Stephen Markley was exactly the kind of author English Department Chair Todd Gilbert had hoped to bring to Western Reserve Academy. Gilbert wanted to find someone whose success was still relatively recent, and, for the author, profoundly humbling. He wanted someone who could be approached easily and without hesitation, but whose advice and insight would hold considerable weight.
Markley certainly fit the bill. The publication of his first novel Ohio in August 2018 was met with high and earnest praise from The New York Times, NPR, Wall Street Journal and general twittersphere. Great readers, critics and casual fans of literature were taken with this powerful and promising debut, and they didn't mind saying so.
Markley shared that he was hopeful for this type of success, but it wasn't something he was expecting. He made this clear in his first meeting with the WRA community during Morning Meeting on Oct. 21. With friendly and bold honesty, he recapped a colorful young adulthood. His writing career had its fair share of false starts and abrupt changes in direction, and he talked about experiencing defeat and starting over. There were also high points he was happy to recount, such as his time at the Iowa Writers' Workshop where he was challenged and inspired, a time he describes as some of the best moments of his life. He also revealed that he lives in Los Angeles and is working on creating a TV adaptation of Ohio.
Markley spent two days on WRA's campus. After his Morning Meeting address, Markley sat in on multiple English classes, ate lunch with the editors of BUFO, Viewpoints and The Reserve Record, dined with WRA faculty, and held a public reading and Q&A session inside the Chapel on Monday evening.
Students' questions and curiosities were diverse. What or who inspires him? How does he keep to his writing routine? What was the most surprising and unsurprising thing he encountered while living in Hollywood? Had he met any celebrities? Has he ever dreamed about or from the perspective of his own characters?
"I loved that question," Gilbert admitted. "Noah Frato-Sweeney asked that one in one of the combined classes on Tuesday. That type of question shows a great understanding of how real created characters can become." Markley also loved the question, and he said that, "He does. All the time."
Gilbert had organized Markley's time with both intention and with some room for improvisation. It wasn't the author's first time talking with students, and he had previously taught during his time as a graduate student. Though he could speak to students with confidence and ease, each class had its own theme and discussions varied. In Conor O'Sullivan's Angles in Writing class, Marley talked about "getting into a story"; in Patty Campbell's Explorations in Analysis class, Markley spoke about why stories matter and what made him want to be a storyteller.
On Tuesday, some of the classes were combined. For the first session, Sasha Maseelall's Effects of Memory class, Brandi Wheeler's African-American Nonfiction class and Gilbert's Angles in Writing class all met together in the library. Gilbert noted that he wanted to give Markley some guidance and direction, but that Markley could take the conversation wherever he wanted.
"All three classes read texts that explore the power of memory, and so I asked him to start there," said Gilbert.
Although each class was structured for Markley to share specific insight and wisdom, Markley made a considerable effort to have the students lead the charge. He made it a point to talk to students about what mattered to them and to discuss topics that were most interesting to them. His talks were essentially more open and candid conversations.
"To me, Markley was exactly the type of author I want to bring to campus," said Gilbert. "He is extremely talented, energetic, approachable and giving. He has found great success, and yet, he still possesses an 'I-can't-believe-this-happened-to-me!' kind of energy. He connects with people on so many levels, and I knew he would connect with our students in truly impactful ways."
Gilbert met Markley over the summer when the author spoke at the Hudson Public Library. Gilbert had just finished reading Ohio, and he was thrilled to have the chance to meet and hear from an author he admired so much. During that event, Markley shared that he would be back in his home state of Ohio in the fall, and Gilbert made sure he could find a way to bring him to WRA.
Markley's visit to campus simply couldn't have been organized without Gilbert's efforts, but he is quick to graciously share credit with several members of the community who were instrumental in putting this event together.
"Our community is a special place," Gilbert shared. "With events like this, people not only come together, but they also go out of their way to support each other. So many members of this community reached out to me not just to say they read and loved the book and were excited to meet Mr. Markley, but to see how they could help." Gilbert specifically pointed how instrumental Dr. Kent, Tracy Schooner, Margaret Cunningham, Matt Gerber and Holly Bunt were in making Markley's visit truly special.
In the end, Gilbert was simply proud of our school. "Not only did Markley come here and make a positive impact on our students," he said, "but he also left with a great impression of who we are and what we are about." Gilbert then added how Matt Gerber made a mug featuring Markley's favorite basketball player from his youth (Shawn Kemp) on one side and his favorite musician (Bruce Springsteen) on the other. When the English Department gave Markley the gift, Markley was excited and truly thankful.
"It was great to see," Gilbert said. "It was something that could only happen at WRA."