Fiction with feeling
Just like his characters, critically acclaimed author Timothy Westmoreland perseveres through illness and pain
by Sherry Wodraska Neaves
Ordinary folks populate Timothy Westmoreland's stories. Farmers, roofing contractors, auto mechanics, machine operators. Hardy New Englanders and determined Texans enduring the senseless struggles and tragedies large and small that make up everyday life.
(Dallas Morning News: Cheryl Diaz Meyer)
Reviewers say you'll like these people. New York Times critic Katherine Wolff talks of pathos and yearning and "taut scenes."
"Like a fine country-western song, Timothy A. Westmoreland's first collection of stories aches with the pathos of men who've been wronged. … Good As Any asks hard questions about human yearning, about the meaning of home and, perhaps most essentially, about why men love dogs. Answers lie in Westmoreland's taut scenes and the finality of a few well-aimed guns."
Not bad for a man who never set out to be a writer.
Born and raised in Dallas, Westmoreland entered UTA a prodigy in astronomy and astrophysics, seeing nothing but bright stars in his future. As an undergraduate, he helped teach astronomy labs, where his specialty was UV Ceti stars, sometimes called flare stars, named for red dwarfs in the Cetus constellation.
Then severe complications from diabetes changed everything.
"Vision deterioration was the main reason I changed my major," he said. "It's very difficult to do the complex mathematical equations used in astrophysics strictly in your head. You need to be able to see to do the work.
"For a long time I was clinging; I was so reluctant to leave the Physics Department. I had started doing astrophysics research in high school. I never dreamed I would be a writer. In fact, if you went back and asked my high school English teachers, 'What are the chances that Tim Westmoreland will become a writer?' they would have said, 'None at all.' "
A neighbor encouraged Westmoreland to enroll at UTA, where he found the faculty very approachable. "They would help you on any problem, even if you weren't in their class. In my family, other than my father, no one went to college. It was not encouraged."
Westmoreland, 37, graduated in 1992 with a bachelor's degree in English. Today he writes and teaches creative writing at Amherst College and Hampshire College, both in western Massachusetts. Family problems almost brought an end to his university education, though. He credits English Professor Emory Estes with rescuing him at a critical time.
"Dr. Estes was instrumental in my staying in college. He literally kept me off the street, gave me money and helped me get back on my feet."
For his part, Dr. Estes calls Westmoreland "an outstanding student," noting that "Timothy is persistent. He doesn't quit. I rather admire that."
With the door to an astrophysics career closed, Westmoreland discovered his literary roots. He had actually begun writing at an early age, before he could even read.
"One of my first memories—I must have been about 5, before I was in school—is that I wrote in a spiral notebook, scribbles really, and tried to convince the other kids that it was cursive writing and that's why they couldn't read it," he said.
"All through childhood I always kept a journal. I just assumed that everybody did. Not really a day-to-day diary, but a place where I went and responded to what was going on in the world."
After graduating from UTA, Westmoreland landed a writing fellowship with John Edgar Wideman, author of Brothers and Keepers and Hoop Roots, at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "Wideman called me on the phone offering me the fellowship. He kept badgering me until I agreed to come."
So the Westmorelands—Tim and wife Debbie met in a Mesquite record store in 1986—packed up and moved north. (He admits now that fleeing the Texas heat was a factor. That, and to be near his beloved Red Sox.)
Upon arrival at UMass, Westmoreland found himself in exalted company. "I had the fellowship, but in my group of entering writers I was the only person from a state school. All the others were from Ivy League schools or very prestigious private institutions."
The Westmorelands' first New England residence was on the ground floor of a 200-yearold farmhouse, an evocative structure that stirred Tim's curiosity.
"I wondered how these people lived, and I realized that there's another world out there, beyond the city, beyond the academy."
Soon he was writing almost exclusively about that world.
"I think I look at people and wonder about their lives. Sometimes I see a person who interests me and the story comes out of the character. I look, too, at my own body and its frailties, then I mix the two together and characters begin to emerge. You get a sense about them and how they live. They're sort of like actors: You just watch them and see what happens. You let them do what they would do in a given situation."
Many of the characters on Westmoreland's mental stage struggle with health problems similar to his own—diabetes, cancer.
"I use it," he said of the diabetes. "I make you look at it. It's a way of examining the ablebodied world from the margins."
While in graduate school, Westmoreland lost most of the vision in his left eye. Since then, he has undergone 20 or so operations and has regained some sight, but the diabetes continues its assault. One complication, in which the disease attacks nerve endings, leaves him with constant discomfort. Although medication helps him sleep, he said, waking hours are spent in "an incredible amount of pain."
He is also dealing with a condition called gastroparesis, in which the stomach nerves die, making digestion impossible. Doctors are considering an experimental procedure, implanting a pacemaker in the stomach to stimulate digestion.
No wonder his characters face challenges.
"A lot of times I have a lot more in common with my characters in fiction than I do with the people in my academy," he said.
Westmoreland and his characters got their first literary break when a story was selected for inclusion in the Scribner's Best of the Fiction Workshops 1998 anthology.
"I didn't think I had a snowball's chance in hell of making the book," he said, "but late one night I got a call saying, ‘We've picked your story.' "
And the game was on. Charles Baxter, another mainstay in the landscape of contemporary American fiction, selected a piece for inclusion in the 2001 edition of Best New American Voices. Editors from Harcourt publishers called; Good As Any hit the market and will soon be available in paperback, and a second book is coming. Reviews on Good As Any have been positive.
The Chicago Tribune: "Good As Any is a truly fresh short story collection. Tim Westmoreland has overcome physical and psychological hardship and has come through with an original voice and a harsh, bracing vision of life in the rural regions of Texas and New England. His characters have lives filled with illness, sorrow and grief, as well as a profound sense of humor and the irony of it all. When a writer this accomplished has something to say, we should all take the time to listen."
The Los Angeles Times called Good As Any an "impressive debut collection," adding that "Westmoreland's stories have novelistic momentum and heft; they're slices of life that, before our eyes, evolve into stirring American landscapes."
Labeled a "New Visionary" by Book magazine, Westmoreland was part of a cover story on "Breakthrough Writers You Need to Know." "
"It's all kind of hard to take in," he said of the praise. "It's hard because in some way you feel that you've almost got to compete with your own work. Plus, as a writer you get so used to getting kicked around that when something good comes along it's sort of hard to believe."
Estes, his good friend and mentor, believes.
"Tim took three or four of my classes. He started with poetry and went on to short stories. It was quite evident early on that he had talent. He knew he had to find his own style, and he found his style and took off with it."
That's Timothy Westmoreland. Not just good as
any. Better than most.