An Authentic Character

October 23, 2018

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BUFFALO, NY - Memorable, complicated and distinctive characters are at the heart of all great fiction. Canisius College is fortunate to have such an authentic character in Mick E. Cochrane, PhD, professor of English. 

Cochrane observes everything and forgets nothing.  He is captivated by complex family stories, and the heartache, humor and generosity that often accompany them.  Cochrane is exceptionally skilled at how he evokes these feelings in the written word. These distinctive characteristics are what make Mick Cochrane an award-winning novelist and now a beacon for a whole new generation of creative writers at Canisius College. 

Cochrane is director of the college’s creative writing major and for many students, the first ‘real-life’ author they meet, as they begin their own writing journeys.  The creative writing program nurtures and develops the talents of young authors, who study and learn alongside published faculty with national credentials.  Coursework includes a variety of genres – from fiction to poetry, to nonfiction and playwriting.  The curriculum mirrors that of the hands-on approach taken in the best master of fine arts programs: The small workshops place heavy emphasis on writing and revision to help students discover their own voices. 

“I love everything about being around young people who love literature as much as I do,” adds Cochrane, whose expertise is fiction writing, biography and autobiography, and 18th century British literature, particularly Samuel Johnson and James Boswell.  “I love talking about what makes particular stories and poems work.  I especially love working with a student on a manuscript for a long time – worrying it almost to death, rewriting, rethinking and fixing – until finally there is a moment, after all that effort that it’s paid off.  The student created a distinctive and carefully wrought work of art.” 

A complete manuscript seems almost counter-cultural in a day and age when many young people limit their reading and writing to posts on Twitter and Facebook.  The National Endowment for the Arts reports that only 40 percent of college freshmen read books for pleasure.  That number declines to 35 percent by the time they graduate from college.  But Cochrane says his students defy the national trend.     

“There are deep and enduring pleasures and rewards found in a novel that you can’t find on Twitter,” he says.  “I spend every day with young people who not only read books but love them as whole-heartedly and passionately as I did when I was young.”

The St. Paul, MN native spent his boyhood “obsessed” with books.  “I was always susceptible to language and loved learning new words, if only to tease my brother and sister in new and creative ways,” laughs Cochrane. 

Certain writers and subjects became important to Cochrane at different times in his life.  He focused on U.S. presidents (Abraham Lincoln in particular) and the Minnesota Twins, of the Major League Baseball.  As he grew older, Cochrane “raided the shelves of the West St. Paul Library” and devoured novels by Clair Bee, Wilfred McCormick and later John Steinbeck.  He spent hours at home reading The World Book Encyclopedia

“I would lie on my belly with a volume in front of me and study the presidents, the circulation system or famous battles.  So much knowledge presented in such an orderly fashion – how could you not love it,” he laughs. 

Clearly, books were a kind of refuge for Cochrane.  He says they offered him “companionship and hope, food for my soul and spirit.”

He explains that his father was not a positive influence in his life.  His mother suffered from multiple sclerosis.  Both died by the time Cochrane turned 21.  Out of a less-than-ideal family life grew a special bond between Cochrane and his older sister, Sue, who is a family court judge in Minneapolis.  Sue often read to a young Cochrane and told him great creative stories. 

“Without Sue’s love, support and inspiration, I don’t think I ever would have written a book,” says Cochrane. 

Other people realized Cochrane’s talent for writing before he did. 

Unbeknownst to Cochrane, a ninth grade English teacher submitted one of his stories to the school newspaper, which published it.  During his freshman year at the College of St. Thomas (now the University of St. Thomas), an English professor so enjoyed a story Cochrane wrote for his class that he submitted it to the college’s literary magazine – without Cochrane’s knowledge. The magazine published the story and awarded it a prize.   

“When I read Mick’s first paper, I knew he was capable of being a great fiction writer,” recalls Lon Otto, PhD, another one of Cochrane’s English professors at St. Thomas and also a fiction writer.  “He was very quiet in class but I could always tell he was engaged.” 

Otto taught Cochrane not just about the craft of writing but about the life of a writer, artistic integrity, and long-term habits and values. 

“I attended a small, Catholic liberal arts college where a handful of professors paid attention to me and took me seriously,” says Cochrane.  “They wanted to know what I had to say and they taught me how to take myself seriously. That experience changed my life.”

It led to Cochrane’s success as a fiction writer and Canisius professor.    

All of his novels (The Girl Who Threw Butterflies (Knopf 2009), Sport (St. Martin’s 2001) and Flesh Wounds (Nan Talese/Doubleday 1997)) earned critical acclaim.  The Girl Who Three Butterflies saw unparalleled success.  The novel tells the story of Molly Williams, a young girl whose father dies in a car accident.  To make herself known at school for something other than her father’s death, Molly joins the boys’ baseball team.  USA Today named The Girl Who Threw Butterflies a ‘recommended read’ for young people.  The Los Angeles chapter of the Women’s National Book Association named it a winner of the Judy Lopez Memorial Award, which recognizes works of literary excellence for readers between the ages of nine and 12.  And the American Library Association named Butterflies one of its Top Ten Sports Books for Youth.  Although originally intended as a novel for young readers, the book became a best-seller among readers of all ages and is currently in its fifth printing. 

“In the middle of drafting The Girl Who Threw Butterflies it occurred to me that I may be writing a book that no one would want to read,” recalls Cochrane. “Boys wouldn’t read it because the protagonist is a girl and girls wouldn’t read it because baseball plays a big part in the story. But by then the story and its characters had thoroughly seized my heart and inhabited my imagination.”

Unlike many of today’s authors, Cochrane’s creative process doesn’t begin with a plot in mind.  Rather he develops his characters first and then follows their leads.   “I don’t control them or order them to carry out some unlikely action my clever plot requires,” he explains. “I listen to them.”

Most of Cochrane’s novels do, however, follow similar storylines.  They often begin with some type of family rupture – a death or an illness – and then explore how the characters move from loneliness and confusion, to a sense of wholeness and connection, into a new kind of belonging.  “That story is infinitely various and interesting to me,” says Cochrane, who is currently at work on his fourth novel. 

His works are all fiction although readers who know him well may recognize hints of personal experiences in his stories.  Minnesota and Buffalo weather and landmarks, his particular low-key sense of humor, and his love of baseball – all weave their ways into Cochrane’s writing.      

“Writers make use of everything they have on hand,” says Cochrane.  “On a superficial level, I describe some things I experienced first-hand: what a house looks like after a fire, what a newborn baby looks like, the smell of a baseball glove. But writers have to go beyond that.  To tell the truth about what it feels like to be human is the hard work of being a novelist.”

Cochrane is particularly adept at capturing the human spirit, no matter the character’s gender, age or life situation. 

“Mick is kind to his characters in a way we all hope to be,” says Janet M. McNally ’02, a visiting assistant professor of creative writing at Canisius College.  “Writers strive to create true representations of what it means to be a human being and Mick is able to do this very well.”

Cochrane uses his experiences as a working novelist to educate the next generation of writers at Canisius College.  He doesn’t claim to teach students to write like author John Updike, “just as a cello instructor can’t teach students to play like Yo Yo Ma.” But he does teach students the fundamentals of writing, and much more.  His coursework is focused primarily on creative writing and contemporary fiction.  Students learn how to revise, line-edit and how to read like a writer.  Their success is the product of talent and hard work, and Cochrane believes the more students practice the better they get.   

“He has a real talent for dealing with student writing in a non-threatening way where students can hear what he has to say,” says Eric L. Gansworth, professor of English at Canisius College and a Lowery Writer-in-Residence alongside Cochrane. “In fact, because of the manner in which he shares his insights with them, they seem very interested in improving their work.”  

“He is a great guide for the exploration of contemporary literature because he loves it and he wants students to love it,” adds McNally.  “Mick picks great writers for students to study, then asks questions that allow students to think – and think deeply.”

This is at the core of the new creative writing major, which Cochrane developed for fall 2010.  But it is just the latest in a series of Cochrane’s Canisius initiatives and involvements to further educate aspiring writers.  He launched a coffeehouse series, in which students and staff read from their works.  Cochrane advises the Quadrangle, the student literary magazine, and also coordinates creative writing internships for students.  

“As a freshman, I wasn’t involved in anything but Dr. Cochrane constantly made opportunities available to me,” says Caitlin R. McAneney ’12, a junior English/creative writing dual major.  She credits Cochrane for her sophomore year internship during which she co-wrote a children’s book for the A Girl Named Pants series by Thomas J. Colson ’85.  “Where else can you get that kind of experience?” asks McAneney. 

But perhaps Cochrane’s most well-known initiative –on campus and in the community at-large - is the Contemporary Writers Series, which he launched in 1999.    While many leading colleges and universities bring eminent writers to their campuses, the Canisius College Contemporary Writers Series is unique in its integration with a variety of courses across the core curriculum.  After reading and studying an author’s work, students get the rare opportunity to meet and converse with the author in class, and then attend his public reading during that evening.  Since its debut, The Contemporary Writers Series welcomed numerous nationally prominent novelists and poets to campus, such as Garrison Keillor, Ann Pachett, Richard Russo and George Saunders, as well as Western New York natives Lucille Clifton and Connie Porter. 

“When I was an undergraduate, two important writers, Malcolm Cowley and Stanley Elkin, visited St. Thomas,” recalls Cochrane. “Hearing them made a huge impression on me. I want our students to feel that same excitement and inspiration, and to understand that literature is made by living human beings.”

The Contemporary Writers Series is supported by the Hassett and Scoma Endowments, and the Office of Academic Affairs, with the cooperation of The Buffalo & Erie Country Public Library, Just Buffalo Literary Center, Western New York Writing Project and Talking Leaves Books.

“Mick Cochrane understands that education does not take place in a vacuum, and that both school and community gain with broad and close interchange,” says Jonathon Welch, owner of Talking Leaves Bookstore in Buffalo. “The work he does at Canisius to connect it to the broader community is a shining example of the good that comes from such an interchange.”

Cochrane is a shining example of what it means to be committed to community.  He is a frequent participant in literary workshops, readings and lectures at local schools, libraries and arts organizations. In addition, the father of two (Sam, age 19; and Henry, age 16) coaches baseball, volunteers for campus ministry’s Buffalo Burrito Project, at the Nativity Miguel Middle School of Buffalo and the Erie County Public Library’s ‘Battle of the Books’ program. 

“If an organization asks me for help, I try to say ‘yes,’” says Cochrane, who lives in the Village of Kenmore with his wife, Mary, and their two sons.  Friends and colleagues who know him best describe Cochrane’s gracious personality as “Minnesota Nice.” The expression refers to the stereotypical behavior of long-time Minnesota residents: to be courteous, reserved, and mild mannered.  

“Garrison Keillor (host of National Public Radio’s A Prairie Home Companion) gets Minnesota Nice,” says Cochrane, who believes civility doesn’t need a label. “You shovel out your neighbor’s car, you offer visitors coffee, you let someone go ahead of you in line, and you don’t act like you think you’re somebody special.”

Perhaps this is what makes Cochrane feel so at home in his adopted hometown.  He admires the neighborhoods’ tree-lined streets and sidewalks.  He likes that he can walk to a diner, where the waitresses call him “honey,” and order a three-dollar breakfast special.  Cochrane also relishes that he still lives in the ‘pop zone’ and doesn’t have to train himself to say ‘soda,’ as he might elsewhere.  And he loves living in a city that has a magnificent independent bookstore, whose owner not only knows Cochrane but knows what Cochrane wants to read before he does. 

Here in Buffalo, Cochrane finds the characters and stories that fully engage his imagination.   

“All my sympathies lie with the scruffy rather than the slick; with the outsiders and underdogs - and that’s Buffalo, right?” states Cochrane.  “There’s a tremendous need here and I like to think I may be useful here in a way I may not be in a more well-to-do city.”

In fact, Cochrane’s contributions to Canisius and the greater arts community help this region to flourish creatively.  As it does, the literary world, book lovers and students, alike, eagerly await Mick Cochrane’s next story. 

Canisius College Magazine, Spring 2011