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Sitting Down with Author and Professor Carey Harrison

Carey Harrison, BC English professor. PHOTO/ Soulei Thomas
Carey Harrison, BC English professor. PHOTO/ Soulei Thomas

By Soulei Thomas

Published: March 28th, 2018

Considered to be one of the most accomplished writers of our time, Brooklyn College English Professor Carey Harrison has spent most of his life lending his brilliance and talent to different media, including radio, television and theatre.

Harrison was born in London to Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer, who are both celebrated stage and movie stars, and was raised here in New York. He considers himself lucky to have lived a very adventurous life thus far.

Writing discovered him very early on in his life, he said, as it does with many others. While most people grow up and move on from writing, he never did.

“By the time I was in college, I knew it was write or die for me,” Harrison said. “It was then a question of how to feed myself, and later my family, and pay the utility bills.” In his final year in college, he received a scholarship to direct plays at British Provincial Theatre in Leicester, where he staged his first play. This sparked the interest of Sir Laurence Olivier, who ran the National Theatre and knew Harrison since he was a child.

Subsequently, Harrison was made the resident playwright at a theatre in North England built and owned by a big television company named Granada. The director in charge was an acquaintance of his from college. Granada gave him his start in TV scriptwriting, which allowed him to feed himself and his family for the next 30 years.

Two years ago, Harrison completed a quartet of novels, which he began 48 years ago. The first book of the series took him 12 years to complete, and the last one took two decades. “The whole saga, called The Heart Beneath, has been my chief and lifelong project,” he said. “For years I was afraid I’d never finish. As soon as it was completed, I felt a monkey was off my back.”

Harrison’s life’s work consists of 12 novels, most of which are available on Amazon, as well as 200 plays and scripts. His works focuses a lot on events surrounding the Holocaust in Germany. “We lost most of my family on my mother’s side in the Holocaust, but I think I would have written about it regardless,” he said. One of his most compelling and critically acclaimed novels, Richard’s Feet, book one of four of The Heart Beneath and published in 1990, was inspired by the experience of his godfather, who disappeared in the 1950s—after unconvincingly faking his death—and showed up years later after spending some of the intervening period in Germany.

Richard’s Feet, along with two other novels, are considered Harrison’s trademark. “I’ve written three 700-page novels,” he said, “and they’re the ones that have most allowed me to spread my story-telling wings far beyond the limitations of my own life, as adventurous as this life has been. The joy of creating fiction lies in letting the story go its own way.”

Harrison’s noteworthy full-back piece tattoo is of an essay written the year he was born by Theodor Adorno, who reportedly came to America and foresaw the corporate world completely. “I like the idea of having writing as a tattoo, but I did not foresee how painful it would have been,” he said. “It was agonizing.” The tattoo, which was done in a two-day session for about three and a half hours each day, was featured in The Word Made Flesh; Literary Tattoos from Bookworms by Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor, which is available on Amazon and Google Play.

Harrison has taught at many different universities in the United States and in his native England, but he has found his place teaching here in the English Department, which he has been doing for the past 22 years.

“BC students are the best,” he said. Currently, Harrison is seeking to empower fellow writers and believes that it is very important for every writer to find their own distinctive voice. “Writing is a private communion with the mysteries of invention; it’s about patience and obedience; not about leading the conversation.”

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