Biography: Nina McConigley is the author of the story collection Cowboys and East Indians, which won the 2014 PEN Open Book Award and a High Plains Book Award. She holds an MFA from the University of Houston and an MA from the University of Wyoming. She has been a fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and held scholarships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for The Best New American Voices. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Orion, O Oprah Magazine, Salon, Virginia Quarterly Review, American Short Fiction, and The Asian American Literary Review among others. She lives in Laramie, Wyoming and teaches at the University of Wyoming and at the MFA program at the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. In 2019-2020, she was the Walter Jackson Bate fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. She is at work on a novel.
On a pleasant fall morning, before snow piled upon Laramie, McConigley sat on her porch with M.F.A. student Dana Liebelson to talk writing in Wyoming, why you won’t catch her using italics in her work, and art as a form of activism.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Liebelson: I was hoping you could tell me about your upbringing, your family, and where in Wyoming you grew up?
McConigley: I was born in Singapore, my dad is Irish, grew up in Ireland. My mom grew up in India. They met when my dad was in the Peace Corps in India. My mom was a journalist and my dad is a geologist. He was working for an oil company in Singapore, and they transferred us to Wyoming from Singapore. My mom had gone to the library and looked up Wyoming in an encyclopedia, and she saw pictures of Jackson Hole, Yellowstone, and she was like, ‘Oh, we’re moving to the Alps.’ So she thought it was great. We moved to Casper, Wyoming, which is where I grew up, which is a total oil and gas town. There are no Tetons there. We moved there when I was 10 months old.
Liebelson: What was your path to the M.F.A.?
McConigley: I had a little bit of a weird trajectory because I didn’t take any creative writing as an undergrad. One of my first jobs outside of college was working at an insurance company … my soul was being sucked out of me every day. I was working in Minneapolis at the time because I’d gone to college there. I started taking a night class at The Loft in Minneapolis, it’s like a writing studio, and started writing some stories. I hadn’t written that many stories, and [I] applied for M.F.A. programs. There were a lot less back then. I just worked off the U.S. News and World report list. I got into Emerson College in Boston and that was where I was going to go. And five days before I was going to start my M.F.A., my mom was diagnosed with cancer. [She did an M.A. at the University of Wyoming with an emphasis on creative writing instead.] From there, I decided I actually wanted to do an M.F.A. This time around I was a little smarter about applying. Before I wasn’t thinking about funding and teaching and how that would figure in … I got into the University of Houston, and I really wanted to go to Houston, because I wanted to work with Chitra Divakaruni. I wanted to work with an Indian writer.
… During my time at Houston, I got a waitership at Bread Loaf, and that was the start of a lot of stuff that happened for me, for my writing. After I was a waiter, I was then on staff at Bread Loaf for many years afterwards, and that’s where I met my agent, and that’s where most of my writing friends are from.
On the workshop model:
McConigley: I know some people are like, ‘oh fiction can’t be taught.’ I definitely am someone [who] thought that fiction was taught to me. I really value the workshop model, because I was someone who came into an M.F.A. program, I really liked writing, I really liked reading, but I hadn’t written a ton of stories. For me personally, I loved the opportunity in workshop to be able to every week, every time I submit a story, to try out something different. Try out first person. Try out third person. Write a really failure story in second person. I think, to be able to try all of those things, plus have the feedback of really smart readers, is invaluable.
On writing in Wyoming:
McConigley: I always write really well in Wyoming. For me, the open space and the place are really, really good for my writing. I know a lot of writers have to go away from their homes to write about it, but for me, it’s the opposite. There are a lot of things about living in Wyoming that are hard for me, but there are a lot of things …. the land, my relationship to land, is really strong here, and I think that’s really good for my work, so I like being here. I always try to move away, and I always come back.
Liebelson: Are there any experiences you have had growing up as a woman of color in Wyoming that shaped your writing specifically?
McConigley: For me, the only way I knew how to make sense of growing up here as a person of color is to write about it. It’s been really interesting to be able to go to book clubs in places in Wyoming, to talk, and people in the audience will be like, ‘oh I’ve never thought about race in Wyoming,’ and I’m like, you’ve never had to, you never had to think about the fact that you’re pretty much the only brown person in the room. Growing up, when you never see a reflection of yourself, it can’t help but shape you. I think all of us as writers, probably are observers, a little bit on the outside, no matter who you are. Living in a place, that’s kind of isolating that way, it definitely shaped my fiction.
On the writing process:
McConigley: I’m never going to be a writer who writes daily. I know that. It’s fine with me. I feel like I read every single day, and for me, that counts as writing … at least with this novel, I think about it every single day no matter what. It’s just some days I’m not sitting down and physically writing.
My book is heavily thinking about race, and the last four years have really changed the way I think about race in this country … For me, race in Wyoming is a really complicated thing, because I think you feel pretty lonely when you’re of color here. I love that the marches have been going on all summer, but I sometimes as a person of color don’t feel super safe going to a march. I feel like I have a huge target on my back in a way that maybe other people don’t. I have been called a lot of names growing up here. I’ve been told to go back to my home country. I feel like my writing, my art is my activism. I might not get on a picket line and be screaming, but I definitely feel like fiction is, for me, the way I can talk about race. So, the novel has felt more and more important to me.
Liebelson: We’ve been having discussions lately about writing about the West for outsiders, or for the people who live here, or both. How do you position your work?
McConigley: Everyone is always thinking about audience, right? It’s interesting when I write about India or anything Indian, I feel very strongly about not defining things. I absolutely 100% do not use italics in my work. I just think — it’s not that weird of a word. Google Exists. You can look it up. So I don’t explain what a Chapati is. There are things about being here, I did describe in my story collection— I’ve had Wyoming people call me out in readings and be like, ‘we all know what a pump jack is.’ I do think about Wyoming people as being my audience in some ways, but … a lot of ranches have ATVs, cowboys wear baseball hats. I don’t really know what people want. Do they want all these horses and hats and all this business? That’s not exactly the way everyone dresses and is.
Liebelson: Are there any books that have made a profound impact on your own writing? What are your influences?
McConigley: To start with, the Little House books — the way Laura Ingalls Wilder talks about so many disastrous things with zero sentimentality. I think that’s a very pioneer-y thing. It’s like, ‘our crops were all lost’ ‘Mary went blind’ and she just moves on. There’s no analyzing of that. As I’ve gotten older, there are a lot of writers that have really influenced me. I love Richard Yates, The Easter Parade is one of my most favorite books. Everyone reads Revolutionary Road but I love Easter Parade. Last year was pretty awesome being at Harvard because Claire Messud was there, and I love Claire Messud’s writing. The Woman Upstairs, that first-person narrator, I used a lot as a basis for my novel now. I really like the way she paces and does things with that first-person narrator. That book has had a huge influence on me. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot more experimental books — not traditionally written novels? So like, Dept. of Speculation, I really like a lot. Green Girl by Kate Zambreno. Just more fractured books. I also read a lot of poetry.
Liebelson: What would you tell students considering applying to the University of Wyoming?
McConigley: I think this is an incredible place to write and live. The fact that so many MFAs often stay here and write afterwards is a testament to that … the cost of living is low, the ability to be out in nature — I don’t even leave town, I walk him [my dog] on the prairie every single day right behind the Dollar Store here. The fact that I can pull up at the Dollar Store, walk on the prairie, and feel like I’m in the middle of nowhere when I’m having writer’s block, is pretty nice. I also think the community here is pretty lovely in a lot of ways. We have a beautiful little bookstore — those things are really important. At least for me, environment is really important. This is a program where I genuinely think the professors care about you.
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