UVA’s graduate program in creative writing has always been on the map. It’s consistently ranked among the nation’s best, distinguished by its faculty—Pulitzers, Poet Laureates, National Book Award winners—its intimacy and selectivity—about seven fiction writers and five poets are chosen each year from a pool of more than 500 applicants—and the literary success of its graduates. In its July 2007 issue, The Atlantic magazine noted that graduate writing programs have become something of a phenomenon in American higher education, having mushroomed from about 50 programs several decades ago to about 300 today. The magazine included UVA among the top 10 programs in the country.
We profile five emerging writers, all alumni of UVA’s creative writing program who are celebrating the recent publication of their first book, the feat of a long and disciplined journey that will be repeated, we hope, many times.
Taylor Antrim (Grad ’04)
Residence: Brooklyn, NY
Favorite book: Impossible for me to nail down only one. I’ll give three: Too Far To Go by John Updike, Money by Martin Amis, Sam the Cat by Matthew Klam.
Who is your first reader? These days I give pages to my agent and a small group of friends from UVA who also wound up in New York after the program ended. I save my wife, Liz, my best reader, until the end, when I have a more complete draft.
Length of time it took to write your book: Almost two years.
Plot: It’s about Model UN, North Korean terrorism, an elite boarding school in Massachusetts, a politically renegade headmaster and two young men, the headmaster’s teenage son and a first-year history teacher, both coming of age under difficult circumstances.
How many times was your manuscript rejected before you found a publisher? I was lucky. My editor at Houghton Mifflin expressed interest within a few days and made an offer shortly after that.
Best aspect of UVA’s MFA program: The friends I made, who have since become a community of fellow writers; and the faculty, who are amazing writers and some of the most generous people I have met.
Best way to deal with rejection: Remember that all your literary heroes were rejected, soundly, at one time or another in their careers.
Advice for aspiring writers: Treat it like a job: write every weekday and take the weekends off. A streaky, on-and-off, write-when-the-muse-strikes work ethic will never get a book written.
Excerpt from The Headmaster Ritual
We were supposed to meet this morning?” asked Dyer, standing in the shaded portico of Headmaster Wolfe’s residence, the humid Massachusetts air on him like a quilt.
“Agreed,” said Edward Wolfe with his hand on the door’s brass knob. He moved out of the way. “Come in.”
Dyer dipped his head and passed inside. The air had a still, musty smell, as if the windows hadn’t been opened all summer. The hardwood floor in the wide foyer was bare except for a coarse straw mat and an Oriental rug rolled up like a sausage along the wall. Muddy running shoes sat on a radiator; a loose stack of mail covered a table by the door. An ornately framed portrait—old, Dyer thought, the paint webbed with cracks—of a black-suited couple in twin wooden chairs was propped against the wall. In its place hung a framed sheet of yellow paper with a typed list of names. Curious, Dyer took a closer look. Halfway down the page, he stopped: “Edward Wolfe; Boston, MA; Harvard; SDS.”
Dyer felt Wolfe at his side and realized the headmaster had him by a good half inch. His jaw was block-shaped beneath coarse gray stubble, his lips, fish-white and thin. Body heat came off him in waves, mingled with a clean, soapy smell. Dyer told himself to look at Wolfe directly, to find his eyes in their deep-set sockets.
Even though Roberta O’Brien, dean of faculty, had offered him the job, even though he’d signed tax forms, even though there’d been a welcome letter for him in his Bailey House faculty apartment, this morning could still be some sort of final interview, a chance for Wolfe to judge for himself, to make up his own mind. In late July during his interview with O’Brien, she’d said that Britton’s headmaster had left a tenured post in Harvard’s History Department to run the school. “He was looking for a more institutional role. To bring a progressive approach to the classroom,” she’d said. “So he wants young, less traditionally trained teachers, candidates with higher academic degrees, not graduates of education programs.” Dyer, with no prior teaching experience, with his Oxford M.Phil. in History, was “just the sort of candidate he’s looking for,” she’d said.
A reassuring memory—but Headmaster Wolfe had never met Dyer. And there had to have been more qualified candidates vying for the position. Lots of them. A teaching post at Britton was something of a coup, and they could probably get a replacement for Dyer, even with classes only a week away. Dyer straightened his back, rising on the balls of his feet.
“Nineteen sixty-eight,” said Wolfe, nodding at the framed page of names on the wall. “An enemies list from Hoover’s COINTELPRO files. An old friend of mine at the Justice Department copied the original for me.”
“You were SDS?” asked Dyer.
“Don’t kick our founders,” said Wolfe, nodding toward the narrow-faced puritans at Dyer’s knee.
Dyer stumbled back a step.
“Warner and Constance Britton. Suppose I’ll have to find another place for them eventually,” said Wolfe. “Maybe the john.” The headmaster’s clothes were casual, a little ragged: an old Harvard sweatshirt stained yellow at the neck, felt letters puckering from loose thread. Jeans belted with a length of rope. The getup calmed Dyer a little. On his walk this morning, the Britton School had appeared dauntingly correct; now, its headmaster didn’t. Dyer tried to smile. Wolfe tipped his head toward a living room. “Shall we?”
Dyer followed him down a short hallway, along a threadbare Oriental rug, its red faded to rust, through an open doorway into the living room. The room was formal and grand, with crown molding, a plaster school crest in the ceiling, and a carved stone hearth. The windows went up above Dyer’s head, the antique glass in their leaded panes distorting the view, letting in a weak, gridded light. It was a little cooler here, thanks to an air-conditioning unit gurgling in one window. Wolfe made for a shabby, squat armchair that seemed out of place in the room, settling down with a contented sigh, rocking his head back. He sank lower in the chair until he lay nearly flat, his legs straight out, one crossed over the other. He gestured toward the navy corduroy sofa in the middle of the room, the cushions worn to a shiny indigo, another piece, like the armchair, that could have been dragged in from a yard sale.
Laura Dave (Grad ’03)
Residence: New York City
Favorite book: Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen and The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter
Who is your first reader? Two friends of mine, Dana and Ben. They are incredibly generous readers, but are also as tough as nails. When I get their approval, I know I’ve earned it.
Length of time it took to write your book: About 13 months.
Plot: It’s about a grown brother and sister who, over the course of his wedding weekend, make some surprising choices about their lives.
How many times was your manuscript rejected before you found a publisher? I got lucky, and the first editor we sent it to accepted it for publication.
Did a particular event or experience inspire your book? Several experiences inspired the questions I raise in London, but it really became its own thing once I started writing it.
Best aspect of UVA’s MFA program: The faculty and the students. It is also a great gift that the focus of the program is on becoming a better writer. I felt protected from the business aspect of writing, which has made a huge difference.
Best way to deal with rejection: On this, I am very much a work in progress.
Advice for aspiring writers: It is truly a test of endurance, especially with novel writing. So much of the battle is figuring out ways to keep showing up. Prove to yourself that you take your writing seriously. Go to an MFA program, apply to a writers’ conference, get up at 4 a.m. two mornings a week to write while your family sleeps. No excuses. The more seriously you take your work, the better chance you have of continuing.
Excerpt from London Is the Best City in America
Narragansett, Rhode Island.
She told herself that if he touched her one time, she wouldn’t leave. She told herself that if in his sleep tonight, he reached for her, or put his hand on her leg, his hand on her knee, his face near her face, his leg against her leg, his mouth against her back, his palm on her stomach, his arm on her hip, his hip beside her leg, his head beneath her shoulders, his cheek along her neck—she would stick it out. All these options, he had! And Emmy would stick it out forever. Stay put, stay faithful, stay here.
Where was here? Not home. They weren’t home. It was the Friday before Independence Day and a hundred degrees outside and they were in a highway motel in southern Rhode Island, on their way to his parents’ in Maine for the long weekend. They hadn’t planned on stopping, but they had left the city late because her meeting with their wedding planner had run late and then he had been annoyed. And then she had been annoyed because—did she really need to remind him?—she hadn’t wanted a wedding planner in the first place, had wanted just the two of them on a cliff somewhere, maybe New Mexico, high above sea level, adobe houses seeping into dry land.
Emmy turned over onto her back. The sheets were stiff here. The fire alarm was right above her head. The television remote was next to her. The ordering went: her, television remote, him. He was on his back too. She could turn on the television and it wouldn’t wake him. She could get up and get dressed and go get a Coke at the vending machine and it wouldn’t wake him. She could sit with her Coke by the indoor pool for an hour or two hours and her absence wouldn’t wake him.
If he happened to wake up by himself and see that she was gone, he would be worried, but not so worried that he’d come look for her. He would take a shower first. He would listen to the radio and get a traffic update. He would call his family to give them an estimated time of arrival. He would wait.
At six a.m., Nick turned onto his side, his back toward her. His hands were somewhere beneath the sheets. Emmy crawled out of bed and went into the bathroom. She brushed her teeth and washed her face and pulled her hair into a bun. She had long brown hair that she washed in horse shampoo to keep it soft. She put on the peach sundress she had been wearing the day before. She had very pale skin, which didn’t look so good beneath peach. It looked better beneath blues and ivories and reds.
Her suitcase was already packed so she took it. She left him the car keys and the car. She closed the door behind herself. She stopped at the front desk to pay for the room. She wanted to leave him a note, but she didn’t know what to say. So she got another room key from the day-manager and let herself back into the room and took off her peach dress and got back into bed with him.
Now they were face to face.
A little before nine, his eyes fluttered open. Still, green eyes. He looked at her. She reached out and touched his cheek, first with the outsides of her fingers, then with the insides.
“Did you know it’s supposed to rain later?” she asked.
Nick shook his head no. He yawned.
“It is,” she said. “Big time. Big storm. It should cool things down a bit.”
He nodded, his eyes starting to close again. This, of course, was only his preliminary wake-up. There would be another two, maybe three, until one took.
She wouldn’t be around for those. She took off her engagement ring and put it on the pillow and got back out of bed and put back on her peach sundress and picked up her suitcase again and walked out the hotel room door again, and this time she did it forever.
Sharmila Voorakkara (Grad ’03)
Residence: Athens, Ohio
Favorite book: Waterland by Graham Swift
Who is your first reader? Mark Halliday, a poet and colleague
Length of time it took to write your book: Five years
Plot: My book is really about a whole series of characters facing different crises and/or weirdnesses in their lives.
How many times was your manuscript rejected before you found a publisher? Fifteen
Did a particular event or experience inspire your book? Not one in particular; I am inspired by random events, things that I see on the street, sometimes things from my past.
Best aspect of UVA’s MFA program: God, there are so many. I loved the poetry faculty, I loved meeting other poets, I loved the number of readings by poets that I had the opportunity to attend.
Best way to deal with rejection: Rip up the rejection letter, move on.
Advice for aspiring writers: Rejection is a part of the game. Write the truth as you see it, not the way you think a particular editor or audience would like to see it.
excerpt from Fire Wheel
You want some real bad karma, go into the towing business.
I’m not sentimental. I know enough
to work a man while he’s hungry. Promise him a donut,
but save it for later.
I’m not the fast hook that falls from nowhere, but believe me,
when that fist arrives, it’s loaded with quarter rolls! Life
is that wind-up without notice—and
wham! No, I’m not given to regret as the chain unwinds
like a woman’s perpetual length of hair, then reels in
Buick, Chevy, Olds. In my rearview: a crying wife, screaming kids,
the weedy husband in boxer shorts
running out to demand—pigeon cheat with baseball bat, a shade
too late. Law says once the hook’s in, it’s
mine. I’m kept in the dark, which is best.
Good soldier, I have my orders,
and some things I’d rather not confess.
It’s not sentiment that makes my little woman pound
the braid of my back, shouting relax, relax—but the ache
in my jaw when I think of my kid, pinning live
butterflies to a board, burning down the neighbor’s
shed. His teachers tell me he’s tried things
with the classroom hamster: is there anything wrong at home? Hell,
the small fires that start
a family. I wasn’t always this man with bad posture, done in
by antacids and a bed-wetting
boy. God knows, I still believe
the quarter-loaded uppercut counts for something
in the character of a man! Junior, I’d knock you
from here as far as straightening—
my boy’s got something hidden in his hands. . . .
He looks nothing like me. Damned if I know what’s mine.
But blood is blood, at least by law, and the word of the law is this:
if you must slit the throat of thine enemy, do it while he’s sleeping,
oblivious in his boxer shorts. Tonight,
the apartment block is lit by the rapid fire
of my tow light, light of aneurism and flashback,
that sets this weedy husband in stumbling flight.
Does my heart ache to see you
raise your bat and swing at the air of my remove?
Do I wince at the sound of your wife’s sobbing,
at the sight of the twelve kids I wake and strand?
You might recede in the rearview, but believe me,
you will all collect. Revenge is not exact. It isn’t sentiment
that moves me forward. No.
I’m watching my back.
Aoibheann Sweeney (Grad ’00)
Residence: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Favorite book: Mrs. Dalloway, if I have to pick one
Who is your first reader? Myself. I go through tons of terrible drafts before I show a soul.
Length of time it took to write your book: I finished a first draft 10 years ago. A few years went by while I went to the MFA program and wrote other things, another two went by while I found an agent and then found a job, and another three went by after I got the contract. But I worried about it the whole time as if I were doing nothing else.
Plot: A girl who grows up on an island in Maine goes to New York City and discovers her father’s past and her own future in New York City.
How many times was your manuscript rejected before you found a publisher? It was sold in an auction in the first round out to publishers, but a few agents rejected it before I found the right one.
Did a particular event or experience inspire your book? Shakespeare’s The Tempest inspired me to write about the character of Miranda.
Best aspect of UVA’s MFA program: Deborah Eisenberg’s literature class
Best way to deal with rejection: Send it out again (never worry about multiple submissions until they ask).
Advice for aspiring writers: Find a place for yourself with a door you can close, try to write every day and don’t expect royalties!
excerpt from Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking
Among other things, I’ve taken up smoking. Ana says I should stop with the good girl/bad girl stuff, and obviously she’s right, but sometimes when I have a cigarette in my hand and the streets are dangerously empty and I’ve had a few drinks after my shift and I am noticing the lights that are on in different apartments, lighting stairways and whole buildings, blinking red on the skyline, I think about the nights on the island when I was content to stand alone outside the house, listening to the fog horns in that soft blackness, and tasting the air, sweet with salt.
My mother and father moved to Maine when I was almost three, so that my father could work on a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I grew up on Crab Island, about a mile or so across the water from a small town called Yvesport, which, more often than not, was hidden from us by a thick Down East fog. A few months after we arrived my mother disappeared into the fog and didn’t come back. She cooked us oatmeal in the morning and then went into town. When she didn’t return that night my father made more oatmeal and put me to bed; in the morning he radioed Mr. Blackwell, who checked to see if our boat was at the dock. That afternoon the Coast Guard found the boat washed up on the mainland without a scratch. It took them three days to find the drowned body. They asked us lots of questions. Mr. Blackwell told me later that she would have frozen to death before she drowned—in the winter it takes about six minutes for your heart to stop beating. She wasn’t used to boats, he said—she must have lost her balance, trying to see her way.
My father didn’t talk about her, but Mr. Blackwell came over every day after she was gone to make us lunch and supper. I was convinced that all around the island there were women inside the trees. When the wind was up they whispered and showed the underside of their leaves, and I pretended not to hear them. I remember sitting in the yard for hours during the summer, just listening to my breath, feeling my limbs go numb—watching for twilight when the bats would crisscross between the blackening trees behind the house. Sometimes I could almost feel my skin thickening into bark, my toes rooting into the ground, my arms raising stiffly to the sky. My father would forget I was there, and I would watch him wander over to the window, stand for a long time looking out. I liked to imagine he was looking for me—calling my name. I pictured him stopping in front of the new sapling in the yard, studying me in a way he had never looked at a tree before, trying to see my skinny form underneath the bark. My elbows would be knots in the thin branches of my arms, and finally he would recognize my knobby knees, my flat-chested trunk.
Ravi Howard (Grad ’01)
Residence: Mobile, Ala.
Favorite book: Billy by Albert French
Who is your first reader? My wife, Laura, gives me notes.
Length of time it took to write your book: I worked on the manuscript for about four years, from 2002 through 2006. I wrote a short story on the same subject while at UVA, and I used a lot of that same material in the novel.
Plot: It’s the story of two teenaged brothers in Mobile, Ala., in the aftermath of a lynching in 1981.
How many times was your manuscript rejected before you found a publisher? I was fortunate enough to have a contract in place before I completed the novel. I sent pages to my editor probably once a year over those four years. The experience of accepting feedback and criticism in workshop was helpful in making that process easier.
Did a particular event or experience inspire your book? The lynching really happened. A 19-year-old named Michael Donald was killed by Klansmen. They hanged his body from a tree just a few blocks from my house.
Best aspect of UVA’s MFA program: The size of the program was just right. We had enough writers to give a nice range of styles, but we didn’t have the big numbers that might make a program impersonal.
Best way to deal with rejection: Buy a paper shredder for the rejection letters. I think we all have to be nomadic in our approaches to publishing. If your work doesn’t find a home with a journal, publisher, agent or prize, then it’s time to move on to the next one.
Advice for aspiring writers: Fiction writers can look for additional lessons outside of their genre—plays, poetry, essays, film and photography—anything that has a narrative.
excerpt from Like Trees, Walking
July 14, 2003
Those of us already gathered along the beach check the wind. With matches cupped in our hands, we watch the smoke rise into the breeze that comes off the water. The conditions have to be right. The wind has to be blowing east. Rising tide and an overcast sky. Nights like these, when conditions are right along the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, the salt water from the gulf mixes with the fresh water from the rivers. The fish and blue crabs stop swimming then. Why it happens, I’m not exactly certain—something about the oxygen, the water temperature, and the currents no longer running true. The fish and the blue crabs are stunned, traumatized. At the place where the waters meet, they just float on the surface like they’re dead.
When the tide rises in the early-morning hours, the silver sides of the flounder shine as they wash up on the shore. The crabs collect in the soft sand just below the surface of the water. We wait for them here. Some gather them with scoop nets and stakes while others pick them up in their bare hands and carry them home in washtubs and baskets. Nights like these are called Jubilee.
At night, Mobile is brightened by the shipyard beacons and the battleship lights, but on this side of the bay it’s dark just like it should be. It took a few minutes for my eyes to get acclimated, but now I can see details in the darkness, the outlines that separate the water, the tree line, and the moonless sky. The only lights that connect the east and west shores are those scattered along the causeway and the ones on the bridge.
When my brother Paul and I were young, riding in the back of our father’s truck, we lay on our backs and counted them, 240 each way. Once we turned off Highway 98 and left the bright spread of the bridge lights, only a few dim lamp posts lit the waterside woods. There was more to hear than there was to see. The Edgewater Beach road was covered with oyster shells bleached by the salt water and sun, and the only sound I heard above the engine drone was the crush of our tires grinding the road shells into dust.
I make my way to the spot I like to claim, a rocky stretch at the south end where it’s never too crowded. As I walk farther down, it’s difficult to see who’s speaking as folks say hello when they pass. Some I recognize, others just know me through my family. Most people in Mobile either know us or know of us. Strangers would come up to me all the time saying that they remembered a kind word my father or my grandfather offered when burying their loved one. They had seen our family photo on the church fans parishioners waved on hot days, trying to cool down the humidity or the Holy Ghost. Among the black funeral homes in Mobile, ours is one of the oldest and considered among the best. In the picture, my grandfather, my parents, my brother, Paul, and I stand on the front steps of the funeral home. In black script beneath our feet—“Deacon Memorial: Seven Generations of Service.” In some of the old churches we work in, I still see those fans, creased and faded, with the same picture that still hangs on the wall in the mortuary office. It was the last picture we all took together. I was seventeen then.