University of Rochester


Writing on the Wall . . . Paper

An engineering graduate returns to a lifelong interest—and writes his first novel. By Catherine Faurot
Mark Peter Hughes ’88

Mark Peter Hughes ’88 is having what he calls “an absolutely crazy, crazy month.” He’s busy celebrating the May publication of his first book, a young adult novel called I Am the Wallpaper, to impressive reviews. On top of that, he’s squeezing book promotion around a full-time work schedule, while making a final push to complete his second novel.

As for fitting it all in, he admits cheerfully, “I have recently become a coffee fiend.”

A caffeine addiction is a small price to pay for achieving his lifelong dream. Hughes has been writing stories since childhood, but he came to his success as an author in a roundabout way. Although he has a minor in creative writing from the College, his degree is in engineering. After a few years at engineering firms, Hughes pursued a master’s degree in public health from the University of Massachusetts and is now director of managed care contracting at MedVentive in Boston.

Although Hughes says he has always been both a right brain and a left brain person, his career path had left little time for writing, and there was an extended period when it wasn’t part of his life.

“There are a lot of people,” Hughes says, “who want to write but don’t. One day I just made a decision that I wasn’t going to do that anymore.”

That decision came in 2001, when Hughes’s busy life included marriage and two young children (he and his wife now have three). Together, they carved out one evening a week when he could write. Generally he takes his computer to his local café and closes it out. “Laptop technology literally changed my life,” he says.

In looking over his past work, Hughes found a short story written for a College class taught by Thomas Gavin, with the professor’s notes encouraging him to seek publication. That story, called “Dinner and Champagne with Floey Packer,” became the genesis of his novel. Gavin encouraged him to continue seeking publication.

By late 2003, Hughes had a final draft of his novel. I Am the Wallpaper is a funny and thoughtful novel starring quirky 13-year-old Floey Packer. With an older sister who “has to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral,” Floey decides to remake herself from background material into someone unforgettable, with hilarious results.

Hughes has captured the voice of female adolescence so well that he answers the question of “How did you do it?” on his Web site. He gives credit to growing up with two sisters, but otherwise admits it’s a creative mystery.

Even with novel in hand, Hughes faced the problem of how to get the book in front of an editor. He solved it by entering the Delacorte Press Young Adult Novel Competition. Months later he had heard through the grapevine about friends receiving “really nice rejection letters,” but hadn’t received one of his own—because his novel was a finalist in the contest. He built a relationship with an editor at Delacorte, made further revisions, and in May 2004 received an offer.

“I’m thrilled,” says Hughes. “A writer spends a lot of time alone over a keyboard typing. This is the kind of outcome that you don’t even dare to think of because it is so unlikely that you’d stop.”

Given his motivation, it seems doubtful he will stop writing.


Thomas Gavin is now a professor emeritus at the College, having moved to Vermont to write full time. Hughes contacted his former professor by letter in 2003, and the two have enjoyed an old-fashioned epistolary communication since then. Gavin will occasionally use e-mail but says that it doesn’t leave time for revision, a key writer’s tool that he says is one reason for Hughes’s success.

“Like all the writers I’ve taught who’ve become successful, Mark revised,” Gavin says. “He was writing constantly. To me, the absolute giveaway of a serious writer is that he’s always revising. He’ll take suggestions and come back with a new draft of the manuscript.”

In class, Gavin says Hughes was quiet and serious. “His novel is funny, fast-paced, witty with a Salinger-like irony. But the personality you encounter on the page is not necessarily the one you see in the classroom. Sometimes students who expend energy being funny in person are using their creative energy in personal encounters. Mark put that energy into his writing.”

Catherine Faurot is a Rochester-based freelance writer.