M.O. “Neal” Walsh is having a happy moment. It says so right there in his author biography: “He is currently the director of the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans, where he lives and works, happily, with his wife and family.”
And truly, he has a lot to be happy, even jubilant, about. His debut novel, “My Sunshine Away” (Putnam, $26.95), arrives this month with the kind of fanfare that rarely accompanies publication — chosen as an Entertainment Weekly “Must” for 2015. Starred reviews in the trade journals Booklist and Kirkus, blurbs from Anne Rice, Tom Franklin, Kathryn Stockett and a host of others.
All this praise is for a novel with a decidedly dark and Gothic turn. The unnamed narrator of “My Sunshine Away” is in love with the golden girl, Lindy Simpson, the pride of his comfortable Baton Rouge neighborhood and a track star at their private school. It’s that sweet and complicated first love that never goes away, never is completely forgotten. And when Lindy is raped on a summer night, everything in that neighborhood, that school, changes as secrets come to light.
The narrator is going through his share of changes, too — his parents are divorcing, things seem to be falling apart, and he’s hit a rough patch in the journey toward coming of age. Some of those experiences are drawn from Walsh’s own life. ”I grew up in Baton Rouge,” he said. “We had a big house in a nice neighborhood. My parents got divorced. My sister died, unexpectedly, in the prime of her life. My mother and my other sister got us through. I had some strange neighbors.”
Percolating over seven years, those connections, memories, combined with Walsh’s fertile imagination, brewed up a Southern classic, a novel of time and place, tough truths and hard-won reconciliations.
“I was always a person who thought not to take things for granted,” he said. “I’m interested in the ways we shuffle our own memories and mute things in our pasts. Everyone’s got tragedies.”
Years of preparation went into his writing life. He studied at the MFA program at the University of Mississippi, where he numbers among his teachers the great Barry Hannah, Steve Yarbrough and Tom Franklin. He also earned a master’s degree at the University of Tennessee.
During his undergraduate work at Louisiana State University, he studied with the late Matt Clark, author of Hook Man Speaks.
Walsh still remembers picking up a story at Clark’s office. “He had written the words ‘damn near publishable’ on the story, and then I thought, ‘Maybe writing isn’t just for school.’ Matt Clark was a total mentor to me. It’s then you realize that your professors are professionals. So when you pick out a writing program, you should read their books.”
Walsh taught at LSU before coming to UNO. He and his wife, Sarah, have two children, Magnolia, 6, and Sherwood, 2. His first book, the story collection “The Prospect of Magic,” was published by Livingston Press in 2010; it won the Tartt Prize for First Fiction. “My Sunshine Away” was seven years in the making.
“I’m a slow writer,” Walsh said. “Writing is really hard, and having two children in the process also slowed things down a bit.”
Then there is the hard daily work of teaching, which Walsh obviously loves.
The love and commitment of University of New Orleans creative writing faculty have truly paid off in reputation and results: This year, the program can boast 11 student and alumni nominees for the prestigious Pushcart Prize, which recognizes the best stories, poetry and literary writing published in literary magazines.
Walsh rejoices in that statistic along with his students, and he enjoys seeing them develop their unique voices.
“It’s good to have literary heroes and models,” he said. “But the only chance they have is to be themselves.”
“New Orleans is a great recruiting tool,” Walsh added. “At least students know they’re not going to a place where the computer screen is the best view in town. And we have a great community of faculty and students — when someone gets an acceptance, we throw a party.”
Susan Larson hosts WWNO’s The Reading Life and is the author of The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.