Those familiar with UConn’s Storrs campus or the Neag School of Education won’t necessarily see familiar places or faces in “Shadow Campus,” a mystery thriller about a young college business professor found hanging in her office on the eve of her tenure decision.
Yet author Kathleen Kelley Reardon, a former UConn associate professor who in 1971 earned a BA from the Neag School, believes anyone familiar with the behind-the-scenes politics of academia will recognize the atmosphere, challenges and attitudes that led to fictional professor Meaghan Doherty almost dying. Above all, however, she hopes readers of her debut novel will be entertained and surprised.
“Thankfully, for most professors, academia hasn’t proven to be as deadly or dangerous as what happens to Meg in Shadow Campus,” Reardon said. “But at some schools, like at many organizations, there can be some pretty ruthless workplace politics.”
Published in August, “Shadow Campus” is Reardon’s first novel, but it’s not her first book. It’s also far from the first time she’s tackled office politics. Now a professor of Management and Organization at the University of Southern California (USC), Reardon is the author of nine non-fiction books and articles in leading journals, including the Harvard Business Review focusing on workplace politics and power. A leading authority on persuasion, negotiation, leadership and interpersonal communication, she is also a featured political blogger for the Huffington Post. She was integral to founding the Starlight Foundation, for which Reardon designed social technology (an early Facebook) to link critically ill children and their families to medical information, education support and entertainment, and is co-founder of First Star, a college preparatory program she originated to provide abused and neglected foster teens with academic training, and life skills instruction needed to succeed in college.
Much of her research has focused on the hidden dynamics of how political power is wielded in the workplace, and particularly how that affects women’s advancement. The latter is a main theme of “Shadow Campus,” though Reardon views the novel and its soon-to-be completed sequel as not so much a change in her professional focus, but as a natural segue in her career.
“I’ve always included stories as part of my books and teaching,” said Reardon, who for six years taught in UConn’s Department of Communications Science. She was a Phi Beta Kappa, Mortar Board and Phi Kappa Phi graduate. In 2013, she was honored as UConn Alumni Humanitarian of the Year.
“Stories are a marvelous way to communicate, because they entertain while they reveal information,” Reardon continued. “In my classroom and non-fiction books, I share stories of people I’ve met and interviewed, and those are what students or readers tell me they remember most. In ‘Shadow Campus,’ the story and people aren’t real. But the fictional characters, and what happens to them, are extrapolated from experience. The overall story comes also from my imagination, which is an aspect of the project that’s been very exciting. It’s been a wonderful challenge and act of creation that’s allowed me to return to my love of the arts.”
That love has also inspired Reardon to recently return to painting—something she used to teach as a volunteer to chronically ill patients. However, much of her current focus is on writing the sequel to “Shadow Campus.” On leave from USC and living in Rhode Island, she’s also been spending time working with First Star program funding and developing the UConn and University of Rhode Island sites.
But unlike when Reardon was writing “Shadow Campus” and no one but she and her husband Chris, also a UConn grad, knew her fictional characters, Reardon now has fans. And many of these fans are anxious to know what’s next for Professor Meg Doherty, her estranged brother Shamus turned novice detective, Meg’s coworker Rashid and other characters, who according to one Amazon reviewer create an “addictive novel.”
“A lot of readers like and connect with Shamus,” Reardon said. “And now, he and all the other characters have become real people—especially to my husband and me. They live with us. Some writers like to work in isolation, but I like to talk about my ideas before I write, and Chris has a keen writer’s sense. I’m actually really excited to see what happens to Shamus in this next book, because he really is a work in progress. He’s a guy who grew a lot in ‘Shadow Campus,’ and who will grow and change even more in this next book.”
In much of the novel, Connecticut residents have the extra fun of seeing Shamus in his hometown of Ridgefield, Conn. Reardon grew up in Stratford, Conn. But Chris was a journalist for The Ridgefield Press, so they spent a lot of time in this quiet, historic community. People familiar with Los Angeles, Santa Monica and other California locations that figure prominently in the story will also experience a familiar sense of place.
The sequel to “Shadow Campus” will be set in New York and Connecticut. Reardon hopes it will be ready to release in the fall of 2014.
“Readers have asked to get a new book in their hands soon. That’s motivating. A good story is told well, and I’ll want to make sure Shamus and all his wonderful imperfections hold their interest again,” Reardon said.
Whether the next book tackles more of the potential extremes of office politics has yet to be seen. But it’s clear that for those who work in a large organization, there’s a side benefit to reading “Shadow Campus.” As Shamus learns just how scary pathological official politics can become, so does the reader. Calling on Reardon’s extensive expertise in this area, Forbes magazine recently explored this kind of frightening scenario in an article called “Why Office Politics Can Ben Deadly — And What to Do About It,” which also reviewed “Shadow Campus” and called it a “masterful debut mystery.”
“It’s a debut novel, which means it’s not perfect,” Reardon said, “but what I want more than anything is for it to be a story that keeps people turning the page. One of many enjoyable things about fiction is that different people take away different things, and for me the whole process has been a joy.”
Reflecting, she also credits the Neag School for the novel’s creation: “When you think about it, the Neag School of Education is really responsible for its success too. UConn shaped the path I’ve been on, leading me to become a high school teacher, pursue my master’s and PhD, eventually go to California and teach, and gain the experiences needed to create Meg, Shamus and the whole story of ‘Shadow Campus.’ UConn is where the seed was planted and continued to grow when I returned as a Communication professor.”
Those interested in learning more about “Shadow Campus,” Reardon’s nonfiction work or reaching out to her can visit her website at www.kathleenkelleyreardon.com.