Skip to main content area Skip to main content area Skip to institutional navigation Skip to search Skip to section navigation

New Student Profile: Paul Fattaruso, novelist, poet, lawyer...

September 30, 2008

Note: The Class of 2011 enters with the most accomplished academic record in Penn Law history. They come from 32 states, the District of Columbia and 12 foreign countries.  Fifty-one percent are women; 33 percent are students of color; and 10 percent already hold an advance degree.  Meet one of our new students: Paul Fattaruso.

By Larry Teitelbaum

Paul Fattaruso writes poetry and fiction that is at once serious and playful, strange and familiar, aimed at providing his readers a fresh view of an old world. The point is, his work eludes easy description. Take his first novel. In 2004, at age 26, Fattaruso published Travel in the Mouth of the Wolf. The book features, among other things, a talking dinosaur, a supernaturally talented shortstop, psychic twins, and a lonely ex-president.

Given his penchant for creating fantastical worlds, the transition to law school must seem surreal. After all, the Bill of Rights is not written in iambic pentameter, nor do most contract law texts have Hemingway's ear for crisp dialogue. But Fattaruso recognizes a connection between literature and law.

From Homer to Shakespeare to Kafka, writers have consistently explored the ways in which law both shapes and is shaped by our beliefs and actions, he says. He adds that law and literature also share a devotion to precision and close attention to language. Further, he says, the search for truth threads both disciplines.

To further emphasize the two fields' connection, Fattaruso cites a quote from Percy Bysshe Shelly: "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." Fattaruso suggests that poetry and law are both interested in "the moral questions surrounding humans' relationship to the world and to one another."

Novelist and poet - and Penn Law student - Paul Fattaruso with his son, Max.

It was his moral compass that ultimately pointed Fattaruso, who is contemplating the study of intellectual property and environmental law, to law school. After graduating summa cum laude from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1999, Fattaruso earned an MFA from the school, then a Ph.D. in English from the University of Denver. While preparing for his comprehensive exams, Fattaruso celebrated the birth of his son, Max, now two years old. His son's arrival inspired Fattaruso's decision to enter law school and start a new chapter in his life. He started to think about how he could make change in the world and found the study of law the best route. He jokes, "The audience for poetry isn't what it was 100 or 200 years ago, and there are probably more immediate routes to social change."

Nonetheless, Fattaruso's work succeeds on pure literary merit. His first novel was praised   by critics and has been translated into German. His second book, Bicycle, published in 2007, has been hailed as a "tiny masterpiece." His most recent collection of poems is called Village Carved from an Elephant's Tusk.

For the past eight years, during and after his graduate studies, Fattaruso has shared tools of the trade as a college instructor of composition, creative writing, and literature -- an experience he hopes will serve him well in law. "Trying to persuade a group of skeptical college students of the modern-day relevance of Chekhov's plays might be a bit like trying to convince an unsympathetic jury," he quips.

But the jury is not out on one thing: Fattaruso plans to continue writing, although he concedes that the first year of law school could cause writer's block. Will he incorporate law into this work? After all, models exist for such convergence.

Several years ago, poet-novelist Brad Leithauser spoke at Penn Law on how he used his Harvard Law background and early law practice as grist for his writing mill. Noting that law is a rich subject for literature, and one that has not been mined enough, he encouraged more lawyers to write from experience.

Fattaruso likes that idea. He hopes the study and practice of law informs his writing and makes it more complex, layered and experiential. "I expect to maintain writing as a part of my life," says Fattaruso.