academic writing,” he says.
In 1991, Dr. Mallon left teaching to become the literary editor at GQ and focus on his own writing. In 2005, he served as the deputy chairman for the National Endowment for the Humanities. And he regularly teaches at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, one of the most prestigious writing conferences in the country.
His seven novels include “Henry and Clara,” “Bandbox,” and “Fellow Travelers.” He has written nonfiction books about plagiarism, diaries, letters and the Kennedy assassination, as well as two volumes of essays. His writing regularly appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times Book Review.
While he taught for one semester at GW in 2004, he didn’t really return to teaching until 2007. For the past three years, he’s been an adjunct professor of English in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. In addition to creative writing courses, Dr. Mallon has taught dean’s seminars for freshman on diaries and the Lincoln assassination.
“I like the performance aspect of teaching,” says Dr. Mallon. “I’m probably a bit of a ham. I went to college thinking I would be a theater major.”
While Dr. Mallon believes students need to have a certain amount of imagination to succeed in a creative writing class, he believes a lot of students don’t realize how much imagination they have until they are pressured to use it.
“I like to push students to their limits and want to give students the most exciting and rigorous experience they can have,” he says.
Later this month, Dr. Mallon will begin as director of the creative writing program in GW’s English Department and teach one course per semester as an English professor.
“The English department is thrilled to have Tom both as a faculty member and as the incoming director of creative writing. He is a writer and teacher of incredible energy and generosity, and he will be a terrific leader of our creative writing program as it enters a phase of reassessment and revitalization,” says Gayle Wald, professor and English department chair.
Dr. Mallon says he believes every student can improve his or her ability to plot a story, pace a story, deepen the characterization and learn to write with different emotions
“The full-time addition of Tom Mallon, an acclaimed novelist, journalist and non-fiction writer, to our English faculty is a real coup for us,” says Peg Barratt, dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. “His talent will elevate our creative writing program to a new level of excellence.”
Although Dr. Mallon didn’t publish his first novel until he was 36, he prefers fiction writing over nonfiction.
“I love the freedom of it. There’s a sense that you’re in charge of this whole universe that you create,” he says. “There’s more emotional involvement writing fiction, but I don’t think of nonfiction writing as a chore. I’m generally working on both genres at once.”
Dr. Mallon didn’t move to the District until 2003, but four of his novels are set in Washington: “Henry and Clara,” “Fellow Travelers,” “Two Moons” and his latest novel “Watergate,” which is set to come out next fall. “Henry and Clara” tells the story of the couple who shared the box at Ford’s Theatre with the Lincolns on the night of the assassination. “Two Moons” takes place at the old naval observatory in Foggy Bottom. “Fellow Travelers” tells the story of a gay romance at the State Department during the McCarthy era. And “Watergate” tells the world-renowned story of Richard Nixon’s downfall from the presidency that started just a few blocks from GW.
“Every big national story in Washington is also a local story,” he says. “I think that meshing is really interesting to me. Washington is not just the capital of the country. It’s a city unto itself, and I like to take these big stories and personalize them.”
A resident of the Foggy Bottom historic district, Dr. Mallon has gotten a lot of inspiration from his neighborhood. In fact, one of his characters in “Fellow Travelers” lives in an apartment building during the 1950s that today is GW’s West End residential hall.
“My whole life has been about books. I have virtually nothing in the way of hobbies. I’ve spent my entire life reading and writing, and I wouldn’t change any of it,” he says.
Last month, the English department announced the hiring of Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones. A Washington native, Mr. Jones will officially join the department in September and will begin teaching classes in January.
“GW already had a noted creative writing faculty, with nationally and internationally recognized writers, but the hiring of Tom Mallon and Edward P. Jones really pushes us to the next level,” says Dr. Wald.