The summer after obtaining his master’s degree from the University of Virginia in 1968, Toby Thompson had an idea to write a story about Bob Dylan by visiting the star’s hometown and talking to people who knew him.
By 1971, his efforts turned into his first book: “Positively Main Street: Bob Dylan’s Minnesota.”
Now an associate professor of English at Penn State, Thompson’s body of work recently added its sixth nonfiction book.
Thompson will participate in the Mary E. Rolling Reading Series via Zoom at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 28 by reading from his newest publication “Fired On: Targeting Western American Art.”
According to Alison Jaenicke, assistant teaching professor of English and assistant director of creative writing, The Rolling Reading Series is sponsored by English department donors who wish to see prominent writers read their work to Penn State students.
After readings, authors usually meet with students to discuss their writing processes and teach more about their craft.
This year the meeting will be virtual due to the coronavirus.
Jaenicke will be organizing Thompson’s virtual reading, and she said the longtime professor has many experiences to share with the Penn State community.
“He's a great nonfiction writer and has known a lot of great writers over his long life,” Jaenicke said. “It's a treat to know him.”
During the virtual series event, Thompson will read from his latest work, which he said was inspired by his interest in western art and his time working on a ranch in Montana at the age of 14.
“Western American art was one of those things that I was interested in, and I had admired paintings in museums since I was a kid,” Thompson said. “But I didn't really know anything about it so I thought, ‘well, heck,’ I'll just write a book about it in order to learn about it.”
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Thompson said he began writing at a time when literary nonfiction was on the rise, and it was referred to as “new journalism.”
Drawn to the aspects of socializing, traveling, going on adventures and combining fact with literary technique, Thompson said, “New journalism was just made for somebody like me.”
Although Thompson is technically not a journalist, he said he enjoys the aspect of journalism that encourages writers to explore various topics without prior knowledge, which is something he has implemented into his own fact-based narratives.
“I try to tell my students that you don't have to know something about something to go out and write about it,” Thompson said. “One of the things that a reader will get caught up by is the learning process that you're describing in a piece, and that makes it exciting.”
According to one of his students Ryan Hatfield he is a “total legend.”
Hatfield (graduate-English) said it wasn’t until he took Thompson’s introductory creative nonfiction class that he realized he wanted to explore that type of writing.
“I really fell in love with nonfiction writing, and that's mostly due to professor Thompson and the atmosphere he created in the classroom,” Hatfield said. “He just has so much enthusiasm. It's contagious.”
Lynette Zwerneman, a good friend of Thompson’s who helps with his publicity, said she has always been surprised by his interest in ordinary people and telling their stories.
“He thinks it’s really important for people to tell their stories, and that’s very impressive,” Zwerneman said.
Zwerneman said “Fired On: Targeting Western American Art” is one of her favorites of Thompson’s recent publications, and she thinks it is a great introduction to western art — especially for students on the East Coast who may know little about the western art perspective.
Thompson said he has always loved to travel, and his newest book highlights that attraction to exploration through the stories of many American artists.
Sitting in his home in Livingston, Montana, Thompson said he has immersed himself in the artistic community in the wild west, and he hopes that his students will do the same to engage with their own stories.
“Don't just depend on inspiration from within,” Thompson said. “Generate inspiration by going out into the world and having experiences. Get out from behind your desk.”