By Eric Bilach
The following article was featured in the February 2020 edition of The Campus.
If you major in the Humanities and the Arts here at City College, then you have likely heard of or know Raymond Strom. For starters, he is one of the division’s three academic advisors. On a daily basis, Strom is responsible for ensuring that his students’ educational experiences on campus align with their career aspirations and personal interests as closely as possible. While Strom himself admits that “much of [his] job is purely administrative,” his greatest joys as an advisor have come from providing curious students with recommendations for elective classes. He notes, “The Humanities and the Arts are often overlooked these days, so it’s great to be able to share my love of literature and film with people.”
Typically tucked away inside of his neat and orderly office in NAC 5/224, Strom has become a key figure in the Humanities and the Art’s quest to promote “humanistic knowledge and creative expression” around campus. However, despite his reputation with students as one of the best go-to people for academic guidance, there is much more to Strom than meets the eye.
Born in Hibbing, Minnesota, Strom spent much of his adolescent life moving across the American Midwest. His eventual decision to settle down in New York City fifteen years ago was, as he recalls, prompted by his desires to “write, see plays, visit museums, and go to concerts.” Since becoming a resident New Yorker, Strom acknowledges that he has done what he originally set out to achieve. In his own words, “Well, here I am: writing in the morning, trying to get people interested in books in the afternoon, and going out to see the city at night.”
In addition to his role as an academic advisor for the Division of the Humanities and the Arts, Strom is a 2009 MFA graduate of City College, as well as a published author. In fact, his writing has appeared in notable literary magazines such as Fiction, Tweed’s, and The New York Times. Moreover, this past February, after twenty-one years in the making, Strom’s perhaps most ambitious and captivating work, Northern Lights, hit bookshelves nationwide.
Both poignant and abrasive, Strom’s debut novel about a Midwestern teen searching for his long-lost mother has received widespread acclaim. In a review written by Jessie Chaffee, author of Florence in Ecstasy (2017), the book is said to, “Cut with both violence and tenderness, Northern Lights deftly captures the knife-edge of addiction, the electricity of first love, and the insatiable search for belonging.”
Published by Simon & Schuster, the novel follows Shane Stephenson, whose experiences in the rural, drug-laden town of Holm, Minnesota force him to confront the awakening of his own sexual identity, his family’s sordid past, and a local escalation of white supremacy. When asked about the exigence behind Northern Lights, Strom shared that, although fictional, the setting and plot of the novel are mostly inspired by true events (autobiographical or otherwise). As he described it:
[Northern Lights] is a gritty story about a place where life is hard and people take out their frustration where they can — sometimes on others, but usually on themselves. And while Shane’s story is not my story, I do have a similar one of my own that’s happier in some ways and sadder in some others.
Strom’s intimacy with Shane’s story is perhaps characterized by Northern Light’s lengthy and arduous writing process. Strom revealed that he penned the novel’s opening line back in 1997. He subsequently resumed drafting in the years that followed on two separate occasions: in 2005 during his first semester in the MFA program, and in 2014 after connecting with his then “soon-to-be” agent. Although writing Northern Lights proved to be, on many occasions, quite a Herculean task, Strom held that, “Triumphs, it may seem strange, often go unnoticed. Any day I hit my writing quota (1,000 words) was considered a triumph — it’s the consistent completion of small goals that lead to the big payoffs.”
While having a novel published is, for many authors, “a steppingstone into the public spotlight,” Strom regards Northern Lights in its final form as the goal itself. Given that he has not attempted to capitalize on the success of his novel in any significant way, perhaps the act of seeing a project through from beginning to completion is, for Strom, the true triumph.
As Northern Lights approaches its one-year anniversary, Strom explains that he currently does not have a second full-length project in the works. However, he did disclose that he has some budding ideas for a novel set in New York, and that “one of these days, something will click and [he‘ll] get back to writing full-speed.” Until that day arrives, he has some words of advice for his student artists:
For the most part, I say this to all of my student artists, whether they are painters, actors, musicians filmmakers, or creative writers: find a job you won’t mind doing for the rest of your life — we all have bills to pay — and use your spare time doing what you love.