Interview: Kari Nielsen


Kari Nielsen is originally from Montana and has worked as a guide and land manager in Utah, Alaska, Montana, and Patagonia. Her work has appeared in The Esthetic Apostle, CIRQUE, and the anthologies Waymaking and A Narrative Map. Her novel manuscript, Koloniya, was a 2018 finalist for New Rivers’ Press Many Voices Project.

What made you decide to pursue an MFA in creative writing? Why did you choose the program at UW?
I applied to UW because it is a small, intimate program, and my husband and I wanted to stay in the Rockies.

Do you think living in Wyoming has changed your writing process, or your perspective on writing?
Being in the MFA program has introduced me to lots of writing processes, which has helped me be more open-minded about my own.

What have you been working on lately? What is your thesis about?
My thesis is a novel about two people who climb a mountain and encounter various people on their journey. This morning, I started working on a play that has been on the backburner for awhile.

What do you think the major influences on your work have been? Any particular books, movies, albums or experiences that have shaped you as a writer?
Major influences include Gary Snyder, J.M. Coetzee, Marilynne Robinson, Paul Bowles, and James Welch, among many others. I’ve recently been watching films by Ingmar Berman and Ciro Guerra and can’t stop listening to Thom Yorke’s soundtrack to Suspiria.

What advice would you give to people who are starting an MFA program?
I have often heard the advice ‘just keep writing,’ which is great. What can get lost in that seemingly harmless phrase is that living is also important. Life is what informs writing, and vice versa. For me, half of writing is living, being engaged with place and animals, friends and family, food, wilderness.

Kari will be reading at the first event in the 2019-2020 MFA Reading Series, which will be held at Night Heron Books & Coffeehouse on Thursday, September 26, at 7 PM.

Fall 2018 MFA Readings!


This fall, our second-year MFAs had the opportunity to read for the Laramie community! In October, Lindsay Lynch and Jenny Zhang both shared short stories at the Riflemaker in downtown Laramie. Francesca King and Tayo Basquiat followed up in November, with a great reading at Second Story Books. Check out photos from both readings below:


5×5 Reading Series

This year, the Wyoming MFA program had the pleasure of kicking off the 5×5 reading series! Amazing writers from Colorado State, the University of Denver, CU-Boulder, and Naropa University traveled to Laramie to share their work in the beautiful University of Wyoming Art Museum.


Francesca King, a U Wyoming MFA candidate in Fiction, reads from her novel-in-progress.

We look forward to participating in the next four readings in the 5×5 reading series later this fall and spring! Check out more photos from the Laramie reading below.

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What We’re Up To This Summer, Part 2

It’s summertime in Laramie, which means our MFAs have oodles of time to write, read, travel, and explore the world. To find out what the 2019 cohort is up to this summer, we did a quick interview with them— check it out below!


If you were a kitchen utensil, which one would you be? Teaspoon, small but exact.

Now, if your writing were a kitchen utensil, which one would it be? A colander, letting out all the excess until I’m left with random bits of interesting junk.

What are you working on? My thesis, which is a collection of short stories. I will probably end up writing a few essays on art to avoid said thesis.

Am I allowed to ask how it’s going? I recently read Lauren Groff’s By the Book where she said that she deals with writer’s block by just reading a lot of books. I thought this was a good approach, but now I’ve read over 13 books in a month and have written, maybe, 3 pages. Oops.

Tell me your favorite adjective? Lugubrious.

Yay or nay: semi-colons? Yay semi-colons! I have a favorite semi-colon and it’s in the first line of Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.”

Got any summer plans? I will be traveling to Amsterdam and Paris with the plan to sit in art museums and write until someone kicks me out. I will also be road-tripping to Napa Valley later this summer to attend the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference.

What’s your favorite mode of transportation? Trains.

Are we having fun yet? 

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Recommend a book? What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons.



If you were a kitchen utensil, which one would you be? As a child practicing my violin scales (badly), my mother would often shout from the kitchen “Francesca, is your brain a sieve?” Even though I imagined for the longest time that a sieve was a kind of animal— a cross between a seal and a manatee— I still have a certain affinity with it.

Now, if your writing were a kitchen utensil, which one would it be? Perhaps a lemon squeezer? This current novel is squeezing the life from me… (in a good way, of course…).

What are you working on? I’m currently revising some of the vignettes I produced in Brad Watson’s Secret Life of Movies seminar last semester. Not sure what I’ll do with them, though I’m thinking about producing a chapbook either relating to my experience as a Londoner in Laramie, or about my childhood. Also, a novel. Though, in its early stages.

Yay or nay: semi-colons? Far superior to the lesser colon.

Got any summer plans? I was planning on attending the Arctic Circle Residency, but had to postpone to 2019 for funding, so I have 14 blank weeks in my planner! I’m staying around Laramie, working in the garden for the first time in my life, writing in Night Heron, going to the (blissfully empty) gym.

What’s your favorite mode of transportation? The underground system in London, for sure. Bring on Christmas 🎅🏼

Are we having fun yet? Always 😉

Recommend a book? I enjoyed Room by Emma Donoghue and have since been searching for another novel with a child protagonist. Only Child by Rhiannon Navin was published a couple of months ago and certainly filled that gap.

What We’re Up To This Summer, Part 1

It’s summertime in Laramie, which means our MFAs have oodles of time to write, read, travel, and explore the world. To find out what the 2019 cohort is up to this summer, we did a quick interview with them— check it out below!


First off, if you were a kitchen utensil, which one would you be? I have always felt great affinity with the wooden spatula, in that we’re both reliable, easy to clean, and good for stir frying.

Now, if your writing were a kitchen utensil, which one would it be? Definitely a colander. Draining, but with a purpose.

What are you working on? My goal is to finish the first draft of my thesis by the end of summer. I’m also dabbling in writing trashy erotica to keep me somewhat sane in the inbetweens.

Am I allowed to ask how it’s going? Yes! It’s going OKAY, and I say that with some trepidation, because is it ever supposed to go better than awful? Mostly, I’m adjusting to not having hard and fast obligations for the next few months – it’s weird to go from a set schedule to what feels like infinite free time. I have to remind myself that it’s fine to just relax. I get to write at a leisurely pace, I’m not as anxious about finishing things, I’m exploring, and I’m failing a lot. I’m learning to be okay with it.

Tell me your favorite adjective? Cacophonous.

Yay or nay: semi-colons? Sure, why not? I’m a recovering dash addict, but everyone’s invited to the party!

Got any summer plans? Austin is my home base for the summer, and I plan on being near some sort of water feature every day. (That’s something I missed while in dry, windy Laramie.) My big trip is in July – I’m going to China to visit my family and do research for my thesis (thanks, Dick Cheney!).

What’s your favorite mode of transportation? Biking. I like knowing that I can leave of my own accord anytime.

Are we having fun yet?

Recommend a book? Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong.


If you were a kitchen utensil, which one would you be? Spatula.

Now, if your writing were a kitchen utensil, which one would it be? Can opener. That manual kind that won’t stay on the can, leaves sections of the lid attached and thus requires a hammer to finish the job.

What are you working on? Right now, Wilderness First Responder certification.

Am I allowed to ask how it’s going? I have fake blood stains on my hands.

Tell me your favorite adjective? Stippled.

Yay or nay: semi-colons? No to semis, yes to lots of colons except in titles.

Got any summer plans? Write the first draft of my thesis and lead outdoor adventures for adults.

What’s your favorite mode of transportation? Walking.

Are we having fun yet? [Edit: Tayo didn’t answer this, which I presume means he’s having all the fun.]

Recommend a book? Stoner by John Williams.

MFA Students Make Books (Literally.)

As MFA students, we all strive to see our words bound and printed. This semester, a handful of MFA students had the opportunity to do just that in a Book Arts course co-taught by writer Alyson Hagy and visual artist Mark Ritchie.

MFA-ers Francesca, Emily, Lindsay, and Bethanne all showcased their work from the semester in a juried show:


MFA-ers admiring the beautiful art made by their peers.

Check out their fabulous handmade books below!

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Interview with Caleb Johnson ’13

Treeborne_FINAL copy

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.