Law Prof by Day, Novelist at Night
Steven Wright MFA'14 draws on a unique set of legal experiences in his acclaimed fiction.
In the midnight hour. When no one else is around. That’s when the creativity of Steven Wright MFA’14 comes tumbling out. That’s when his fingers fly. On his keyboard nouns meet verbs. Prepositions do their thing. Punctuation finds its place, and letter by letter a new novel is born.
Most nights find Wright, an associate clinical professor at UW Law School, working on his second thriller, a follow-up to his smash debut, The Coyotes of Carthage, a screwball dive into the bleak world of dark-money politics. No less an authority than bestselling legal-thriller writer John Grisham calls Wright “a major new voice.”
Down in his basement, sitting at a wood desk strewn with papers and empty bottles of unsweetened tea, Wright faces the wall with two screens in front of him (one for research, one for writing). Music pounds. Sam Cooke, Aretha, Master KG, Outkast, the Chicks. More often than not, the same song roars over and over and over and over again.
“For me, writing is a loud experience,” says Wright, who also lectures in the UW Program in Creative Writing, where he earned his MFA. “Part of the way I know I’m doing okay is that you sort of zoom out on the music. You’re not really listening to the lyrics. You lose track of time. You’re mesmerized with whatever’s on the screen.”
Author Lorrie Moore, Wright’s former UW writing instructor, is a bit in awe of him. “He works hard and stays up late,” she says. “He laughs and makes you laugh. He is blessed/cursed with a quick, high-energy brain.”
Wright is a towering presence, both intellectually and physically, thanks to his six-foot-two height. Besides his UW degree, he has a bachelor’s in economics and history and a master’s in environmental economics from Duke as well as a law degree from Washington University. He even found time to get a master’s from Johns Hopkins’s writing program while doing a five-year stint as a trial attorney in the civil rights division of the Department of Justice. When Wright applied to the UW’s program, he wrote, “I have the perfect job. For someone, but not me.”
His sly wit snakes through every page of The Coyotes of Carthage. When asked to describe himself, he conjures up a cinematic vision, pointing out his freckles, hair that’s a little wild, and his “exceptionally big head,” which requires him to wear “special big-headed glasses.”
Besides teaching in two programs, Wright is the former codirector of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which seeks to exonerate wrongly convicted people. Thanks in part to his efforts, four men were freed.
Wright continues to meet clients in Wisconsin’s maximum-security prisons with law students in his clinic. “I sometimes describe it as being like Scooby-Doo,” he says. “A bunch of students and I get in a van, and we go and try to solve murders around the state.”
Experiences like these inform Wright’s fiction. His Department of Justice work, for example, had him trekking to rural areas to try voting rights cases. While passing time in places like Bolivar County, Mississippi, he befriended local politicians — “masters of their communities,” as he calls them. And the down-and-dirty secrets he learned about small-town elections reveal themselves throughout The Coyotes of Carthage.
The novel tells the tale of Dre Ross, a sleazy, 30-something, African American political consultant in Washington, DC. A former small-time drug dealer raised by a bipolar schizophrenic mother, he slept in alleys and did hard time in juvenile prison for a savage assault he didn’t commit.
This down-and-out swamp creature has been given his last chance: Go to backwater Carthage, South Carolina. Dupe its flag-waving voters into approving a ballot initiative that will sell public land to a mining company. Never mind that its toxic runoff will kill tourism, poison the water supply, and basically destroy the place.
The down-and-dirty secrets Wright learned about small-town elections reveal themselves throughout The Coyotes of Carthage.
The dirty trickster whips up websites for phony front groups such as the Council of Christian Commerce and the Society for American Freedom. He runs dishonest ads and polls. He launches nasty online attacks.
Dre, writes Wright, “wonders at what point he lost control.” Whether he means of the campaign, his sanity, his decency, or all three goes unsaid. Lest a reader think Dre only has it in for white people, he is an equal-opportunity abuser who “admits that for his people he might have done more harm than good.”
Sour wisdom from the dark-money world — and Wright’s rural journeys — peppers Dre’s thoughts. “Elections are about getting voters to hate others.” “God bless social media. Good for pictures; terrible for truth.”
“Steve has a real heart to his work,” says novelist Judith Claire Mitchell, who formerly taught in the UW creative writing program. “There’s an emotional openness that balances the cynicism. His main character in Coyotes is very openly wounded. His heart is broken, and that’s not hidden.”
Critics loved the book for the way it combines the alienation of Catch-22’s Joseph Heller with Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo ethos and the wacky imagery of a Coen brothers movie. “Riveting,” with a “tick-tock pace and knockout prose,” cheered the Washington Post. “Darkly funny and bleakly honest,” gushed Salon. “Crackerjack debut,” raved USA Today, which put Wright on its list of “100 Black Novelists You Should Read.”
“Writing,” says Wright, “is the art of keeping people paying attention.”
Like most first-time novelists, he took a long time to finish The Coyotes of Carthage — four and a half years. He came home from work and would “eat something, walk the dogs, and write — and that was my life.”
The ability to see all sides of people benefits Wright's work as both a novelist and a law school professor.
When he gave the supposedly final manuscript to friends to read, they hated it. Too intellectual, too grim, they said.
During those years Wright had started visiting prisons. “The darkness of that world — the horrific crimes, the awfulness of the wrong person going to jail, and the possibility that the real person who did it was out there and causing more harm — entered the novel, and it became very different from what I wanted it to be,” he says. “I don’t know if I was using it as therapy.”
When told he should cut it from 140,000 to 70,000 words, Wright says, “I was pretty sad, but you stand up. You brush yourself off, and then you go at it, and in the end, I’m still quite proud of it. But it’s obviously a very different book than I thought I had finished four years ago.”
First novels are notoriously autobiographical, but Wright’s upbringing bears no resemblance to Dre’s. When asked what traits he has in common with his ruthless, haunted antihero, Wright jokes, “I think in the book I describe him as exceptionally good-looking.” He quickly confesses that he shares Dre’s “cynicism and acerbic responses. I can be a bit of a smart aleck.”
A Family of Eccentrics
The son of a computer scientist mother and a father who was an army doctor, Wright grew up obsessed with storytelling. He loved the Choose Your Own Adventure book series, which allowed preteen readers to control plots by deciding which way stories would turn.
He wrote his own Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes and fan fiction and remains an avid devotee of Star Trek and Star Wars. His dog, Ahsoka, a black Lab/Great Pyrenees mix, is named after a Star Wars character mentored by the virtuous young Anakin Skywalker (before he became Darth Vader).
“He tries to show her all the ways in the world to be good, with the irony being he ends up the worst person in the world,” Wright says, adding, “Now that’s not at all my relationship with my dog.”
His two sisters and parents were also Trekkies. “I’ll be honest,” he says, “I come from a family of eccentrics.”
He had a globetrotting childhood, growing up in Nashville, Spokane, Oakland, and on military bases in West Germany and Alaska. “There’s nothing like being an American overseas, especially during the Cold War, to make you love and admire your country.”
Having been in spit-polish schools on military bases, Wright got the shock of his young life in Augusta, Georgia, where he endured his junior and senior high school years. With uncharacteristic understatement, he says, “That experience was formative.” Westside High School introduced him to a community where education was inseparable from race, Christianity, and traditional notions of patriotism.
Once, when he stayed silent for a football game prayer and merely bowed his head, teammates razzed him. A teacher yelled at a student for failing to show respect for the flag during the Pledge of Allegiance. Students isolated themselves by race at lunch, and admission to Advanced Placement classes seemed to Wright to have a cap on Black students.
“Race is one of those things we continue to try to figure out,” he says. “Obviously, over the arc of our country, we’ve made tremendous progress, but especially as a Black civil rights lawyer who represents Black men in the criminal justice system, [I see] we clearly have a long way to go.
“A lot of the conversations we have about even discussing race in our schools deal with people’s discomfort with having conversations about our past and how that implicates our present. My hope is that we can get better at having those conversations. Hopefully, that will lead to better policy in health care, criminal justice, poverty — things I’ve dedicated my life to dealing with.”
Part of the key to Wright’s success is his easygoing nature, which allows him to feel at home in varied settings.
“He has no problem being plunked down in a room with conservatives or liberals, or with people who aren’t interested in politics or who are very interested in politics,” says his former Department of Justice colleague Robert Popper, who is now senior counsel at the right-leaning group Judicial Watch. “He likes to laugh with and, frankly, at them all.”
Back in his days as a rural trial lawyer, Wright became friends with a lot of politicians he would not necessarily vote for. “But I thought they were very good people, and it wasn’t the end of the world,” he says.
This ability to see all sides of people and situations clearly has benefits for Wright’s work as both a novelist and a law school professor.
No Easy Answers
Wright takes his law students behind bars in the Wisconsin towns of Waupun, Stanley, and Green Bay.
He struggles to describe the smell of a maximum-security prison. A “giant antiseptic bleach” scent provides the top note. Underneath lurk odors of men who haven’t showered because of guard shortages. “I think it’s the smell of misery,” Wright says.
Before the students go in, he gives them a talking to.
“This is something you’re going to remember the rest of your life,” he tells them, keeping tabs on their moods. “I’m always mindful of their energy and the tone, because there’s just objectively sadness in a prison, and for some students, it’s scary.
“Prisons are by design intimidating. You walk through one hall. A door closes behind you, the barred door opens in front of you, and you walk down another hall. Just the sound of it. The clicking of bars behind you and the clicking of doors ahead of you. The whole aesthetic. You’re occasionally given a tour, and we’ve been to solitary wings. There are guys in there just screaming for their lives.”
Nevertheless, Wright encourages his students to retain a sense of humor.
“You can still have moments of levity and moments of laughter,” he says. “I want them to learn, but I want them to have fun. I don’t see how you can have fun without laughing every once in a while.”
Most of his students have very strong feelings about the criminal justice system. Some hate police and believe no one should go to jail. Some think police can do no wrong, and there are no innocent people in jail. “They tend to be a little simplistic at both extremes,” says Wright.
“Part of what I hope to do is to create some complexity, to explain to students that oftentimes there aren’t a lot of easy answers, that there are different stakeholders, and that all people — including the police, suspects, and victims — are not all just one thing.”
Spoken like a true novelist. •