Q & A With New Visiting Writer in Nonfiction, Tim Denevi

Tim Denevi
Tim Denevi

The Department of English would like to introduce our Visiting Writer in Nonfiction, Tim Denevi. Tim received his MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa. He’s been awarded fellowships by The MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. His writing has appeared in various magazines and journals, including Gulf Coast Arts & Letters, Hobart, Instant City, and Hawaii Review. His first book, Hyper, will be published later this year. Please join us in welcoming Tim to George Mason.

Tell us a bit about your new book:

It's titled Hyper, and it's a memoir and history of the psychological disorder ADHD. The release date is set for September. I originally started working on it about six years ago, in one of my MFA workshop classes. At the time I found myself writing about early childhood memories that I didn't quite understand--these were moments that existed on the very border of what I could remember and what I couldn't--and the only way forward was to delve deeper into the scenes themselves and try to retell what had happened. Eventually I realized that I was seeking to re-create a very specific point of view: that of a child experiencing what might be characterized as extreme overactivity. Eventually this project became my thesis, but after the first draft I realized that the narrative perspective was much too tight in its re-creation of the childhood viewpoint. I needed to introduce an additional perspective, one that could allow more emotional and contextual space for the reader, and this was when I started researching the historical background of the disorder, a more essayistic thread that I wove into the existing narrative. I was lucky, I think, that I found the subject itself so intriguing; it seems that whenever people talk about ADHD, they voice one of two extreme viewpoints--it should be treated like any other form of medical illness or, conversely, it doesn't exist in the first place--and part of the goal of the book has been to present a more pragmatic voice to the current cultural discussion on the issue.

Why are you interested in what you do?

When it comes to being a writer, I always like to quote a line from Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son: "I was certain I was here in this world because I couldn't tolerate any other place." And while I've taken this line way out of context, I think it exemplifies an important idea: whatever you produce as a writer is secondary to the act of composing it. As in, the process itself is sustaining. That being said, writing nonfiction, for me, is very much about discovering the true breadth of a subject you've found yourself interested in. The research I did into ADHD eventually led to research into areas like the history of psychiatry, and psychopharmacology, and education. For my next project, I've started doing research into the study of the historical Jesus, an enormous field. Already I can tell I'm just scratching the surface, that soon enough I'll be reading about the history of Catholicism, and the Roman Empire, etc. It's a bit like creating plot; you don't know which way your'e going to go until you immerse yourself in the process of moving through it all.

Can you tell us a little bit about your experiences in Graduate school? Being a nonfiction student at Iowa?

Before I started my MFA there, I didn't have much experience with nonfiction, as a genre, since most of my previous education had been in writing fiction. In retrospect, it was very much a sink-or-swim experience. I was suddenly taking classes on the historical origins of the essay and reading works of a more hybridized style--stuff like W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, Albert Goldbarth's "Both Definitions of Save," and Jenny Boully's The Book of Beginnings and Endings--and really, it took a while to adjust to the spectacular range of possibilities that nonfiction, as a genre, could offer. All of this was occurring within an incredibly competitive academic environment, and in retrospect, I wish I would've taken more artistic risks during my time there--which is one of the best things an MFA has to offer. What better place to be exposed to and experiment with such a wide range of forms and styles? In the end, perhaps the best thing I took away from Iowa was a much clearer understanding of what fully-realized, artistic work might look like--a perspective that allowed me to better perceive the shortcomings in my own writing. It was probably the most productive experience of my life, which of course is a bit different than saying it was a pleasant experience.

What is your life like outside the classroom? Tell us a little bit about who you are:

About three years ago I moved to Maryland with my wife, who's a planetary geologist, and my son, a first grader. I'm originally from a suburb of San Francisco, and I like to tell people I was raised in a family of professional athletes; my uncle was a pro tennis player and my father played shortstop in the Kansas City Royals minor league system. It's a big Italian-Irish family on both sides, and I'm one of the few members of it in my generation who's not still living in California. Besides writing and reading, which I try and do every day, I play tennis as much as possible, which is a great way to clear the mind after so many hours in front of a computer. I also play baseball in a recreational league in Virginia, and recently, along with my cousins, brother, and father, I participated in a father-son baseball tournament in Phoenix, which we actually ended up winning. It was quite the experience.

What courses are you teaching this Spring?

I'll be teaching 399: Creative Nonfiction Writing, and 616: Nonfiction Writing Workshop. I'm very much looking forward to both!