Award for Distinguished Scholarship
Professor of English
Joe Monninger didn’t set out to be a writer. In fact, as he approached graduation from Temple University in 1975, his top job prospect was as a clothes buyer for Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia.
More than 30 years later, he’s a critically acclaimed, award-winning author—and his road to writing began with the decision not to take that job.
“I didn’t even know what a clothes buyer was,” he says. Instead, he applied to the Peace Corps and was stationed in West Africa’s Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) for two years. “I ended up by myself in a hut way out in the desert, and that’s when I started writing,” he says. “I don’t know why, exactly. I needed to fill time … I started writing long letters, and that turned into writing stories.”
From there, his jump to becoming a novelist was a matter of practicality. “I wish it were a more esoteric tale,” he says. “But when I returned from Africa, I was working as a grocery clerk. I knew I needed to do something else. I wanted to write.”
Monninger had been working on a novel based on his first short story, which won third place in the Redbook Short Story Contest in 1978. “But then I read The Amityville Horror,” he says. “And I thought, ‘I can write one of these.’ So I sat down and wrote one in six weeks, and it sold right away.”
From there, he set off on a wide-ranging tour of writing genres that has lasted more than 30 years—so far. From fiction to nonfiction, short stories to novels, Sports Illustrated to American Heritage, Monninger has published countless articles, numerous short stories, and nearly 20 books.
Writing isn’t an easy line of work, but over the years, he has attracted significant praise: Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Richard Eder, reviewing Monninger’s 1991 novel The Viper Tree, compared him to renowned author Graham Greene; in 2007, NPR’s Bill Littlefield said Monninger’s historical boxing book, Two Ton, deserves a spot among that sport’s classic literature. He has received two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and national honors for his young adult novels Baby, which was selected as one of 2009’s best young adult books by the Young Adult Library Services Association, and Hippie Chick, which was selected as one of 2008’s Most Distinguished Books by The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.
And now, Monninger feels he’s hit his stride in his career. “It took a long time to get to this point,” he says. “Now I’m able to focus on projects that I really want to do, that I know I will enjoy.”
He also enjoys his role as a professor and mentor to his students at PSU, where he’s been teaching since 1990. “I tell students, instead of thinking of a writing room, think of a wood shop,” he says. “There are shavings on the floor, projects started, vises holding glued pieces together … here’s a magazine article, here’s a book. You often have a lot of projects going at once, so you have to be flexible.”
Monninger wants his students to know that writing doesn’t happen magically. “I hope that by the end of a course, they’ve glimpsed a certain disciplined approach to writing—that there is no muse sitting on my shoulder that’s not on theirs,” he says. “There’s a Trollope quote: ‘It’s dogged as does it.’ And it’s true.”