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A novel in a semester: "Man Alive!" author Mary Kay Zuravleff on getting it done

George Lang Published: September 30, 2013


Assistant Entertainment Editor

Author Mary Kay Zuravleff spent nearly six years crafting her latest novel, “Man Alive,” but during one semester at Washington D.C.’s George Mason University, she taught creative writing students how to build a novel at lightning speed.

Zuravleff will read from “Man Alive!” and sign copies at 6:30 p.m. Monday with “Kind of Kin” author Rilla Askew at Full Circle Bookstore, 1900 Northwest Expressway; and at 6 p.m. Tuesday with Askew and “Along the Watchtower” author Constance Squires at Tulsa’s Harwelden Mansion, 2210 S Main. Then she will read at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Pegasus Theater in the Liberal Arts Building at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond for an audience of aspiring writers.

While many of those students attending the UCO reading are working on novels as their masters thesis, most will spend at least two years writing and revising that novel, and probably more if their ultimate goal is publication. But in 2006, Zuravleff taught her George Mason students how to write a 40,000-word novel in a semester.

“We weren’t going for quality, quite frankly,” said Zuravleff, who graduated from Putnam City High School in 1977. “We were going for quantity and beginning-middle-end. And novel vs. short story. Those were our main goals.”

Each week of the semester, students were required to write at least 4,000 words. As part of her commitment to the class, Zuravleff fully participated, writing her own 40,000-word novel throughout the semester. She said that during one week, she had to take one of her children to the emergency room, and yet she still made her goal. Zuravleff said that her participation in the experiment made a difference with her students.

“Later, I said to them, ‘Would it have mattered [if I didn't write my own novel]? And they said, ‘Oh yeah — if we knew you were doing it, we had to do it, too,’” she said.

Zuravleff said that some of her students from that class have turned their extremely rough, top-speed novels into publishable works. One student took his novel apart and turned it into several short stories, another is preparing to publish a novel based on the classwork, and two more are getting ready to send heavily revised versions of their novels to publishers.

“It was the best course I’ve ever taught and the best students I’ve ever had,” she said.

“Man Alive!” is not based on Zuravleff’s work with her George Mason class — that work is still in a drawer, she said. After publishing two well-received novels, “The Bowl is Already Broken” and “The Frequency of Souls,” Zuravleff was reading her most recent copy of The New Yorker in 2007 when she received a “Bolt from the Blue” that inspired “Man Alive!”

“A Bolt from the Blue” was an article by neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks about Tony Cicoria, an orthopedic surgeon who was struck by lightning in 1994 and suddenly became obsessed with music. Zuravleff found herself exploring the possibility of using a lightning strike as a pivotal moment in the lives of Dr. Owen Lerner and his family when Lerner is hit by a bolt on a seaside family vacation in Delaware.

“I closed the magazine and I thought, ‘Hmm.’ I just started riffing on it,” she said. “Pediatric pharmacologist is struck by lightning and he wants to barbecue. It just came to me in one strike.”

“Man Alive!” follows Owen and his wife, Toni, twin college-age sons Ricky and Will, and 16-year-old daughter Brooke as Owen deals with his altered neurology and newfound empathy with the autistic children he treats. But as Owen adjusts to life after this profound event, his wife and children discover just how much the lightning changed them, as well.

Zuravleff said one of the great challenges was to balance the medical realities of Owen’s case with telling a good story. An estimated 240,000 people are injured by lightning strikes each year, and Zuravleff said she wanted to write a novel that every one of those people would believe.

“I had to know: could Owen go upstairs? Could you leave him by himself? Would he need an attendant? When can he drive?” she said. “Those are kind of goofy questions, but if, in fact, he comes home from the hospital, gets in the car and goes downtown for a burger, anybody who’s familiar with a lightning strike is going to say, ‘No, you’ve lost me.’”

The Washington, D.C.-based, Oklahoma City-raised author, who received her master of arts from Johns Hopkins University, curates the PEN/Faulkner Reading Series and serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, the organization that gives out an annual award for the best works of literary fiction.

Zuravleff said she has begun work on her next novel, and its characters and place names will be more familiar to people in her old hometown.

“When your book comes out, there’s a lot of time devoted to promoting it, so I haven’t had so much time to write lately,” she said. “But I have started the next one, which has a little bit more Oklahoma in it.”


Mary Kay Zuravleff book signing and reading

When and where: 6:30 p.m. Monday at Full Circle Bookstore, 1900 Northwest Expressway (with Rilla Askew, author of “Kind of Kin”; at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Harwelden Mansion, 2210 S Main, in Tulsa (with Askew and Constance Squires, author of “Along the Watchtower”; and at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Pegasus Theater in the Liberal Arts Building on the UCO campus in Edmond.







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