Interview: Alejandro Alonso Galva

alejandro.blog

Alejandro Alonso Galva is a second-year MFA in the nonfiction program.

What made you decide to pursue an MFA in creative writing? Why did you choose the program at UW?
I’d been working as the assistant news director of a community radio station in Madison, Wisconsin. I loved it. Loved journalism, loved working in my community and shining a light on local issues that really affect people daily. I also loved freelancing for a local weekly newspaper. But the grind of daily news doesn’t allow a lot of time, energy, or space for bigger projects, especially in today’s media world.

I’d actually avoided MFAs for a long time–the stubborn boy in me sort of wanted to pave my own way. Years of pounding the pavement in radio and print made the idea of getting an MFA and having space to breathe too wonderful to ignore.

When I told my mom I was considering Wyoming, she immediately said “That’s the one, that’s where you are going.” I hadn’t even applied yet. When I got the phone call from Brad Watson and later visited in the spring, it was clear my mom was right. You can’t ignore mom magic.

Do you think living in Wyoming has changed your writing process, or your perspective on writing?
Yes, absolutely. As a journalist in a major media market in a state capital, the noise was at fever pitch all the time. I would listen to 5 news podcasts before breakfast, read half a dozen newspapers, then pound through the wires. All of this ahead of coming to the station to prepare for the 6 PM broadcast. It was a full day and exciting and anxiety-fueled and insane.

When I arrived in Laramie, it felt like my whole world got quiet, like I could hear myself think in a different way. We are sitting up here at 7,220 feet and it is isolating in exactly the way I want. The world is at arm’s length and it allows me the space I was looking for. There’s a kind of peace in that.

What have you been working on lately? What is your thesis about?
Lately I’ve been working on a lot of performance writing. I wrote my first screenplay over the summer and performed at a handful of story slams. This semester I’ll take my first stab at the theater and playwriting. I’m really excited about that.

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?
Lately: Junot Diaz, August Wilson, Luis Alberto Urea, Maya Angelou. Toni Morrison is jumping back into my world for obvious reasons. Reading through all our MFA faculty’s work.

Aaron Sorkin, Pablo Neruda, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and the Russians (Tolstoy, etc.) are constants in my life. But most of all, Hemingway. It’s hard to explain what it was like to be a Puerto Rican boy at an all-white school in Nebraska and discover a writer who wrote in Spanish. He lived in Cuba, Spain, places where I came from and that no one around me seemed to know existed. His work reminded me of my Abuelo and deceased father in a lot of ways.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received? What advice would you give to people who are starting an MFA program?
The best writing advice I ever got was not advice at all, but a passing comment from someone while we were wandering around downtown after bar close. I told her my dream was to be a writer and she said, “you are a writer.” She gave me the sort of grace and acknowledgement I wasn’t giving myself at the time.

That would be my advice to others: give yourself the grace to succeed. Give yourself the grace to fuck up, fail, struggle, and have time to figure it all out. I tell my students to have “patient urgency.” Be urgent with your efforts and patient with your progress.

Alejandro 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: Sally Leaf

sally.blog

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_blog

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!

IMG_5050.jpg

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.

IMG_4973.jpg

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

img_2503.jpg

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

IMG_2505

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

img_2510.jpg

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.

IMG_2519

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