For one thing, she writes a popular book column, “By the Book,” for the Augusta Chronicle. If that wasn’t enough local exposure, she’s also a humor columnist for Augusta Magazine. She writes book reviews for the Washington Post, and in 2014, her essay, “A Master’s in Chick Lit,” was featured in the New York Times. She’s even published a book or two of her own.
Actually, scratch that. She’s written five.
But it’s that last accolade that’s truly noteworthy. Not because Gillespie has published five books – a feat that would be incredible on its own– but because in September, she’ll have published six.
Needless to say, Gillespie knows a thing or two about putting pen to paper.
But she also knows a thing or two about living. That’s the focus of her latest novel, “Girl Meets Class.”
Prior to writing, Gillespie had another challenging career. Now a part-time instructor in the Department of English and Foreign Languages, she previously spent 10 years teaching at an inner-city high school. She said the experience was “the hardest challenge” of her life.
“I taught slow learners and children with behavioral disorders,” she said. “It was hard, seeing all those social problems on a daily basis. You know, a good day there was a day when someone wasn’t throwing a chair at me.”
Flashing her signature smile, she added, “Thankfully, nobody here throws chairs.”
She said “Girl Meets Class” is partially based on her experiences as a high school teacher.
“It isn’t autobiographical, though,” she cautions. “It isn’t about me.”
That’s probably a good thing. The story poses a unique question: What happens when a spoiled Southern belle takes a job teaching at an inner-city high school? The answer is both hilarious and insightful, but, again, 100 percent nonbiographical. In fact, there are very few – if any – similarities between Gillespie and Toni Lee Wells, the alcoholic socialite-turned-teacher around whom her novel revolves. Other than their shared teaching misadventures, of course.
Gillespie said she decided to write “Girl Meets Class” precisely because teaching underprivileged children was one of the hardest experiences of her life. Also, she added, because her friends hounded her relentlessly to do so.
“When are you going to write about that?” she said. “That’s all I ever heard.”
Though the stories she tells are almost entirely fictional, Gillespie’s career actually began with nonfiction. She said the switch was an easy one to make, though she continues to produce book reviews and columns on a regular basis.
“I’d always loved fiction, though,” she said. “I always wanted to try it, so I made the transition.”
And that transition came faster than she thought.
While attending the Sandhills Writers Conference in the early 1980s, she met Robert Bosch, the Conference’s visiting writer. After reading her first fiction manuscript, Bosch made her an offer she couldn’t refuse.
“He read my manuscript and liked it,” she said. “In fact, he liked it so much he said if I finished it within a year, he’d put me in touch with his agent.”
She did, and Bosch did. Unfortunately, though, his agent rejected her work.
“They specialized in different stuff,” she explained. “But I was still published within a year. I realize I was very, very lucky.”
It’s worth noting that Gillespie attended the Sandhills Writers Conference as an undergraduate, because in addition to being a national best-selling author, she is also a GRU alumna. Gillespie graduated with her B.A. in Psychology in 1982 from then-Augusta College and has been an avowed lover of writing and academia ever since.
Ultimately, Gillespie said she’s enjoyed the move from teaching high school to being a college professor. But like all meaningful journeys, it, too, had its own set of challenges.
Gillespie had written and published five novels by the time Simon & Schuster declined renewing her option in 2008. Faced with a lull of publishing activity during one of the worst recessions in American history, Gillespie did what any sensible writer would do.
She went back to school.
The experience taught her a great deal about writing, but also a great deal about herself and her style. Her essay, “A Master’s in Chick Lit,” details her journey from unashamed first-year student to confident writer. [Read the full essay here].
“I went back to get my M.F.A. because I loved teaching and because I missed it,” she said. “Writing and teaching are two aspects I love, and when you’re passionate about something, you just want to infect people with it, you know?”
That’s what she says she strives to do in her classes: infect students with a love of writing.
Her students seem receptive to it, too. They are determined, something Gillespie said she both admires and respects about them. They take their writing very seriously and understand the chances of publication are slim. Still, they carry on strong.
“About 90 percent of them want to tackle the novel, which is laudable,” she said. “The window of publication gets smaller ever year, but it’s doable. And you don’t have to know anyone to make it. Take it from me.”
“Girl Meets Class” is Gillespie’s first novel published by Henery Press, an up-and-coming publisher based out of Dallas. Fans and new readers alike can expect the new title to drop on Sept. 8.