During a recent faculty salon at the Daniel Arts Center, Bard College at Simon’s Rock‘s provost and vice president Ian Bickford called Brendan Mathews a “cherished professor, colleague and guide to many of our students.”
Bickford remarked that Mathews often communicates to his students that writing is hard, that there’s no easy path to it, and he does this by standing in front of them and being what he is: “an extraordinary writer who also has to work really hard at it, as all writers do.”
Held during a family weekend for students and their families as well as alumni and friends of Simon’s Rock, the salon featured Mathews reading from and discussing his critically acclaimed debut novel “The World of Tomorrow.”
Publishers Weekly called Mathews a “writer to watch” and his book has received starred reviews in Booklist and Library Journal, to name a few. Named an Editors’ Choice by the New York Times Book Review, his book has also been included on must-read lists in Entertainment Weekly, O, the Oprah Magazine, and the New York Post, among others.
Mathews committed seven and a half years to the novel, conducting research and writing while simultaneously writing and publishing short stories – two of which appeared in the annual “Best American Short Stories” anthology – and teaching literature and creative writing at Simon’s Rock.
Thanks to a Fulbright U.S. Scholar teaching and research award, Mathews was able to spend a semester in Ireland teaching in the graduate creative writing program at University College Cork. He took advantage of his time there to conduct further research for his book.
Mathews has been teaching at Simon’s Rock since 2007 and also serves as head of its division of language and literature. He focused most of his free time on the novel, becoming “productively obsessed” with a “sense of mission,” he said during the salon.
Mathews wanted to get the story down to a more intimate level. He accomplished this by drawing from his own family history and focusing on a specific time in history.
The eldest of the three Dempsey brothers featured in his book is based on his Irish grandfather, Peter, who immigrated to New York in 1929 to become a big-band arranger. He dreamed of “drinking in the jazz age” but, because he arrived only months before the crash that caused the Great Depression, he “got the tiniest piece of the jazz age,” Mathews said.
As one of four brothers himself, Mathews understands the dynamic of the Dempsey brothers, but he didn’t want the book to center just on them; he wanted to go beyond and add characters who expanded the scope of the novel. “I wanted a book full of immigrants, and dreamers, and strivers and schemers,” he said.
Set during one week in June 1939, midway between the opening of the World’s Fair in April and the beginning of the World War II in September, the novel places the characters between two poles: optimism and catastrophe. That time in June was a pivotal moment in history, Mathews said.
“The characters find themselves believing that their world of tomorrow is going to be much brighter than the world of today, but also dreading that it could fall apart, all too easily and to catastrophic effect,” he said.
Mathews wanted a book that explored the connections between characters rather than focusing on a single protagonist. He compared his characters to the musicians in Count Basie’s jazz orchestra. “I wanted every character to come forward and solo,” he said. “And then I wanted them to step back and join the band, to keep the whole song moving.”
As a professor at a liberal arts college, Mathews realized how much “novel writing aligns with what a liberal arts education is meant to provide,” he said. “Like novel writing, education requires persistence and discipline.”
He sees in his students at Simon’s Rock the same kind of “voracious curiosity” required to sustain a novel, and he has looked for ways that his writing and teaching can nurture each other.
He regularly teaches a course in modern Irish literature, which focuses on the work of William Butler Yeats. The Irish poet, who died in January 1939, is a character in his book.
Mathews also teaches 21st-century literature, which allows him to keep up with current authors. “This allows students to see that really vital, important work is being written every day, every month, every year,” he said. “Students are reading authors that are pushing boundaries.”
And in his writing workshops, Mathews has brought in his laptop to show the many drafts his stories have gone through. He tells his students that, with anything they read, they “have never read a first draft” and that any published story is the result of round after round of revision.
“The World of Tomorrow” can be found in many independent bookstores, including locally at The Bookloft in Great Barrington and The Bookstore in Mathews’ hometown of Lenox. To read more about Mathews and his book, visit www.brendanmathews.com.