Feb. 20, 2007

Novelist and electronica musician J. Robert Lennon mentors writers in the art of fiction

One of the most impressive things some professors have to offer to students is their experience outside the classroom. J. Robert Lennon is such an academic. A published novelist with work stretching from short fiction and drama to noir Westerns, he joined the Cornell Department of English's Creative Writing Program as an assistant professor last September.

Lennon's first novel, "The Light of Falling Stars," dealing with the effects of a plane crash on a small Montana town, won him the Barnes and Noble 1997 Discover Great New Writers Award. His best-received novel, "Mailman," is a black comedy about the life of an anti-hero mail carrier.

In Lennon's undergraduate writing workshop, students discuss the finer points of characterization. Lennon has the air not of a lecturer allowing students to hash it out for themselves, but of an active participant who guides the creative process while offering an honest and straightforward critique.

Much of what allows Lennon to interact so effectively with students may stem from a set of sensibilities evident in his writing, which Booklist has called "emotionally engrossing and intellectually stimulating, full of humor, pathos and surprises." His varied interests outside of academia include electronic music, edgy, slightly irreverent rhetoric and a high level of tech-savvy. He maintains one blog for his books, another (with his wife, Rhian) dealing with literary subjects, and can be found on YouTube and several places on MySpace.

"He understands the student mentality and has a twisty, dark sense of humor," says English major Alesia Carasoelli '08.

Lennon is not only a writer but also a musician. Working in his studio, which he calls "The Windowless Room," he composes, plays synthesizer and guitar, and sings, records and arranges all his own work under the name Inverse Room. He is collaborating with Ithaca composer James Spitznagel, with Lennon playing low-fidelity digital instruments made from sound modules from children's toys, electronic gadgets or old appliances.

"Electronics is kind of the antithesis of writing a short story," he says. "It's a tedious technical thing, and when that part of your brain is working, the more flexible parts can relax and recharge."

Lennon grew up in Phillipsburg, N.J., where, as a child, he became engrossed in science fiction and horror novels. He holds a B.A. in English from the University of Pennsylvania (1992) and an M.F.A. (1995) from the University of Montana, where he began work on "The Light of Falling Stars."

Lennon first came to Cornell as a guest lecturer in the Knight Writing Program in 1998. In 2004 he was offered a visiting professorship and taught several undergraduate writing classes, which partly led to his appointment last year.

"We were especially impressed by his versatility as a writer who has succeeded in several different genres. Above all we thought him a talented and successful writer who would be a splendid example for our students," says Jonathan Culler, former chair of the English department.

Observes Lennon: "It's nice to be part of the Cornell community after being on the outside of it for so long. It's a surprisingly supportive and friendly environment."