From Cali to Turkey to ‘Nova: Alan Drew’s path

Mike Starosciak

Go to college. Graduate. Get a job. Work. Get married. Work. Have kids. Work. Retire. Move to Florida. Die.

Why do so many people think this is the normal cycle of life? It seems as though people are afraid to experience the world, scared to take risks. Sometimes we need someone to show us that there are other ways of doing things.

Meet Alan Drew. He is an accomplished novelist and Villanova professor. However, the path he has taken to arrive on our campus is anything but typical.

At first, life seemed normal for Drew. Growing up, he was never much of a reader or writer.

“The only way my mom would get me to read was by giving me James Bond novels when I was thirteen,” Drew says.

Instead, he loved the outdoors environment of Southern California.

At 18, Drew moved 30 miles up the California coast to attend California State University, Long Beach. He began his college career as an art major in order to pursue his passion for painting. While creating picturesque landscapes and majestic sunsets, his classmates were impressing professors with serious conceptual art.

Feeling out of his element, Drew switched majors. However, this second transition did not last long.

“I decided to be a vocal performance major until I realized I was scared to death to sing in front of people,” Drew says.

Around that time, Drew, along with a friend, embarked upon a seven-week road trip around the country. The trek spurred him to keep a journal for documenting daily events. He quickly grew bored by this sort of drab writing. However, a spark ignited when Drew shifted to crafting stories around incidents he witnessed during the day.

Returning from the road trip, Drew wrote a story that was printed in a Long Beach publication. Then, arriving back on campus for his junior year, he switched his major a third time to creative writing.

Drew graduated from Cal State and moved to Montana. He looked for a temporary occupation in Missoula with the hopes of attending University of Montana’s MFA (Master of Fine Arts) Program the following year.

However, the job search was unsuccessful so he continued seeking employment in Idaho, where his parents lived.

In time, a position was secured back in Montana at a Northern Cheyenne reservation working with emotionally disturbed children. Situated in the 700-person reservation, Drew would write during the night. He produced half of a melancholic novel.

“It was so depressing that the lead characters were driving around in a hearse,” Drew says.

Still harboring aspirations of attending an MFA program, Drew applied to several. Unfortunately, he did not receive one letter of acceptance. Going through this small crisis, he resolved that another seven months of harsh winter weather would not be ideal. Moving to San Francisco seemed like a much better option.

During his time in the Bay Area, Drew became a teacher and later married his wife, Mimi. They decided this was the perfect time to “do something crazy.”

At a job fair in Houston they stumbled into a position at a school in Istanbul, Turkey. The couple arrived in Turkey four days before the 1999 Marmara earthquake. Drew and Mimi were unscathed, though the natural disaster killed between 17 and 40,000 people and left half a million homeless.

The earthquake and its aftermath would be an inspiration for Drew’s future novel, “Gardens of Water,” yet interestingly enough, his fiction writing while in Turkey focused on California.

After three years in Turkey, Drew and Mimi returned to the United States after having been accepted to the University of Iowa. Mimi would enroll for a Master’s of education, while Drew would be going for his MFA – a highly-selective program which rejected him ten years earlier.

Iowa gave Drew two years to focus solely on his writing. Sometimes it was hard for him not to feel self-conscious.

“I was surrounded by extremely talented people who were much younger, coming from Princeton, Harvard and UPenn. A lot had agents and are published in significant journals,” Drew says. “I was scared to death the whole time.”

Thanks to the encouragement from one of his professors, the esteemed writer Ethan Canin, Drew wrote a story that awarded him a Teaching/Writing Fellowship for his second year. With confidence growing in his writing ability, he began the novel “Gardens of Water.”

Following the birth of his first child, Nathaniel, Drew feared he would ruin his family being a writer. He finished his novel while teaching high school in Cincinnati, and saw the book published in February 2008.

Concern over his decision to pursue fiction writing subsided when the book gained acclaim with numerous positive reviews. The New York Times Book Review called “Gardens of Water” “sensitive and thought-provoking,” while USA Today declared it “a fascinating, heartbreaking book.”

Earlier this year the book was published in paperback.

Today, in between working on a second novel or caring for his one-year old Adeline Lucille, Alan Drew can be found teaching creative writing courses in Tolentine. His passion for writing has led some students to rethink their life goals.

Hannah Smith, a senior in Drew’s “Writing the Novella” course, says “the class has definitely changed my outlook on the writing process.  I came in not really wanting to be a writer, but now I’m thinking about getting my MFA eventually.”

In these troubled economic times, many students are realizing there is no specific major that leads to an automatic job.

Obviously, not everyone has the urge to be a writer or live in Turkey. Nevertheless, it helps to be reminded that there are other ways than a business, law or doctoral degree to make a living.