Bill Cheng was not aiming to become a writer when he enrolled at Baruch; in fact, he was undecided about a major. Thanks to the Harman Writer-in-Residence Program, however, Cheng’s debut novel Southern Cross the Dog was just published by Harper Collins to critical acclaim.
His introduction to the Harman Program, directed by Professor Roslyn Bernstein, came about during freshman year, when he saw a flyer for novelist Paul Auster. Impressed and inspired, he applied for subsequent semesters of the program. “I was really lucky,” he says of the Harman writers he got to work with. “I started off with Philip Gourevitch. Then Anita Desai, Colum McCann, and William Finnegan. Ben Katchor was my last.”
Not only did Cheng wind up pursuing a degree in creative writing and journalism, but he met his future wife, Olga Pester (‘06), who studied poetry, in the program. (“It’s been a CUNY life for me,” quips Cheng, whose mother, Betty, graduated from Baruch in 1982; his father is a City College graduate.)
Cheng first began writing his novel while working toward his MFA at Hunter College. The title phrase—“Southern Cross the Dog”—refers to the intersection of two railroad lines. But more significantly, “It exists within the folklore of blues mythology,” he explains. “Crossroads are a big part of the landscape.” Cheng’s love of that musical genre inspired the setting for the novel: the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, another classic blues subject.
Cheng is anticipating his first reading from the novel on May 7, the book’s pub date, in conjunction with the Harman Program/Encounters year-end celebration. “I’m excited about that,” he said. “It’s great because ‘coming home’ is kind of cool.”
No doubt current and recent Harman students, and the Baruch community in general, will be equally excited to see him.