Alumnus Q&A: Award-winning author Tom Meremaa '67
Tom Maremaa ’67 graduated from Dartmouth as an English and German double major. He spent 17 years as an Apple software engineer and now works in Silicon Valley. His novel “Metal Heads: A Novel” was named an American Library Association Notable Book in 2009. His eleventh and most recent novel, “Of Gods, Royals and Superman” (2015), takes place at Dartmouth.
This is your eleventh novel. Why did you decide now to set a novel at your alma mater?
TM: I wrote the novel because Eleazar Wheelock told me to write it — because I wanted to write it, because I had to write it, because it was due. I like that quote from [Jorge Luis] Borges that, “Time forks perpetually into countless futures.” And in one of those futures I was destined to write a novel about Dartmouth. So the time arrived, and Christopher Reed, the main character, came to life and begged me to write the story, and I had to tell that story about how he got kicked out of school as president of his frat house for the bad behavior of his classmates and brothers, and what he tried to do to redeem himself. Redemption is really a fundamental theme in the book. What can you do to redeem yourself? Is it even possible?
Why did you decide to start writing novels?
TM: I started writing novels my freshman year at Dartmouth, when I went and read Faulkner in the library with the Orozco frescoes surrounding me. I said, “Man, this is my destiny.” I had a great professor, James Cox; he was my inspiration, and I knew then that even though I had come to Dartmouth to become a doctor, that had all changed. I ended up becoming a writer and the rest is history. But I have a passion for technical work, and I taught myself programming and took programming classes. I had my own software company at one point. I like to think that the worst thing that could happen to a writer is to become a writer. It’s better to be a software engineer who writes, and then you begin to discover that you can adjust and you can adapt and you can do different things and the writing has some basis in your own experience.
Can you describe your writing process? Where do you get your inspiration?
TM: A lot of it is discipline. I tend to get up very early in the morning, and I’ll sit down in that early dawn part of the morning and basically try to write spontaneously. I try to write what I don’t know. The tendency that a lot of writers get into is that they think, “I have to write what I know.” The best parts of your writing are the parts you discover; you write to discover. And passion essentially dictates the form of what you write. If that passion drives you to write a biography, to write a computer program, to write specs for designing a house, to write an essay about Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot or James Joyce, that’s where the passion drives you. In my case, the passion drives me to write imaginative works that create landscapes that have many characters. Then typically, these characters come after me. They knock on my door, they want to come in my house, they live in my neighborhood, they say hello to me. They want me to write their story. They pester me; eventually I relent and then I let it run from there. Leave the critic on the sideline. Make a peace with that critic; say, I’m not neglecting you, I respect what you have to say, but you have to step out of the room and let me write first. Otherwise, that critic will come in there and just look over your shoulder and say, “Oh no, that sentence is no good, that paragraph is terrible.” Before you know it, they’ll beat you to death and you lose that energy. But at some point, you have to let the critic in the door. Open up the door, let the critic come in, and say, “Okay, have at it.” I tend to write and write and write and I tend to edit and edit and edit. I do it kind of compulsively. Great work has to be at first spontaneous, and then you have to go back and re-cast it and reshape it and find the language.
Do you have any tips for aspiring writers at Dartmouth?
TM: Number one — you have to read and read and read. This was the beauty of my Dartmouth education — it really taught me to read, and to read as if my life depended on it, as if I were on the planet of Mars and only had a couple of books with me. So you learn to read, and then you dive into the classics. You get your footing and grounding in the classics. You learn, also, to love language and to cultivate your knowledge of language. From language, you learn how to cast your memories. As I look back at Dartmouth, I remember in great detail these cultivated memories. Also, as a writer starting out, you want to travel and open up the world. You want to study art in Florence or climb the Himalayas or go to medical school or solve the most complex mathematical problem or create new algorithms, but you really want to explore and discover.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.