Julie Drew





University of South Florida, PhD

Julie Drew likes finding the story in everything. Novels, comics, even “an especially well-crafted tweet” all inspire this self-described avid reader. That love of reading and stories is probably why Julie calls her dual roles as a novelist and a tenured English professor at The University of Akron a perfect fit. After all, not everyone can say the work they do in the office is exactly what they prefer to do in the free time they have at home.

How does a woman who lives her job on and off the clock achieve balance? Julie admits that’s her constant struggle. “I have difficulty switching gears. When I have to, I come up for air and reluctantly do the things I’ve been neglecting.”

When “your head is your office” it’s not surprising that sometimes a few chores get neglected. And while Julie says that’s something she’s working on, we think her pure love for her craft is worth leaving the laundry until tomorrow.

The things worth having are worth working for – and frankly, that’s the only way you’re going to get them.

How did you discover your current job?

I’m an English professor, and for that job I went through the typical process in my field of academics: once my degree was granted I did a national job search – a list of all available positions comes out in October each year for the following academic year. I applied to jobs I was interested in, did a first round of interviews at the Modern Language Association annual convention, secured some second-round interviews on various campuses, got a couple of offers for assistant professorships and then chose the one that made the most sense for me. I’ve stayed at the same university and been promoted over the years, and I find my work at UA very rewarding.

I’m also a writer, and while writing and publishing is part of my university job, there are a number of ways I could do that. I write creative texts far more than scholarly ones now, and for someone who doesn’t hold an MFA degree, and who wasn’t hired specifically to teach in a creative writing degree program, this is perhaps somewhat unusual, though it has worked out well for my department, my students and certainly for me.

What responsibilities do you have in your role?

I teach students, from freshmen through the graduate level, in writing, film and cultural studies courses. I serve on various curricular and administrative committees in my department and at the college and university levels as well. I meet with students on campus, interact with them continuously on email, and mentor them individually regarding their coursework with me, their college careers and their writing aspirations, in general, when they ask me to do so. I also research and write for publication as a part of my job, and my books range from scholarly research and cultural critique to historical literary fiction and, more recently, young adult fiction.

What was it about your job that makes you feel it’s the right fit for you?

That’s an easy one: there are few things I enjoy more – and think are more important – than narratives that move us. So whether we’re talking about novels, movies, TV dramas, comic books, memoirs, plays or an especially well-crafted tweet, it’s all about stories for me. I have always been an avid reader, a film buff and a part of the TV generation. I spent 10 years in college studying literature and the craft of writing, and I explore these with my students and my own kids. I write novels to say the things I want to say through compelling characters and engaging plotlines. My job couldn’t be a better fit—the work I do for my employer is also what I do in my leisure time. Except for the committee work. I love my job, but I’m not an idiot.

What challenges keep you awake at night?

The intricacies of the book I’m working on at the time, whether it’s character development or a tough plot (The Tesla Effect trilogy involves time travel, and if quantum physics doesn’t keep you up at night, nothing will). Also, my abilities (or lack thereof) with language. To never be satisfied with one’s own craft is probably the cost of doing business for most writers, and I’m no exception. I want to be better – spare sentences, less exposition, the perfect word or phrase that contains worlds. I think about that. I work on that. I gnash my teeth over it.

What does your work/life balance look like?

My biggest problems are the sedentary nature of what I do, and the difficulty I have switching gears from the immersion of writing a novel to the everyday obligations and chores that take me away from what I’d rather be doing. I’m not athletic and hate the gym, and it’s a struggle to stop working and get up to exercise in some form. Luckily, my husband is athletic and he drags me out of the house periodically to walk, hit some tennis balls, that sort of thing. I often resist, but am glad afterwards. I haven’t figured out how to address the other issue effectively, so I tend to work on my writing in great, intensive spurts, doing nothing for days but sleeping and eating when I must, and spending every waking moment writing. Then, when I have to, I come up for air and reluctantly do the things I’ve been neglecting. I certainly could improve on my work/life balance in that regard.

Was there ever a moment in your career where you’ve thought, “I made it!” What was it?

If I can rephrase to, “I’ve made this!” then yes—I’m not very good at feeling like I’m done; I have a line-up of books to be written. Two moments stand out: when I was promoted and granted tenure and when my first novel came out. There have been other milestones, but none quite as deeply satisfying for me as those two.

Tenure and promotion were about recognition and security, whereas the novel was about legitimacy, which was surprisingly humbling; I’d have guessed the moment would have brought a kind of swagger with it, but it didn’t. Because reading and writing fiction are so important to me, to say out loud to anyone that I wanted to be a novelist felt the same as if I was saying I wanted to be a rock star. It seemed absurd, an invitation for ridicule. When I published my first novel I allowed myself to think, and then to say out loud that I was, indeed, a novelist. And it meant everything to me that I’d imagined.

Now, with four novels under my belt, I’m more comfortable with saying it, but I am always cognizant of how lucky I am to have a job that includes the creative work I do, and the time and support provided by my family to actually write, without guilt. I’m also very aware of the ways in which publication itself is a whole other beast from writing a book, and authors have little, if any, control over that beast. The experience of both writing and being published – and the gratitude for both – I hope makes me a better teacher and mentor to my students who aspire to write and publish their work.

What are some of the rules you live by?

  • People and experiences are more important than things. Spend your time and money accordingly.
  • Space for reflection and creativity are essential; no relationship or job is worth the loss of it.
  • Be kind. Above all else.
  • Ritual is important. Recognize and mark the important things when they are happening – dress up, give a toast, take photos, participate in solemnity.
  • There is no such thing as too much empathy.

What qualities does it take for someone to be successful in your line of work?

The ability to work alone and with others – you need both; handle deadlines; check your ego (everyone gets edited, and everyone’s work gets rejected); blur the lines between work and home – there is no such thing as leaving your work at the office. Your head is your office.

What one piece of advice do you wish you could tell a younger version of yourself?

Read more, write more, be focused, be hungrier for it now. Where you end up is determined at least in part by when you start working for it. I started college at 28, and published my first novel at 49. And, though it seems contradictory, I would also tell my younger self to be patient. We all want instant gratification, but at the risk of sounding like my grandpa, the things worth having are worth working for – and frankly, that’s the only way you’re going to get them. Building a career that you love, and learning and practicing and improving to the point that your work is recognized and rewarded can only be done by putting in the time and the effort. Otherwise, everybody would be a rock star, right?

What is important, outside of yourself, about the work that you do?

Engaging with the world in a positive way is important in general, and in my work, I engage with the world in my classroom, with my students and through my own reading and thinking and writing for a broader audience. My young adult trilogy, The Tesla Effect, rests on some overarching themes that I think speak to young people’s lives, like what do I owe myself, what do I owe others, and how do I navigate change and recover from devastating loss. My protagonist is a 17-year-old girl with a traumatic past and a gift for mathematics and spatial relationships, and she grapples with what it means for a young woman to defy stereotypes and define for herself who and what she will be. I want young women to think about these things, to explore them, and to be strengthened by that exploration, and if they are entertained and thrilled because the plot is exciting and they’ve identified with the protagonist, and they walk away from the books feeling a little more empowered, I’ve done my job.