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Getting to know...Mike Curtis

Things don’t always go as planned in life, and that’s a good thing. Take Wofford English professor Michael Curtis, who is also a John C. Cobb Professor in the Humanities.

Had Curtis stuck to his original plan while attending Cornell University, he might still be in hotel administration. Instead, he fought tooth and nail for the right to transfer to the college of arts and sciences there.
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“It took me a couple of years to get the transfer,” he says. “As a junior, applying for the third time, I pointed out to the arts and sciences people that I had just been elected editor-in-chief of the Cornell yearbook, and that I was already serving as an editor of the Cornell student newspaper, the Cornell literary magazine, and the Cornell humor magazine. They reluctantly gave in, saying they were admitting me in the hope that I’d get my degree and stop bothering them.”

His life had more detours to come. After graduating and spending a couple of years as a newspaper reporter he decided he’d learned “almost nothing” about how the real world works, as an English major, and decided to go back to Cornell and get a Ph.D. in government.

“I spent four years working towards a Ph.D.,” Curtis laughs. “I did everything but write a thesis.”

But that’s when The Atlantic Monthly came in and swept him off his feet. The magazine offered him an editing job in 1963, and in 1982 he became the magazine’s first official fiction editor. Forty-five years later he’s still an Atlantic editor, editing the annual Fiction Issue and running the magazine’s annual Student Writing Competition – in addition to his teaching duties at Wofford.

“I took a leave of absence from my graduate work,” he says. “I’m still on leave.”

In August of 2005 The Atlantic Monthly decided to publish short stories only in a special all-fiction issue, and also decided to move its staff and main offices from Boston (where they had been since 1857) to Washington. Curtis was reluctant to make the move. Around this time, Curtis and his wife Elizabeth Cox, a novelist and professor of writing at Duke University, were invited to jointly occupy a newly-endowed John C. Cobb Chair in the Humanities by Wofford president Benjamin B. Dunlap.

“We thought it sounded too good to say no to,” recalls Curtis. “I hadn’t been back in South for any appreciable amount of time since growing up in Arkansas. In January of ‘06 my wife and I packed up in a blinding snowstorm and took off for a warmer climate.

Paradise Found for the fiction editor?

“It definitely seemed like it,” he said. “We drove through snow until somewhere in North Carolina. When we got to Spartanburg on Jan. 6, the temperature was in the 50s, and the day was sunny. We thought, ‘This is the Promised Land.’ And so here we are.”

Curtis and his wife taught an Interim class on creative writing last year and will again this year. Their backgrounds – one an editor and one a writer -- make for good teaching chemistry.

“We’ve found that we complement each other very comfortably,” he says.

Curtis teaches at Wofford while still working part time for Atlantic Monthly, if you consider reading 30 to 40 stories per day “part time.”

In his spare time he tries to get away from the written word, and two of his passions are basketball and poker. A huge Duke fan because of his wife, he says his game is “very much on the floor.” Thanks to a recently torn Achilles tendon, damaged ACLs in each knee, and a torn rotator cuff, he rarely shoots farther than three feet from the basket “unless I’m in a reckless mood.”

“At this point in my life, I’m happy to simply work up a sweat and not make terrible mistakes.”

Editing other people’s mistakes? No sweat. Not for this almost hotel administrator/political scientist.