Author, Academic and Rocker: CCU’s Oestreich a Triple Threat

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On August 15, Joe Oestreich assumes his new role as chair of Coastal Carolina University’s English department, a move from his current post as coordinator of the University’s M.A. in Writing program.

This fall will mark the beginning of year 10 for Oestreich and wife Kate Faber Oestreich, both of whom are tenured English professors at Coastal.

He has written three books of creative nonfiction – most recently a collection of essays called “Partisans,” which was published this month by Black Lawrence Press.

As a scholar and author, Oestreich is a true man of letters. His work has appeared in such prestigious publications as “Esquire,” “Sports Illustrated,” “Creative Nonfiction,” “Fourth Genre” and more. Four of his essays have been cited as notable in the Best American series [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt], and he twice garnered special mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology. Add his job at Coastal Carolina to the mix and the assumption could be made that Oestreich might be too highbrow to ever emerge from his scribe’s quarters in the hallowed halls of academia.

But the paradigm shifts wildly when you discover that he opened for rockers Cheap Trick at House of Blues Myrtle Beach in 2014 with his band, Watershed, which has been rocking for three decades.

Oestreich’s first book, “Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll,” published in 2012 by Lyons Press, is the quintessential rock memoir and chronicles Watershed’s odyssey on a two-week tour in an Econoline van – something the band continues to do every summer. Watershed was briefly signed to and later unceremoniously dropped by Epic Records in the 1990s, and “Hitless Wonder” shines as a testimony to the band’s resolution to keep rocking – to keep on keeping on.

He is also father to two children, son Beckett [8] and daughter Ellie [5].

“Partisans” is a collection of 15 essays written over the course of more than a decade.

“An essay is a very broad word that sort of means ruminating on a given topic and trying to figure out, ‘what’s the deal with this thing’ – not necessarily to put forth an argument like an opinion column in a newspaper,” he said. “Maybe the less-scholarly version would be this: It’s just like a short story, but it happens to be true.”

His essays can also be considered creative nonfiction.

“[It’s] creative not in the sense that you’ve got license to make up a bunch of stuff or tell lies or augment the truth – but creative in the sense that you are using the same tools that fiction writers have used to tell their stories – building characters on the page, using dialogue, vivid detail and description and writing with scenes in mind. It’s using those kinds of techniques but applying them to something that really happened,” he said.
With a title like “Partisans,” it would be logical to conclude that the book is about politics, and Oestreich said that, given our current political climate, he would understand why somebody would read the word “partisans” and think it’s about politics.

“It is and it isn’t,” he said. It’s not about Republican versus Democrat at all, but it’s about the personal politics of trying to figure out how you fit in to the life you’ve imagined for yourself – how you fit into adulthood – how you fit into what success is supposed to mean for a person your age – how you fit into the suburbs versus the city – what things are cool and what things are not cool. In my mind, it’s kind of like where we draw those lines, and then where we decide when we draw these lines – what kind of person am I and who are my people,” he said.

In this age of self-publishing, Oestreich’s books have all been published by traditional publishers.

“’Hitless Wonder’ was a medium-to-big-size publisher [Lyons Press]. The second book, ‘Lines of Scrimmage: A Story of Football, Race, and Redemption’ – which was about the 1989 Conway football boycott – was an academic publisher, The University Press of Mississippi. And then this one is a cool, small indie publisher, Black Lawrence Press. This would be the music equivalent of being on Sub Pop [Records] or something like that.”

“Lines of Scrimmage” was co-authored by CCU instructor and Writing Center coordinator Scott Pleasant.

He has a fourth book coming out in June with co-author Thomas O’Keefe, called “Waiting to Derail: Ryan Adams, Whiskeytown, and the Alt-Country Explosion.”

According to Oestreich, O’Keefe was Whiskeytown’s tour manager, and the first-person narration in the book is from him.

“Every story you may have heard about Ryan Adams – like him passing out on a sidewalk, telling the audience to go to hell or whatever – Thomas O’Keefe was there for all of it. He saw it firsthand,” Oestreich said.

Taking ten years off between his junior and senior year at The Ohio State University in pursuit of the rock ‘n’ roll dream with Watershed, Oestreich would complete his undergraduate degree at age 30. He came to writing late in the game by some standards.

“I didn’t even go to get my master’s until I was 35 or 36 – and that’s because when I was younger I never had any idea that I would be a writer,” he said.

He added that he didn’t know that normal people could be writers.

“I thought writers were like a special breed of human that came from some planet where everybody wore black berets and smoked clove cigarettes.”

It wasn’t until his wife was in graduate school and he met a lot of her colleagues in the English department at Ohio State – some of whom were studying to be creative writers – that he realized he could in fact pursue creative writing in earnest.

Over that ten-year hiatus, Watershed rocked – and continues to rock.

When it comes to being a musician, Oestreich is a self-proclaimed lifer.

“The great thing about rock ‘n’ roll is that you don’t have to stop,” he said. “there are a lot of ways to still be an active participant in the game.”

He said that when he was younger, the thought of anything other than full-time – playing 20 shows a month and dedicating his whole life to rock ‘n’ roll – was tantamount to selling out. Age and experience have served to change that view.

“Now that I am older, I understand that if you play a gig once a month on the weekends, that’s great too. That’s what fantastic about rock ‘n’ roll. There’s room for everybody at every level that you want to participate,” he said.

Watershed now plays perhaps six shows a year, most recently a series of shows in Ohio.

“We played in Columbus, Cleveland and Toledo, and people still want to come see us. We still have a great time playing, because the guys in the band and I are all friends. When I wrote ‘Hitless Wonder,’ I asked myself – the fact that we are still going and over 40 – is that admirable or pathetic. Now, I think it’s definitely admirable because the easy thing to do is to quit.”

Watershed is currently at work on its ninth full-length album, due out in spring 2018.

Although he doesn’t talk much to his undergrads about Watershed, some of them are aware of his double life.

“They just show me that they know. Every now and then, a student will kind of walk up to me, holding his smartphone, and one of our videos will be playing on the smartphone,” he said.

They want him to know that he knows that they know.

“Just kind of a wink, like, ‘hey buddy, I’m on to you.’ I think they think it’s cool, but they might not think it’s that cool. I would just say that rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t hold the same central place in their culture the way it did in the world when I was 18, 19 or 20. There are too many options now,” he said.

Watershed co-founder and lifelong friend Colin Gawel said he met Oestreich in the fourth grade when he moved into Gawel’s neighborhood in Worthington, Ohio. “Hitless Wonder” features a photo of the pair folding newspapers for a paper route they once shared. They decided as kids to start the band.

Gawel cites Oestreich’s levelheadedness and work ethic as standout qualities.

“For all our records and 18 years of touring with numerous ups and downs, Joe never once complained and always gave his best effort. He always answers the bell,” he said. “That sort of attitude is contagious. Joe wasn’t born a great songwriter, but he worked himself into one of the best around. Same thing with his writing. He constantly grinds and gets better at what he is focused on. He is a work in progress, always improving. It inspires me to try and up my game. I’m sure he has the same effect on many others.”

“Lines of Scrimmage” co-author Pleasant said that Oestreich was very good at thinking of the book as a story to be told.

“He has a great understanding of narrative form. I think my favorite parts of working on it with him were long conversations we had about how to organize the narrative. We also attended a lot of football games and practices together, which was one of the best parts of the experience,” he said.

Pleasant added that Oestreich is a really nice guy who is good to work with.

“I wouldn’t have pitched the idea to him if he weren’t that way,” he said. “The most important thing to me was enjoying the process. When we started the project, we didn’t have a book contract and didn’t know if we’d get one, so it had to be something we enjoyed and believed in to work on it as hard as we did. I wish we had time now to do another book, but we’re both pretty busy. I enjoyed the process. I’m glad it’s done because it was really time-consuming, but I have good memories of working with Joe. He’s a good guy.”

Oestreich said Coastal Carolina University has proven to be a perfect fit.

“I am now about to start my 10th year – and because Coastal is growing, it’s such an exciting place to be. It really feels like everybody here – faculty, students, staff – is building this thing together. That makes it really exciting.”

The Oestreichs have been together for 27 years and married for 17 – a testament to longevity in a relationship.

Kate Faber Oestreich is Associate Professor of Literature, Writing and New Media at Coastal Carolina University. She has a book (co-authored with Jennifer Camden, Professor of English at University of Indianapolis) coming out in 2018, entitled “Digitizing Jane Austen and Mary Shelley: Pemberley Digital and Feminist Transmediation of Nineteenth-Century Classics” (Cambridge Scholars Publishing).

Looking at their life as a couple through the years, their lives as colleagues, academics and parents, The Sun News asked her what she would say is the glue that has held their relationship together.

“We genuinely enjoy each other’s company and we are mutually dedicated to the sanctity of our relationship,” she said. “We both appreciate travel, art, food, film, music, literature, philosophy, politics, and good-old-fashioned belly laughing fits. We are deeply attached to the ideals of an affectionate relationship, a calm home life, and exciting excursions. We never discuss university or departmental politics when at home. But we do read and comment on each other’s writing, which has led to productive yet epic debates over genre, voice, and word choice.”

She called her husband a brilliant yet generous person and an absolute bundle of energy.

“In college, Joe was known as id man because he always starts advocating for what he wants to do next the second he starts something else. Joe also has an unflaggingly positive outlook on life and unwavering faith in me, himself, our relationship, and our children. We can accomplish anything; he believes that to his core. And he is excellent at cartography. He never gets lost, even if we just landed in a city halfway around the world. Last but not least, he’s quite fetching,” she said.

When asked about his secret to a long and happy marriage, Oestreich streamlined his response.

“There’s no secret. We just love and respect each other,” he said. “If I knew any more about relationships than that, I’d become the next Dr. Phil and my next book would get a considerably larger advance.”

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