Austin Wright and Me

It may not be news to say that a teacher can change your life, but it is a fact that professor Austin Wright, who passed away in 2003, changed mine.

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Jonathan Valin, a Cincinnati native and resident, is the executive editor of The Absolute Sound. He has written 11 Harry Stoner detective novels; 1989’s Extenuating Circumstances won the Shamus Award.

click to enlarge Austin Wright at the University of Cincinnati - Photo: Provided
Photo: Provided
Austin Wright at the University of Cincinnati

It may not be news to say that a teacher can change your life, but it is a fact that professor Austin Wright, who passed away in 2003, changed mine. I was a floundering hippie when Dr. Wright took me under his wing. It was the early ’70s, and I’d been dropping in and out of the University of Cincinnati for the better part of six years. A putative English major who wanted to be a writer, I simply didn’t have enough discipline to complete a course. My record was a long string of incompletes — save for the classes I took with Dr. Wright. His courses I always finished.

It wasn’t just that Dr. Wright was an extraordinarily perceptive teacher, although he was; it was the way he taught — the Socratic method he used — that made his classes so compelling. Dr. Wright rarely lectured. Instead, he allowed his students to make his points for him by asking us questions that, when adequately answered (and it took time and a series of more refined questions to answer adequately), left us with the sense that it was we, not Dr. Wright, who had unraveled the structure of the novel or short story being discussed. I’ve never had another professor who had this gift for making learning such a thrilling participatory process.

So I went to every class that Dr. Wright offered — from the time I was a freshman through the dropout years (when he let me sit in on his courses). Over that span, he became not just a mentor but also a paternal friend. Realizing that I was stuck in a situation at UC I was never going to dig myself out of, he wrote a letter on my behalf to his colleagues in the University of Chicago, where he had taken his Ph.D. I do not know precisely what the letter said, but Chicago accepted me into its graduate program without a B.A. It was the beginning of my road back from aimlessness; it was the start of my career as a writer.

It may sound corny, but the truth is without professor Dr. Wright I’m not sure what would have become of me. To no small extent, I owe him the life I’ve since led.

After my mystery novels started being published in 1980, I returned to Cincinnati. For a year or so, I had the chance to teach creative writing at UC and Dr. Wright shared his office with me. From then on, we saw a great deal of each other. As much a fan of movies as my wife and I were, he and his wife Sally, who passed away this year, would come to our house on a regular basis to have dinner, watch the latest releases on videotape and talk about books, including my novels and his.

Though too few people in our town know this, Dr. Wright was not only the best teacher in Cincinnati, he was also the best writer. Starting in 1969, with Camden’s Eyes, he wrote a series of highly praised novels, several of them, including Tony and Susan, written when he was in his seventies (a thing that gives me hope). Like most writers who are also movie lovers, he longed to see one of his books made into a film.

When the rights to Tony and Susan were sold to a studio in 1993, he and Sally took Kathy and me out to dinner to celebrate. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen Dr. Wright happier than he was that evening. He was convinced that the screenwriter would do a good job of retaining the complex structure of Tony and Susan and thought it would only be a matter of months before principal photography commenced. Having had my own novels optioned by studios, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that most literary properties stayed “in development” for years and were seldom made into movies.

Well, I’m delighted to say that time has proven me wrong. It may have taken a quarter of a century, and Austin has been gone now for half of those years, but Tony and Susan has been made into a film (Nocturnal Animals) by a distinguished director with a distinguished cast. Since it hasn’t yet opened yet in Cincinnati, I haven’t seen it, but you can be sure that I will on opening night. And when I do, I will be thinking of Austin Wright. My dear friend, I couldn’t be happier for you.

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