Q&A: Mark Harmon, Author and Former County Commissioner

Former county commissioner and journalism professor Mark Harmon and author Brian Griffin will speak about writing to deal with tragedy at the Knoxville Writers' Guild's Feb. 7 meeting. Both men were present when a shooter killed two at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church July 27, 2008.

Whose idea was a joint appearance with Brian Griffin?

I'm not sure how it started. I called the Writers' Guild at the suggestion of the publisher of my 2011 book Crashing the Commission: Confessions of a University Twit, and sent some e-mails. They counter-proposed that Brian and I both be present—two chapters of my book are about the church shooting, and Brian has written about it as well. That's the common thread. Brian also wrote a blurb for the cover of my book—that really connects us.

Is it hard to talk about those two chapters?

No. I've done it twice. I read a small section of one of those chapters to another Knoxville writers' group, and when I did a book launch at Union Ave Books. It's tough to get through, and sometimes I well up a bit. But it's an important part of that time—my book really covers 2006-2010, and the shooting is right in the middle.

Is it awful for the audience?

It's quite a shocking moment for them as well, to remember that and think about what happened.

Does writing help every person work through tragedy?

I think all people cope differently. My wife Becky and I had a lot of conversations, did a lot of soul-searching, talking. Others found different ways.

Did writing the book help you cope?

I hadn't really planned on writing it as a book. It's specifically about those four years, and so many unusual things happened. So many life lessons were sitting there, leading me, crying out to be told. I thought, "I've got to write this," so I did.

How long did it take?

Oh, gosh, a few months. I had to gather material, find a publisher, check my memory against the public record.

How do books compare to your typical academic papers?

They're in very different styles, but across my career I've written in many styles—newspaper columns, TV news scripts. I may be the only person who's ever written for the magazine for the National Hockey League [Inter Arena] and the Chronicle of Higher Education. For the latter, I wrote about the interrobang, the obscure punctuation mark that combines a question mark and exclamation point. It's for moments of incredulity, and I think we need that mark of punctuation. I also entered the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for bad lines that begin books that were never published. It's named for the fellow who wrote bad lines like the one Snoopy starts with: "It was a dark and stormy night..." I earned a "dishonorable mention" for one of my efforts to win that contest.

What was this bad line?

"Charles stuck his head out the window, not fully realizing that the salt air and warm breeze would have no beneficial effect on a head severed and shrunk in Borneo and sold on a stick to tourists in Bali, and with little thought of the irony of the former missionary's vacant gaze on a nude beach with at least two couples in the missionary position."

Are your fellow commissioners down on the book?

No, no! From what I can tell, those who have read it have generally liked it.

How are sales?

It's an ongoing enterprise, not a best seller. Sales have gone slowly, but well.

The event, open to the public, is on Thursday, Feb. 7, at 7 p.m., at the Laurel Theater in Fort Sanders. More info: knoxvillewritersguild.org