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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Professor Profile: Rebecca Saunders

Professor Rebecca Saunders has been a fixture on the campus of UMass Boston for nearly thirty years, both as a student and a teacher. Upon meeting her for the first time, one is bound to notice she has a little bit of a southern accent, even after thirty years of living in Boston; but she won’t admit she has on. Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Professor Saunders spent the first twenty-one years of her life in and around that area. Gracious enough to meet with me after a morning full of classes, we sat down to begin an interview, her second, in fact, by The Mass Media: the last time she was interviewed was in 1979.

Q: Why did you decide to come to Boston?

A: I wanted to be in a place where things were happening, intellectual sorts of things. I was a product of the hippie generation, and all my friends were just sort of dropping out and sitting around. I got very bored and said ‘Let’s talk about things, let’s do things.’ I wanted to be someplace where people were doing things and not just sitting around like a lot of people I knew.

Q: Was UMass the first college you attended?

A: No, I started school at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, which was very small back then. I then came up here and attended music school for about a year at the Longie School of Music. I was always torn between music and literature, so I grew tired of the total focus on music. I thought UMass would be great and it was, it was. The mix of music and literature I got here was great. I’m still friends with one of my teachers from back then, Larry Burman. He’s retired now, but we just stayed friends over the years.

Q: What kinds of music did you like to play and what was your instrument?

A: Baroque music; lots of Baroque. I liked to play Bach and Wagner as well as some of the Italian harpsichordists.

Q: What made you want to switch over and study English?

A: I liked writing; I always wanted to write. I used to write a lot more back then than I do now. I love literature. I don’t know, it was a case of liking too many things. Sometimes people who are single minded are luckier in a way, ’cause they don’t get that torn [feeling] of ‘should I do this or that?’ I agonized over this [decision] for years. I finally went to graduate school in English, so that pretty much settled that right then.

Q: What would you have done if you had pursued music?

A: I probably would have been a musicologist. I probably wouldn’t have been a performer because I was just way too terrified of performing back then. I never had the discipline because I’d get bored practicing and you can’t do that if you want to be a performer, you can’t get bored with it.

Q: How long have you been writing?

A: Since I was a kid.

Q:Is there something that really got you into writing?

A: I had been struggling along trying to write small lyric poems about really nice moments in my life, when one day someone told me to write a family story, it was (in) a writers group when this happened. It was actually a teacher here, Helene Davis. During this class she said “Why doesn’t everyone write a family story?” So, I said, all right, and I chose one of my family stories and that just opened up my whole past, my whole childhood. The southern accent came back. I started focusing on the strange life of a southerner and found all kinds of material, all kinds of voices. You know how writers say the whole thing broke? Well the whole thing broke, probably in my middle thirties.

You know it’s that classic thing of finding your voice, and that’s been the subject I’ve written about ever since. I then started using the material in my life as the subject, because you know so many southern things are disappearing as everybody starts being more alike in a certain way. I noticed a lot of monologues, particularly of people retelling stories of their parents’ or grandparents’ generation, because pretty soon those voices are going to be gone. Pretty soon we’re all going to sound like a stupid TV set; God forbid. We’re all going to look like magazine people.

Q: I remember you saying once that you hated TV.

A: It’s a pathological hatred. The real reason is that I think it’s boring and stupid. But there is probably a psychological reason, which is that my father watched TV constantly, and he represents to me a totally failed life, and that’s what he did. He would say things to me like “Why do you need to go anywhere; you can see it all on the TV?” and, ” I’ve never gone anywhere but I know what’s happening all over the world,” You know, that kind of stuff. He just was so anti-life that I just started associating TV with deadness.

Q: It is known that you enjoy acting, so what do you try to do the day of a performance to get mentally prepared to give it?

A: Oh, I pamper myself as much as I can. Those are the days I try not to do anything. If a performance is on a Saturday, then I completely justify spacing around the house and lying around. My last performance, which was on October 5, I noticed the Friday night before (the performance) I was getting nervous, so my husband very nicely went out with some friends. He rarely does that, but he said that he could tell I really needed to be by myself. On the night before I like to try not to talk to anybody.

Q: What do you get out of writing plays as opposed to writing stories?

A: Hearing the voices, it’s wonderful. You can’t really describe things in a play, you have to listen to what people say.

Q: You have also mentioned before that you worked for several businesses and corporations?

A: I did seventeen years of teaching business writing. I used to work for places like Fidelity. I worked through somebody else, but he’d give me the assignments and I’d just go. It was busy but it paid very well. I don’t miss it one bit because the environment was so sterile, having to stay all day in one of those offices.

Q: Is there anything else you’re doing now outside of UMASS?

A: I have a job now at Lesley University. It’s a graduate course where I teach kindergarten through twelfth grade teachers how to use drama as a teaching tool in the classroom.

Q: What have been some of your favorite classes to teach?

A: Drama, I love to teach drama. I had a drama class the summer before last, it was the first time I’d taught modern drama. There were some very funny people in that class and I don’t know, we just laughed the whole time. Sometimes when I teach the class at Lesley the ideas are so creative, because there they’re thinking of ways to use drama in the classroom, and sometimes the ideas fly and I like that. Some people get overwhelmed by that, but I like that kind of on-the-edge stuff.