Faculty Spotlight: An Interview with English Professor Seamus O’Malley

By: Shira Fournier  |  December 14, 2017

Have you ever wanted to know a little more about Professor O’Malley? Curious about the new books he’s writing? Interested in what brought him to Stern? Want to know what it takes to really be a writer? Check out this exclusive interview and learn more about one of Stern’s most beloved English professors.


Shira Fournier: Where are you from?

Seamus O’Malley: I’m from Jersey City. A lot of my students are from Elizabeth, which is where I was born, because there were no hospitals in Jersey City. So pretty much Jersey City.


SF: What made you choose to become a literature professor?

SO: I majored in English as an undergrad. And then I lived in France for a year doing nothing, teaching English. Then I came back and worked in publishing for a while, but didn’t like it very much, so I went back to school. And I started just getting a Masters because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and I thought a Masters, as opposed to a PhD, would be a little more flexible.  But I liked the classes so much that I decided that that’s what I wanted to keep doing.  So that’s when I applied for the PhD. Yeah, once you apply for the PhD there’s not much else you can do with it.


SF: So, what brought you to Stern College?

SO: I was looking for a tenure track job. I was hoping to stay local and I really wanted a job teaching college, a college where I could do some research, but also do a lot of classroom work.


SF: Have you worked at other schools before, or is this your first school?

SO: Yeah, I taught at NYU and Hunter.


SF: Do you like teaching at Stern?

SO: Oh yeah. Yeah, I love teaching here.


SF: How long have you been teaching here for?

SO: This is my fifth year here.


SF: Have you ever taught up at YC?

SO: No. I’m curious, although I would never want to leave here.


SF: If you could teach at both, would you teach at both?

SO: For a little bit; the commuting would be difficult.


SF: Where do you live?

SO: I live in Brooklyn.


SF: Who influenced you to become a teacher?

SO: hmm.


SF: You mentioned who you liked that path, but was there anyone who influenced you?

SO: I think, maybe, I had a few advisors at Hunter College who got me started. Yeah, I think I wanted to do what they were doing and liked how they were doing their research, how they were running their classes, their seminar classes. So yeah, I think I kind of model myself on them.


SF: What’s your favorite genre of literature?

SO: Of literature in general, fiction. You know, it’s often called literary fiction. Especially modernist literature. And then my specialty is early 20th century modern novels which are known for their difficulty and challenging experiments.


SF: So you like things that make you think.

SO: Yeah yeah.


SF: So what’s your favorite novel?

SO: Don’t peg me to one, but if I’d list a few, The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and Ulysses by James Joyce.


SF:  What kind of classes do you teach? And which one is your favorite?

SO: Classes are like kids, you’re not allowed to say which one is your favorite.

SF: Ha-ha, the types of classes that you teach.

SO: Ha-ha, oh ok. So I teach composition every year. One thing I love about teaching here, actually, is that I have almost total freedom as to what I want to teach. So next year, I have my dream line up: I’m teaching graphic novels, and then I’m teaching a class on Virginia Woolf. If you would’ve told me ten years ago that someday I’d be teaching these courses, I would be very happy. And those are very different courses.

SF: Right.

SO: And one I expect to be small, and one I expect to be big… which is going to be nice to be going back and forth between a big sprawl in class and a small, more graduate level style, discussion style seminar class.


SF: Why graphic novels and Virginia Woolf? What about them do you like so much?

SO: The graphic novels course I like because because some students come in with a lot of familiarity with literature, are good with literature, and this presents a very different challenge for them, and I like seeing what happens to them. And some students come in without having had much success with literature and graphic novels provides them, maybe because they’re visual learners, or something different, it provides them with this access to quality literature in a way that prose literature [doesn’t]. So, I get to see all different paths to students accessing the works.


SF: What was your favorite class in college? I’m assuming it was English and literature?

SO: It may have been, yeah. Well, yes, but I think the class that changed me the most was my art history course. I would sit there, in the dark, and the instructor would just lecture on Western paintings, and for me that was so transformative. I think because I was already good at interpreting literature even before I got to college. I  think I just had good high school teachers and had the basic high school training. Where as I have never been trained to see, I have never been trained to look until then. And looking back, I think it’s just some basic stuff, but I think that course changed me more than any other course I took at NYU.


SF: So, you wrote a book. What made you decide to write Making History New: Modernism and Historical Narrative?

SO: I was interested in history and literature, and what I thought I would write was a book on some of the authors I was into. So it’s three authors, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, and Rebecca West. And what I thought I would do was kind of situate them historically, like in their own historical period, but overtime the book changed. Most books end up very different than what you think they’re gonna be. And so, it became more about how these [authors] were writing history through their fiction, as opposed to how history was impacting their fiction. So, the emphasis shifted away from history as something we live through, [and] has shifted more towards history as something we write.


SF: And you’re writing a new book now?

SO: Yeah, I’m working on three books. Which is not advisable. And all of the chickens are coming home to roost right now and I’ve got multiple deadlines. So I’m co-editing two separate books. And at the same time I’m writing a book on Irish Literature.


SF: What are the other two books about?

SO: The other two: one is on two graphic novelists, first is Julie Dusset and the other is Gabrielle Bell. One is retired, the other is a working novelist.  And the other is on Ford Madox Ford, it’s a research companion where we have 25 different chapters on 25 different topics.


SF: Have you ever used your book in class before?

SO: No, not explicitly, not in the sense of like assigning reading.


SF: Have you forced your students to read your book?

SO: In the old days you could do that to boost your sales. That’s kind of frowned upon. And there’s probably not even thirty copies to be had. Definitely when I teach those novels that I wrote about for sure. But even in other places I can find a way to work in my ideas into the class.


SF: What piece of advice would you give to someone who is writing a book?

SO: Do a little bit everyday. Don’t do a lot at once. It could be overwhelming if you think about what has to be done, if you think about your to do list when it comes to writing a book. That to do list is like a hundred pages long. Where as you say to yourself, “I write everyday from 9 to 10:30,” that sounds much more enjoyable, and that sounds fun, and not that hard. But you have to do it everyday, you can’t take days off. For me, the most important, there’s a quote by Chuck Close the painter, “Amateurs wait for inspiration, the rest of us get up and work.” So, it’s like, if you’re gonna be a real writer, as a opposed to an amatuer, it doesn’t matter what mood you’re in, you gotta sit down and do it.