“It’s always funny to be asked to explain what your book is about,” Peter Wheelwright, associate professor in the School of Constructed Environments at Parsons and newly-minted novelist, says with a chuckle. “When I’m talking to my colleagues, then I’m talking about issues around science and religion and faith and reason, the difference between the natural world and the social world, these sorts of dichotomies that I think we’re all thinking about, and we’re all living, to a greater and lesser degree. But then my wife will say, ‘Oh, come on, it’s just a love story.’ And it is that.” You can judge for yourself this coming Thursday, October 4, when Wheelwright reads from his book, As It Is On Earth, at Parsons East, 25 East 13th Street, at 6:00 p.m.
Wheelwright’s novel was born at The New School in the 1990s, when he took a creative writing class here. Already a faculty member, he was entitled to take a free course of his choosing, and decided on writing. It wasn’t entirely at random. His uncle is three-time National Book Award-winner Peter Matthiessen, and his brother, Jeff Wheelwright, has also written several books. His novel began as a short story in that class. With some positive feedback from his professor, Wheelwright continued turning its story over in his mind for decades, jotting notes here and there. “I think the exposure to this odd but lively inter-disciplinary community at The New School fostered a sense of what there is to think about and act upon,” he says. “It’s a good place for a restless intellect!”
The plot of Wheelwright’s book concerns a young university professor who “meanders through New England and then down to Mexico,” as he explains, living in the ripples of his family history (they’re old northeastern Puritan stock) and his own, as he deals with his attraction to an even younger student. “I think of him as a Walker Percy sort of character, suffering from an excess of awareness,” says Wheelwright, comparing his narrator to one of the creations of the famously philosophical Southern author. “He’s lost his sense of self. He sees himself as nothing but the accretion of events beyond his control: his ancestors’ social history, his genetic history, just a product of other events, other gods, other times. Consequently, his sense of autonomy feels out of his control.”
It’s also about taking the skillset Wheelwright has developed over decades of practicing and teaching architecture, and applying it to a novel. As it turns out, he says, it was a perfect fit. “It did not feel as if I was doing anything different than I’ve always done,” he says. “The business of designing a building, I’ve found, is similar to designing the narrative and the structure of a book. It raises a lot of the same kinds of issues: how do you get into this thing? how do you move through it? what is its structure? Those kind of questions that a writer must entertain are the same kinds of questions you entertain as a designer.”
As much as anything, though, the book is Wheelwright’s reaction to the life of an academic. The text, of course, deals with the issue directly. “There’s a lot of poking fun at the academic life in this book,” he explains. “My colleagues at the university are going to recognize a lot of things about this: his relationship to his dean, his relationship to his colleagues, the silliness of university life. Hey, it’s the life I’ve chosen, so I’m poking fun at myself, as well.”
The book’s mere existence, though, is also a reaction to the professional and personal requirements of academia. “I really tried to embrace Richard Rorty’s idea that academics would do better to try and affect social change by writing imaginative stories,” he says, “and provoking the imagination of our readers to imagine other worlds, other ways of leading lives. So I gave myself permission to stop writing academically, and just sit down and try to write interesting stories.” Wheelwright found the expert more than rewarding, he found it addictive. “I’ll never write another academic tract again!” Wheelwright exclaims at one point. Plans for another book are already in the works.