Guide to Resources for the Study of West Virginia Authors and Appalachian Literary Traditions

Annie Merner Pfeiffer Library

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Richard Schmitt

photo of Richard Schmitt taken from the web

Biographical Information

WVWC professor and novelist Richard Schmitt began the journey that would eventually lead to his first novel when he was a twelve-year-old living in a small Rhode Island town, Barrington. The young boy decided that he would walk across Canada. Though he was returned home quickly, the urge to roam never fully left him. Later, he spent a few years rambling about, trying to find meaning and direction. Luck, or fate, landed him in Venice, Florida, winter home of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He met several of the circus’s members and was convinced to join their traveling band. Schmitt spent the next few years as a member of the circus, traveling around the country by train for much of the year. He embraced the circus life – working his way through the routine of city to city, setting up and tearing down, even performing for a time on the high wire.

And though he would go on to do other things, his time in the circus remained with him. Schmitt attended the University of Florida, completing a BA in English in 1995. While there, he studied with Padgett Powell, who helped him to realize the potential for creativity that lay in his circus past.

The Aerialist, his first published novel, draws heavily on his experiences as it tells the story of Gary Ruden, a young man – without aim or direction – who encounters the circus in its winter hiatus and signs on as a circus hand. Gary thrives in the circus, rising from a menial job cleaning up elephant dung to a much cushier job as a wardrobe hand. He also discovers within himself a talent and desire to become a wirewalker, which shapes his life and gives it new and exciting purpose. While clearly Schmitt draws on his own circus experiences to craft Gary’s, the novel is not autobiographical. Instead, he uses the circus as a backdrop to explore how people move through life, the decisions they make, the routines they build, and the lives they make from them.

Richard Schmitt completed his MFA at Warren Wilson College in 1997 and then began an academic teaching career in addition to his writing, but even in that, his earlier lust for travel remained. He was an instructor at Central Florida College in Ocala from 1998 – 1999, then a visiting writer at the College of Charleston (SC) from 1999 – 2000. He returned to Warren Wilson in the fall of 2000 to spend a year as a Beebe Fellow. He followed that appointment with another fellowship, spending the last months of 2001 as Tennessee Williams Fellow at the University of the South (Sewanee, TN). Schmitt spent early 2002 as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Central Oklahoma (Edmund, OK), before joining the faculty of West Virginia Wesleyan College in the fall 2002. He has remained at WVWC, teaching English and creative writing.

In addition to The Aerialist, Richard Schmitt has published several short stories as well as pieces of nonfiction. His work has appeared in The Mississippi Review, The Marlboro Review, and New Stories of the South among other publications.

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Critical Responses

The Aerialist has garnered its author both critical praise and award recognition. The novel won both the Sewanne Writer’s Conference Prize and the Chautauqua South Fiction Prize. The Aerialist was also listed as a Barnes & Nobel Discovery Series book and as a Publishers’ Weekly First Fiction Pick. Reviewing the novel for, Victoria Jenkins commented that The Aerialist is “More about growing up and individuality than about extraordinary life choices, this is an intelligent and cerebral evocation of a very unusual journey and a most impressive debut.” Another reviewer, this one from Kirkus Reviews, commented "A fine debut novel, from a writer who has avoided the usual clichés and produced a work of genuine originality."

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Works Published

The Aerialist

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Selected Bibliography

Chamberlain, Madelaine. Adult Books: New First Novels. Booklist. November 15, 2000. pp. 618.

Dahlin, Robert. The First Fiction Scene. Publishers Weekly. August 28, 2000. p. S6.

Forecasts: Fiction. Publishers Weekly. October 2, 2000. pp. 55+.

Hall, Emily. The Aerialist (book review). New York Times Book Review. November 19, 2000. p. 74.

Kicinski, Judith. The Aerialist (book review). Library Journal. December 1, 2000. pp. 193.

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Author Website

None available
West Virginia Wesleyan College

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