by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
Photo by Carl Socolow '77.
As a kid, Susan Perabo’s zeal for baseball was borderline fanatical. Writing in a recent blog post for Yahoo! Sports, the professor of English and writer-in-residence recalls the breathlessness that signaled the annual release of a new set of baseball cards—a thrill that intensified the year after her beloved Cardinals captured the World Series in 1982—and her memory of inadvertently becoming the first person to show then-rookie Willie McGee a baseball card bearing his image.
It was, she writes, the moment McGee knew he’d arrived, a milestone she’d come to appreciate years later, after making her own mark.
Born in St. Louis, Mo., Perabo played softball in high school and honed her undergrad writing chops at her hometown college, Webster University. Webster didn’t have a softball program, so she played backup second base with the guys, becoming the first woman to play on an NCAA baseball team. That distinction earned Perabo a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
She went on to earn a spot in the prestigious MFA in creative writing program at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and published her first short story soon after her arrival—a moment of sweet retribution, since the same work had been brutally critiqued in a workshop just a few weeks before. Perabo earned her MFA in 1995 and joined Dickinson’s English department the following year.
At Dickinson, Perabo is a professor of English, a former departmental head and mentor to the Belles Lettres Literary Society. She has published three books and anthologized work in Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize Stories, New Stories from the South and For the Love of Baseball, and her fiction and nonfiction also has appeared in Story, Glimmer Train, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review and The Sun magazine.
Perabo’s work found wide readership in 1999, when she published her first short-story collection, Who I Was Supposed to Be. Dubbed by The New York Times as “reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s [prose] with a sensibility that’s informed by People magazine,” it was named 1999 Book of the Year by the Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Her 2001 novel, The Broken Places, followed, taking her powerhouse storytelling and complex characterizations to new ground. A new book, released by Simon & Schuster this month, brings the author back into short-story form.
Described as “darkly beautiful” and “suffused with astonishing wit and tenderness” (novelist Jenny Offill) and “reminiscent of George Saunders … ingenious and lovable stories” (Kirkus Reviews), Why They Run the Way They Do dishes up richly layered tales, by turns wry and moving, about ordinary lives, touched by the bizarre. Perabo introduces an impressive assortment of narrators—male and female, young and old, plain-spoken and artful. Each is in crisis, but none is entirely without hope.
It’s the product of 15 years’ work—the oldest story was penned when Perabo’s teenage son was an infant; the newest was crafted last year, while she served as director of Dickinson’s study abroad program in Norwich, England. Perabo recently embarked on a book tour, a literary rediscovery of those past life phases and perspectives—at one stop, she might revisit a story she wrote while serving as department chair, or at another, the year her daughter was born.
These works are decidedly fictional, though colleagues and loved ones might catch a familiar droll turn of phrase, or a whisper of Perabos they recognize—educator, sister, parent, dog lover, friend, baseball fiend. And for Perabo’s students, like class of 2016 members Amelia Valentino (history) and Samantha Bellissimo (English), who got to know Perabo outside of class while studying in Norwich last year, the book’s very existence shines interesting new light.
“We’re a little starstruck, seeing her in her role as an author,” said Valentino, who joined a standing-room-only crowd at Perabo’s Feb. 16 book tour launch at the Whistlestop Bookshop. “We were talking about how it’s so strange to see her signing books, like a celebrity.”
“It’s amazing that we get to write with her in class,” added Bellissimo.
Published March 2, 2016