New interview with author Tom Corbett


Readers. I’m happy to have Tom Corbett
back for a new interview. Today we’re chatting about his humorous memoir – Confessions of a Clueless Rebel (along
with a companion book titled Confessions
of a Wayward Academic
Tom Corbett is
emeritus Senior Scientist and an affiliate of the Institute for Research on
Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he served as Associate
and Acting Director for a decade before his retirement. He received a Doctorate
in Social Welfare from the University of Wisconsin and taught various social
policy and program evaluation courses there for many years. During his long
academic and policy career he worked with governments at all levels including a
stint in Washington D.C. where he helped develop President Clinton’s welfare
reform legislation. He has written dozens of articles and reports on poverty,
social policy, and human services issues and given hundreds of talks across the
nation on these topics. In addition, Dr. Corbett has consulted with numerous
local, state, and federal officials on various poverty, welfare, and human
services issues both in the United States and Canada. He also has testified
before Congress, worked directly with the Wisconsin Legislature on important
legislation, and served on an expert panel for the National Academy of
Sciences. Now retired, the author lives with his wife of 46 years, Mary Rider,
and their lovable Shih Tzu dog, Rascal, in Madison Wisconsin.
Welcome back to Reviews and Interviews,
Thank you so
much for inviting me back.
Please tell us about your newest
Confessions of a Clueless Rebel is a coming of age story where I trace the
profound transitions that I experienced in the 1950s through the 1970s. The
story is told with great sensitivity and humor but also contains serious
lessons and insights. It demonstrates that everyone is capable of enormous
change and growth and even success against all odds. I was raised in a very
confining Catholic, working class, ethnic neighborhood where I showed
absolutely no promise early on and seemed destined to an average life of no
Instead, I enjoyed,
or perhaps endured, a series of transformational experiences including a stint
in a Catholic seminary, radicalization in college, and service in the Peace
Corps, among several other adventures. The author both captures the times
perfectly and explores the inner growth and development he enjoyed as he forged
his own unique world view and purpose in life. As such, it is a story for
everyone yet totally unique.
The first Amazon
reviews (all 5-stars) talk about how much the readers laughed at the author’s
early struggles with life and Catholic girls along with the entire range of
emotional responses to the challenges and frustrations faced as the more daunting
impediments of life were confronted. One reviewer characterized the reading
experience as a roller coaster ride of emotions. That it is. In the end,
though, it is a tale of triumph over one’s limitations, a tale of inspiration
to all who feel they have little to contribute to the world.
At a deeper
level, beyond the humor, here is a more profound story to be found. What should
we make of the culture that surrounds and shapes us, particularly in our
formative years? Is it a prison or a springboard from which we are to seek our
own identity and direction?
What inspired you to write this book?
The deep origins
of this work started with my work to develop two edited volumes recounting the
experiences of my Peace Corps group (India) from the 1960s. That exercise got
me thinking more broadly about my own life and growth. I initially wrote a
memoir of my professional life as I struggled with the political and policy
battles over what to do with welfare and the poor in recent decades (Confessions
of a Wayward Academic). It as a seminal time in our nation’s poverty policy
history and I as at the very center of it. It was a view of doing policy from
one who did it on the front lines though at a high level.
I realized,
though, that was only part of the story. How did I get to become a nationally
known policy guru given my extremely humble origins? As a young kid, after all,
I as put in a class with the slow kids in my working-class elementary school,
not an auspicious start. That story begged to be told, not just because it was
fascinating but because it might inspire others. Above all, it is a story
shared with great humor and unabashed honesty. If you cannot laugh with as I recount
my early speed bumps in life, you clearly take life way too seriously.
What’s the next writing project?
I am well
into a sequel to my last fictional work, Palpable
. It is tentatively titled Ordinary
. My publisher says it is superior to the first volume which was
well received. I am planning a third volume to make this a trilogy.
What is your biggest challenge when
writing a new book? (or the biggest challenge with this book)
Other writers
talk about writer’s block and other such hurdles. For me, writing is pure joy.
I experience a form of depression when a project is completed and cannot wait
to get into the next one. Oddly enough, I wanted to write even as a young kid
though no one in my rough and tumble, working-class world had such ambitions.
However, I as way too busy as an academic at a top-level research university
and nationally known policy expert. Now I have the time and opportunity to explore
my childhood dream.
If I have any
frustration, it is that I hate marketing my works. I want to keep writing.
If your novels require research – please
talk about the process. Do you do the research first and then write, while
you’re writing, after the novel is complete and you need to fill in the gaps?
Though all of
my works are infused with humor, substantive content and commentary on important
policy issues are woven into the narrative. Since I helped run the pre-eminent
social policy academic research unit in the country, and taught policy courses
for many years, I don’t have to do much additional research. Still, I sometimes
need to reacquaint myself with local sites or update myself on emerging political
controversies and characters. I do that as I go along.
Writing is a
protean process for me. I have a general idea of here I am going but the journey
is not laid out in detail. In my fictional works, characters and plot twists
take on a life of their own.
What’s your writing space like? Do you
have a particular spot to write where the muse is more active? Please tell us
about it
No special
spot, wherever I am comfortable with my laptop. Of course, it must be a spot
that will accommodate my dog who insists on cuddling next to me.
In truth,
whether for memoirs, policy works, or fiction, ideas and narrative are
constantly floating through my head… in bed trying to sleep, walking the dog,
simply having a cup of coffee. The creative process never stops. Also, the itty,
wry sense of humor found in all my work comes naturally to me. It is me.
What authors do you enjoy reading within
or outside of your genre?
No particular
authors. However, I like mysteries, biographies, and works on political and policy
Anything additional you want to share
with the readers today?
One reader
commented on my books, “he makes me laugh a lot and think a little.” Good
enough for me.
Thank you for coming back to Reviews and

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