Peter Selgin believes that every person is a product of their own invention. “We don’t have a faithful grasp of who we are, and we base our identities on a blend of memory and a mythology,” Selgin says. “Memories are about as reliable as myths. Like myths, they take on their own truths.” But what does it mean when the truth about someone, let’s say a father or a teacher, is different from what we’ve always known about them?
In The Inventors, Selgin examines the lives of two men who were influential in his life, his father and an eighth grade teacher. Although each man had a profound effect on his development, it wasn’t until after their deaths that he discovered both men had hidden their true identities. His father was born a Jew, while his teacher concealed his trouble past and his Native American heritage.
The authors speculates that his father, a brilliant man who invented the first machine for changing dollar bills to coins, denied his Jewish background out of a fear of anti-Semitism and a deep love of British culture, but his teacher’s motivations for reinventing his identity are less clear.
Selgin began his career as an illustrator for noteworthy publications like The New Yorker and Gourmet magazine before turning to writing. “I sometimes can’t believe I abandoned painting for writing. Writing hurts,” Selgin says. “Writing is more like hand-to-hand combat, while for me painting is playing with shapes, textures, and colors.”
He adds, “With painting I couldn’t get to the heavier thoughts, the deeper emotions that I wanted to access.”
A prolific writer, Selgin works across all genres. He won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for his collection Drowning Lessons in 2007. It was this award that brought him to the South, and in 2009 he moved from New York to Milledgeville, Georgia to teach creative writing at George College and State University.
He tells his students that all writers have one real story living inside of them, and that many will tinker with the story for years before getting it right. “There’s something in us. We keep taking stabs at it. I’ve written about my father for years. Maybe this time I’ve got it,” he says of The Inventors.