Humdinger: An Interview with Dr. Sam Pickering
I have always loved Robin Williams in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, in which he, portraying the dazzling, eclectic, and romantic Professor Keating, teaches his students to live out their dreams and “Seize the Day!” According to an entertainment piece by Joy Lanzendorfer, screenwriter Tom Schulman drew inspiration for Keating’s character from two of his professors at Montgomery Bell Academy, a Nashville boys preparatory school. Lanzendorfer writes that though the “inspiring speeches” came from Harold Clurman, the “quirky teaching style” came from Samuel Pickering, whom has published a handful of books through Mercer University Press.[i]
Dr. Pickering is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and has written over one-hundred and fifty essays in his lifetime, as well as more than thirty books. His most recent publication, Parade’s End, includes a compilation of familiar essays, or “Pickerings,” that celebrate the “passing drift of days and the quiet miracles of living.”[ii] When I joined the MU Press team as an intern, I pestered our marketing director Mary Beth for Dr. Pickering’s email and sent him a few questions about Parade’s End and life in general. Here’s what followed.
My Question (Q): In my favorite part from your essay “Honor,” you write that “many of life’s small bumps eventually tickle more than they irritate” (80). What, then, would you have to say about life’s big bumps?
Dr. Pickering’s Answer (A): Time changes perspective. What the 15-year-old thinks a big bump may be forgotten when she is 30. Then again at 50 she may think it important again. The old rhyme goes: Da, da, bumps-aroo / You got bumps all over you./ Da, da, bumps-aree / I got bumps all over me.
Anyway, what you think a big bump, I might at my age think insignificant—actually I will more than likely think it insignificant. The concerns of age and youth are different.
Q: My father, when I told him how I planned to write a life-changing, philosophical bildungsroman (coming of age novel), said that it’d probably go over his head and that he only reads for entertainment. You write that your “most sensible and kindest intention” in Parade’s End is to entertain (14). If one was to learn anything from your essays, what would it be?
A: I don’t presume to teach readers. In any case what one reader sees as red, another sees as purple, yet another, green. Entertainment is good enough. And you must understand that what entertains one person may not entertain another. The only person I always entertain is myself.
Q: Parade’s End, I feel, is like a trip down the rabbit hole of your thoughts. Do you always communicate in a stream-of-consciousness style, and why does this style of writing appeal to you?
A: That movement is plotted and plotted, outlined again and again, and revised again and again. Nothing is free flowing. The appearance of spontaneity like good prose takes endless hours of work.
Q: You say you don’t believe in inspiration, but “work and discipline” (75). However, in the introduction you write, “How nice it would be if readers wrote me and told me that my pages inspired them” (15). If you believe inspiration exists, then where in our lives does it belong?
A: Quoted out of context. Read the previous humorous sentence describing how the mule inspired Bill Nye—a mule! Want-to-be writers talk forever about inspiration and technique. Real writers write and read. They work. On inspiration: I cannot possibly tell some searcher what the role of inspiration should be in his life. How presumptuous and naïve that would [be].
Q: As a senior undergraduate student about to enter the “real world,” I’d like to ask what advice you’d give to me and my peers?
A: College is the real world. People get cancer and die. They commit suicide. They fall in love and into hatred. They laugh and cry. I am not a guru. Gurus are charlatans anyway. Let a person go to a Ted speech and come away “inspired” until she learns her mother is dying or until she learns she forgot to pay the automobile insurance. People live—that’s how life goes and goes. If someone wants a good guide, let her read “The Sermon on the Mount.” Of course, reading is reading—just one type of action. And reading the same piece influences, if it influences, different people differently. What is one person’s is only that.
And Elizabeth, your daddy is right. He reads for the right reason. AND you are the 4th person tell me today to have a great or wonderful day. Do people always talk and think in platitudes? And if so inspiration, non-existent as it is, won’t have a any real effect. Lastly you must understand you are at a different time of life from me. You cannot and should not think like me. And tell your daddy to read Alen Furst’s spy novels; they are humdingers.
I sent him several follow-up comments, and he sent this back.
“Advice. At about 4:45 as I was running through the dark and into dawn up and down the hills of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, I thought of some advice—enriching and maybe eye and mind changing—learn the names of the trees and flowers, insects, reptiles, birds, and all the creeping and crawling, flying and growing generations rooted or not—learn the names and see all of them, listen to them, touch them, and if you are not self-conscious talk to them—marvel and wonder and appreciate and then…”
And then what? I guess he left that up for interpretation. I didn’t ask, but just pondered on the thought.
7 Key Takeaways from this Interview:
- Real writers write and read.
- Time changes perspective.
- Reading for entertainment is good enough.
- College is the real world.
- Learn the names of the living creatures around you.
- The appearance of spontaneity takes hours and hours of work.
- Read carefully before you pull a quote out of context. (next time…)
So what do you think? Though Dr. Pickering says he writes to entertain himself, I was entertained and educated from both the interview and his Pickerings in Parade’s End. He’s humorous, down-to-earth, and delivers relatable messages sprinkled with snippets of his favorite poetry and prose. Your vocabulary will surely grow (humdinger is a new favorite of mine), you’ll learn something (maybe), but you might also stumble upon a bit of inspiration—though what is reaped from it is up to you.
Parade’s End is available for purchase through Mercer University Press’ website.
[i] Lanzendorfer, Joy. “15 Facts about Dead Poets Society.” Mental Floss. http://mentalfloss.com/article/59232/15-facts-about-dead-poets-society (accessed 30 August 2018).
[ii] Pickering, Sam. Parade’s End. Macon: Mercer UP, 2018.