Thursday Nov. 12, The College of William and Mary’s Earl Gregg Swem Library held a book talk with author and alumnus Michael Branch ’85. Branch graduated with degrees in English and psychology from the College, and is currently a professor of literature and environment at the University of Nevada, Reno. Branch dialed into the Zoom call from his home in the outskirts of Reno, with a digitized image of a dry lake as his background, a significant focal point of his career in writing.
At the beginning of the talk, Branch started by discussing the dried-out desert lake in many of his works, including his most recent books “How to Cuss in Western,” “Rants from the Hill,” and “Raising Wild.” These three collections of essays were the spotlight of Branch’s book talk. Branch read two essays from “Rants from the Hill,” “My Home Lake,” and “A Visit from the Mary Kay Lady.” After the readings, Branch answered questions from the audience.
Branch’s freshman year roommate and life-long friend Tracy Melton introduced him at the book talk and detailed his experiences with Branch’s writing process.
“I’ve really enjoyed the personal essays that he described today,” Melton said. “We are able to get together with family and other W&M friends every year or two. I’ve heard some of the stories before they’ve made it into print, which is compelling to see the process of making the stories. I’ve been to his house and know his wife and daughters, so they feel like family stories. I can hear him telling the story, which makes them even more compelling to me.”
“I believe that writing is all about surprise. And I believe that as a reader, if you’re not surprised, you’re not energized.”
One attendee, Cathy Boyd, shared how she joined the talk to support her friend Dean of University Libraries Carrie Cooper, who moderated the event, and the luring nature of Branch’s titles.
“I am here because of a friend of Carrie Cooper,” Boyd said. “She posted the information on Facebook this morning and because I trust her, I signed up. I admit I was also lured by the title, How To Cuss In Western.”
Branch was inspired to title his book “How to Cuss in Western” by a swear jar he had while raising his kids. This jar provoked him to think about how people in the old West would cuss. Eventually the jar influenced his essay “How To Cuss in Western,” then became the title of the whole collection.
Branch recommends his earlier book, “Rants from the Hill,” for college students.
“The narrative voice of that book is not only funny but also cantankerous,” Branch said. “College students should be engaged in questioning received wisdom, refusing to take things at second hand from other people. My narrator in that book is similarly resistant. He’s a guy who doesn’t have much interest in a ‘normal’ way of living and I hope this narrative voice helps to liberate some space in the reader’s mind — to remind us that there are as many ways to live as there are individual people.”
“I was a first-generation college student and I would have never gone on to graduate school if I hadn’t had the experience I had at William & Mary.”
Branch made it evident in his book talk that he embraces individuality in his own writing style. Branch emphasized his writing technique of a pivot. This style leads the reader to believe one notion or to follow a certain narrative, but then pivots in a surprising way. This pivot he says, helps keep the reader engaged and the story interesting, even if editors don’t like this technique.
“I believe that writing is all about surprise,” Branch said. “And I believe that as a reader, if you’re not surprised, you’re not energized.”
This surprise pivot in his writing seemed to manifest itself in his personal life as well. Branch ended his book talk discussing his time at the College as an undergraduate student. He reflected about how in the beginning of his four years, he did not fully appreciate the College experience. However, in retrospect he is forever grateful for his time here.
“I look back and I really wish I could go back and be more appreciative in the moment,” Branch said. “You go out into the world and you realize you don’t meet people like this everywhere. Special people in a special place at a special time. It’s things that you really take for granted when you’re younger and it took me a long time to come around to this, but I attribute everything that I went on to do to my experience. I was a first-generation college student and I would have never gone on to graduate school if I hadn’t had the experience I had at William & Mary.”