Interview: Sally Leaf

Sally Leaf is a nonfiction writer from Rockford, IL. Her current book explores loss on a personal and global scale. Drawing on the sudden death of her father and the sharp decline in the migratory monarch butterfly population, she hopes to encourage conversation about what it means to lose a person (or a species) forever. Her work has appeared in Prodigal Magazine and A Midwestern Review.

What made you decide to pursue an MFA in creative writing? Why did you choose the program at UW?
I spent three years after I finished my undergrad living in Chicago and working various jobs–from gigs at tech startups to public relations to interior design. I majored in creative writing and was raised by journalist parents, but found myself in a corporate-fueled creative slump after graduation. I carried notebooks around the city and jotted ideas down on the bus to work–but that was the extent of my writing. In college, I worked with an author who pushed me to apply to MFA programs post-grad. Honestly, I wouldn’t be here without her steady stream of voicemails encouraging me to apply.

I sent an application to Wyoming off the cuff, mostly because it was on a list of fully-funded schools. I came to the visit weekend and was really impressed by the caliber of people I met. I continue to be. My writer colleagues are whip-smart, encouraging, and fun to be around.

Do you think living in Wyoming has changed your writing process, or your perspective on writing?
This area of the country is gorgeous. I still pinch myself every time I drive downtown and catch a glimpse of the mountains in the distance. I wouldn’t necessarily link the move to Wyoming with a direct change in my writing style, but I think the openness of the landscape probably made me more willing to experiment with new ideas.

What have you been working on lately? What is your thesis about?
I’m creating an immersive space that will house a series of linked stories. More on that in the spring.

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?
My current project takes a lot of leaps between art forms. I feel indebted to Joan Didion and Joni Mitchell and Wes Anderson and Ai Weiwei–and really all artists who establish a strong sense of voice and recognizable style. I should probably name drop more books here, but my shelf is color coordinated and currently, I can only think of the red jackets. I don’t want to be unfair.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received? What advice would you give to people who are starting an MFA program?
Don’t throw anything away. Toss your wasted sentences into a compost pile. You’ll find a use for them later.

Sally 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.


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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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.

Long Weekends in Wyoming

In any other state, finding a nice campsite for eight at 7pm on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend wouldn’t be possible. God bless Wyoming and last minute wilderness.


A beautiful site, the road just enough off-road to get one car stuck. (Temporarily, thankfully.)


A solid fire, and a night’s worth of firewood and snacking provisions.


First years enjoyed the biggest tent this side of Harry Potter. This picture doesn’t do it justice, but you could easily fit a cohort in here. All in all three tents, two hammocks and one fellow just enjoying the stars.


A lesson in s’mores to cap off the evening.


Interview with Alyson Hagy

Last week, I sat down with Alyson Hagy, professor extraordinaire and one of the founding faculty members of the UWyo MFA program. We talked about her writing projects, where she sees the program heading, and what advice she has for MFA applicants. Below is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity. (And to remove all references to the subpar Detroit Tigers’ season.)

What are you working on this summer? 

I’ve been doing final edits on a short novel which will be published in October 2018, by Graywolf Press. It’s called Scribe. I just sent it in last week, as my birthday present to myself. I’m really curious how it gets handled, because I’m too close to it now. I’ve been working on this for about four years, and I’m just too close to it.

I’ve also got a small handful of short stories, literally all but one of them are flash fiction, a thousand words or under. And that’s my next thing. They roughly go together, so I’m trying to put together a chapbook with some sort of thematic center. I don’t have good words for what the center is. A couple of the stories are about migration and immigration, a couple of them have war angles. They’re more fables than realist pieces. I’d like to spend the next couple or three months seeing what that looks like.

I’ve got lots of ideas for after that, but I need to recharge. I’m recharging now.

It seems like a very productive summer.   

I’ve also been reading a lot, and that’s been a real pleasure. I’m reading Daisy Johnson’s Fen right now, which is interesting. Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas is a really powerful book of poems. I also read H.L. Hix’s Rain Inscription, and Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds. So I’ve read a lot of really powerful poetry this summer. I’ve also read some crime fiction and loved every page, because I needed that, too.

It’s difficult for me to call anything the best I’ve read this summer. I read Outline by Rachel Cusk, and I’m not sure I’d say I loved it, but I’m so intrigued by it. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, is just a ton of fun. I re-read William Gay’s The Long Home, which is classic southern gothic. It was published in 1999 and I’d read it when it came out, but it was really fascinating to read again. So I think I’ve gotten a  pretty good cross section. I’ve also read a book I’ve been thinking a lifetime about: Missoula, the rape and social justice book by Jon Krakauer.

It’s also been an interesting summer for the program. Obviously there’s been some financial turmoil in the program this year. As faculty and as a program, how are we moving forward from that? 

Brad Watson [MFA Program Director] is in the lead, but he and I have been in pretty constant contact with the dean. She’s been our advocate for all kinds of arguments, primarily for getting our discretionary funding back when those accounts fill up again, That’s the big picture move. The dean declared her support, but the devil will be in the details. I have met with pretty much every colleague who will be here this fall and we’ll be committed to a strong year, for everything that’s in our control. So what can we control? Good workshop experiences, good program experiences. I don’t think we have the detail on teaching assignments yet, but we’ve got everyone’s GAs [graduate assistantships] covered.

But what we’d like to know, what everyone would like to know, is how many positions we can recruit for next year. We don’t have an answer yet. We’re scheduled to meet with the dean again in early September to discuss this. I also was fortunate enough to have some good interactions with Neltje, whose relationship with the university looks really strong. So we’ve got this great opportunity with her and her museum as a kind of anchor for a really incredible future for the art museum and for the writing program.

We still think this a great program. There are lots of people who are interested in helping the program retain its really unique position as a small, innovative, flexible, interdisciplinary MFA. There’s almost no other program like us. There are some programs that have pieces of what we have, but our connections to places like the art museum, the Haub School, Wyoming Public Media, Barry Center, UCross, and Jentel… I would also hope we develop a relationship to Brush Creek, the residency over near Saratoga. That’s something I’m talking to the art museum about.

So, we’ve got some possibilities. We’ve got some really excellent first year students coming in and of course we have a really excellent second year class. Brad has been working hard for the program, and we’ve all been throwing ideas out. We’re going to try to bring some visitors in. We need to get a clearer sense of who’s going to be in Denver, who will be driving up to UCross. We can provide a couch, some dinner, a chance to make some connections. And we’re hoping to grab enough discretionary funding to have a couple additional events.

You know, the details will be different in some ways but I’m hopeful that the end result will be good. I mean, the program is only as good ultimately as what we all put into it as a community. You guys [current students and recent grads] know that. You did a really good job of that last year and have for many years. That’s our ace. And so we as faculty have to commit to being part of that as well. We all need to talk to each other.

And there’s also some talk, and we probably out to do this as a community too: What is the future of genre here? Because our faculty has changed its face. We still can offer the traditional three genres, but are there other things we should be thinking about doing?

A lot of the people who read the blog are making decisions about where to apply. Do you have a sense right now if you’ll be recruiting people for the three genres? 

That’s definitely the hope. But we believe that we need to have enough GAs to provide the critical mass for those. And there are a lot of ideas out there. One of which is that we may have people apply both genre-specific and not genre-specific. We haven’t had that conversation yet, but I think that could be a very interesting way to do this. We tend to have a great many fiction applications and, still having the core of our fiction faculty, we can probably stay steady there.

But the short answer is we’ve asked for enough GAs to keep all three genres, and the dean found that a persuasive ask. Whether she can make that actually happen or not…

In your experience reading applications in past years, what do people focus on that’s extraneous? What should they be focusing on? 

I love applications. I say bring on your strongest writing sample and don’t be afraid to take certain kinds of risks. I’ll steal from my old friend Charlie Baxter: I’m looking for what he calls emotional intelligence or aesthetic intelligence in those writing samples. I’m not looking for craft perfection, that’s something that comes with practice and reading. I’m looking for whether there’s an investment, consciously or unconsciously, in the material that has a kind of shimmer or knottiness to it. That’s what makes it really interesting. And it can be something that’s pretty untamed.

When people are writing about wanting to teach, they should let us know if they have teaching experience. But, you know, be honest about that.

(Laughing) Are people not honest about that? 

I think people are generally honest about that. That’s the shortest and safest part of the application.

Letters of recommendation do matter, and it’s not as much about the writing skill but people talking about your ability to be in a community. I don’t think that all writers have to be social animals, but one of the deals you have to make when you come to our program is that you’re willing to be in a critical and aesthetic community.

Last but not least, in their statements of purpose, I think sometimes people tell us what they think we want to hear rather than what they really need to say.

What do they think you want to hear? 

What wonderful traditional undergraduate achievement they’ve had, or that they’re absolutely going to finish that novel or finish that story collection and that they’re sure they know what they’re going to do when they get here. Don’t get me wrong, that’s nice. I like seeing the ambition and the plans. But I also believe that books take a lot longer than 20 months.

And people often submit statements of purpose as if they live in a world without other writers and other books. It’s really helpful to me to know who they love to read, who’s driving them crazy or who has really got them thinking, old or new. Reading is your constant training as a writer, we’re all doing it all the time. That’s probably more important to me than–look, I can see your undergraduate record on your transcripts. But a lot of writers aren’t traditionally great students. Many are, but not all. I’m looking for “Why do you need to be in Laramie now, reasons large or small? Why is now the time to move into a program and really test your own voice and aesthetic and make what can really be a real leap, particularly if you’re leaving a job?”  Just tell it to us straight. And the people who tell us those stories most sincerely are pretty effective in their applications.

You learn so much about a person not just from the books they love but also the ones that get under their skin, the books that they end up throwing across the room. 

The Rachel Cusk novel Outline, again, I wouldn’t say I love it, but it’s trying to do something that’s gnawing at me. I’m not even sure I like it, but I would love to talk to incoming students about it. So yes, I would love to know what books you want to throw across a room and the ones you’re mystified by, or the ones that make you feel the way you hope your own work will make other people feel. And there’s no house style here. We read applications for building the most interesting cohort possible, not replicating ourselves. And we’ll continue to make that our principle.

Is that going to be more difficult with a smaller cohort? 

Yes, I think that’s true. I don’t have a good answer for that, but if you think you’re going to have 9-12 students overall, it’s probably a little different than if you think you’re going to have 4-6. We’re still going to go with the work and the people we think will fit best here. Traditionally, we have not felt like we were necessarily the best home for people who have already launched professionally. They send us great applications and I think they’d be fabulous to have here, but if they’ve already got a contract with Pantheon, we may not be the right program. We might be–I wouldn’t say to turn us down–but we have traditionally been the program that attracts people that have multiple interests, sometimes not in literature, and who have made that wildlife biology or that undergraduate printmaking ceramics degree a foundation on which to build a writing life.

Interview with Erin Jones ’15

Erin Jones graduated from the UWyo in the fall of 2015 with a dual MFA in Creative Writing (Non-Fiction) and Environment and Natural Resources. Thankfully for those of us in the program now, she decided to stick around in Laramie and is working at Wyoming Public Media while editing her novel. In this interview, Erin and I talk about her time in the program, how she used her summers here to explore the intersection between science and storytelling, and how wonderful it is to work for Wyoming Public Media. On a totally unrelated not, thank you to Wyoming Public Media for letting us record this in the studio and use WPM editing software to cut down on some of our unnecessary fits of ums and laughter.

The Graduate(s)

The summer of a two-year program is a wonderful thing. As someone who’d been out of school for nearly a decade when I started up at Wyoming, the idea of having a summer vacation was beautiful. And I could plan for mine, unlike the Mooch. (Too soon?) But in addition to taking time to relax and visit family, the summer is pretty crucial for getting your thesis into fighting shape. Today, I’m talking to three recent grads about the work they did over their summers and how it impacted their writing.

Going into his summer, Alex wasn’t entirely sure what his thesis project would be. He’d worked on a number of short stories during his first year, but had a “sort of jumbled” first chapter of a novel as well. He decided to focus on the novel over the summer as he preferred to use workshop time for shorter pieces. Diving deep on the novel solidified his thesis plans, and all but one of the chapters he wrote over the summer made it to the thesis. As much as he wrote during the summer, though, he missed teaching and having the structure of steady non-writing work.

Emily was similarly prolific in her summer work. Last summer, she wrote an entire draft of her thesis project, 300 pages of creative nonfiction focused on the presence, absence, and transformation of bodies. With that head start going into her second year, she was able to finish a full second draft by January, and eventually condensed her thesis into a tighter 140 page project. In the end, she wasn’t sure it the number of drafts she finished mattered so much as the fact that doing so much drafting over the summer left her “energized and excited” for the work to come.

Lilly took a different approach. She used her summer to relax, adventure, and get some mental space from her work. “One of the reasons Laramie has been such a productive writing space for me is the fact that the weather is so cold and forbidding, which makes it easier to stay inside and write all day,” Lilly said. “Laramie summers are beautiful and perfect, which is excellent for living if not for writing.” It’s difficult for self-imposed writing deadlines to compete with the limited window for many of Wyoming’s most stunning hikes. Lilly acknowledged that this lead to a much busier fall semester, but also noted that the distance she’d gotten from writing made her much more excited to edit older stories and draft new ones that had “mysteriously gestated” over the summer. After graduating this May, she decided to get even more distance: she’s up in Alaska, working in a kitchen in Denali National Park and getting inspiration for so many more stories.

As for me, I’m trying to take inspiration from all three as we move into the last month of summer. I’ve kept reasonably steady work going with WPR, I drove around the U.S. and Canada for six weeks to get some distance and get out of my head, and hopefully I’ll be able to use the next four weeks to dig into my thesis and start the fall semester energized and ready to go!  

I was told there would be listicles…

Top Ten Things You’ll Miss About Laramie When You Decide to Prolong Your Summer Research Trip*

  1. Your bed.
  2. Saturday night karaoke at the Ruffed Up Duck. You’ll try humming to yourself in your tent after midnight, but it’s just not the same.

    “Freebird? Anybody?”

  3. $2.50 beer from the Buckhorn or Crow Bar or just about any place beer is sold in Laramie. When you go out on this trip, still treat your friends, of course–just have fewer friends.
  4. The complete lack of humidity and its effects on your hair, sweat, and general disposition.
  5. The Danwich from Prairie Rose, if you’re not your best self any particular morning. You enjoy a strong contender for replacement on the trip, the Potatohead burrito at The Potato in McCarthy (July 4th parade them: Taters, not Dick Taters). But the Danwich, various breakfast proteins and fats gathered up in a big French toast hug, calls to you.
  6. Not spending ten hours a day staring at a way too obvious metaphor:

    “We see the world through a broken window because the world is broken, Chad. Duh.”

  7. Public art! The murals all over Laramie are gorgeous and intricate and growing daily.
  8. Reliable WiFi access, so you don’t have to post in a rush whenever you drive through Whitehorse. Hello again, Whitehorse!
  9. Wyoming mountains and rocks and trails. It’s wonderful to see folks taking full advantage of free national park access in Canada in honor of the sesquicentennial this year, but you’ve been a bit spoiled by the lower density hikes and climbs in Wyoming.
  10. The amazing friends you’ve made in and out of the program in your eleven months as a Laramie resident so far. Those same ones that keep texting to find out when you’ll be back already. (Soon, promise!)


*Written from a Walmart parking lot in Canada.