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Teeing up with Tom

As part of our alumni interview installment, we chatted with Notre Dame alum, Tom Coyne (1999) about his latest projects, golf, advice for students, and other exciting news in his life.  Here’s what he had to say.

Coyneireland11-1024x682Briefly describe your most recent project.
I have a few new projects in the works.  I recently placed an essay on writing, “How to Write a Bad Book,” in Notre Dame Magazine, which was a real the dream teethrill since it’s a magazine I’ve been reading for any number of years now.  Notre Dame is fortunate to have a community magazine that is still publishing essays and thoughtful content on a large scale, and in a handsome magazine.  I’m also working on a new project for Sports Illustrated called “The Dream Tee.”   I basically got tired of tracking down all my own golf dreams (or perhaps I’ve run out of them), so I wanted to do a story where I’m making someone else’s dream happen.  I’m asking for submissions from readers for their dream foursome — if you could golf with any three people, who would it be? — and I’m writing a feature about the experience of arranging and playing the foursome for an SI issue in June.  And I’ve started a new golf book with Simon & Schuster.  We are still very much in the planning stage, and we are going back and forth between a few ideas that might be a good follow-up to A Course Called Ireland.  Book will be out in 2015, fingers crossed.


I notice you write a lot about golf.  Is there a background story behind how that inspired your work?  What other influences inspire your writing? 
I didn’t set out to be a golf writer–if that’s what I consider myself.  It was sort of an accident that grew out of workshop.  I spent most of my time in the MFA at ND writing fiction that I thought sounded important or impressive, trying to win the approval of my peers with stuff that sounded smart and vague and foreign enough to fit in the New Yorker.  It was all crap.  It wasn’t until I started writing about things closer to me–things I really cared about, and knew something about, that I found some confidence and a voice.  I started writing a short story about a caddy, since I had grown up caddying.  The story grew into another, which grew into chapters, which turned into a novel that I submitted as my thesis.  That thesis, A Gentleman’s Game, was my first book and was made into a movie.  Offers came in to write for golf magazines, and to do another golf title.  So I was a golf writer, without really planning to be one.  But fiction is my love and my training, and if I’ve had any success in writing about golf, I believe it comes from the fact that I approach it as a writer who cares about craft, and not a golfer who cares about where the ball goes.  But golf has been very good to me.  Golfers buy books.  Or at least people buy books for them as gifts.  Father’s Day keeps the lights on.


How did you decide you wanted to become a writer?
I loved to write from a very young age.  I hate it when people start with that, because it makes me wonder if I started early enough, or if I’m some pretender among child writing prodigies.  But I did write stories when I was a kid — I’d take words out of the dictionary and try to fit them into a story.  The stories made no sense, but I remember reading them to family or to the class and loving the approval that came from that.  So I was an approval-seeker from a young age, and since I had more success with my writing than my peers, it seemed the best way to keep the approval coming.  I never really considered writing as a career until later in college, when I was publishing stuff in various campus outlets.  Again, more approval, and I started to think that maybe I could actually do this forever.  I went to graduate school as the first step in figuring out if that was possible.  The encouragement I got there suggested that it was.  Then I gave myself a year to peddle the novel I had written and see if I could make it.  We sold it pretty quickly, and suddenly I was a writer.  So I guess I didn’t really want to be a writer until I was, when I finally felt safe to want the writing life.


What advice would you give to writers at the MFA level who are interested in pursuing a career in writing?
Get handy with that laptop of yours.  It seems to me that more writers are breaking into the book world via blogs and readership that they have built online.  This is a world that I know little to nothing about, but as publishers become more reluctant to take a chance on new writers (it’s hard to sell a book without being able to guarantee some sort of sales numbers behind it nowadays), then the internet allows you to build a readership so that you aren’t such a risk to very risk-averse publishers.  The first thing an agent might ask you is if you have a blog, and how many followers you have.  It kind of sucks, but it’s also a tool that writers didn’t have fifteen years ago–the chance to build their own readership without the help of a publisher.  So I would get my stuff up everywhere and anywhere online, and rehab houses for your day job.  Get some exercise in your day gig so that you are eager to write after the whistle blows–exhausted body can make for a very loose and interesting mind.  People who want to get into writing and take copy-editing jobs — I can’t imagine how they write after reading someone else’s stuff all day.


Who helped or developed your style throughout your writing career?
Valerie Sayers.  She pointed it out to me when I was writing sentimental slop — my Achilles in grad school — and encouraged me when I had found something that sounded genuine.  I read her books — such lovely sentences — and I wanted to write those sentences.  I never did, but writers like Valerie (and Tim O’Brien, Walker Percy, Raymond Carver) made me really fall in love with sentences, and really pay attention to my own.  I started to write with my goal being to write one good sentence, no matter what kind of mess surrounded that sentence.  And that changed a lot of things for me.


Did you have a favorite memory of your time in ND’s MFA program?
I  loved it when we had our end of semester class at Valerie’s house.  We would drink wine and talk about books, and I really enjoyed getting a sort of behind the scenes look at a working writer’s life.  The crowded bookshelves, the dog with a cool name, the filmmaker husband wondering what we were up to downstairs.  The bookstore basketball tournament was also a fond memory.  We would field a team of MFAs — rather, we would sacrifice ourselves in the name of fun and athletic pursuit.  Our team was called “Tell Em Willy Sent Ya,” as an homage to our fearless leader O’Rourke.  We never won a game.  I don’t think we actually scored a point, but it was a lot of laughs.  We had a good deal of esprit de corps in the program.  It was a nice time.


What is your life like currently, or since receiving your MFA?course_called_ireland-pb
My life is currently a blend of teaching, writing, and trips to the drugstore for diapers.  We have two little ones and I’m on the tenure-track at St. Joseph’s University here in Philadelphia, so the empty days of nothing to do but write are a distant memory.  It’s not a bad thing.  I find that I’m actually a lot more disciplined and productive now, because I have to be.  If I have two hours to write, I write for two hours, versus the twelve hours to write that I used to have, when I would find excuses to fill so many free hours with errands and chores and golf.  We had a baby this past summer, but I also sold three stories and a book — not sure how that happened, but it did.  I just kind of try to do the next thing that’s in front of me.  I write every day, but that writing isn’t always of the creative sort.  My working schedule is more project-based now.  When I’m working on something, my work gets a lot of attention.  When I have downtime or I’m developing an idea, I spend more time with my family or focusing on my work at school.  I still spend a good amount of time promoting my books — A Course Called Ireland is being re-released this spring, so I’m writing a new introduction for that, and I still get invited to golf tournaments and conferences to sign books, so old work still keeps me busy.  But my focus is on the next book and trying to follow up ACCI.  My editor at S&S is very supportive and patient.  It’s a good situation, but if anyone has any ideas for a great nonfiction golf book, please send them my way.


What does your creative writing process look like?
I used to not be able to write in crowded or noisy places.  I don’t know what has changed, but those are my favorite places now.  Perhaps because I feel like I can hide in a crowded coffee shop.  I have an office at home and an office at school, but people come looking for me in both, so if I have time to write, I head to our corner coffee shop and work for a few hours.  And I don’t even drink coffee, which most writers would find strange I’m sure.  I used to write very early and very late in the day.  Those days are gone.  With little kids, I’m a zombie in the morning and after 9pm.  So I write when I can — the hours aren’t my choosing anymore.  And that’s perfectly fine.  I used to waste a lot of time and energy trying to find an ideal setting, schedule, circumstance for a writing session, and hold myself to it out of some act of artistic honor or something.  Now I write when my kids aren’t crying.  And that’s plenty of time.


Have you had any life changing moments lately?
This is an easy one.  Caroline Grace Coyne, born June 27, 2013.  Children are the greatest blessing for any number of reasons, not least of which is the perspective they give you on your life.


You can take a look at Tom’s book, A Course Called Ireland here.  And for even more Tom news check out his awesome blog: http://www.tomcoyne.com/


Julia ’15

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