In 2014 I was on a publishing panel at a writers’ conference here in New York City. My first novel had just come out and I was thrilled to be invited and sit on a panel that included some friends and peers who had published several books more than me. I remember acutely the first question from the audience, after a Q & A with the moderator. The question was from a young man: What do you say when someone asks what you do for a living? One writer said rather automatically: I’m a college teacher. His name was Justin and he had published four books by then. I was a bit shocked by his response. When the microphone came my way, I said proudly: I’m a writer. All the others looked my way, and gave a knowing smile. Six years later, I know the irony.
In 2006, when I was 33, I applied to Queens College, having never been to university before. I was a bartender, who wrote, and served drinks while obsessing over story ideas silently. I was also a serious reader. I had no idea that being an English major would satisfy both urges overwhelmingly. After finishing at Queens College, I went on to get my MFA in Fiction Writing at Hunter College. I could not have done this without the support of the English Department and my mentors here. The Masters was key in getting my novel published—advisement, connections, an up-close and practical view of how a writer survives. But my ongoing relationships with Queens College mentors were equally influential. After the MFA I worked a handful of jobs while working on my first novel. I was a waiter, a bartender (again), a paperback editor at Picador, and taught writing in private workshops, all the while writing on the side.
I’m proud to say in the midst of all this I wrote and published several short stories and essays in national journals, including One Story magazine and Harper’s. I became a book critic for the L.A. Times, and, with two friends, started an online international literary journal, The Scofield. I remain its managing editor. The novel, High as the Horses’ Bridles, came out in 2014, and was published to critical acclaim. But perhaps most unexpected (and strange) and providing good balance was bartending on television’s Bravo’s Watch What Happens, Live with Andy Cohen. It was surreal. Some of my more “literary” friends did not approve, but seeing Andy hold my novel up to the camera still makes its way into my waking dreams. Writing is a hustle, and I have been hustling until I got here, right here, at Queens College, graciously back where I started. Where I’m a college teacher, a college teacher who writes.
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