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Inside Westmoreland Arts: Seton Hill professor expert of urban fantasy writing

| Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, 9:03 p.m.
Kim Stepinsky | for TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
Nicole Peeler, director of the Seton Hill University MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program, poses for a portrait at the Seton Hill University Performing Arts Center in Greensburg on Tuesday evening, January 12,2016.

Nicole Peeler started out to be a scholar and professor of modernist literature and, along the way, became a popular author in the urban-fantasy genre. At her day job, the Illinois native is a Seton Hill University associate professor of English and director of the master of fine arts in the writing popular fiction program.

She earned her bachelor of arts degree from Boston University and her Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Question: What is urban fantasy?

Answer: Urban fantasy are stories often involving creatures from myth or horror, but set in our world, usually in a contemporary setting, but not always.

Q: Tell us a little about your books.

A: I have a series called the Jane True series, about a woman who discovers she's part selkie, a seal, a shapeshifter. (My latest book) “Jinn and Juice” is the first of a new series that is about a woman who is cursed to live as a jinni, you can say a genie, who's found refuge in Pittsburgh.

Q: When did you know you would be a writer?

A: I knew I was going to be a writer when I finished my first book. I was a scholar, I was a professor. My degree is in (literary) modernism. I argued with my professor. She would always ask when I was going to write a book, and I would say, “I'm never going to write a book — I'm a scholar, not a writer.” And six months later, I wrote a book. It wasn't like I grew up knowing I would be a writer.

Q: How did that process evolve?

A: When I finished my Ph.D., I was interviewing for jobs in the U.S. I was about to fly back to Scotland, and I went to buy a book, and I naturally gravitated to what I read as a kid, which was fantasy. I said to my niece, “Help Aunt Nickie pick out a book,” and she picked out one of the Charlaine Harris Southern vampire mysteries. I just escaped in this book and enjoyed it.

I did my Ph.D. thesis on Philip Roth and that rubs your nose in the dirt of humanity, and I enjoy that. But I remember the experience of popular fiction as one of escape. My brain said I could write one of these, and the next day when I got home to Scotland, I started writing.

In my career, I did everything you need to do to be a writer, except write fiction. I honed my craft in a different way: I learned structure, how to write at length and how to adapt my voice to the dry academic style.

Q: What are your duties at Seton Hill?

A: This is my first year as solo director (of the popular-fiction program); I've been co-directing for a few years. I teach an introduction to popular fiction course. Students read pop fiction in all genres and start to cobble together a portfolio to use to write the beginnings of their book.

Q: What do you do away from work?

A: I live in East Liberty and I'm really taking advantage of the city and all the great nightlife and concerts. I love to cook. I love the gym. I love to travel, but not so much this past year because I've had a leaky roof. Recently, I went to Hemingway's house in Key West and had a moment.

Q: What do you see in your future?

A: I moved a lot in my life, and I kind of assumed I always would, but I really enjoy Pittsburgh, and I'm planning on staying here for a while. There's a lot going on and you can afford it, which is fabulous.

Q: Who has most inspired you?

A: I was lucky enough as an undergrad to live with (the late author) Saul and Janis Bellow. They were a huge influence on me, especially Janice, who was my professor.

Also Charlaine Harris, who wrote the books that inspired me to write my books. We got to know one another, and she invited me to write a story for a “Sookie-verse” anthology (about characters in Harris' Sookie Stackhouse vampire series), which is probably one of my proudest moments. She's such a lovely woman and such a good model for writers, and always so professional and so kind and generous and gracious.

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750 or

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