Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Profile: Asheville Novelist Cynn Chadwick

As a (38-year-old nontraditional) college student, one of my requirements as a Mass Communications major is to write for the UNCA paper, the Blue Banner.

Here's my first assignment, a profile of UNCA professor and novelist Cynn Chadwick.

I don't much care for journlism, but I did like Professor Chadwick.



Like any university professor, UNC-Asheville's Cynn Chadwick holds an advanced degree. But unlike most, she flunked out of college on her first try. "Instead of going to classes," she says, "I used to go to the track and play the ponies with my college guidance counselor. We’ll call him Lenny. He weighed about 400 pounds and smoked cigars. I would drive us in my ’71 VW bug, and Lenny would give me 20 bucks to bet."

Get the feeling that this isn't your typical professor? A student once asked her what books she had written. Chadwick told her. Then another student asked about the nature of her books. “Hot, girl-on-girl sex,” Chadwick replied.

While her two published novels are hardly full of lesbian sex, just ask her students: This is exactly the kind of outrageous thing that literature professor Cynthia (call her Cynn) Chadwick would say.

Answering interview questions in her second-floor Karpen Hall office, the woman Chadwick's former student Melissa Deckert describes as a "fun, crazy lady" wears jeans, no makeup, mountain sandals and a rumpled white blouse. She looks almost exactly like the photograph of her that appears on her faculty webpage: Unkempt and careworn, with unruly blond hair and a gaze that is intense but somehow completely unthreatening.

Visitors to her office find a door covered with bumper stickers and vintage trashy novel covers. Taped next to the door is a picture postcard of a group of well-dressed, white-haired older women, all of whom are flipping the photographer the bird. But in the center of Chadwick's door is something considerably less nefarious: A reproduction of an illustration from a children’s picture book of story prompts, Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. It’s a mysterious-looking black and white image of a bedroom in which the wallpaper is printed with white doves. One of the doves seems to be coming to life, and has already freed one wing from the bedroom wall.

As a former carpenter, house cleaner, file clerk, bookstore employee and stay-at-home parent who now teaches at the university level, Cynn Chadwick knows about transformation. But she's quick to correct the triteness of the assumption that college provided an escape to a place that was somehow better. "College didn't help me escape anything," she says. Instead, an education gave her "structure, purpose, hope. It opened doors, presented opportunities, focused my attention, made me brave..."

But as a 30-year-old mother of two with no job, no skills and no money, "I was terrified," she says. "Desperate. Alone. I didn't know what to do." To "buy some time" to figure her life out, she enrolled in an adult-degree program that allowed her to do most of her coursework from home while caring for her children. With the emotional and financial support of her family, she eventually earned a Master's degree.

That was more than 10 years ago. Now her kids are grown and she spends her days spicing up the lives of her students, who find themselves with a professor who once revealed that after her divorce she threw her wedding ring from off the top of a mountain. "I would have become a homeless, crack-addicted prostitute in Weehawken, New Jersey was it not for getting an education," she says. "It's obvious." She might have a fondness for informality, profanity and dryly delivered outrageousness, but she’s also a literature professional.

“I’m a craft-oriented writer and teacher,” she says. “I’m here with the tool-bag. I’ll show you how all the cool stuff works: the techniques, devices, form, etc… I’ll show you who does it well, how it’s done and how to employ it. I know I can teach craft. It’s the only thing for sure that I know I can do.”

Apparently she can also write novels, since her published works include Cat Rising and Girls With Hammers, both difficult-to-classify works of lesbian/Southern/humorous fiction published by The Haworth Press, Inc.

Girls With Hammers was nominated for both the Lambda Literary Award and the American Library Associations’ Stonewall Literary Award, and was a finalist in the 2005 Golden Crown Literary Awards. Next year Haworth will publish her latest novel, Babies, Bikes, and Broads.

Chadwick credits her father with helping her onto the novelist’s road. He read to his young daughter every night, forgoing bedtime fare like The Wind in the Willows for the more thrilling beat of Drums Along the Mowhawk. The two loved to explore historical sites, museums and old battlefields together, an interest that the adult Chadwick retains even after her relocation from New Jersey to North Carolina. Her Master’s degree concentrated on Southern writers, and so far her books are set exclusively in the South. Here in the South, Chadwick says, “There’s a lot of fun, quirky stuff you can do that wouldn’t play out the same way in a story set in Hoboken.”

An out lesbian as well as a naturalized Southerner, Chadwick recently left gay-oriented fiction to “go over to the dark side” (write mainstream fiction). She's looking for a publisher for a completed mainstream novel, The Flying Sperm Donors, “about two single welfare mothers working their way out of Section Eight housing, and the revenge they take on the deadbeat dads that dumped them.” And she’s almost finished with final edits of Elbert & Me, about a newly divorced Southern romance writer who returns home to save the family farm and in the process meets her old flame, Elbert, who "didn’t exactly turn out the way she’d thought.”

Want to learn more about bikes, babies, girls, hammers, sperm donors and Elbert? Take a class with Cynn Chadwick. Next semester she's scheduled to teach LANG 120 and a 300-level fiction workshop. Until then, read one of her novels or check out her website-in-progress at


My upcoming Banner articles include one on the upcoming Mountain State Fair and another about the Asheville blogging community. If you've been to the Mountain State Fair and are willing to answer a few questions in email, send email! And if you're a local blogger who's willing to be quoted in a Banner article (you can use your blogname; no real names required), let me know. Thanks!


Edgy Mama said...

Nice article, Jennifer.

You don't care much for journalism? Careful, you don't want to cut yourself out of a whole bunch of freelance writing opps!

I'd be happy to talk to you about my bloggie, and give you my real name. You know where I am.

I've been to the State Fair, but I don't have much insight into it.

Gordon Smith said...

Happy to help, Jennifer, but I haven't been to the Fair.