COVID gauntlet greets guest novelist

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Ana Mota and Rachel Peguero-Jorge were just finishing their first year at the College of Mount Saint Vincent when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the city — and ultimately their campus — with a fury. Classes moved online, and neither were sure of what was to come in the fall.

They did return to North Riverdale last month, but not without restrictions, as The Mount established a “no strangers on campus policy.” Now any visitors need to have prior clearance from someone on campus, and need to complete a COVID-19 related questionnaire just to step onto the grounds.

But last week, The Mount saw its first in-person public visitor since the college went remote in March. Novelist Darin Strauss braved the coronavirus questionnaire and — armed with a mask, face shield and gloves — hosted a public reading and a private Q&A on campus.

Strauss’ visit was a part of professor Robert Jacklosky’s contemporary writers in the 21st century class, where the syllabus is composed entirely of works by authors who are still alive. Every time Jacklosky teaches it, he invites three or four of the featured authors on campus to speak with his class and to read their work.

Mota is a nursing major, but enjoys the contemporary focus of the class, especially since she isn’t reading works by authors who are long gone.

“We read books that came out recently, as opposed to all the other English classes, where we read books that were written centuries ago,” she said. “Super boring. (But) it’s very interesting how different it is.”

There’s a benefit from meeting the authors of these contemporary works, Jacklosky says: It helps put a face and a life to a name, and makes the novel-writing process less mysterious and impossible — especially for the aspiring writers in his class.

“It’s a way so it’s not just a dead book on the desktop that got there through some miraculous process that’s unapproachable or incomprehensible,” Jacklosky said. “They have the actual person saying, ‘You can do this,’ and I think that is exciting for them.”

This semester, the majority of the visiting authors will “meet” Jacklosky’s class online. But Strauss agreed to come present as early as January as his newest novel was set to debut in August. But once the coronavirus took hold of the city, they were no guarantees anymore.

Yet Jacklosky assured Strauss: If he was still willing to come, Jacklosky was willing to make it happen.

Ahead of the visit, Jacklosky’s class read Strauss’ new novel, “The Queen of Tuesday,” which is essentially a fusion of Strauss’ greatest hits of literary genres. It’s part biography of Lucille Ball, part memoir of Strauss’ grandfather, and part fiction, where he imagines an affair between the two.

The idea for “The Queen of Tuesday” came to Strauss in a dream about the comedienne, who died in 1989. But he realized Ball didn’t share a lot in the biographies written about her. That meant if Strauss wanted to write about her, he’d need to take a different approach.

“If you read a biography of someone who’s withholding, like she was, it’s going to be pretty dry because you have to stick to what can be verified,” Strauss said. “I thought if I can do a good job, I can write a book that captures what it’s like to be famous in a way that I wouldn’t be able to do if I just stuck to the facts.”

It certainly means something to Jessica Haas, a junior English major and hopeful mystery writer, who is part of Jacklosky’s class.

“The book is really well-written, and Darin Strauss was really considerate to come and see us and talk about the book,” Haas said. “I would definitely recommend it. It made me feel all kinds of emotions, and it was a very interesting read.”

The first part of Strauss’ visit was fairly run-of-the-mill. He visited Jacklosky’s class, answering questions about the book, his writing process, and essentially everything in-between. His approachability wasn’t lost on those students participating.

“He was super down-to-earth (and) very easy to talk to,” Peguero-Jorge said. “Of course, he’s an author and he gets his respect, but he really treated us like he was just one of us.”

But the second part of Strauss’ visit — the open reading of passages from his novel — was a bit different. Due to the protective equipment he wore, it was a bit difficult to understand what Strauss was saying as he read from “The Queen of Tuesday.” But Strauss recognized this quickly, and instead shifted to a wider-ranging Q&A session.

Some of the questions included how to “make it” as an author. To Strauss, it’s not just about having talent, but honing it and working hard to improve it. And some of that improvement just takes some time.

“If you’re not great now, don’t beat yourself up,” Strauss said. “I just remember when I started out how much worse a writer I was at 20, and then how much better I was at 24, and how much better I was at 26 and 27 and 30.”

But Strauss also offered some more practical advice to the audience, like suggestions for publications and websites to send materials to, or how to find an agent to represent them. Mota might not be on the market for such services, but admits having this advice is invaluable for young aspiring writers.

“Nursing is what I want to do for sure, but I always thought it would be cool to write,” she said. “That was very beneficial, just in case in the future, I do decide to publish a book.”

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