June 27, 2022

Colin Rafferty: A Penchant for Presidents

As a third-grader, Colin Rafferty once pointed out to an autograph dealer that a plaque in his shop had incorrectly listed Abraham Lincoln as the 18th president.

Associate Professor of English Colin Rafferty

Associate Professor of English Colin Rafferty

“He humored me by looking it up, but I can still remember his face when he realized I was right,” said Rafferty, now an associate professor of English at the University of Mary Washington.

Hired at the height of the 2008 election, Rafferty, who earned a bachelor’s and master’s from Kansas and Iowa State universities and an MFA from the University of Alabama, said he brushed up by reading biographies of each chief executive. After all, his new home of Virginia was birthplace to eight presidents – and in play to put another into office. A friend told him, Rafferty said, “I hope you get a book out of it.”

That he did. His essay collection, Execute the Office, hit bookshelves last spring to critical acclaim. Rafferty recently spoke on the international radio show With Good Reason about his experimental compositions, ranging from a movie script for Reagan to telling the presidency of Eisenhower – a fellow Kansan – through the characters of The Wizard of Oz.

Colin Rafferty's 'Execute the Office'“The general perception of creative nonfiction is that it’s mostly memoir,” said Rafferty, who included a Mad Libs-style, fill-in-the-blanks type of epilogue for last January’s inauguration since the book went to press before the election. “I wanted to throw the doors open and show how much more this genre could be.”

His extensive research tackled both the famous commanders in chief and those often forgotten. Some of his favorite discoveries were personality quirks, Rafferty said, like John Quincy Adams swimming naked in the Potomac or that cottage cheese was Nixon’s favorite snack.

What surprised him the most? Finding out that even leaders he admired had flaws, he told With Good Reason host Sarah McConnell. “By deflating my ideas of these heroic presidents, it let me see all of them as human.”

 

In his research for 'Execute the Office,' Rafferty visited the graves of 28 presidents, toured the homes of another 16 and had the privilege of handling a four-page letter written by George Washington.

In his research for ‘Execute the Office,’ Rafferty visited the graves of 28 presidents, toured the homes of another 16 and had the privilege of handling a four-page letter written by George Washington.

Q: How did you get into nonfiction writing?
A: I needed two more credits to keep my undergraduate scholarship. I was going to take glassblowing until I saw a poster for a new creative nonfiction course. After graduation, I worked for a news station in sales, but I found myself writing essays during every meeting and thought, “I should go to grad school.”

Q: What advice do you give aspiring writers?
A: Write the work you want to read. And don’t be afraid to try weird stuff – or fail.

Q: What’s most rewarding about your job?
A: Finding the piece of an essay that unlocks it for me. I love helping students do that, too.

Q: Most challenging?
A: Finding time for everything.

Q: What’s your favorite thing in your office?
A: A bingo card my students made with all of my quirks. I was self-conscious for about 30 seconds before I realized it was created with love.

Q: What have you learned about Mary Washington, the person, since coming to UMW?
A: As much as she’s venerated as the mother of one of our Founding Fathers, she’s just a mom. George still asks her permission to do things and tries to get out of helping her move. It’s that humanity again.