Author and N.C. A&T English professor J.T. Hill is the author of “Academy Gothic.” He has taught at A&T since 2004.
Of course, J.T. Hill is quick to say, the fictional Parshall College in his new novel “Academy Gothic” is not N.C. A&T. Yes, Hill lives in Greensboro and teaches in the English department at A&T, but Parshall is different from A&T in important ways.
A&T is a high-quality university with more than 10,000 students, and it’s part of the state-run University of North Carolina system; Parshall is a terrible, private liberal-arts college with only a few hundred students, and it’s running out of money.
But Hill doesn’t mind saying that his experiences teaching at A&T since 2004 provided plenty of inspiration and raw material for his novel, which is a cross between a hardboiled detective-murderer mystery and a satire of higher education. His novel is comedy, he said, but as he talks, it’s clear that it grew out of problems he takes seriously.
“I would say I was thinking of budget cuts more than anything else — the constant threats and reality of budget cuts in education in North Carolina and elsewhere,” he said.”
He’s watched as some smaller colleges have lowered standards and changed their programs. It troubles him, he said, that “higher education is becoming more and more of a business that’s designed to make money.”
In North Carolina, he said, “We have Gov. Pat McCrory saying how much he is looking to the business world for his education agenda. He does not want the education system to be in charge of itself, but thinks we should look to the world of business for their needs, which just seems like the cart pulling the horse. We see higher education becoming less concerned with education and more with job training and placement, which has never been the role of the university.
“I read an article that said that 70 percent of CEOs surveyed said that what they want is creativity and critical thinking and leadership, which is not anything that’s going to result from job training.”
Hill was thinking, too, about “the absurdities of the people employed by any college or university whose job is just to measure things that nobody cares about.”
Such problems in higher education breed frustration and anger among those who work in the universities, he said.
“As much as my novel is a comedy, it was not a far leap to the other side, the murder mystery.
“There’s lots of animosity among the faculty, with everyone feeling the pressure from above and in fear of their own jobs, after a series of vagaries and indignities.
“You could see the anger in meetings when you saw budget cuts, and course sizes increasing. When you are at these meetings, you see the anger seething in these people’s eyes when they are told by these administrators who are making in some cases $200,000 and $300,000 that they won’t even get a cost-of-living raise, when their salary is $40,000 or $42,000,” he said.
Material gleaned from years at A&T fit well with Hill’s desire to write a hard-boiled detective/murder mystery for his first novel. He majored in English at West Virginia Wesleyan College, finished a one-year master’s program in creative writing at Hollins University and then spent a couple of years in the MFA creative program at UNC-Greensboro.
The UNCG program was “great,” he said. “Michael Parker and Lee Zacharias were the two people I worked with most, and both were very encouraging.”
During those years of studying English literature and writing, Hill said, “I never really felt comfortable or that I had permission to read so-called genre fiction.”
But after he started teaching at A&T, he picked up a copy of a Raymond Chandler novel, and I had so much fun with the voice of Philip Marlowe so much fun with his sense of humor and his sort of hard-boiled wit and way of describing things in that very harsh but clever way. I found myself drawn to detective fiction, or the mystery, or crime novels, because there is something really satisfying about a plot that so many writers of literary fiction don’t feel capable of.
“Literary fiction is meant to go deep into its characters, and the worldview and empathy, and sometimes a well-spun plot is satisfying or comforting on a level that literary fiction doesn’t always take into account. If you can find both, all the better,” he said.
“You have a James Patterson or John Grisham who can spin a plot, but it’s like empty calories. But in a good James Ellroy or Ross Macdonald, there is more of looking into the psychology of the characters. I guess the nutrition in a novel is the empathy and the depth, but sometimes you need the flavor and the grease, and that’s the plot,” he said.
His book’s setting, Grayford, is Greensboro, Hill concedes, but he gave it a different name to allow himself more creative license without having readers spending time checking landmarks, commute times and the like.
And Hill’s main character, college teacher turned detective Tate Cowlishaw, is obviously based on himself in some ways, the most important being that both men are legally blind.
“My eye condition is Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy,” Hill said, “and it came on when I was 16, a couple of months after I had gotten my driver’s license. It’s not progressive, but it’s also not treatable with anything other than adaptive aids.”
He has peripheral vision only, which allows him to see some things, although not clearly. His wife, Lori, and friends drive him places, and Hill walks a lot and uses public transportation. Computer programs help him read his students’ papers.
The similarities between author and character end there, Hill insisted. “I hope nobody I’ve ever taught recognizes anything about Tate Cowlishaw other than my visual impairment and the fact that his first name is my middle name,” he said.
“I don’t think any of my students know the novel exists,” Hill said. “I don’t mention it in class.”
As for his colleagues, he emailed everyone in the English department to invite them to a recent reading, and a few came. So far, no one has complained about his satirical treatment of higher education, he said.
His first book behind him, Hill continues work on another mystery, this one about “a fame-obsessed 15-year-old girl who gives her increasingly unreliable account of a day she encountered an unhinged celebrity.”
He’s also working on a nonfiction project about “adapting to the wacky world of visual impairment.”
He’d love, he said, to write another book following the adventures of Tate Cowlishaw, the legally blind detective who sees quite a lot.
“That voice was so much fun. I set out to write the academic satire and murder mystery, and after the first few pages, I set them aside for a few months and thought, ‘What this needs is some kind of unique character trait. Maybe it’s time to confront the most autobiographical trait.’
“ From there, everything came out effortlessly.”