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Alumni News | Andrew R. Touhy wrangles the voices in 'Designs for a Magician's Top Hat'

Ohio University alumnus Andrew R. Touhy won Yemassee's inaugural fiction chapbook prize for his recently released "Designs for a Magician's Top Hat," a book that he says emerged from listening to voices like Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Franz Kafka—and notwithstanding all the other voices in the room spraying "hope and despair in all directions."

Touhy graduated in 1998 with an M.A. in Literary History (and all but an M.A. in Creative Writing) from the College of Arts and Sciences. He now teaches fiction at The Writing Salon in San Francisco and Berkeley and is a prolific publisher of short stories.

A recipient of the San Francisco Browning Society’s Dramatic Monologue Award and Fourteen Hills Bambi Holmes Fiction Award, Touhy is also a nominee for inclusion in Best New American Voices.

Q&A with Andrew R. Touhy

Q: What was your inspiration for the new book?

A: "Designs for a Magician's Top Hat" is carved out of my larger full-length story manuscript "Secret of Mayo." I chose like stories in the fabulist tradition that I hoped would cleave/cohere in a single satisfying unit. The stories themselves—some as short as a paragraph—draw from such influences as Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Franz Kafka, all of whom I was reading at the time, and thinking deeply about. The size of some of their pieces, the unconventional forms they take, their unorthodox approach to narrative—all intrigued and excited me. Still excite me.

Q: And what was the biggest challenge in writing it? (Advice to other OHIO writers?)

A: The biggest obstacle to any piece of writing—including a book-sized piece of writing—is butt to chair. Telling yourself day in and day out that the only question worth asking, a la Richard Bausch, is, "Did I write today?" A lot of voices get in the room when you sit down to engage in any creative act. Most of them spray hope and despair in all directions. The trick, as I understand it, and practice it, is to try to disappear into the word, into the sentence. The challenge is to commit to this time, and then accept that whatever you do in that time is the praying, is the writing. And that over time, with patience, a formed thing, perhaps beautiful and satisfying to you, will form. Talent is a long patience said Chekhov. I'd say patience is a long talent, too. I give myself permission (sometimes grudgingly, sometimes happily) every day to write, and fail, and write better.

Designs for a Magician's Top Hat

Q: What was your major/degree, and any minors or certificates, and what’s your current vocation and avocation?

A: I took an M.A. in Literary History. I wrote my thesis on Raymond Carver's work, his short stories, with the guidance/mentorship of Darrell Spencer—a wonderful fiction writer and teacher and human being. All the while I was studying literary history, I was also taking courses in creative writing, poetry at first with Mark Halliday, and then fiction, with (the late) Jack Matthews, Darrell, and Joan Connor. I all but graduated with an M.A. in creative writing, too. I teach creative writing now in San Francisco and Berkeley, adult education at The Writing Salon. I have blood-money gigs, as any writer does, but they're less interesting to mention. Since I write, my avocation is my vocation, and vice versa. I like to ride motorcycles. Garden. Yoga (you're forced to practice when you move to California). Cook. Block my son's karate kicks and chops.

Q: Who were your favorite professors and how did they make an impact on your life?

A: The Crowls (Sam and Susan), David Bergdahl, Dean McWilliams, the above mentioned fiction writers and poet. Certainly they made a huge impact on my life. Their dedication to their craft, be it scholarly work or teaching or writing or throwing good parties. Their intelligence and knowledge and easy generosity with both. They taught me what they knew and made me want, via their example, to ignite feeling and dedication in others. I try—with each class I plan and teach and revise—to do just this.

Q: Do you still keep in touch with any of your faculty?

A: Less than I'd like. But I did spam them with a group email when "Designs" was released.

Q: What was your ah-ha moment at OHIO—that point where you said to yourself, “I’ve got this!”?

A: I'm not sure I had an ah-ha moment, precisely. I had a lot of uh-oh moments—many more of those. But in the end, or all along, I was growing into my roles and positions: graduate student, composition instructor, co-editor of a literary magazine, resident of Southeast Ohio. When it came time to write and complete my thesis, I was ready—charged to do the work and pleased to share it with my principals. It was awarded a department prize that year, which I'm very proud of. With that award, and what was said about my writing, my approach, my thought, I felt nearly like a colleague. How over the moon was I?

Q:  What was the hardest hill you had to climb (not counting Jeff Hill) at OHIO? And how did you overcome challenges or obstacles in your path?

A: Winters ;)

Q: What are your favorite OHIO memories?

A: So so many. But it is the people. The close-knit group we formed, the relationships—most of which continue today. People are my memories, OHIO the landscape that offered them up to me.

Q: What’s the one thing you would tell a new OHIO student not to miss? 

A: Oh jeesh. Your life. Don't miss your life—and these four years or two years or whatever years at OHIO are a huge part of that. You'll look back, maybe not immediately, it may take a bit longer, and think and perhaps say, "Hey that was something else. Who was that person in that place and time—and how the heck do I get back to them?" I would also say not to miss the Burrito Buggy, if it's still parked there on the corner of Court and Union.

January 7, 2022
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