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The winding road to writing

BY REBECCA KOONS | FEBRUARY 18, 2010 7:30 AM

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All it took was two short stories.

What began as works about three people in a broken-down car in New Mexico and the acquaintances of an overweight, lovesick man living in Baltimore provided a portion of the starting point to Geoffrey Becker’s latest novel, Hot Springs.

“I knew I wasn’t done with the characters,” Becker, 50, said.

He will read from Hot Springs at 7 p.m. Friday at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St. Admission is free.

The book tells the story of a woman named Bernice Click, who is resolute in her desire to reclaim the child she gave up for adoption five years earlier. With her boyfriend in tow, she accomplishes her mission, but she is soon filled with doubt and uncertainty about her situation — stemming from her mother’s tendency toward manic episodes.

Becoming a writer was not a conscious decision for Becker, who followed several other paths; he worked in music, theater, and law at various points. Having read all the time as a child and taken writing classes in his undergraduate years at Colby College, in Maine, he said, he “vaguely entertained the idea that [he] might someday become a ‘real’ writer” but didn’t know how to go about it.

He eventually hit his stride some years later in New York City, when he began writing again while working several different jobs. The renewed interest in writing led him to pen more short stories, participate in workshops, and, ultimately, attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Along the way, he began getting some of his work published.

Hot Springs took longer to complete than Becker’s previous work, because it is a much bigger piece. From original manuscript to final rewrite, he took approximately five years to finish the novel, all the while trying to maintain a sense of movement.

“I’m challenged by trying to keep everything moving — plot, character, setting, theme — in some sort of pointed, compelling way,” he said. “I find it rewarding if I feel I’ve accomplished that.”

Becker says he is compelled to edit his work, although he admits it can become a bit out of hand because of his enthusiasm.

“Nothing feels better to me than crossing out a sentence,” he said.

His editor, Meg Storey of Tin House Books, is no stranger to his predilection for perfecting Hot Springs. She said he wanted to do more work than she felt necessary on a book that only needed minimal adjustment. His final tweaks, however, did indeed change the book positively, she said.

“He ended up inserting another chapter — a scene between Bernice and her mother — and it was really right — the book was definitely missing that piece,” Storey said.

In addition to his writing career, Becker is also an associate professor in the English department at Towson University, in Towson, Md. Teaching allows him to work in a more socially interactive world as opposed to writing, where the work takes place in his head. He feels his work as a writer keeps his approach to the profession an honest one.

“Any time you think you know a rule about fiction, a writer comes along and breaks it in some terrific way,” Becker said. “That’s what’s so endlessly fascinating about it — the surprises.”


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