A Reader Writes
When Lisa Dunick, PHD ’10 LAS, was a youngster and her mother urged her to go outside and play, she preferred to stay inside and read—even the back of the cereal box was fair game. That habit has served her well, since good writers are voracious readers.
Under the pseudonym Lisa Maxwell, she has written five young adult fantasy novels based on carefully researched historical elements. Her most recent, The Devil’s Thief, just released, is the second in a trilogy. The first book, The Last Magician, landed on The New York Times bestseller list. Unhooked, Gathering Deep, and Sweet Unrest came before.
Dunick chose Illinois because its English department was one of the nation’s top schools for American literature and cultural studies. “It was on my wish list from the very beginning,” she says, citing UI professors Stephanie Foote, Robert Dale Parker and Michael Rothberg as influences.
Now, as a professor at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Md., she’s the one doing the influencing. She considers herself lucky to be in both worlds—teaching and writing. Her students give her a window into what it’s like to be on the cusp of adulthood. “I haven’t forgotten how hard that first draft is to write and how much revision matters,” she says. “It makes me a more sympathetic teacher.”
When the 2008-09 recession hit, teaching openings were hard to come by. “I did not have any big plans to be a writer. I wanted to be a professor,” Dunick explains. But in the fall of 2010, her creative writing endeavors began. Her education gave her an “intuitive understanding of what makes a novel,” she says. “I’ve read hundreds, and I write from a gut instinct and deep experience as a reader. I’m a reader, first and foremost, with a knack for stories.”
Research informed by archival work as a graduate student also prepared her well. “I don’t just Google stuff,” she says jokingly. “Ideas for what can happen in my books are already on the shelves. The weirdest things in my books are things that are true. You can’t make this stuff up.”
Dunick says the highest compliments are when readers are upset about the death of a character. Or if they say, “I finished your book in a day. I couldn’t put it down.”