How does the editor-at-large of McSweeney's Internet Tendency — the go-to website for hip-lit society, the home of essays on Comic Sans and festive gourds — end up teaching creative writing at the College of Charleston?
The short answer: his wife's job.
John Warner's 2011 novel, The Funny Man, was praised by Publisher's Weekly and the New York Journal of Books, and he writes columns for InsideHigherEd.com and Printers Row, the Chicago Tribune's book blog. But his wife is a veterinarian, and wherever Mrs. Warner has worked or studied, her husband has followed and taught. John was on the faculty at Clemson for six years while they lived in Greenville and served some time at Virginia Tech, before the couple relocated to the Lowcountry. And now that Warner's a Charleston resident, we couldn't imagine a better pick for Blue Bicycle Books' Piccolo Fiction Open, which returns to the festival this week.
After the Warners moved to town, he sent his resume to the College of Charleston. The school took him on as an adjunct professor for a year until the visiting professor position opened up in 2012. The job is renewed on an annual basis, and Warner is set to teach during the 2013-2014 school year. So far, so good, he says.
Although the students in his freshman composition classes couldn't care less about their teacher's resume. "In my creative writing classes, students are more likely to be familiar with something like McSweeney's, and even my first semester I had a student that was a self-declared McSweeney's groupie, but I sort of enjoy how unimpressed they are in a way," Warner says. "It's not that they don't have an appropriate amount of respect for whatever I have achieved, it's just that at the same time I think they expect people in their classroom to deliver something other than their resume. That's fine with me." Fortunately, he thinks their work is as good as some of his more advanced and graduate students.
Warner admits that his style of writing doesn't fall into the so-called "Southern spirit" that you find among Charleston's established literati, like his CofC colleague Bret Lott. Instead, his McSweeney's bylines touch on sports team-inspired body painting and fighting procrastination with a bucket of acid ("not too caustic, just strong enough for a tingling burn," he wrote). This kind of background might not be attractive to a student looking to continue in a regional tradition, "but nobody seems to care about that at the same time," Warner says. "There's a lot of room for diversity, and really one of things I've noticed about CofC students is there's a lot of diversity in terms of attitudes, or even geographical diversity, particularly compared to Clemson." Maybe Warner will herald a new literary movement in Charleston, one less focused on South of Broad society or sunsets on the marsh.
Warner may never pen an ode to oyster roasts, but he's found the move to the Holy City revitalizing. "Not that Greenville is a terrible place to live, but coming to Charleston from Greenville feels like a liberation in a way," he says. The Warners now have season tickets to PURE Theatre and attend literary events at the Charleston Library Society and CofC.
Still, Warner does think Charleston is lacking in one major area: bookstores. "Blue Bicycle is a great, primarily used bookstore and I go there all the time — except I live in Mt. Pleasant," he says. "My only other option is the Barnes and Noble here and it's just not the same. Even where I grew up in Chicago, my mom owned an independent bookstore for 22 years, so I've got a soft spot for those places. I would love to see somebody take a run at doing that and having more readings and inviting even more authors in, and not having to have them surrounding an event or something happening at the college."
For now, though, Charleston will have to make do with events like the Piccolo Fiction Open. The participating writers — Warner, bestseller Katie Crouch, former City Paper intern Cameron Jones, and 2012 Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest runner-up Sara C. Thomason — will draft five-minute short stories based on the prompt: "I ducked into the alley ..." When the City Paper spoke to Warner, he hadn't started on his piece yet.
"So I actually have to get on that," he said before we hung up. "The time is shrinking."