15 February 2010

Spotlight On . . . Judith Moffett

Welcome to the Literary Road Trip and my Spotlight on . . . Judy Moffett. I'm so happy to introduce you to Judy today. One of my favorite things about this feature is expanding my horizons and being exposed to new-to-me authors. Judy is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction and of science fiction, literary criticism, and poetry. Talk about diversity!

Judy is non-specialist in other areas too; for example, she lives in two states and speaks at least two languages. The critical question, though, is this: Is she really a Pennsylvania author? Let's find out. [Note: Judy was in the process of moving and graciously scrambled to find some photos to share; these are non-digital.]

Pennsylvania Writer: Credentials

I’m not a birthright Pennsylvanian; I was born in Louisville and have moved around a lot. But I’ve done quite a bit of time in the Keystone State. After completing a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, I taught for two years at Penn State’s Behrend College in Erie. Later I came back to teach creative writing at Penn from 1978 to 1993, and since 2005 have been spending the fall and winter in Swarthmore. I was surprised, when I’d added all this up, to discover that I’ve actually lived in Pennsylvania longer than anyplace else.

But all by itself that wouldn’t, to my mind, necessarily qualify me to be considered a Pennsylvania writer. Or a Penntucky or Kensylvania writer either (my runner-up state, of birth as of residency, turns to be Kentucky). It seems to me an equally critical requirement that the place itself be enough of a presence in enough of the writing. A hypothetical science-fiction writer, born and bred in Pennsylvania, who located all her books off-world, might even so be considered a PA writer; the question would get murkier for an import like me. And conversely, though I grew up in Cincinnati from age three to college, Ohio has left only the occasional clear footprint in my work.

But Pennsylvania!

I was a poet long before I wrote any fiction. A number of pieces in my first poetry collection, Keeping Time (LSU, 1976), were nature poems, written in Erie and set in the landscape south of town—was so happy to be out of West Philadelphia that it seemed I had never appreciated cornfields, cow pastures, even autumn foliage so intensely. And when Penn hired me back, to teach the reading and writing of poetry, I was pleased at the job offer but my heart sank at the thought of returning to city living. I looked for a house as far from West Philadelphia as I could get, and still be on a train line within a reasonable commute.

So it was that in the early eighties, when I starting writing science fiction, I was living, with the husband I had met on my first day back at Penn, in a woodsy Delaware County subdivision, fifteen miles from Center City and a twelve-minute drive from Ridley Creek State Park.

Though I hadn’t even known the park was there when I bought the house, I discovered it almost right away. The place had been a private estate, with 2,600 acres of fields and pastures, a mature beech forest, small stone mill workers’ houses, and running through it all the beautiful signature creek which had formerly turned the mill wheels. This spectacular unlooked-for resource single-handedly reconciled me to my new urban commitment. I drove out there as often as I could, memorized the maze of marked trails and hiked them through every season and kind of weather. My husband and I jogged there for a time; some of the paths are paved. We picked blackberries and made jam; we gathered wineberri
es, fragile and sweet, and piled them on top of cream cheese pies. The park, more than the university, was the center of my personal life, and when I came to write science fiction I located the events of my first two stories there.

More stories shortly emerged, clung together, and became the basis of what we in the trade call a “fix-up”: individual pieces arranged chronologically, with bridgework to fill in the narrative gaps. The result was published as my second novel, The Ragged World (St. Martin’s, 1991). The ragged world of the book-in-progress expanded to include more of Philadelphia and the eastern part of the state, including the Poconos, especially the area around the Appalachian Trail where it crosses the Delaware River at the Water Gap, and where Ted and I had a timeshare. Two of my characters attend German
town Friends School; several teach at Penn, and one, a botanist, at what was then called Penn State Delaware County (now Penn State Brandywine). The crisis in The Ragged World is a meltdown of the Peach Bottom nuclear power plant on the Susquehanna River, and the headline of The Philadelphia Inquirer review screamed THIS WOMAN NUKED THE MAIN LINE!

While these stories were multiplying into a book, I was also working on a “real” first
novel, with a story arc that runs unbroken from beginning to end. In it I recount the adventures of a group of space travelers who land their ship on an earthlike planet and found a colony. What could this possibly have to do with Pennsylvania? One, the spacepeople are Quakers, and christen the planet—wait for it—Pennterra. (People spell “Pennterra” with only one “n” so persistently that I wonder whether kids are still being taught in school, as I was, that Penn-sylvania means Penn’s Woods.) Two, and more significantly, the book is a transparent science-fictionalization of the tensions in colonial Pennsylvania between three populations: the Quaker founders, the Delaware Indians, and the non-Quakers who came later and settled the western part of the state.

With the Main Line nuked, my Philadelphia setting had been poisoned and my story needed to move elsewhere. The second and third volumes of the Holy Ground Trilogy, of which The Ragged World turned out to be Volume I, take place outside the radiated zone—in Kentucky, in fact, for nearly all of Volume II (Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream) and much of Volume III (The Bird Shaman).

I respectfully submit the above to establish my credentials as a Pennsylvania writer. Or a Penntucky one.

I'm both convinced and proud to count Judy as a Pennsylvania author. If you haven't been to Pennsylvania, I encourage you to visit some of the places Judy mentions; all beautiful and all worth your while.
Just take a look at her photographs!

Here are the covers of Judy's books mentioned in her post:

For more more on Judy and to learn about her other books, be sure to visit her website.

Judith Moffett is an English professor, a poet, a Swedish translator, and the author of eleven books in five genres, including four science-fiction novels and two collections of poetry. She has received a number of literary awards, including two Fulbright Grants to Sweden, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Translation Grant. Two of her novels were New York Times Notable Books. Moffett divides the year between Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, and her hundred-acre ex-farm near Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Widowed in 1998, she lives with her standard poodles, Fleece and Feste.

For more posts in the Literary Road Trip project, visit the LRT link page. Thanks to Michelle of GalleySmith for hosting this fabulous project.


A Buckeye Girl Reads 2/15/10, 8:47 AM  

I'm going to have to check out some of her books! Wonderful interview. :)

Sheila (Bookjourney) 2/15/10, 8:59 AM  

Love the interview. I enjoy reading about authors and Judith Moffett was a new one to me that I need to spend some time looking up her work.

Julie P. 2/15/10, 9:14 AM  

Thank you so much for bringing this author to my attention! Love the PA and PSU ties. This is truly a fabulous guest post!

Michelle 2/15/10, 9:24 AM  

FAbulously accompllished woman. Great interview!

Marty Halpern 2/15/10, 3:47 PM  

Hi, Beth,

I was the one who contacted Judy and suggested she contribute to your Pennsylvania writers series. (I was born in McKeesport!) And I'm so pleased I did -- and that she did too! What a wonderful piece and there is no denying the history of PA in Judy's writings.

I also know Judy well enough to know that she's not going to self-promote her own work, so I'll have to do it. Her first novel, Pennterra, which she refers to above, was published just last year in trade paperback by Fantastic Books, after being out of print since 1993. I know, because I was the acquiring editor!

Cheers, and thanks again for a great series!
- marty

bermudaonion 2/15/10, 4:04 PM  

Since she's spent so much of her life in Pennsylvania, you have to count her as a Pennsylvania author!

Sandy Nawrot 2/15/10, 5:21 PM  

Yes, she would qualify in my book! The sound of that park sounds heavenly, and reminds me of the natural beauty in IN. Down here, it is miserable to go into the woods past late March due to bugs, and I miss it terribly.

Veens 2/16/10, 6:48 AM  

She definitely will count as a Pennsylvanian!
I will definitely chk out her books, if they r available here! Great post!

Margot 2/17/10, 3:17 PM  

You are finding all the best authors Pennsylvania has to offer. I like the way she writes and I like her background. I'm going to find at least one of her books.

Margot 2/17/10, 3:17 PM  

You are finding all the best authors Pennsylvania has to offer. I like the way she writes and I like her background. I'm going to find at least one of her books.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks 2/17/10, 5:05 PM  

Thanks for sharing this guest post!

Pennsylvania = Penn's woods. I didn't decipher that before, but I'll remember this fun fact for when I'm on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (or, Who's Smarter than a 5th Grader?)

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