The following feature story appeared in the campus publication MOSAIC in April, 1997.
Joanna Scott '83
"Writing with an alchemist's touch"To some, Joanna Scott '83 may appear more alchemist than writer. By melding her fascination with science and history and her keen insight into human behavior, she transforms both real and imagined characters into captivating psychological studies and creates award-winning fiction. For instance, the 17th-century Dutch lens grinder Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, with his obsession for discovering the invisible "life" under a micro- scope at the expense of the life around him, represented the substance for a compelling short story by Scott that was selected for publication in the 1993 Best American Short Stories collection.
Science and history have provided Scott with ample inspiration for her writing. In her debut novel, Fading, My Parmacheene Belle, published in 1987, she adopted the voice of a contemporary septuagenarian who loses his wife after 53 years of marriage. In her second novel, The Closest Possible Union, published a year later, she spoke through the voice of a 14-year-old boy on a whaling ship that is secretly running slaves in the mid-19th century. Her third novel, Arrogance, published in 1991, is the fictional account of the life of Egon Schiele, a rebellious expressionist painter whose erotic drawings scandalized turn-of-the-century Vienna. Various Antidotes, a short-story collection published in 1994 and containing the van Leeuwenhoek tale, was a finalist for the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Foundation Award. The science and art of taxidermy were, among other things, the focal points of her fourth novel, The Manikin, published in 1996.
In her relatively short literary life, Scott has won many honors. Named one of the "Best Young American Novelists" by Granta magazine last year, she won a Pushcart Prize in 1993, and the Aga Khan Award from the Paris Review in 1992. She has also received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Popularly known as the "genius" award, the MacArthur Fellowship is bestowed on a select few people who show outstanding creativity and promise in their work.
Scott began writing as a child in Darien, CT. "I was always writing secretly. I stuffed the things I wrote in a bag and kept them under my bed," she recalls. Eventually her secrecy gave way to greater confidence and she became involved in her high school's literary magazine. Trinity's broad scope of study and its proximity to both her hometown and the publishing mecca of New York City prompted her to enroll at the College.
A gifted thinker
Scott developed her craft in the freshman seminar on "Creative Writing, Poetry and the Short Story," cotaught by Professor of English Hugh Ogden and Professor of Modern Languages Dori Katz. "Both of them loved literature, poetry, and reading and conveyed that love to us," according to Scott. Professor Ogden, who is an award-winning poet, says he immediately recognized Scott's ability and referred her to then-Writer-in-Residence Thalia Selz. "Joanna was naturally gifted with language and in creating narratives," Ogden recalls. Scott went on to study with Selz and served as her teaching assistant. Selz, with whom she remains in contact, remembers Scott as being a "brilliant student and an extremely gifted thinker with a very imaginative mind." According to her former professor, "Joanna had an ability to probe deeply into a character and was exceedingly inventive. She's a rare talent."
Scott's interest in writing drew her to new opportunities in New York, where she spent a year on an exchange program at Barnard College; while there, she helped edit its literary magazine. She then took a semester off to work as a copy editor for the United Features Syndicate. In 1983, just one course shy of graduation, she moved to New York City and spent a year at the Elaine Markson Literary Agency working as an assistant to Geri Thoma, who later became her agent. During this time, she also undertook an independent study, writing short stories under the tutelage of Selz, and earned enough credits to graduate. She graduated in 1983 with honors in English, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and received the College's prestigious Trinity Alumnus Prize in Prose Fiction.
Inspired by abiding interest
Hoping to take her writing in a new direction, she left New York later in 1983, enrolled in the graduate creative writing program at Brown University, and earned her master's degree in 1985. She has taught creative writing at Brown, the University of Maryland, and Princeton University. Since 1988 she has been on the faculty at the University of Rochester, where she teaches courses in creative writing, the contemporary novel, and the writing of Charles Dickens. Scott's husband, James Longenbach '81, also is a professor of English at the University of Rochester.
Scott remains keenly interested in science and history. She is not working on any large literary project at the moment, but it's probably safe to assume her next work will be inspired by her abiding interest in these fields. She says she loves spending time in medical libraries, but these days she is spending most of her time balancing her teaching and writing with a busy family life. Perhaps then the inspiration for her next novel will spring not from science and history but rather from new sources: Kathryn and Alice, her two young daughters.
-- Suzanne Zack