Hilary Masters: Baker Hall legend and professor for life

Baker Hall is one of the most heavily traveled buildings on campus, but it still contains hidden treasures. Walk up the building’s front staircase, and you may find a cozy nook known as the Gladys Schmidt Creative Writing Center, home to the legendary Hilary Masters. Masters recently published his latest novel, Elegy for Sam Emerson. Along with readings at Joseph Beth Booksellers and The Mattress Factory, Masters’ schedule for the past week also included teaching his usual classes at Carnegie Mellon. So what makes an author? Delve into the life of Hilary Masters to discover the origin of a masterpiece.

Masters was born in 1928 in Kansas City, Mo., and was raised by his grandparents. In the late 1940s, he served as a naval correspondent but was honorably discharged after some time. His writing career was well on its way when he began his first teaching job, a two-year stint at Drake University as a visiting writer. Since then, he has resided in North Carolina, Ohio, Denver, New York City, and even taught in Finland. In total, Masters has published eight novels, two short story collections, and a memoir. He has now settled down in Pittsburgh, and vowed never to leave. Despite the many complaints about weather and boredom that students here routinely dole out, Masters said he “fell in love.”

His love for this city is the reason that his novel, which he lovingly calls “Sam,” takes place here. In fact, he adores this place so much that, he said, “this is not the only book I’ve written that takes place in Pittsburgh.” His love for Pittsburgh stems from his view of its people. To Masters, the energy of the Pittsburgh people brings back memories of the Big Apple.

For his novel, Masters chose his favorite spot, Mount Washington, as the main location. Masters sets the story in Sam’s Place, a restaurant that looks out over the three rivers area and was built by a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, whom Masters admires because of Fallingwater, a house that the architect built for the wealthy Kaufmann family. Of course, Masters does not rely on setting to create his story. When asked about his writing process, he said, “I start out with a character. Most of my novels come to me in terms of the protagonist. I find out what he wants, what the plot is, and I go on from there.”

In the case of Elegy for Sam Emerson, the protagonist is Sam, the owner of Sam’s Place. Sam’s mother, nearly 100 years old, has just died. She was a star of sorts in her day, and Sam’s father was a war photographer, always traveling, so Sam was raised mostly by his great-aunt. His desire, now that his mother has died, is to decide what to do with her ashes. This deliberation, Masters said, “fuels the novel.” Partnered with this trouble, the author makes Sam a more dynamic character by giving him a lady love: “He wants to marry her, but she’s not sure about it.”

Masters often likes to formulate his plots around social issues, from race to politics. Elegy for Sam Emerson fits that bill. Masters said that the central message in “Sam” is simple: “We must love each other or die.” He also said that his new novel is different from his previous ones. “The voice has a more compassionate sound. Some of my former novels were slightly cynical,” he said.

In the novel, Masters also fiddles with the ambiguous concept of time. Elegy for Sam Emerson skips from the 1940s to the ’50s and then to the ’90s. “I like to move around,” said Masters. Most novels these days tend to follow similar patterns, with time having no bounds. Masters asked, “What else do you write about? I mean, what else do you really know about [but the past]?” However, he takes it one step further by writing every passage in the present tense, whether the passage has come from Sam’s earlier days or more recent times. After much prying as to why he chose to format the novel in that manner, the inner philosopher of Hilary Masters came out. Masters said that there is no definitive present tense. “The past is actually going on in the present. As you and I are sitting here talking, it’s over.” He quoted Saint Augustine: “The past is all we know of the present.” Masters believes that we judge our present experiences with those of our past, so as he was writing of the events in the past, Sam was experiencing them in present tense within his memory.

What compelled Hilary Masters to become a writer? “That is like nine questions in one,” he chuckled. He was inspired by other authors, especially Daniel Defoe, who wrote Robinson Crusoe. He also was a voracious reader as a child. Masters’ desire was to use literature as a vessel for storytelling. He started out with poetry, but, quoting William Faulkner, Masters said: “All novelists are failed poets.” Having transitioned to novels, he said, “I realized I couldn’t write poetry; I needed more space.”

The criticism that comes with being a writer does not faze Masters. “Unfair criticism bothers me,” he said. “People who use that to take out a grudge — that bothers me.” However, he does appreciate those who carry valid arguments. He said, “You can tell when people have read you seriously [and] thoroughly and still have some doubts.”

Understanding how he deals with heavy criticism is one thing, but a true test of a man’s character is to see his reaction when given an award. Though he has received numerous awards, such as the 2003 Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he said the true award is “to have the approval of one’s peers.” He cares little for how the public receives his work: “I have an audience that I do write for. Half of them are imaginary.”

Part of the real-life half of Hilary Masters’ immediate audience is his students. At Carnegie Mellon, he teaches Personal Essay and Survey of Forms: Fiction. His take on the personal essay is accredited to Michel de Montaigne, whom he admires greatly. It may seem as though juggling two careers would require some impingement of one on the other. However, Masters advocates this lifestyle. “I came to teaching late. I never went to an MFA [Master’s of Fine Arts] program. My writing agenda and routine were established before I started.” Now that he is a teacher as well, he chooses to write in the mornings and teach in the afternoons. “I’m very happy here. I think it’s great that universities have become the new patrons of the arts.” Masters said that he loves Carnegie Mellon because the school allows him to follow his passion and share it with the students here.

Masters’ students are treated uniquely. He does not demand that they follow his path. “If they want to write, I hope they succeed,” he said. Yet, in the classroom, he does have certain demands of their writing. “I look for exactness in language and if things are genuine.” He looks for similar aspects in other people’s writing: “I value the craft [writing], the ability to tell the story,” he said.

Michael Szczerban, one of Masters’ students and editor-in-chief of The Oakland Review, a creative writing journal, appreciates the professor’s honesty in the classroom. He said that Masters’ criticism is pointed and accurate and “his praise is hard-earned.” Masters does not change your writing, Szczerban said; “[the] work is your own to make better.”

Szczerban has read some of his professor’s work, too. He said, “His [Masters’] prose is elegant and beautiful, at times complex. I’m amazed that [he can] do that dance with language and in the next sentence be able to reseat the reader with a blunt sentence.” In particular, Szczerban raves about Masters’ memoir, Last Stands: Notes from Memory. It is in this work that readers find out that the late writer Edgar Lee Masters was also Hilary Masters’ father, though he had little impact on Masters’ current career.

Though he was preoccupied with Elegy for Sam Emerson for the past three years, he is already thinking of his next work. “It kind of is in my mind. I cannot work on more than one thing at a time, [so] I have been carrying this long story in my head.” This new novel will not affect his teaching career, however. “Those that have retired miss the classroom,” he vows, “I am never going to retire.”