Celebrating Joe Coomer’s ‘Life in Letters’ runs through May 24

Author and alumnus Joe Coomer's donated papers are featured in a DeGolyer Library exhibit that runs through May 24.

Joe Coomer

The career and achievements of acclaimed author and SMU alumnus Joe Coomer is being celebrated in a retrospective exhibition at SMU’s DeGolyer Library through May 24.

“Joe Coomer: A Life in Letters” explores Coomer’s creative process using handwritten drafts, manuscripts, galleys, letters, first editions, translations and other materials drawn from the literary archive he recently donated to DeGolyer Library. The gift of more than 20 boxes of materials includes essays and stories, tests, a transcript and other papers from his time as an undergraduate in SMU’s creative writing program. He graduated in 1981.

Known for his graceful prose and memorable characters, Coomer has published eight works of fiction, two non-fiction books and one collection of poetry. His writing has been praised by The Boston Globe as “fresh and authentic” and as “compelling” and a “genuine pleasure” by The New York Times.

“Joe Coomer is one of the great voices to emerge from SMU’s English department and creative writing program,” says Russell L. Martin III ’78, ’86, DeGolyer director. “We are honored and delighted to have his papers, where they will join our growing collection of the archives of other contemporary writers. It is also fitting, during SMU’s centennial, that we recognize our own.”

The Decatur Road: A Novel of the Appalachian Hill Country by Joe CoomerA 30th anniversary edition of Coomer’s debut novel, The Decatur Road: A Novel of the Appalachian Hill Country, was published by DeGolyer Library in conjunction with the exhibit. Click here to order a copy of the book.

First published in 1983, the book won the Jesse A. Jones Award for Best Work of Fiction from the Texas Institute of Arts and Letters in 1984. He started writing the book as an SMU student. “I wrote three of the short segments for an independent study with Marsh [Terry]. He liked them, so after I graduated, I wrote 55 more,” Coomer says.

Terry ’53, ’54, who retired in 2007 as the E. A. Lilly Professor of English, founded the creative writing program and the SMU Literary Festival and became Coomer’s mentor and friend.

“Joe Coomer transferred into SMU and came to my office in Dallas Hall and asked, ‘Are you the writing teacher?’ I nodded my head and did my best, and Joe turned out to be the leader of our nationally celebrated SMU Literary Festival. John Updike and Raymond Carver heard him read at the festival and were impressed,” Terry recalls.

“I am happy his collection of books and papers will be part of the permanent collection,” says Terry. “Much will be learned as we study those unique ledgers in which Joe brings to life his wonderful characters.”

By his own account, Coomer first arrived on the Hilltop as a rough draft of the successful writer he would become. In the essay “He Sang at Me: Marshall Terry, the SMU English Department, and One Writer’s Beginnings,” he describes a life-changing University experience and the indelible impact of a professor who urged him to find his voice as a writer, to “become himself”:

Pocketful of Names by Joe Coomer“Some say it’s impossible for one person to teach another to write. I know I fell in love with writing during my stay at the SMU English department, wanting to be like the people who worked there. Marsh took the time to encourage me. As far as I’m concerned, he used his whole life to encourage me.”

Copies of the essay, a version of which was published in SMU Magazine in fall 2006, are available at the exhibit.

The Joe Coomer retrospective is among several significant library exhibits and events planned this year to showcase the University’s special collections. In 2013, as part of its Second Century Celebration, SMU is commemorating the Year of the Library — celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the University’s first library, the appointment of its first librarian and the acquisition of its first books.

“Joe Coomer: A Life in Letters”, March 21-May 24, is free and open to the public. DeGolyer Library hours are from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. It is located at 6404 Robert S. Hyer Lane (formerly known as Hilltop Lane) on the SMU campus. For more information, please contact DeGolyer Library at 214-768-0829.