NOVEL APPROACH TO TEACHING | 3 El Camino College English professors-


Free-lance writer

If you have aspirations toward creative writing and are looking for some current South Bay role models, you can’t do much better than the local community college.

When not teaching students how to write, a growing number of English professors at El Camino near Torrance are writing and publishing books of their own.

Adrienne Sharp’s collection of short stories, White Swan, Black Swan, was published by Random House last year, and this year three more El Camino English teachers will have their books published.

One of the authors, Josh Pryor, has worked as an adjunct professor of English at El Camino College for five years. Several of his short stories have been published in top-notch literary publications such as Zoetrope and Zyzzyva, and his debut novel, Monkey in the Middle, was released in March by Carroll & Graf.

Likened to the satirical work of Kurt Vonnegut, Pryor’s Monkey in the Middle is an edgy, neo-noir story about Dutch Flowers, a Gulf War veteran turned Los Angeles private eye who is investigating a mysterious case of murdered lab monkeys, all the while being chased by a cross-dressing hit man hired by a vengeful Saddam Hussein, still licking his Gulf War wounds.

“I was hoping with all my criticism of Saddam and his cross- dressing hit man that they’d put out a hit on me, like Salman Rushdie,” Pryor joked, referring to the 1989 “fatwa” put out on the British author by the Iranian government after he published The Satanic Verses.

“But they don’t even want me dead,” Pryor said. “I’m right here. They could just shoot me, but no. Nothing.”

While Pryor, along with the rest of the world, waits for word on Hussein’s whereabouts, the author is spending his summer giving readings and working on his next novel. He says seeing his book on the shelf is the realization of a lifelong dream, and seeing it next to the work of authors such as T.C. Boyle and Don DeLillo _ two of his favorites _ is an honor of the highest order.

And yet he still sees himself as a teacher first.

“I always wanted to consider myself a writer, but never felt it was right to call myself that,” he said. “I wouldn’t tell people I was a writer until I sold my novel, and even now that it’s out I still just say I’m a teacher.

“I like being a teacher a lot,” he said. “The students are truly grateful and appreciate what (teachers) do.”

Down the hall from Pryor is another El Camino College professor/ author who’s been writing and teaching for years.

Sheila Finch’s latest novel, Reading the Bones, will be released in September by Tachyon Press. Finch has been an English professor at El Camino College for 26 years, and this soon-to-be-released novel is her eighth.

Reading the Bones is an expanded version of Finch’s original short story, which won the Science Fiction Writers of America’s prestigious Nebula Award in 1998 _ the science fiction equivalent of an Oscar.

Reading the Bones relates the experiences of two boys marooned on an alien planet and what happens to them when one decides to stay on the planet instead of going back to Earth when rescuers come for them.

In addition to her many novels, Finch has also had more than 30 of her short stories published during the last three decades, in magazines including Fantasy and Science Fiction and Asimov’s Science Fiction. She’s been writing for the sci-fi crowd for more than 30 years, creating quite a name for herself in the process, but she didn’t deliberately start off in that direction.

“Writing science fiction was sort of decided for me,” she recalled. “I’d had some things published, and then I started to get rejection slips that said, ‘We don’t take science fiction.’ At the time, I didn’t realize that’s what I was writing.”

Finch eventually figured it out when a 12-year-old boy lent her Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man.

“During the time I was getting those snide rejection slips, I started the book and couldn’t put it down,” she said. “He is the most wonderful stylist and showed me that you don’t have to give up poetic style in science fiction. I saw that you could write like that and still write about the future and technology, how something will affect our lives and change the world for us.”

Even though her stories are literally out of this world, Finch said they’re really about everyday, down-to-earth issues that concern almost everyone.

“I had someone ask me once, ‘What’s a nice little lady like you doing in a genre like this?’ and I told him my stories were about love, family, relationships,” she said. “He didn’t know exactly what to do with that answer, but that’s what I’m interested in, and that’s what I write about.”

In addition to her literary accomplishments, Finch has spent 26 years in the classroom teaching creative writing. It’s a dual existence that has been alternately rewarding and trying, but has always been part of the grand plan.

“I always wanted to be a teacher and a writer,” she said. “I’m very fortunate to have been able to do both. Just lucky, I suppose.

“But I always tell my students if you want to write, don’t be a teacher,” she admitted. “It’s partly me joking but partly true. I saw the handwriting on the wall in graduate school when we were talking about theory and literary criticism. The writer and the writing weren’t really important, and I don’t think that’s good for the creative writer.”

Though Finch doesn’t see writing and teaching as always complementary, she has found areas in which teaching has helped her writing.

“If my students have a specialty I’m interested in, I tell them to expect a call from me,” she said, telling of the time she took a former student up on an offer to attend a shuttle landing at Edwards Air Force Base.

Though Finch is close to retiring from El Camino College, she intends to stay there for a few more years.

Finch’s love of teaching and writing has benefited not only her students, but fellow instructors as well. After discovering that Dan Houston-Davila, one of her longtime colleagues at El Camino College, had been writing fiction, Finch invited him to join her writer’s group, which includes Susan Vreeland, author of the popular Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

Houston-Davila, an English professor for 27 years, joined the group and readied his work for publication. His debut novel, Malinche’s Children, was released in April by University Press of Mississippi.

Malinche’s Children traces 100 years of life in the Carmelas barrio, a small Mexican-American enclave in Norwalk, which starts small but eventually grows into a full-blown Mexican-American community.

Though a work of fiction, much of Malinche’s Children is based on the author’s real-life experience as a youth. Born to a Mexican mother and Scottish father, not far from a barrio like the one depicted in his novel, Houston-Davila was intrigued as a young boy by the obvious cultural and language differences overlying people’s fundamental sameness.

“We found this little world and made friends in the barrio, which was just two streets away from our house,” he remembered. “We lived on a paved street in a neat housing tract, while their streets were dirt and shifted in the rain. It was like going into another world, into Mexico. The mix of English and Spanish was a beautiful tapestry to me.”

Though Houston-Davila’s stories are clearly concerned with the Mexican-American experience, he said the novel is really universal and speaks to all people.

“There is a tendency to pigeon-hole,” he said. “People look at a book like mine and say, ‘Oh, it’s another Mexican-American novel,’ but what I’m trying to show is that people are exactly the same except for the particulars. It’s the particulars that make us interesting, but we’re all the same.”

In talking about his novel, Houston-Davila’s passion for people is obvious. It’s this sense of connection to others that makes him, like Pryor and Finch, not just a writer but also a dedicated teacher.

“For me, there is the white hot fire of first creation and then the drudgery of cleaning up, and the greatest drudgery of all is marketing the book,” he admitted.

“But teaching always invigorates me. I get to teach literature to people who haven’t been introduced to much, so my job is to set them on fire. I show them what I love, and I model enthusiasm and excitement for the literature. Even if I were very successful with writing, I wouldn’t stop teaching.” Kate McLaughlin is a freelance writer based in Rancho Palos Verdes.

Copyright Copley Press Inc. 2003

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