NORFOLK — For days before her life changed forever, Janet Peery told her physician husband that it was just an upset stomach. Soon doubled over in a wheelchair outside the x-ray department of a Wichita hospital on the eve of her 40th birthday, Peery responded with one word to an obstetrician she knew when he saw her and asked her how she was:
Peery laughs robustly about that now. Half a continent and 30 years after her appendix ruptured and almost killed her, she views the journey that followed with poignant irony.
“I think about it, and I think it’s what we do, isn’t it?” Peery said during a recent interview. “That was my metaphorical denying my pain. We always say we’re fine.”
Her appendix informed her otherwise, and she made changes after 13 days recovering from septic shock.
“When I came out of it, I stuck a sign in the yard of my house – for sale – ” Peery said. “I got in the car and drove to the university in my town, and took the last chair in a creative writing workshop. And I divorced my husband.
“None of these things had anything to do with a plan.”
Plans before that had migrated a little bit, too, during her undergraduate years – psychology to romance languages to linguistics. Peery considered work in the U.N. or the Peace Corps, fashionable altruism after the JFK and Bobby Kennedy assassinations. Pragmatism eventually landed on speech pathology and audiology, which she practiced at the hospital where she would meet her future ex-husband, an internal medicine specialist.
Peery folded this and other life lessons into stories she has written in the three decades since. She has completed four books of short stories, a novella and two novels, winning awards for many of them and multiple academic honors for teaching others how to do it at Old Dominion University since the early 1990s.
Now three months from retirement, Peery will read from and discuss her latest novel today at Old Dominion University Virginia Beach Center. The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs, a story examining family dynamics and dysfunction, was published in 2017, and it is the second work for which she has received the top honor for fiction from the Library of Virginia.
“I don’t know many people who have won that twice,” said Sheri Reynolds, a professor and chair of the English department at Old Dominion University, who has worked with Peery since Reynolds joined the department 21 years ago. They are close friends.
“One of the great gifts that [Peery] has given our students,” Reynolds said, “is that she isn’t someone who rushes, and she doesn’t rush to publish. She is someone who has modeled a life of reflection about the writing and care to let things steep for a while, so you get something that’s a fine product. It’s like it’s been barreled and aged, and I think that’s something we need more of.”
Peery ascribes this to maturity, having worked in several careers, marrying in her late 20s and raising three small daughters before her illness and recovery prompted her to earn her MFA and begin to write in her 40s.
Her talent manifested quickly, along with a growing list of accolades. One of the first that came with a monetary benefit enabled her to stay in Virginia at the end of a yearlong guest-teaching position at Old Dominion, where a friend had suggested she apply early in her writing career.
Among other recognition, Peery also was awarded fellowships by the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Whiting Foundation Writer’s Award. She was a finalist for the National Book Award for her 1996 novel A River Beyond the World, which explores relationship complexities, love, sacrifice and forgiveness.
“I see now what I was after in that search for majors,” Peery said, speaking of her undergraduate days. “That I was picking the elements of story. I’m thinking the secret comes in the articulation of signing, or the secret comes in syntax, the way everything fits together. Or the secret comes in languages. Or psychology. I see that now. I didn’t then.”
It all has shaped Peery into a person and a writer the Library of Virginia’s judging committee identified as a “master at the height of her power,” said Jan Hathcock, a retired public relations and policy coordinator for the state and one of the three judges.
“Her writing is lyrical,” Hathcock said. The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs “is a great story, told by someone who writes beautifully and writes about a very difficult topic – the addictions and frailty of a family. The beautiful writing, the great characterization made it rise to the top.”
Peery’s first Library of Virginia Award-winner, What the Thunder Said: A Novella and Stories, also earned the WILLA Literary Award for Contemporary Fiction, named in honor of the author Willa Cather, in 2008.
“A benefit I didn’t realize would come when I got to be this old,” Peery, 70, said, “is that one does get pretty good at something when you do it long enough.”
And about the denial of pain and subsequent brush with death that launched her on this path: “I’m really glad it happened.”
Peery reads at 12:30 p.m., Thursday, March 21, at Old Dominion University Virginia Beach Center, 1881 University Drive. A reception and book signing follows the reading. The event is free and open to the public. Guest parking is available in Lot 3. Call (757) 368-4100 for more information.
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