Trenton Lee Stewart is a Hendrix alumnus and author of the New York Times best-selling Mysterious Benedict Society series. He is currently acting as Murphy Visiting Writer-in-Residence and teaching a Writing Fiction course in the English department. He took time to answer a few questions about his experiences in writing and at Hendrix.
KRAUS: What activities you to part in while at Hendrix helped you most with writing down the line?
STEWART: In terms of classes, Dr. Falls-Corbitt right out of the gate probably had the biggest influence on my writing of any teacher I ever had. Her assessment of student writing and her ability to point out what you’re not getting at and what you’re not accomplishing really benefitted me. I had written well in high school, but I don’t think I had written very substantively. I just hadn’t been exposed to any teacher who pushed me to do any more than I was doing at the time and Dr. Falls-Corbitt was the first person who did that. So, she helped, my literature professors did too.
Other activities, I don’t know about anything outside of the classroom necessarily, except that I made friends with Mark Barr who went on to become a lifelong friend, and we critique each other’s work.
KRAUS: Are there weird little things on campus that have changed?
STEWART: A lot of big things have changed, for instance, the Raney building where I had those classes with Falls-Corbitt is just completely gone. So that’s strange because I had at least a few philosophy classes there, I spent a lot of time in that building. Also, my residence was East Hall. I don’t know now what the state of it is, but the pedestrian bridge emptied out onto a long driveway that we called the spoon back in the day because the driveway went into a little cul-de-sac in front of East Hall. Two double-wides is what it seemed like, it was supposed to be a temporary dorm to last just a year or two, and then it ended up being many years—a dozen or more—certainly all four years I spent were in East Hall. It was essentially a little community of 60 guys off the main campus, so it was an interesting little community. That was a pretty great thing that has gone away.
KRAUS: All I know about East Hall is a story involving everyone ending up on the roof while a guy shouted at them because they put his furniture in the gazebo.
STEWART: Yeah, I was involved in the putting of furniture in a gazebo, but I think it might have been a separate prank because I don’t remember anyone being on the roof, or I might not have been there for the roof part. But, definitely, there were a few other students in East Hall who had a friend who was living in Hardin and who were always playing pranks on him and we went and got his bed and recreated his room in the gazebo in front of Galloway. Security pulled up out front and made us tear it all down and put it back before he even got a chance to see it.
KRAUS: What things are surprisingly the same?
STEWART: Well, I think it’s only surprising in so far as every time you return to a place and it feels the same to you after a long absence there’s something about that that surprises one, though you wouldn’t think that it would. Just like any strong impression, you’re no longer dulled by routine, so it feels fresh and new to you, but familiar. That’s definitely true of the few places I’ve gone.
Going into the Trieschmann Building feels the same, and I just briefly stepped in Fausett yesterday and it feels the same. Individual buildings are like microcosms of the macrocosm that is the campus itself, and just being on the campus evokes a certain type of feeling that there’s a lot going on, that there are a lot of people engaging in the life of the mind while also doing all sorts of stuff. It’s like a quiet hubbub, almost. Being on the Pecan Court and seeing people coming and going, the sense of learning is in the air.
KRAUS: What advice do you wish someone had given you when you were our age?
STEWART: Part of what I’m trying to do in the class I’m teaching is to say all the things I wish someone had been able to tell me as a writer. I wish I’d had a better sense of how the early years are usually best viewed as apprentice years where you may have some successes, but you still have so much to learn. On the one hand, I may have bristled at that because I think a lot of people in college think that they’re not being treated as if their intellects are engaging with the real world, but there is something to be said about several years of experience.
The reason I would have said it is as a means of tempering expectations. You can still excel and be a writer who produces great work or an artist who produces great work and be doing really well for what stage you’re in your career, while still knowing that it takes experience to write at a consistently high level. You’re going to have some great peaks, but you’re also going to have valleys. You’re going to have bad ideas and you’re going to just have to follow them learn from that process. I think it would’ve helped me because I kept thinking I was right around the corner from some great success because I kept getting really close, but that’s really common for really talented writers and that period can keep happening for years and years.