He has an affable, “aw shucks” attitude. A native of Erie, Pennsylvania, Eugene Cross is reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart, if Jimmy Stewart were a writer; he is tall, with olive toned skin and an infectious sense of humor. He comes over to the small table by the window where I sit. He is in a camel hair coat and denim jeans with a sweatshirt. He apologizes profusely for being late, although he is five minutes early. Recently engaged, Eugene Cross emanates positive energy from his wide smile to his fingertips. He has a lot to be grateful for, and he knows it.
Sitting down at the small table, he uncaps his coffee. He has recently been invited to Northwestern University as the Simon Blattner Visiting Assistant Professor of Fiction. This comes on the heels of Cross’ great success, Fires of our Choosing, a short story collection that was released in August 2012.
It was an incredibly long and perilous journey on the way to the publishers, and at one point, Cross had to lose one agent and seek another, but he stuck to his guns, and the literary world couldn’t be more grateful that he did. Cross’ prose is one part Stuart Dybeck and one part Andre DuBus: an uncanny mixture of lush detail and poignant character studies. His breakout success last year has propelled him fast into literary fame, and his schedule is exceedingly busy.
“I can’t believe it’s been only a year,” he admits as he takes a sip from his large coffee, “It feels like more.” All the same, he is self-depreciating, and doesn’t let the fame consume him. At heart, he is the same Puerto Rican boy from Erie whose most valuable thing to him is the love of his fiancé and family.
He explains the trials and tribulations it took to publish a short story collection in an age when big name publishers would rather cash in on large-scale novels by renowned authors.
“I started writing the stories individually, and then sending them out individually to publications, and that in itself was a really hard process… you rack up rejection slips… but after a while I started to feel like I had a collection of stories that worked together. Then I started submitting them to contests, because for short story writers I feel like we’re somewhat akin to poets in that manner, that it’s hard to take a short story collection to a major publisher as a debut work.”
Cross sought his goal by submitting his work to short story contests such as the Iowa Short Fiction Prize and the Flannery O’Connor prize, to name a few. As he made his way through contests, he came across an interesting contest with an altruistic edge.
“I discovered the Dzanc Prize, a prize for community service dealing with literary matters and writing, where you submit your manuscript, but you also submit a proposal for community service having to do with literature, and if you won they would take a look at your manuscript for possible publication.”
Cross was intrigued and ruminated over a possible community service project. Past winners of the prize included Laura van den Berg who taught creative writing to prisoners, and Kodi Scheer who taught a writers’ workshop to cancer patients.
He was living in Erie at the time when a mass emigration of refugees from Nepal, Bhutan and Sudan was taking place. Cross took it upon himself to teach a creative writing workshop to the refugees, an idea that Dzanc loved. He was rewarded $5,000 for his altruism, but waited an agonizing two weeks until he heard anything about his manuscript.
Steven Gillis, a publisher at Dzanc Books, ended up championing him. It was an odd but wonderful time for Cross, who was in the process of switching agents, and while he ultimately ended up selling the book by himself, his new agent, Terra Chalberg, helped him transition into the world of a publishing by advising him in legal matters and insuring he got the best contracts.
Because Cross is such a lyrical writer, it comes as a shock that it wasn’t always his aspiration. For quite some time it seemed that professor Eugene Cross was going to be Eugene Cross, MD. He pursued medical school adamantly, but it never made his blood sing like writing did. He entered a crossroads in his life after two semesters and found solace with his family. It was his parents that ultimately ended up helping him find his way back to writing, and Cross cites his late father, Eugene Cross, Sr., as his inspiration when it comes to literature.
“He always used to encourage me to write and pursue my passions and he would write these amazing letters. Just the way he would correspond was so beautiful and he was a big reader.” He says wistfully as his brown eyes wander over the grain of the table.
It is his hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania that inspires the sumptuous backdrops of his short stories. It can be argued that Pennsylvania is a living, breathing character in his prose. Cross writes in a way that makes the abandoned factory towns by Lake Erie as enigmatic and bewitching as the flatlands of Nebraska described lovingly by Willa Cather. I ask him if Chicago inspires him in the same way.
“Oh certainly, yeah.” He says after a moment. “The energy, the life of it, it definitely inspires me so much, but I don’t know it as well as I know Pennsylvania. I write about Pennsylvania because it’s in my bones, but I’m hoping to know Chicago just as well.” He says, blowing cool air over the vapors of his coffee.
Cross is dedicated to his prose, admitting to me that he’ll chip away a particular short story for whole blocks at a time before releasing it and moving on to something new. He relates to me a story he wrote about a man walking up a hill and how he had to encompass the surrounding landscape, the character relationships and also the internal struggle of the man walking up the hill. Whereas short stories are concerned, he is particularly loyal.
“You think of it… publishers are always trying to make a case for a novel, and I can see why, but it’s nice with short stories because unlike a novel where the dream can be broken when you get up for a glass of water, or go to the gym, or go to the bathroom… a short story you can read all in one sitting. You can inhabit that world entirely without leaving it. I love short stories,” he says. I ask him his loyalty in regards to eBooks versus hardbacks.
“Oh man…” He says, laughing. “I feel like there are AWP panels strictly dedicated to the question!” He leans back in his chair. “I don’t know, it’s nice with the ebook trend because everything is more readily available and I feel like the cream will always rise to the top, you know? The Lauren Groffs, the Alice Munros… they’ll always be on top, but it’s nice because when I was first getting published, rather than have my parents have to go and search for an obscure literary journal, I could just send them a link to the online magazine, and they could read it. However, that being said, I will always, always love a real, tangible book.”
While he eventually plans to work on a novel, Cross is committed to short stories and in awe of where they take him. He admits that working as a college professor helps him keep his edge and learn new techniques and he is grateful for his students because he says they teach him so much. Eugene Cross is a humanitarian, a writer and a teacher. His hard work and dedication has not gone unnoticed.
“I’m really lucky.” He says.
EUGENE CROSS is the author of the short story collection "Fires of Our Choosing," which was long listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. He was born and raised in Erie, Pennsylvania and received an MFA from The University of Pittsburgh. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Narrative Magazine, American Short Fiction, Story Quarterly,TriQuarterly, and Callaloo, among other publications. His work was also listed among the 2010 Best American Short Stories' 100 Distinguished Stories. He is the recipient of scholarships from the Chautauqua Writers' Festival and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, as well as a fellowship from the 2012 Sewanee Writers' Conference. He currently lives in Chicago where he teaches fiction at Northwestern and Columbia College Chicago. He can be found online at www.eugenecross.com
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