Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of interviews with recent grads from the MFA program at various stages of the publishing process. We talk about the MFA process, writing after graduation and navigating the world of publishing. Today, we hear from Caleb Johnson ’13, whose novel Treeborne will be published by Picador in June 2018.
What led you to choose Wyoming for your MFA?
In short, the people and the place.
I wanted to learn Brad Watson and, after getting to know Alyson Hagy, I realized how lucky I’d be to learn from her too. The same can be said for Rattawut Lapcharoensap and Joy Williams. Everybody who taught at UW during my time there. I’d never lived outside Alabama either, so attending UW was a chance to try it.
During recruiting weekend, I remember how everybody made me feel so welcome. There was a student reading at Second Story / Night Heron, then everybody walked down to Front Street. A few of us went on to the Buckhorn and spent a late night drinking and talking and dancing upstairs at the parlor.
The financial support also influenced my decision. I don’t think we always talk honestly enough about the economic realities of being a writer. It’s irresponsible for academic institutions to expect folks to go into debt to earn an MFA in creative writing. I already had student loans from my undergraduate years and refused to take on more.
What surprised you most about your time in Wyoming, for better or worse?
I was surprised how much Laramie felt like home. I guess I shouldn’t have been. Wyoming, like the part of Alabama I come from, is rural. Though the geography differs, you get similar people and values in both places.
I understand that everybody’s experience is different, but my time living in Wyoming was all positive. I think that’s in part because I’d done some research about the place and I understood a little about where I was committing to spending two years of my life. I gave Laramie a chance on its terms, rather than reacting to my expectations. I’m glad I did. Moving to Wyoming was the best decision I ever made.
What was the spark for your current novel? Did you work on it during the program? At what point did you decide this was the main project you wanted to pursue?
When I decided to come to UW, I knew I wanted to write a novel during my time there. I just didn’t have a good idea for one. I’d recently stalled on a first attempt.
There was no question the novel I wrote would be set in the South. Somewhere, I read that historians think Hernando De Soto introduced the peach to the region during his conquest of the region in the 1500s. This fascinated me. Most folks outside of Alabama don’t know it, but we grow some of the best, juiciest peaches you’ll ever eat. I was raised up in history and myth too, so I got in mind that I’d write a historical novel about the Spanish conquistador pillaging his way through my homeland. The thing I soon figured out was that I didn’t enjoy doing the research required to pull off such a project.
I can’t say exactly where I wandered from there, except forward in time in regards to when the story was set, but I kept writing and writing, and eventually I discovered two characters — a grandmomma and a young girl. These two women stuck and became the protagonists of the novel that’s now called Treeborne.
How have you balanced writing and work post-MFA?
It hasn’t been easy, but I’m pretty unyielding when it comes to what takes away from my writing time. After earning my MFA, I decided to take whatever work would give me the most time and headspace to finish the novel. I worked some less than fulfilling jobs and dealt with loads of self-doubt. That’s a compromise many of us make in order to write books though.
I write every day. If you’re already in a privileged enough position to write, you’ll find a way to get the work done if you want to bad enough. For me that means waking up as early as possible and spending some time at the computer before I let the world in. I try not to be too hard on myself those mornings, especially on weekdays, when I have less time.
What’s next on your agenda?
There’s still plenty of non-writing things to do with Treeborne. Publicity will ramp up before I know it. As far as new writing, I’ve begun work on my next novel and I hope to complete a few non-fiction pieces I’ve been picking at lately.
Caleb Johnson is a writer who grew up in the rural community of Arley, Alabama. His debut novel Treeborne will be published by Picador on June 5, 2018. Caleb earned a BA from The University of Alabama and an MFA from the University of Wyoming. He has worked as a small-town newspaper reporter, a janitor, and a whole-animal butcher, among many other jobs. Currently, Caleb lives with his partner Irina and their dog Hugo in Philadelphia, where he teaches while working on his next novel.