In a publishing era when where authors work to lure Twitter followers and the literary world debates the virtues and value of MFA programs over living in New York, Larry Baker is an anomaly. Old school. He writes. And he works.
Like many (if not most) writers, he teaches (history, at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa). He was a city councilman in Iowa City for a couple of terms (and based his second novel on his political days). Like the Northeast Florida family in his first and most famous book, The Flamingo Rising, he ran a drive-in theater. And yes — that scene in which a dead woman is found on the toilet really happened.
“That’s a true story,” Baker says from his Iowa City home, where, he confesses, he’s still wearing his pajamas. “I have stolen shamelessly from my life. I carried a dead woman to her car. That’s material. You just have to figure out the story. I’ve been lucky to lead an interesting life and survive, I suppose.”
The Florida Literary Arts Coalition chose Baker, 67, for its Writer’s Circuit program this year, which means he’ll be visiting some Florida colleges and talking about his work. He will teach a class Monday at Miami Dade College, and in the evening he will appear at Books & Books in Coral Gables, where he’ll talk about his latest novel, The Education of Nancy Adams (Ice Tea Books, $17.95). Also set in Northeast Florida, where Baker lived for several years, the book uses a comic Southern sensibility to examine what happens when a 38-year-old widow returns to her old high school to teach at the request of the principal, with whom she was in love at 17.
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Out of step though she may be with modern youth, Nancy is not someone to underestimate. “I have perfect vision and low blood pressure, assets that make me a great shot,” she informs us right away. “I can sit on the dock that slopes away from my house and finish a box of shells in an afternoon. I like to shoot things.”
Still, Baker’s favorite of his novels is A Good Man, about a late-night DJ who talks and talks and is sure no one is listening to him (he’s wrong).
“This is what a writer’s life is like,” he says. “It’s a solitary existence, not like other art forms. ... You never know if anybody’s listening.”
Q. You teach at the college level. Did you ever teach high school like Nancy?
A. Never. I spent three weeks sitting in a local high school as a guest following a teacher and watching. A lot of the scenes come from that experience, me as an old person in high school again.
Q. What was the most surprising thing you learned by going back to school?
A. Later in the book, Nancy gets upset by some of the things that go on in high schools now. It’s different now. They do a series called “Crack Whore of the Month,” an actual column, in a school in Iowa City, and it’s just in such bad taste. One of the teachers said to me: “High school is bad taste. That’s what you have to understand. It’s the world these kids live in.” I’m just astonished by youth in general. I hate to sound like Homer Simpson’s father Abe, shaking his fist at a cloud, but it’s a much more crass, vulgar world that kids are growing up in, and schools reflect that. I’m not a scientist, this is purely subjective, looking at students today versus 20 years ago and projecting out. But teaching is a lot less pleasant than it used to be. Kids are so distracted, weighed down by money problems and non-reading issues.
Q. OK, now tell me something positive about the education system.
A. Last semester I taught a class for high school students pulled from small towns in Iowa, high school juniors and seniors taking college-level history. It was one of the most fun experiences. The difference between those kids and college freshmen is this giant gap in enthusiasm and idealism and energy. I loved the high school class.
Q. How has publishing changed since The Flamingo Rising, and where do you see it going?
A. It’s back to the question of generations. ... I’m not a troglodyte who says an ebook is a bad thing [Baker retains the rights to Flamingo, which was also made into a Hallmark movie, and he plans to release it as an ebook]. On Amazon, we’re only selling Nancy Adams as an ebook. But I believe I see it in the classroom, the change in students. Things are different: attention span; patience; retention. I have banned computers and laptops in my classroom. I don’t let students take notes on a computer. ... Studies prove retention with handwritten notes is better than computer notes for lots of reasons. I don’t even like that they’re not teaching handwriting anymore.
I think what you’re going to have 20 years from now, because readership is going to change so much, is fewer and fewer long books. You’ll have a Donna Tartt every once in awhile, but books will be shorter and simpler because people writing books in the future will be altered, too.
Q. What’s the best way for a writer to get experience?
A. A writer gets experience two ways: You live an interesting life, or you read a lot of other books. I tell students this all the time: “Go be a reader first, absorb that stuff.” I’m always asked, “Did you live in Iowa City because of the Writers’ Workshop?” No. I just ended up in Iowa City. My second novel, Athens, America, was about the city council here. After that book came out, I never got elected again. ... It was one of those things like, “I recognize that person” and “Oh, I remember this.” I pissed off so many people with that book. A lot of people still don’t talk to me. But I love the town. Classic college towns are a perfect world — there’s education, art and money. It’s a very insulated, unrealistic world, but if you want to have a pleasant life, Iowa is a great place to live.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.
Meet the author
Who: Larry Baker
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables.
Info: 305-442-4408 or www.booksandbooks.com