Posts Tagged creative writing degrees

Story as metaphor – talking to Ann Napolitano, author of Dear Edward

As you might know, I’m fond of novels that are bold metaphorical concepts and haunting stories. A few months ago I came across an advance copy of Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano, the story of a 12-year-old boy who is the only survivor of a plane crash. He struggles to find a way to live, having lost everything, including his brother, mother and father. The narrative of his present life is intercut with the hours of the flight, the people whose last hours he shared, who will stay with him for ever. It’s a spellbinding read and I’m thrilled to be able to talk to Ann, keyboard to keyboard, today.

Vital statistics for Ann: she’s the author of the novels A Good Hard Look and Within Arm’s Reach. She’s also Associate Editor of One Story magazine, has an MFA from New York University; has taught fiction writing for Brooklyn College’s MFA program, New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and for Gotham Writers’ Workshop.

Ann, how would you classify Dear Edward? At face value, it’s a great contemporary story, but we’re often asked to find more exact definitions.

I’ve seen this kind of fiction classified as metaphysical, because the idea reaches beyond the literal, a poetic environment as much as a story event. I’d also say it’s half-way to magic realism.

I’m terrible with classifying literature—in some ways I wish we could do away with most terms. For instance, I know the label of magical realism turns some people off, and that means they’ll never read Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (to name just one example) and that’s such a shame, as they would probably love the book.

 I see similarities between Dear Edward and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, which doesn’t have magic events, but creates a kind of weather where emotional magic happens. Real magic realism?

I see what you’re saying about Dear Edward existing in the same kind of universe as Bel Canto, but I would prefer not to have that universe labelled.

I also object to women’s fiction as a term, since there is no equivalent for men.

I so agree! The term ‘women’s fiction’ annoys me intensely. It’s all fiction. For people.

Moving on, what gave you the initial idea?

There was a real plane crash in 2010 in which everyone died except one nine-year-old Dutch boy named Ruben VanAssouw. The flight took off in South Africa and crashed in Libya. The boy’s parents and brother died in the crash, and his aunt and uncle adopted him. The story was big news at the time, and I was immediately obsessed with it. I wanted to know how this little boy could possibly walk away from this level of loss and tragedy. And obviously this obsession became Dear Edward.

How long did it take for you to arrive at the final treatment? I’m just finishing a novel that’s taken me five years and 16 drafts. What’s your process? 

I feel for you – Dear Edward took eight years to finish. I spent the first year taking notes and doing research (I don’t let myself write scenes or even pretty sentences during that period) and then I spend years writing and re-writing the first half of the book. In this novel, the plane sections came fairly easily, but I re-wrote Edward’s storyline countless times.

Your main character, Edward, experiences an extreme trauma. His interior experience is so unique, but also so relatable. How did you create this emotional truth? Did you use sensitivity readers?

No – I only just heard this term this year! I have two writers who I met in graduate school—Hannah Tinti and Helen Ellis—and they are my first readers. My husband read the final draft, too, as did my amazing agent. They operated as my sensitivity readers, I suppose?

Dear Edward also contains many technicalities about air travel and flight, especially in the crash sequences. How did you devise the fatal accident? And how did you approach educating the reader so they would understand it? Did you have expert readers to check it?

Luckily, one of my parents’ best friends is a retired commercial pilot, so I interviewed him extensively, and then he read the plane crash sections when I was done writing, to make sure they were accurate. I also read many transcripts of the National Transportation Safety Board hearings after major crashes. And I ended up choosing to model the reasons for Dear Edward’s crash on a particular Air France crash. There was a wonderful Popular Mechanics article about this crash that included the dialogue between the pilots from the flight’s black box.

Tell me about your other novels – how did they come about? Are there any similarities with Dear Edward? What would you say your literary signatures are – any themes, types of character, types of situation?

Ostensibly, my three novels are very different. My first, Within Arm’s Reach, is based on my mother’s large Irish Catholic family in New Jersey. A Good Hard Look takes place in the state of Georgia in the 1960s and features the short story writer Flannery O’Connor as one of the characters. But all three books share a theme: how to live a meaningful life.

You have an MFA. What did it do for you?

It did two things:

1) It gave me what felt like a legitimate excuse to focus on my fiction writing for two years

2) I met two writers, Helen Ellis and Hannah Tinti, in the programme, and we have been each other’s first readers ever since.

I often tell young writers that they don’t need an MFA, but if they can get one without going into any debt, it can be a great way to find your tribe and invest in their own work.

[Side note: if you’re seriously considering whether to do a creative writing degree, read my interview series with creative writing professor Garry Craig Powell. Should you take a creative writing degree? How to choose a creative writing degree. Are creative writing degrees relevant today? ]

Ann, you teach creative writing. How did that come about?

I started teaching intentionally, when my youngest son was about one years old. I hoped, as many writers do, to teach in order to make some income while writing novels.

How does your students’ work feed back into or nurture your own? Personally I find mentoring and coaching is a surprising learning experience of my own. The work in progress is a privileged place.

I love teaching—as you said, I find I learn at least as much as I teach in any classroom. And it feels wonderful to be in a space where writing, and therefore the stuff of life, is discussed seriously.

You also edit a literary magazine. How did it come about?

One of my best friends, the aforementioned Hannah Tinti, co-founded One Story magazine shortly after we finished graduate school. About five years ago I moved to Brooklyn, and around the corner from the magazine’s office, and almost as a matter of course started working there one day per week. I love working there for much the same reason I love teaching—it feels very nourishing to sit and argue the merits of short stories all day with likeminded writer-editors.

Do you have any advice for writers who would like to submit?

My best advice for submitting to any magazine is to make sure you follow the magazine’s guidelines, and don’t submit a story until it’s truly done. Finish the story and put it in a drawer for two weeks, then read it again and if you still feel like it’s everything you want it to be, then submit.

Thank you! It’s been great to talk to you.

No, thank you for your thoughtful questions.

Thanks for the plane pic, David Spinks on Flickr.

Find Ann’s website here, with all her novels. Find her on Twitter @NapolitanoAnn One Story Magazine is @OneStoryMag  Helen Ellis is @WhatIDoAllDay and Hannah Tinti is @HannahTinti

And if you’re curious about how my own slow-growing novel is going, here’s my latest newsletter

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Should you take a creative writing degree? The honest truth. An interview

There are many ways we can learn the art and craft of writing. One is a dedicated degree course, either at bachelor or postgraduate level. But what do they give you that you can’t get in other ways?

Last year I got in conversation about this with creative writing professor Garry Craig Powell – you might recognise him because he’s been an Undercover Soundtrack guest and interviewed me about Not Quite Lost. So I thought it would be good to write a proper, in-depth interview about it – and it turned out to be very long!

We’re publishing it in parts at Late Last Night Books. In part 1, we chew over the following questions, with actionable points at the end –

What are the benefits and limitations of creative writing degrees?

What experience level should a writer have so their work is enhanced rather than forced into a standard mould (the often-derided MFA novel)?

As writing is largely self-taught, do writers need formal teachers?

Misconceptions about creative writing teachers!

Thanks for the pic, Pixabay

Come on over!

And if you’ve taken a creative writing degree yourself – or considered it and decided not to – do share your experiences in the comments here. Also, post any questions you’d like us to tackle. If they’re not in one of the interviews, we can gather them into a special at the end. 

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The writer’s persona in the narrative, MFA courses and Englishness – interview at Rain Taxi

How much should a writer’s personality show in a book? Some authors keep themselves out of the narrative voice, even in a personal book such as a memoir. Others colour every page with their sensibilities and personality, even if they’re writing fiction. This is just one of the questions I’m discussing today in the literary magazine Rain Taxi.

You might recognise my interviewer – Garry Craig Powell, who has been a guest on The Undercover Soundtrack (he put Phil Collins songs to unforgettable and cheeky use). Garry has also taught creative writing at university level, so that’s another discussion we have – are these courses useful, necessary, a hindrance, something else? What about journalism – when is that a good start for a fiction author?

And then there’s Englishness. What is that? Well, it could be a quality of restraint – when saying less means more. It might also be a sense of Elysian yearning for an emblematically romantic world, including the tradition of stories about remarkable houses. We’re trying to thrash it out. Do come over, and bring tea.

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Which courses should I take to become a writer?

4063109507_ab9b84c033_zI’ve had this question from Ellie Jackson, who blogs at aquamarinedreams.wordpress.com

I have just graduated from high school and dearly wish to become a writer/author. I am asking different authors what their recommended education would be – pursue a degree, take courses, or read books and blogs and get as much experience possible?

You want more than just to use writing in your job, right? You want to write books that will be your signature in the world.

A degree?

I’m guessing that careers advisers would pick the obvious – take a qualification in English, perhaps literature. That’s the way I was advised, but studying English didn’t help me write. It was the subject I was good at and a way of keeping me parked in education while I figured out a profession to aim for. (I went into publishing.) Casting around my real-life friends who’ve ended up as published writers, they have degrees in archaeology, history, theology, PPE. Husband Dave has a degree in physics. Some of my writer friends don’t even have degrees.

Writing courses

None of my writer cronies have a formal education in writing. They – we – wrote as a natural pastime and this became such a habit that we always had a book in the works. We read craft books when we found them, but mostly went with our instincts and learned by reading with awareness. Then we gathered our courage, queried an agent or an editor and had a period of rude awakening when we discovered our blind spots (and also strengths).

Not everyone gets that kind of feedback or opportunity, of course, especially as publishing deals are now more scarce than ever. But we now have far more ways to find mentors – hiring an editor, joining online or real-life writer groups. I had my baptism of fire in an evening class at Morley College in London, where we read excerpts of WIPs and discussed them critically, guided by an agent. All genres, all types of writer. Eyes were widely opened.

Good as that was, I’ve done miles more learning since. Each novel gives me new craft challenges, and Ever Rest is no exception. To be a writer you have to relish that work as much as the days when the muse is obliging. It also means you don’t have to get all your learning in one hit.

Last word on courses

Creative writing qualifications might prime you with the basics, but I don’t think they’ll equip you any better than learning by practice, training your sensitivity, reading observantly and experimenting on your own soul. Creative writing degrees probably exist because there’s a demand for them, not because they’re necessary.

What’s my evidence for this? In more than 20 years as an editor, I have not noticed that clients with MFAs or creative writing qualifications are any more adept than those without.

Again – which course?

Here’s what I’d do. Get a fallback skill you can ultimately use for freelance work. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to make a living just by writing, so train in a skill that will pay the bills and scale up or down as needed. Even if you aim to write a high-selling, lucrative genre such as romance, you still need to earn while you build a reputation, a network and a body of work.

It’s more likely, though, that you won’t give up the day job. Sorry. Many acclaimed writers I know are also immigration officials, teachers, night watchmen (good for story material), doctors, lawyers, PR consultants, tailors, journalists, farmers, electricians. I don’t subsist solely on writing. I freelance as a fiction editor and also as a magazine editor. And occasionally a film and TV extra.

whatremains44This doesn’t demote your writing to ‘just a hobby’. If you are arranging your life around your writing, it is not a hobby.

Should you try to work in book publishing?

Here’s an upside – you meet useful people and learn handy skills (for me it was how to make books – dead useful with the invention of CreateSpace).

Here’s a downside – little reading time of your own. You must read to develop your art. Although you learn a lot from rough or unsuitable manuscripts, or the latest upcoming bestsellers, you need to read for your own education and for your current WIP. See my previous remark about prioritising.

Experience

We’ve talked about ‘experience in writing’ – but experience in another sense counts too. The best education for writing isn’t craft books or courses. It’s life. If we only mix with writers, that’s all we know – like those authors whose main characters are always authors, or pop stars who only write songs about the agony of fame. That’s a rarefied life that doesn’t resonate well with the people who might be your readers. This fantastic post by Randy Susan Meyers at Beyond The Margins talks about the things she learned from frustrating jobs where people treat you impolitely, reveal their true natures or regard you as invisible. We write more truthful, relatable, enduring books when we get out.

Becoming a writer isn’t necessarily about getting qualifications. The learning process is too long for that. You can’t bank on making a living through it – although you might, the business is too precarious and fickle for such guarantees. So what is your best plan for success? To build a life that enables and enriches your writing. Good luck. And let me know what the other authors say.

Thanks for the writer pic Alan Weir

What would you say to Ellie? Share in the comments (especially if you’re a careers adviser)!

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