My life in books
By Steve Tuttle
As a teenager growing up in Atlanta, Liza Wieland won an exchange scholarship to a girls’ boarding school in the English countryside near Wales. Later, she was accepted at Harvard and arrived in Boston shivering in a cloth coat, definitely an odd duck to her classmates in comfortable down jackets. After college she crossed the continent to become a teaching fellow at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, a locale as exotic as her next stop, Columbia University and the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Such abrupt departures from the familiar and comfortable in search of distant horizons is a recurring theme in Wieland’s life as well as in her seven novels and short story collections. She gives new meaning to the old saw that authors should write about what they know, and she continues a long tradition at East Carolina, perhaps best exemplified by Ovid Pierce, of commercially successful writers on the English faculty.
In her acclaimed fiction—she’s won two Pushcart Prizes and received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Christopher Isherwood Foundation and the North Carolina Arts Council—strong female characters are confronted with jarring events that spawn introspection and growth. In her creative writing classes, she encourages students to also look within for inspiration. “She interjects thoughts which steer a conversation in the most illuminating directions,” says former student Erin Michelle Warren ’11 of Angier, who just completed her master’s in English under Wieland. “She points toward the answers within us—she has faith that they already exist there—and gives a space to let them simmer.”
Ivory Kelly ’11 of Greenville, another former student and recent master’s graduate, echoes that thought. “Even though she is an accomplished writer, she instinctively understands the needs of creative writing students who sometimes feel apprehensive about sharing their writings, especially in workshop settings, and she responds to this need by creating a comfortable classroom atmosphere in which students feel safe to explore, experiment and let it all hang out.”
Although most of her literary characters are women struggling under unfamiliar circumstances, Wieland says she isn’t a feminist writer. “A feminist writer is different than being a woman’s writer, which I consider myself,” she says. “I’m interested in the way women make their way through the world, particularly teenage women in the ’70s when I was one. My concerns are women’s lives and women’s lives under duress in extreme or difficult circumstances. A good story comes when a character is put someplace they don’t want to be and has to figure it out.”
‘I have very good hearing’
Born in Chicago and raised mostly in Atlanta, Wieland attended Harvard, she says, only because Yale turned her down. “I wasn’t anywhere near the top of my [high school] class, but I think I seemed suitably odd,” she recalls about her transition to college. “My application essay was mostly original poems.” Raised in the sunny South, “I was completely unprepared for Harvard. My roommates were from Massachusetts and they had these things called down jackets, which I had never seen. I had this small cloth coat. But I loved Boston and Harvard.”
She especially loved her professors there, particularly the poets Mark Strand and Derek Walcott. She read voraciously, consuming Henry James, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence and lots of poetry. Reading, she says, is how she learned to write well. But it was listening that taught her about people. “I would have to say that listening taught me as well, listening to what people say and all they don’t say. I have very good hearing, and I’m an obsessive watcher and eavesdropper.”
It’s a method she follows in the classroom. “The best way to teach students to write well is to make sure they do a lot of writing and a fair amount of revising. But not too much of the latter. I think young writers need to complete lots of new work, try on different voices, themes, styles, genres, subjects—make wonderful messes—rather than hone one or two pieces to some kind of lifeless perfection. I have to say, though, that all the writing in the world won’t amount to much unless it’s accompanied by reading, so that students have other voices in their heads besides their own.”
Wieland herself has repeatedly sought out other voices. After a postcollege stint in Utah, she hit the Big Apple, completing a master’s in English and comparative literatures at Columbia in 1984 and a doctorate there in 1988. During those years she also taught at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and at tony Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. In 1991 she crossed the continent a second time to join the faculty at Cal State-Fresno.
It was there that she met her husband, Dan Stanford, who was a student in one of her undergraduate fiction writing classes. He had gone back to college after working several years as a truck driver, so they were about the same age. His long road to college “made him very interesting to me for many reasons,” Wieland says. He went on to receive an MFA in creative writing.
Over the next 15 years at Cal State-Fresno, Wieland found her muse. She published two novels, two collections of short stories and one of poems. But she again sought new horizons in 2006, trading the Pacific for the Atlantic to settle first in New Bern, where she taught a year at the private Epiphany School, and later in Greenville. Stanford joined the faculty at Pitt Community College and Wieland soon heard about an opening at ECU.
While in retrospect it may seem that her continental career moves are evidence of some extreme desire, Wieland says there is a more down-to-earth reason. “I simply went where the jobs were. That’s how we got here.”
A writer with broad appeal
Quickening, short stories
A Watch of Nightingales, a novel
Near Alcatraz, poems
Bombshell, a novel
You Can Sleep While I Drive, short stories
Discovering America, short stories
The Names of the Lost, a novel
Wieland had five books to her credit when professor Margaret Bauer interviewed her for the ECU position. As editor of the North Carolina Literary Review, Bauer certainly knows good writing. “I served on the search committee when Liza applied to ECU, and I was so impressed by the writing that I read in her file that during her interview, I invited her to submit a story for publication in the Literary Review,” Bauer says. “I’ve since read most of her work,” Bauer adds. “Her second novel, Bombshell, includes a brother and sister reminiscent of Caddy and Quentin Compson in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury—although Liza’s characters are emotionally healthier. Her third novel, A Watch of Nightingales, which received the Michigan Literary Fiction Award, has the most poignant description of grief I have ever read.”
Wieland soon began working with Bauer as fiction editor of the annual Literary Review, another legacy of ECU’s long history with writers. Wieland’s poetry, short stories and essays also have appeared in anthologies and such literary magazines as Southern Review, Georgia Review, New England Review and Quarterly West. Bauer points out that only a writer with broad appeal can entertain such geographically diverse audiences.
Wieland has had two more books published since coming to East Carolina. Her latest, Quickening, is a collection of short stories that is attracting literary notice and commercial success. In her review of the book, author Cynthia Shearer said Wieland demonstrates “a gift for culling extraordinary prose from the ordinary human moment.”
In addition to chairing several thesis committees, Wieland has represented the creative writing faculty on both the undergraduate and graduate curriculum committees in the department, and she serves on a committee in the Honors College.
Wieland and Stanford are enjoying raising their daughter, Georgia, a seventh-grader and budding writer who has had stories published by the Greenville Daily Reflector. “People often assume she’s named for the state in which I grew up,” Wieland explains, “but actually it’s for Georgia O’Keeffe.”