“Take a hapless Danish cartoonist with a fatwa on his head. Put an American secret agent with secrets of her own in charge of his well-being.
The Nebraska Summer Writer’s Conference comes to UNL in just a month. As usual, the faculty is full of writers with some sort of Nebraska connection; this year, however, NSWC is bringing in no fewer than three former UNL graduate writing program alums to teach workshops! Prairie Schooner, in partnership with the NSWC, conducted the following interview with these three faculty alums: Dave Madden, emily danforth, and Lee Martin.
Dave Madden (DM) is the author of The Authentic Animal. His shorter work has appeared in Indiana Review, Tampa Review, Mid-American Review, Third Coast, HOBART, and elsewhere. Currently, he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Alabama and co-edits The Cupboard, a quarterly pamphlet.
emily danforth (ED) is the author of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus, and School Library Journal. She teaches creative writing and literature courses at Rhode Island College in Providence and is also 1/3 of the editorial/publishing staff of The Cupboard, a quarterly prose chapbook eagerly awaiting your submissions.
Lee Martin (LM) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Bright Forever: A Novel. His other books are the novels Break the Skin, River of Heaven and Quakertown; the memoirs, From Our House, and Turning Bones; and the short story collection, The Least You Need to Know. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Harper's, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, and Glimmer Train. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where he was the winner of the 2006 Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.
How did your time at UNL influence you, both personally and aesthetically?
DM: My studies at UNL taught me how to read—both the books I was assigned in my classes and the manuscripts of my peers I was handed in workshops. In perhaps more pompous but I also hope more clear terms, my time there taught me how to articulate the reactions I had to whatever I read, and then to discern how much of this reaction is formed out of the text and how much is my personal (mis)reading. An academic's answer to be sure. My studies at UNL taught me how to provide answers to questions as an academic. Naw but seriously: all of the above RE: learning to read has been a bang-up way to learn how to kind of reverse-engineer books as a writer.
ED: Many of the most significant “life events” of my twenties (and the very beginning of my thirties) took place while I was at UNL—events important to me both personally and professionally. My then girlfriend and I bought (and renovated the heck out of) our first house; then said girlfriend and I got married; then I got an agent; then I finished and sold my novel (I just did an interview over at the Debut Review where I spoke much more specifically about all of that, if anyone’s interested in those publishing details); finally I landed a tenure-track job. All of these events belong, in ways large and small, to my time in Lincoln at the PhD in Creative Writing program. The most honest answer to your question is probably just that I fully “entered adulthood” while at UNL. I came to UNL’s program immediately after finishing my MFA at the University of Montana, and so I actually did much more “aesthetic developing” during that program, but I didn’t yet trust myself with what I’d learned. Two years isn’t really enough time to both develop methods and approaches to your fiction and then to see them through, to stick with them. At least it wasn’t for me. So my first workshops at UNL were crucial for that—learning to stand by my fiction in ways I wasn’t confident enough to do during my MFA, and to see projects through to completion. I came to UNL with a character and a voice and the roughest of outlines toward a novel. All of that material came from work I did while in my MFA. However, I almost certainly wouldn’t have stuck with that novel so diligently, nor would I have had the support and guidance sell it, had I not come to UNL.
LM: I found a supportive community of writers and scholars at UNL, and I remember having the freedom to develop my own interests in a way that allowed me to more definitely define my aesthetic when it came to both my writing and my teaching. I particularly recall some reading I did for one of my composition theory classes that allowed me to think about the stories in Richard Ford's collection, Rock Springs, in a way that showed me the narrative voice I needed in order to access the material from my world that I wanted to shape into stories. My time at UNL helped me develop my world vision in a way that made me the writer I am today. I also made a number of life-long friends during my days at UNL, The five years I spent in Lincoln were golden.
While I'm thinking of it, is there a "Nebraska aesthetic"? If not, should there be? What would it look like?
DM: No and god no. It's a terrible idea to ask the good people of or from Nebraska to be beholden to one aesthetic, no matter how broad and benevolently ordained it may be. Whatever such an aesthetic would look like, the first thing it would do would tell a wide, diverse group of writers this: you are not one of us.
ED: I don’t think so; at least not during my time there. (And I think that’s a very good thing.) I remember feeling motivated by the range of styles and approaches to fiction writing that I encountered in the various workshops I took at UNL. More than that: I remember feeling like I needed to get to work. So I guess my answer has less to do with a Nebraska aesthetic than in does a UNL CW work ethic. Students in both the MA and PHD were publishing their essays and poems and stories all over the place, every month, every week, really, it seemed: landing in top tier magazines, winning big contests and awards, all of this on a very regular basis. And rather than competitiveness or pettiness about all of this, I remember a real feeling of support and motivation, and celebration, even, amongst the grad students. It absolutely made me want to work harder, anyway. I’ve told Dave (Madden) this before, but certainly the fact that he sold his book the summer before he went on the job market made me all the more determined to do so myself. I’m not suggesting that it was just that easy, but there was this model for me, and I kept thinking: Well, Dave did it, so that means it can be done. How do I go about making it happen? And it wasn’t just book sales, either. Mathias Svalina and Zachary Schomburg launched the book publication arm of Octopus while still at UNL, and that was hugely motivational to me as well. The writers in that program were, and still are, to my knowledge, serious about their writing and about getting their work out into the world.
LM: I'm not sure there's a Nebraska aesthetic. I can think of people from my own time at UNL who were doing such vastly different work, and I think that's a good thing. I'm leery of programs that enforce an aesthetic. As you'll see from my answer above, I'm much more in favor of programs that allow students the freedom to define their own aesthetics.
What were the challenges and joys of transitioning from being a graduate student here at UNL to the "real world" of an academic job?
DM: It's hard to be a worthless graduate student in May and then have to teach graduate students worthwhile things in August. Luckily if you spend your final year of graduate school on the job market the whole drawn-out experience is enough of a hazing ritual that by the final May of your graduate career you feel very little like a graduate student. UNL did some good work preparing me for this, is what I'm saying. As far as joys, it's nice to be paid a living wage and to feel valued as something more than a (admittedly willing) commodity to exploit.
ED: I have just barely finished my first year in the “real world” of an academic job (I uploaded my final semester grades earlier this afternoon, actually), so I’m not sure how much useful reflecting I’ve yet done on the challenges and joys of my first year. For me, all the “newness”—the job, of course, but the move across country, the new city, the new apartment, the new classes and students and colleagues and countless acronyms and parking procedures and you know, all of it so new, coupled with the fact that my novel—my very first—was published during the middle of all of this newness, made settling into a useful and efficient writing routine fairly tricky. Frankly: it was near impossible. I got next to no fiction writing done this academic year. That’s a fact. I don’t even feel terribly guilty about it, I just know that I now have a summer to “make up for it” while also making a plan to improve for next year. I was just talking to Kelly Grey Carlisle, another recent UNL CW grad who just finished her first year in a tenure track job in (at Trinity University in San Antonio), and we were discussing how important (and sometimes stressful) it is to remember that all that work you did in graduate school—the publishing and the committees and the running of a reading series, reading for a lit mag, all of it—that’s what got you the job, not what will get you tenure. I mean, a few things, depending on their timelines, might “count,” but really, everything’s starting anew in what you produce at, and contribute to, the department and school you now work for. This is a good thing, I think. Certainly it’s motivating. I think I just wasn’t really prepared for how exhausting all of this newness would be, for just how tired I’d be most nights. (I probably sound a little silly/whiney, but I’m okay with that. I’m tired. I’m really tired. I feel, for the first time in a long time, like I’ve “earned” my summer.) But there were lots of joys this year, too. It was a joy to teach my first graduate level fiction workshop (in the novel, no less). And a joy (and challenge) to sit on a search committee for another fiction hire not a year after being on the “other side” of that table. It’s a complete joy to live in Providence, RI and to work with the fantastic colleagues that I have at RIC—and they really are fantastic. Great health insurance and a retirement plan: major joys. Everyone knows how wretched the academic job market is right now—particularly in the humanities—there are so, so many qualified candidates who can’t find full time positions. It’s an absolute joy simply to have a job in my field: to be paid to discuss creative writing with my students and to be fully supported by my colleagues and my college as I continue to do my own writing.
How does the place where you reside influence your work, if at all?
DM: Oh, it keeps me inside most months during the summer. Lots of time to read and write when I'm not seething from deep, AC'd, blinds-drawn cabin fever. I say y'all now, is that something? I think I write it, too. Y'all've. Y'all'd. All sorts of sexy protracted contractions you can make down here.
LM: After I left UNL in 1995, I taught for a year in Virginia and then five years in Texas. I then joined the faculty in the MFA program at The Ohio State University, returning to my native Midwest. Living here in Columbus, a five-hour drive from my native southeastern Illinois allows me to feel close to the world I know best. Lately, I've been doing quite a bit of writing based on true stories from that part of the world, and it's good to be able to make a trip to do research, or just to feel the rhythms of life in the place I know best. I'm not sure I'd be writing the books that I am if I still lived in Texas. I'm an unapologetic Midwesterner, and it's good to be "home" even if I do have to live in an urban area. I'm a short drive from the countryside and the small towns, from which so much of my work comes.