Visiting Prof’s Passion Evolved Into a Career

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As a teenager, Kathleen Goonan began writing constantly, filling hundreds of green, unlined, Morilla Clipper Ship notebooks — her notebook of choice until the company stopped producing them — with thoughts, narratives and poems.

“I always planned to be a writer. But I didn’t know how to make the connection between writing and being published, and became a Montessori teacher in order to support myself while learning that process,” Goonan said. “It wasn’t until 1985, after 15 years as a Montessori teacher, 10 of them spent running my own 100-student toddler through elementary school in Knoxville, that I simply realized that it was time to start.”

Of course, there were a fair share of rejection letters before she found her writing groove, but Goonan’s persistence paid off.

Her sixth novel, “In War Times,” won the Campbell Award and was the American Library Association’s Best Genre Novel of 2007. Her first novel, “Queen City Jazz,” published in 1994, was the first nanotech novel ever published and was selected as a New York Times Notable Book.

Much of Goonan’s work can be categorized as literary science fiction — making her a natural fit for a visiting professor position in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture, which she has held for the 2010-2011 academic year.  

Recently, The Whistle sat down with Goonan to find out more about her experience as a writer and instructor. Here’s what we learned:

How did you end up as a visiting professor at Georgia Tech and what have you taught?
Since 2004, I’ve gotten to know Lisa Yaszek, a professor in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture, through work with various professional organizations. So when this position opened, she invited me to apply for it. Last fall, I taught Science Fiction Literature and Honors Freshman Composition. This semester, I’m teaching creative writing, as well as a course in science, technology and ideology that looks at scientists and their work through the lens of biography.

Where does inspiration for your books come from?    
The core of every story or novel is character-driven and infused with emotion. My characters are not divorced from place. Places have history, which is embedded in the streets, the buildings, the neighborhoods and the land. Most of my novels have some kind of historical element. My first, “Queen City Jazz,” takes place in the Cincinnati of my childhood. Much of “In War Times,” my latest novel, takes place during World War II and continues into the Washington, D.C. of the 1950s and 1960s. Once I’ve formulated the initial concept, I start my research and delve into reading a variety of books on the subject at hand. There is also usually a musical context to my novels, much of it jazz, but in some novels, such as “Light Music,” the musical element is aligned with superstring theory.    

What are three things you do to make learning more engaging for students?
I try to have a lot of ancillary material on hand. I get them involved in class discussions. I give them a fair amount of feedback by encouraging them to turn in drafts of their work and then schedule conferences to go over that work so that they can understand the decisions that make writing better, and thereby refine their final work. I want them to learn that writing is a process.

What is one piece of technology you couldn’t live without?
My laptop.  

What are three things you think every employee should do while working at Tech?
Go to the [Robert C. Williams] Paper Museum, take advantage of our marvelous library resources and meet as many of your fellow faculty members as time allows.  

What is next for you after your year at Tech?
“This Shared Dream,” my seventh novel, will be out this summer, as well as a short story collection, “Angels and You Dogs,” which will both require an investment of publicity time.



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