Temple authors reveal the influence Temple has had on their writing.
Story by Maria Raha
Journalist and author Jeffrey Robinson, SCT ’67, was interviewing a former undercover officer at Citigroup in New York City when a name on a memo caught his eye. “I said, ‘Is that Joe Petro from Allentown, Pa., who went to Temple University and was with the Secret Service?’” Robinson recalls.
It was. He and Petro had not seen each other since their undergraduate days at Temple. “I was friends with him because I wanted to meet cheerleaders,” Robinson says about Petro, a former Temple football player. “He was friends with me because I was funny."
Prior to his corporate career—he is managing director of Citigroup—and long after his time on the football field, Joseph Petro, SBM ’6 worked for the Secret Service during the Reagan administration, and coordinated the security effort for Pope John Paul II’s 1987 nine-city U.S. tour. By the time they reconnected, Robinson had written numerous books, including a biography of Brigitte Bardot and nonfiction works about Prince Rainier III of Monaco and former Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani. Their reunion spurred the 2005 book Standing Next to History: An Agent’s Life Inside the Secret Service, a memoir of Petro’s career that he and Robinson wrote together.
Literary success has been a running theme at Temple, from crime, mystery and science fiction writer Miriam Allen deFord, CLA ’11, to Joseph Avenick, SCT ’67, James Michener’s ghostwriter, and prolific science fiction author Benjamin Bova, SCT ’54. Joseph Monninger, CLA ’75, has written 11 novels and three works of nonfiction. And in 2009, radio talk show host and author Mark R. Levin, CLA ’77, LAW ’80, reached the No. 1 position on The New York Times bestseller list for his latest book, Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto.
Temple itself also has inspired a rich cadre of mainstream authors. “Temple was singularly responsible for my writing,” says Alex Wellen, LAW ’95, author of Barman: Ping Pong, Pathos and Passing the Bar.
“I had actually made a prototype of this paddle and brought it with me in an empty briefcase,” he explains. “I talked about the notion of intellectual property and how I was fascinated with the law and the things I wanted to pursue. I was accepted soon thereafter, and I credit that ping-pong paddle.” Barman’s subtitle, Ping Pong, Pathos and Passing the Bar, refers to this invention.
Though Wellen’s interest in practicing law waned within a few years, his interest in journalism grew. Now, he serves as CNN’s deputy political director for digital content and his second book, Lovesick, was released by Three Rivers Press in summer 2009.
While Wellen studied law and turned to journalism, novelist Jonathon King, SCT ’84, majored in journalism, but writes most frequently about the law and crime. He is the bestselling author of the Max Freeman series, the first of which was The Blue Edge of Midnight. Also his first novel, it earned the 2002 Edgar Allen Poe Award for “Best First Novel by an American Author.” The series protagonist is a former Philadelphia police officer.
“My experiences at Temple and in Philadelphia filled my head with possibilities,” the former journalist recalls. “While going to class during the day, I worked as an overnight police reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. Those experiences still pepper my narratives.”
One of King’s main characters hails from North Philadelphia. “He was a member of the Vaux Junior High ‘Bad Bishops’ chess team, went to Temple Law and then to Wharton,” he says. “I cooked him up right off the streets around Temple.”
Jeffrey Robinson also was a student of journalism, and was among the first class of School of Communications and Theater journalism graduates. He is grateful to Temple for encouraging him to become a writer. “[Professor of Journalism] Jackie Steck was really very important to me, because she understood what I was trying to do and encouraged me to do it,” he says. “I think Jackie was the first one who said, ‘You can write professionally. You’re not ready now, but you’ve got what it takes to go ahead and do it, so do it.’”
An author of nearly 30 books, Robinson also has written for newspapers, magazines, radio and television. His most groundbreaking work, The Laundrymen, was published by Simon & Schuster in 1991 and, according to the author, remains the definitive book on money laundering.
Temple’s influence is not always as direct as memoir fodder or character source. Stanley Weintraub, CLA ’51, a leading expert on playwright George Bernard Shaw, developed a passion for modern drama in the classroom.
“When I was at Temple, one of the courses I took that was very influential was a modern drama class,” says Weintraub. “The teacher was Mabel Worthington. I was fascinated by the beginnings of modern drama as I learned them in her class. Coincidentally, at about the same time, Bernard Shaw died. The combination of the two made me sufficiently interested in drama.” In addition to writing more than 50 full-length books, he edited George Bernard Shaw’s previously unpublished novel and diaries, and penned Private Shaw and Public Shaw, a biography about the renowned playwright.
“I was an engineer; I wasn’t necessarily inclined to become a writer, but it was Temple that took this interest and belief and invested in me, and I, in turn, gave Temple everything I could.” He published Barman, which chronicled his transition from Temple law student to practicing lawyer, in 2003.
As an undergraduate engineering student at Rutgers University, Wellen had developed a prototype for a new kind of ping-pong paddle. The paddle, he believes, gained him admission to Temple. He brought it with him to a law school admission interview with professors of law Edward Ohlbaum, LAW ’76, and Anthony Bocchino.
Weintraub also is a war historian who was raised in Philadelphia, which provided him with rich historical inspiration. He believes that the way he effectively writes about war is because he fought in one. Just before graduation, Weintraub left school to fight in the Korean War. “Temple was very kind to me by letting me go before I finished my degree work and my assistantship work, and then giving me an MA in absentia,” he says. “I feel very grateful for being able to know that I was on the way to becoming a professional even though I was in uniform and on the way to a war.” Among his many war histories,Weintraub’s Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce was initially published in 2001 and currently is in its 10th printing.
As the author of seven novels—including the controversial, award-winning and bestselling 1979 novel Sally Hemings—a book of poetry and three forthcoming books, Barbara Chase-Riboud, TYL ’56, has repositioned a traditional narrative in American history. Sally Hemings, a work of historical fiction, depicted Thomas Jefferson’s suspected affair with a slave. Chase-Riboud has since published anniversary editions of Sally Hemings and The President’s Daughter, a fictional portrait of the daughter Thomas Jefferson was believed to have fathered with Hemings.
“The entire story of The President’s Daughter, the imagined story of Harriet Hemings, takes place in Philadelphia from 1800 to 1876,” she explains. Additionally, Sally Hemings briefly describes Philadelphia from the main character’s perspective.
Her work on such a disputed and sensitive subject was initially rejected by many Jeffersonian scholars, but nearly 20 years later, in 1998, DNA evidence supported the theory that Jefferson probably had fathered Hemings’ children. In addition to these novels and others, Chase-Riboud also is poet and a renowned sculptor whose work “Africa Rising” memorializes the African burial ground uncovered in New York City in 1991.
Nine-time author Steve Alten, CHPSW ’88, is no a stranger to controversy, either. The Shell Game, published in hardcover in 2008, will be released in paperback this fall. The book fictionalizes a terrorist attack on the United States orchestrated by the national government.
Critics of his viewpoint did not keep the book from hitting The New York Times bestseller list. The paperback edition, released on September 11, 2009, was rewritten to reflect this year’s change in presidential administration.
However, Alten is best known for the young-adult series MEG, a series of books about a prehistoric great white shark. The first book in the series was released by Doubleday in 1997 and two more followed. A new addition, Hell’s Aquarium, was released in spring 2009.
The popularity of MEG among young-adult readers inspired Alten to develop a nonprofit program called Adopt-an-Author. Alten and other authors provide curriculum materials about their work to teachers. Adopt-an-Author currently serves approximately 9,000 teachers, and its authors are available to communicate directly with students and visit their classrooms.
Though he earned a doctorate in physical education and originally wanted to work with former Temple Basketball Head Coach John Chaney, Alten believes that the university still affected his writing career. “My experiences there and the ability to do research for a dissertation certainly came in handy for writing,” he says.
In these ways and more, Temple is present on bookshelves across the country. For some authors, they could not have become a writer without having been an Owl.
“I had a love affair with being a law student and it was Temple that gave me that experience and made it so satisfying,” Alex Wellen says. “They’re one in the same, my experiences at Temple and my notion of writing.”
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