The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

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Released in April, “The Watery Part of the World” has drawn a great deal of national publicity. It's been reviewed by The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and People magazine, just to name a few. It was also included in Entertainment Weekly's Must List for the week of May 16.

“It feels gratifying to have that much media attention. That didn't happen for the other books,” he says.

Another woman comes up to the table and asks for her book to be signed. Her husband stands off to the side, taking pictures.

 Parker signs a book for a visitor while her husband take a photo. Parker signs a book for a visitor while her husband take a photo.

As he did with the previous visitor, he takes his time talking with her, asking where she's from. When she mentions she thought about buying his book on her Kindle before she saw a notice of the book signing, he encourages her to continue buying her books locally.

During a break in the action, he wanders to the front counter and visits with Brumfield and Fineman.

“Coming into Manteo, I thought ‘What in the world?’” he tells Fineman about his reaction to all the changes since he last visited. “What's it like to live with the change?”

Brumfield notes that when he opened 27 years ago, he could look out the window and see the sound. Now a building blocks the way.

Parker understands about the passage of time in one place. He's been at UNCG since 1992, right after he left Elizabeth City. “My first book had not even come out yet. I felt lucky to get the job (at UNCG) in the first place,” he says.

Often during the signing, he tells people about teaching at UNCG and how the MFA program is the third oldest in the nation. One customer also mentions the music camp and they both agree it's quite wonderful. Parker's daughter attended the camp when she was younger, which Parker finds ironic since he declares he's can't even play a harmonica.

And while writing is his passion, he is equally passionate about teaching. “I love it,” he says. “I really do.”

He teaches both graduate students and undergraduate students, but there's just something about the younger ones that he adores — even though he often reads his fill of vampire and cyborg stories.

When he was an undergraduate, he knew he wanted to write but thought he would major in journalism. His father was a journalist at the Clinton paper, the Sampson Independent.

Parker went to Carolina and signed up for his first journalism course, the killer Jour 53.

“I kept misspelling things. When you misspell, you fail,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is not for me.’

“Plus, I'm not very good about facts. One summer I wanted to work for my dad. He said, you know, Mike, if that trashcan were to catch on fire, you would write a story that said 3,000 acres burn. You can't contain your imagination. That's not your strong suit. And he was absolutely right.”

Using his imagination has served him well, taking him from 1950s small-town North Carolina to turn of the century Outer Banks to 1970s Virginia.

In general, though, his fiction grapples with similar ideas.

“All my books are variations on one theme: people who are trying to square their vision of reality with the rest of the world, aligning their inner life with what culture and society says is real.”

Parker signs a copy of “The Watery Part of the World.” Parker signs a copy of “The Watery Part of the World.”

One woman stops by, picks up the book and asks what it's about. Parker explains and she says “sounds intriguing.” Another bookstore customer comes by with her book in hand for signing. “It was fabulous,” she tells him.

Parker may be busy publicizing “The Watery Part of the World,” but he's already written his next book — set in modern-day Texas — and sent it to his agent. He spent the fall writing in Texas and plans to go back to make the finishing touches.

The plot: “A man and a woman meet at a used car lot and decide on the spur of the moment to buy a used car together. And (the rest of the book is) what happens to them.”

In writing his novels, he doesn't have a pre-set idea of where the story will take him.

“I like to find my way as I go,” he says. “I want to discover along with the reader. If I don't discover anything, they're not going to discover anything.”

Another visitor comes by to purchase a copy for her 84-year-old mother who recently broke her ankle. All she does is read right now, her daughter says. She's a farmer in Connecticut and being still is driving her crazy. My mother is just amazing, she says, shaking her head. The story just tumbles out and Parker asks interested questions, learning where exactly in Connecticut her mother lives and what she farms.

“Good luck to your mom,” Parker says, handing the signed book across the table. “I hope she recovers quickly.”

Open book
Listen as Michael Parker reads the first few pages of “The Watery Part of the World.”


Sea story article image

Between the signings, Parker browses the shelves and picks up several books to purchase on his way out. “Every time I go into an independent book store, I think ‘I've gotta buy some books.’”

Even with several new books, he spends a lot of time re-reading these days. He leans toward nonfiction, classics and contemporary literature written by friends and former students.

Rereading the classics came in handy when titling “The Watery Part of the World.” He originally called it “Off Island” — the same title he used for a short story he wrote years earlier about the last inhabitants of Portsmouth Island. But the publisher wanted something different.

When he got that call, he was rereading a favorite — “Moby Dick” — and found what he needed in the second line of the book: “Some years ago — never mind how long, precisely — having little or no money in my purse and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little see the watery part of the world.”

If he had to pick a favorite of his own works, it would probably be his fourth novel, “If You Want Me to Stay,” which tells the story of a teenage boy who escapes from a mentally unstable father and goes in search of his estranged mother. It's a tough book, one he says was “physically hard to write.”

Some people have called that book maybe a little too dark. Parker doesn't quite agree.

“If it's not (a little dark) there's nothing at stake, you know. I read a book to understand life. I don't know how you can have lightness without it.”

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The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
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Last updated: Tuesday, 04 October 2011
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