By the time most people are just starting to wake up in the morning, Lt. Col. Polly Atwell, Ph.D., may have already been writing for an hour or more.
“I usually get up between 4 [a.m.] and 5 [a.m.],” said Atwell, associate professor of English. “Students usually gasp when I say that, but it’s the best time of day for me.”
Atwell’s discipline, dedication, and focus were rewarded this summer when her second novel, The Good Ones, was accepted for publication by Harper Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers. It’s set for release in spring 2023 and will be published under the name Polly Stewart.
It might be appropriate to say that writing and teaching are the bookends of Atwell’s life. When she was growing up, both of her parents taught at Hollins University near Roanoke, Virginia, so an academic lifestyle appealed from an early age. Atwell attended Hollins herself as an undergraduate before earning multiple graduate degrees, including a master’s from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and a Ph.D. in British literature from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
All along the way, she was writing. “I told my parents that I wanted to be a writer at 7, I think, and I was just really lucky that they never told me that that’s unrealistic or you can’t do it,” she commented.
Atwell describes her first two novels, which she wrote at ages 16 and 22, as “not worth reading.” Neither was published, but she kept going. In 2012, though, her commitment to her craft paid off when her third novel, Wild Girls, was published. At the time, she was teaching at Missouri State University—and starting a family, as well.
“I actually sold the book while I was in labor with my son,” she stated. “I was on the phone with my literary agent while I was in the delivery room, so I think of the book as being born with him. It’s probably not a coincidence that it took me 10 years to publish another!”
In fall 2015, Atwell began teaching at VMI, specializing in creative writing and British literature. Shortly after that, she began the Institute’s veteran writer series, “The Other Side of War,” which invites published authors who’ve served in the armed forces to visit post, read from their works, and talk with cadets.
Atwell especially enjoys teaching writing. “For the cadets, I see it as a chance to access something that they maybe don’t get a lot of chances to explore,” she noted. “For a lot of them, I think it’s exciting but also intimidating, so I try to demystify the creative process. It’s a very practical skill, I think, to be able to tell a story.”
By the fall of 2018, she was telling another story of her own as she began work on The Good Ones. It’s set in Appalachia, as was Wild Girls, and told from the point of view of a woman who’s moved home to that area to look for a good friend who had gone missing 15 years prior.
“I just love being around the cadets and talking to them ... I think some of the energy I have for writing and even some of the ideas that go into my work come out of those interactions. I get to come to work every day and talk about books with smart, interesting people. That’s an energizing process for me.”Lt. Col. Polly Atwell, Ph.D.
The setting of both books reflects Atwell’s youth spent in Roanoke and Radford. “In the mountains, I feel such an emotional connection to that landscape,” she stated. “When I lived in the Midwest, I really missed it.”
At VMI, Atwell has found cadets to be a wellspring of ideas that sustain her writing.
“I just love being around the cadets and talking to them,” said Atwell. “I think some of the energy I have for writing and even some of the ideas that go into my work come out of those interactions. I get to come to work every day and talk about books with smart, interesting people. That’s an energizing process for me.”
Atwell is also grateful that being a member of the Institute faculty allows her to develop all her professional interests. “VMI’s one of the very few places that will let me teach both [creative writing and British literature],” she stated. “I get to do all of the things that I enjoy.”
This fall, she’ll be revising the manuscript for The Good Ones while also getting underway with her next novel, set partly in a wildlife management area in southwest Virginia. She’s looking for members of the VMI family who’d be willing to take her hunting or fishing, as she’d like to bring the immediacy of that experience to her writing.
Atwell is also taking time to appreciate the moment, both personally and professionally. Son Harry is now 9, and daughter Margaret, 5, began kindergarten this fall. The early mornings allow Atwell to write before her children begin their day, and for now, it’s a lifestyle that works well.
“I’m really doing what I want to do right now,” she stated. “Teaching cadets, being in this area, and balancing that with my writing is absolutely ideal for me.”
Mary Price VMI Communications & Marketing