Like most writers of his generation, Paul Ketzle has spent considerable chunks of his time honing his craft at creative writing workshops — the good ones, where “this is what I see you doing” leads the discussion, as well as the bad ones, where it’s “if this were my story . . .” But he also had that important year making carrot juice in Oregon.
The University of Utah professor — you’ll find him on the main floor of the University Honors Center, usually in close proximity to a black fedora and yellow legal pad — is a Southern boy. He grew up in Florida, getting his writing hands dirty as editor of his high school newspaper in Miami before going to Florida State, where he studied creative writing. Four years later, with graduate school acceptance in hand, he was unsure of exactly what he wanted to do. So he deferred, and went west, to Eugene, Oregon, where he knew just one person (but that individual had the requisite sleep-worthy couch). He spent his days at an organic juice co-op, peeling carrots and cutting out their imperfections before shredding them and feeding them into a juicer. His nights he spent catching up on his reading — Don Quixote, The Name of the Rose, whatever came to mind that needed to be read and hadn’t been. “I caught up on a lot of stuff and I got exposed to some really cool stuff,” he says. “And it started to shape, I guess, the writer I am now.” In Eugene, he also met Marcia — she was working the orange shift while he shredded carrots — and when he headed back to Florida, for graduate work at his alma mater, she went with him.
With an M.A. in his hand, and rings on their fingers, the couple came west again, for his Ph.D. at the University of Utah. It was here that he wrote The Late Matthew Brown, a book that took 15 years from the original germ of an idea to publication. As many first novels are, it’s a catchall, sweeping up a variety of interests that had been floating in his mind. It’s set in the South — he had to come to Utah, he says, to write about his home — where the life of the titular character, a somewhat placid player in the political structures of the New South, is complicated by the arrival of a precocious 12-year-old daughter he has never met before. The novel has elements of political thriller and mystery, and weaves plotlines that deal with environmentalism, capital punishment, race, and family history, but the core of the book is this father-daughter relationship. “I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have a child,” he says of beginning the novel. “So I decided to write a character who doesn’t know either, and suddenly finds himself a father.” The fact that, between conception and completion of the book, Ketzle himself became a father (he has two daughters, 11 and 5) helped turn Hero from a simple foil to Matthew to an integral part of the novel.
Ketzle says it took him three years to write the first 50 pages, but the imperative to finish his dissertation helped him finish that last 250 in six months. The manuscript won Utah’s original writing contest (2006), and after what Ketzle calls a considerable rewrite, the novel was published by Apprentice House (2015), and became a finalist for last year’s 15 Bytes Book Award. That, and his more than a decade in the state, should be sufficient to firmly establish the Florida native as a “Utah writer.” It doesn’t hurt that in conversation you’ll notice little hint of a Southern drawl — though he has a ways to go before he’ll be saying words like “Layton” and “mountains” in all their consonantal elusiveness. That linguistic marker may be for the second generation — the Ketzle family has settled themselves in the Forest Dale section of Sugar House, beneath the shadow of I-80, where they are currently renovating a house.
At the university, Ketzle shares an office with Elik Press publisher Andy Hoffmann and he says he’s increasingly coming to terms with the fact that, as his colleague Francois Camoin would put it, he’s a teacher who writes. But he seems comfortable in that role. Both Florida State’s and the U’s programs emphasized academic rigor and creative writing in equal measure, so he finds his courses on rhetoric and writing in the research university a comfortable fit. In a perfect world he might be teaching more fiction, but he enjoys the challenge of working with students from multiple disciplines, trying to bridge the divide of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” — and relishing the opportunity to point out to his science students that they have a hard time describing their work without resorting to literary tools like metaphor.
Though he teaches critical thinking and logic, Ketzle has seen that in life — whether in politics or personal relationships — people don’t understand the world through logic, they understand it through story. “Story and narrative is fundamental to all of our understanding,” he says. “It’s the way your brain understands and organizes the world.” So if you receive information that doesn’t fit your narrative, you dismiss it or transform it. Which is where fiction comes in. “I’m enough of an optimist that I believe if you can tell the story right, you can get people to appreciate greater complexity. Good fiction gets us closer to understanding the complexities, it teaches us to think better, to empathize better.”
When he’s not teaching, Ketzle is at work on his second novel, a draft of which he hopes to have finished by the end of the year. It’s set in the South again, but this time during the Civil War (Ketzle’s ancestors came from both sides of the Mason Dixon line). It is the end of the war, with Lee’s army trapped outside of Richmond at the Siege of Petersburg, but the book ranges as far afield as Japan and Cuba as it follows four characters’ storylines, trying to uncover how they’re all related. His novels, he says, “start with a character and a place. And some idea. Even if it’s just a feeling and you’re not quite sure what the idea is.” The Civil War intrigues him as a transformative event, the creation of a new America, and a new idea of Americanness — it provides him an opportunity to explore race and gender, the mutability of identity, and what was lost and what was gained in 1865.
“Novels are great opportunities to explore things that are not really easy to understand,” he says. He researches heavily — for the first novel he learned more about pesticides than he cares to remember, and for the second anachronisms are a minefield — and plot and backstory are intricately worked to create meaning in the novel. But in the end, he is eager to remain curious, to explore the mystery of his characters and ideas. It’s similar, he says, to how he plays pool. “I’m an intuitive pool player,” he tells his friends when they insist he call his shots. “I think, I’m gonna bank it off here, and maybe that ball will go in the corner pocket but something else might happen. And if it does, ‘Was that wrong? Did I know that was going to happen?’ I may have not consciously known it but did I still know it?” Writing is similar. He’s grasping at something, though he’s not always sure what, and he’s confident that in the process of reaching, something interesting will happen. “My work better mean more than I intended it to mean,” he says of his approach.
That’s where that year in Eugene and gallons of carrot juice comes in handy. You never know what literary topspin you might absorb from long nights of reading.
Paul Ketzle will be reading from his novel in progress at the READ LOCAL, Finch Lane Reading Series, Thursday April 27, 7 pm. In this Finch Gallery reading series, a collaboration between Salt Lake City Arts Council and 15 Bytes and support from Utah Humanities, we pair emerging local writers with established writers for a reading and discussion of their work. Jim Ure, recent winner of the Utah Original Writing Competition will be participating as well.
Read Larry Menlove’s review of The Late Matthew Brown here.