Last year Marshall (Coach) Cook retired from teaching 31 years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (called UDUB) by locals. In addition to his teaching duties in the Journalism Department, Marshall directed the Writer’s Institute for a number of years and continues to volunteer teach with the Odyssey program. The Odyssey program offers low income adult students the opportunity to take college courses and put them on the path of pursuing a college degree.
Marshal l is a prolific author with freelance articles, mystery novels, traditional novels and non-fiction books on his author’s bookshelf. He has published seven novels, twenty-three non-fiction books and a host of articles in various magazines. Marshall believes that the writing life chose him, “I think writing chose me. I always wanted to write novels and did from an early age but got into freelancing and then non-fiction book writing when I got a family because I could be successful at it, and being published, making money, was an awfully nice inducement. Once in, I discovered that it was fun and called on my creativity. Now (in my dotage) I’m back to writing novels and loving it.”
While writing provided income to supplement his teacher’s salary Marshall believes writing has a specific purpose in his life. “I can recite all the purposes but have long since realized that I write because it’s just an intrinsic part of who and what I am, something I was put here to do for whatever reason. That said, its therapy, puzzle-solving, satisfying manual labor, a challenge, a hoot. I write for the same reason my friend Bob makes ships in bottles, I suppose. I write to know and understand a little what I’m thinking. I write to live other lives. I write to create a story that seems to want me to tell it and to tell a story I would have liked to have read. I write because phrases, words, images lodges in me. I write to keep memories alive and create places I love.”
Marshall hales from California originally and many who know him well at UW-Madison are not aware that he also taught at Solano Community College and at Santa Clara University, a private Jesuit university. His teaching career began in controversy working on an underground anti-war student newspaper at Santa Clara during the Vietnam War. His first teacher evaluation from the department chair at Solano Community College was the cause of a student sit-in. Because of those students Coach was able to continue a long teaching career. When asked for other memorable teaching moments Marshall recalled, “Teaching a summer Native American Press workshop for high school skins (a word they taught him) who wanted to be journalist. Teaching writing in the Northwood’s of Wisconsin at the School of the Arts (held annually in Rhinelander, Wisconsin). Teaching in the Odyssey Project (which I still do on a volunteer basis) a credit humanities course for folks at or below the poverty level who want a first (or in some cases last) shot at a higher education.”
Those involved in creative endeavors, such as writing, often experience writer’s block. Writer’s block is that time when the blank white page on your computer word software stares back at you and your fingers are frozen and brain in ‘never never land’. When asked if he fought with the fear of the blank page, Marshall responded, “I don’t get writer’s block. I write six days a week. Sometimes the words just flow; sometimes I’m wrestling a much larger, quicker, meaner opponent and getting my fool ass kicked. Most of the time it’s just good, satisfying work/play.”
Marshall has written both non-fiction books and historical period books which typically requires a great deal of time researching before starting the first chapter. Marshall has found that the amount of time devoted to research depends on the subject and the book. For his most recent historical period novel, Walking Wounded, he states: “For WALKING WOUNDED, I immersed myself in Madison in 1944 to try to recreate the feel of the place as well as what was going on, and that was a lot of research. If you’re writing honestly and sincerely, every minute of your life up to that point was “research,” bringing you to where you are and preparing you to write what you’re writing.”
Even with six other novels and twenty-three non-fiction books to his credit, Marshall was not able to find a publisher for Walking Wounded. He decided it was important to release the story and elected to self-publish. The publishing industry has changed dramatically during Marshall’s career. The current publishing world is like Jekyll and Hyde. There are a few mega-publishers that are huge worldwide organizations that completely dominate the commercial publishing industry. On the other hand there are also the mini-publishers introducing new “platforms” like the e-book or the print on demand book. Marshall sees the commercial publishing world as a dichotomy too. “Seven or eight huge multi-national corporations now dominate the commercial publishing, and corporations tend to be (how to put this tactfully) bottom-line-oriented; they don’t take chances on new novelists and what they used to call “mid-list” writers. (They now call them rejections.) At the same time, small publishers and POD publishing services are flourishing. You still have your mega best-sellers, of course, and the same 10 or so novelists account for about 70% of all fiction books (copies, not titles) sold each year. But now you have this enormous number of authors selling 150 copies each (the average sale of a POD novel). So instead of 10 folks selling a million copies each, you have a million folks selling 10 copies each. Interesting.”
Marshall selected print on demand self-publishing for his most recent novel, Walking Wounded, in order to retain creative control of the book himself. Self-publishing is often confused with vanity publishing. A vanity publisher will charge an author fees to turn a manuscript into a “book” often without editorial services and without marketing. It is called vanity publishing because it strokes the vanity of the writer’s ego and who wants to publish and is willing to pay to see their work in print. For Marshall the decision to offer his work in the print on demand format was about creative control. “I wrote a novel called Walking Wounded, about a bunch of characters coping with World War II back on the home front in Madison, Wisconsin, and it insisted on weighting in at about 135,000 words. I knew it was too long for an agent to sell with my name instead of Stephen King’s on it. I tried a couple, and they told me it was too long for them to sell (they were nice enough to leave off the part about me and Stephen King), and one suggested a cut to about 75,000(words). I tried-for about half an hour-and realized I had no heart for it. To do what I wanted and thought the story needed and the people deserved, it had to be a big’un.”
While Marshall has limited his teaching to volunteering at the Odyssey project his retirement is very active. Working on his ‘bucket list’ Marshall is taking horse riding lessons and piano lessons. Of course those activities have nothing in common but are an expression of Marshall’s eclectic interests. Most importantly he continues to write. “I’m working on three books at once, a novel and two non-fiction projects, but about eight months ago the novel grabbed me, slapped me around, and insisted I pay total attention to it. The result, almost finished, is a 72,000 word novel called THE SECOND KICK OF A MULE. I’ll soon be sending it out to a few wonderful first readers for their response and girding my proverbial loins to start attacking agents.”
In addition to his own writing, Coach edits the e-zine Extra Innings which he created after retiring from full time teaching. Extra Innings is “dedicated to writers, their enablers and . . .” You can learn more about Extra Innings at: http://www.dcs.wisc.edu/lsa/writing/extrainnings. There is no cost to subscribe. To sign up for a subscription e-mail: join-creativity-connection.lists.wisc.edu.
Marshall leads the creative life that he wants. We will be waiting to read The Second Kick of a Mule in whatever format Marshall decides to share it with us.