Pickering's Prose Crafted From
Sam Pickering writes about all sorts of things. "Whatever strikes me," he says, with a grin. The professor of English and essayist crafts into prose his keen observations about everything from flowers, snakes, and butterflies to academic matters, parenthood, and unexpected celebrity.
He has two new books this year, Waltzing the Magpies: A Year in Australia, and The Best of Pickering, a collection of essays, both published by Michigan Press. Another book, Letters to a Teacher, is due out in November.
"Waltzing the Magpies is like the first book I wrote on Australia, except it's written by somebody who's older, and whose children are older, and whose wife is older," he says. "I'd like to write a third book on Australia - and if I had my druthers, I'd be there right now, or in the Greek Islands. I'm reading Lawrence Durrell's Prospero's Cell and it makes me salivate."
Born and raised in Nashville, Tenn., Pickering came to UConn in 1978 after teaching at Dartmouth College. He attended the University of the South in Tennessee and Cambridge University in England, and earned his doctorate at Princeton. He was also a Fulbright scholar, spending time in Jordan and Syria.
Pickering calls his books on Australia "travel books" and has categorized them as such. "I've written 18 books," he says, leaping out of his chair to point to a list taped to his office door. "I've broken them down into essays, travel, literary studies, and teaching."
Classifying things "makes the complex world deceptively easy to understand," he says. "This gives me a little panache."
Pickering's book on teaching is a series of letters written to elementary and high school teachers. "It's friendly, with not too many lines per page, and wide margins where people can put notes," he says. "This is not a book about the mechanics of teaching or how to do a lesson plan. Many of those books are bloodless and intellectual, and they just lack heart. This book is about life in the classroom."
He is currently teaching an undergraduate course on the short story and a graduate class on personal essays.
Pickering was the inspiration for the offbeat prep school teacher in the 1989 movie, Dead Poets Society, starring Robin Williams. The screenplay was written by Thomas Schulman, who was one of Pickering's former students at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, where Pickering taught in 1965-66.
Almost anything is potential literary fodder for Pickering, who collects jokes, phrases, and anecdotes and weaves them into his essays. "I love jokes," he says. "And if I find an old story I like, I simply retell it."
He has also spent thousands of hours going through volumes of 19th-century magazines, looking for "phrases that will wake me up."
He and his family "lead simple lives," says Pickering, recalling how he and his wife celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in Nova Scotia: "We rode up to Hard Scratch Road to the Old Mill fish and chips takeout. Vicki had a Pepsi and I had a Coca-Cola, and we ate in the car. I had half fish and half clams and French fries and she had all fish. Afterwards, we adjourned to Tim Horton's doughnut shop. I had a Dutchee, which is a square piece of fat with raisins in it, and Vicki had an old-fashioned doughnut. Then we drove home.
"That's what wedding anniversaries should be," he adds. "So I wrote about that."
Pickering, who has penned some 200 articles, spends much of his time writing. "Thursday, after class, I came home and went for a jog and then to a soccer game," he says. "But the rest of my time was spent revising a 290-page book; revising the revision of the revision of the revision. When I finished that, I took 30-something pages on long yellow sheets that I had written in Nova Scotia, and revised them."
Pickering loves wandering through the New England woods, where the bark on a tree or a particular beetle might inspire a three-page reflection.
"I just wrote a little piece on the pleasures of a butterfly net," Pickering says. "The feeling of the long, soft wood, the skipping along, the youthful pursuing of the dragonfly in this case, and the net billowing out like a sock . It's really fun."
Although Pickering finds writing "somehow invigorating and satisfying," he says "I don't want to make more out of it than it is. Maybe one of the problems of this culture is we make too much out of writing. How nice to be able to make a nice muffin, how nice to be able to put a roof on a house - do some things that I can't do."