A drawing of two characters from the ’80s cult film Blue Velvet hangs in Eric Gansworth’s office at Canisius College, where he serves as an English professor and Lowery Writer-in-Residence. Gansworth created the charcoal drawing in a fine arts course as an undergraduate at Buffalo State decades ago.
Along with an affinity for the visual arts, Gansworth, ’89, ’90, realized his talent with the written word early on. After starting a novel at Niagara County Community College, where he was studying medical technology, Gansworth transferred to Buffalo State to pursue a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree in English.
“I figured if I was going to be a writer, I should get an English degree to have some legitimacy in sending out manuscripts,” he said. In the ensuing years, the 48-year-old writer has definitely earned legitimacy. Along with teaching a slate of writing and literature courses, Gansworth has published 10 books—a mix of memoir, fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry.
His first young adult novel, If I Ever Get Out of Here (Arthur A. Levine Books), was released in August. A coming-of-age tale set on the Tuscarora Reservation to a soundtrack of Beatles hits, If I Ever Get Out of Here has garnered praise from book reviewers at the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. Gansworth was invited to read from the novel at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., in September.
A member of the Onondaga Nation, Gansworth grew up on the Niagara County reservation featured in the book. Although it isn’t exactly an autobiographical novel, Gansworth said, elements of his childhood are woven into the story. Like his 12-year-old protagonist, Lewis “Shoe” Blake, Gansworth attended a reservation elementary school before he and his classmates were required to transfer to a white, middle-class junior high. He remembers the loneliness of having to start over and the discovery of a friendship with a non-reservation boy.
Gansworth didn’t set out to write a young adult novel. For years he toiled on a novel about two middle-age men who reconnect years after their junior high days together.
“I realized I didn’t care about these adult men,” Gansworth explained. “I really wanted to explore their adolescent friendship, who they were when they really had an impact on each other.”
The resulting book has resonated with readers of all ages, capturing both the specific experience of a Native American boy and the universal desire to fit in during the tumultuous junior high years.
In addition to teaching and writing, Gansworth continues to pursue painting. His work has been exhibited in solo and group shows across New York, including the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center and the Castellani Art Museum.
“I consider myself as much a visual artist as a writer. In Haudenosaunee communities, the visual and the verbal always go hand in hand,” he said. “I was lucky in my time at Buffalo State. Though I was an English major, I was able to find both English and fine arts majors as friends. They fed both sides of my spirit at a formative time in my life. Whether they remember or not, I do, and will always consider myself fortunate for my experiences on campus.”