Interview With University of North Carolina Wilmington

Author: Ana Cristina Alvarez

Let’s start by talking about the culture at your program. What’s the location like? What are some local hangouts for writers?

Wilmington is a study of paradoxes. You’ve got the beach culture (our school has an excellent surfing team!), a tattoo-parlor-on-every-downtown-corner-as-if-they-were-Starbucks, the tourist culture where you can’t walk downtown without seeing horse-drawn trolleys pass by your house while the riders taking a picture of you or your place of residence, the bar scene, the lively farmer’s market, the music lounge that doubles as a laundromat, the omnipresence of post-grunge 90s music, the Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill fans, and the occasional run-ins with Robert Downey Jr. or Hilary Swank or whomever happens to be filming a movie or TV series in town. Sometimes you feel like you’ve been thrown inside a Flannery O’Connor short story. It’s a great source of inspiration for absurdist fiction writers, honestly.

Most of the writers here tend to gravitate toward the bars and coffee houses such as Lula’s, Blue Post, Costello’s, The Husk, The Opera Room, Five Star Tavern, in addition to Port City Java, Bella’s, and Java Dog (where you and your four-legged pal can hang out after a day on the Riverwalk). We have several student readings throughout the year which are held at various locations downtown, and the public is always invited. We also go to Browncoat, which is a karaoke bar. It’s a great way to have fun and break out of your shell, especially when you’ve got a huge crowd of MFA’ers supporting you through your terrible rendition of Green Day’s Basketcase (I say this from experience).

Tell us about your experience in class. What’s the focus of your workshops? What parts of your writing have you put the most focus on?

My experience has been really neat thus far. It’s a wonderful experience to be surrounded by so many perceptive, intelligent writers, and I’ve received critical and extremely helpful feedback. One of the great things about the MFA program here is the emphasis on taking out of genre classes, so I’ve taken a nonfiction and poetry workshop as well. The focus is always to be clear, to chip away at a work by concentrating on scene. I’d say I’ve put most of my focus on writing scenes… and endings. Endings are tricky.

What sort of funding opportunities are available? What are you teaching? How easy is it to balance your teaching and writing?

There are Teaching Assistant opportunities, Publishing Lab opportunities, etc. Lavonne Adams does her best to make funding available, as does our very creative GSA, led by poets Anna Sutton and Sally J. Johnson. Granted, funding can be difficult in this era, but there are scholarships and GTA opportunities that Lavonne and Lisa Bertini email. Right now I’m teaching a CRW 201 class and will teach an undergrad Bookbuilding class next year (teaching undergrads how to create their own chapbooks, learn about typography, etc. I’m really excited!). I think it’s always helpful to be reminded of the fundamentals, like when I’m teaching students to create more conflict, to throw more challenges at the protagonist, that I have to remember the same with my writing, and that writing isn’t all about spewing artistic bells and whistles at the reader. Sometimes I have to become a hermit and spend a weekend planning ahead or catching up, but it’s also kind of fun, too. I don’t know. I’m kind of nerdy that way.

What’s been your best memory of working with faculty?

Wow. Um, I don’t know if I can categorize my experience into a functional hierarchy. I have several moments of awesome. Learning about typography with Emily Smith, Robert Siegel’s Freytag drawings and “Where’s the scene?!?!” exclamations, Wendy Brenner’s quirky humor, Bekki Lee’s conscientious and brilliant memoir class. Et cetera, et cetera…

What’s been your greatest struggle in graduate school thus far? How has this program shaped your view of craft?

Definitely taking on too much. I encourage everyone to try as much as possible, to challenge yourself and make your MFA experience count and to be gutsy. But be sensible and try not to drive yourself crazy. Also, coming to grips with confidence. It’s been such a change to go from thirty-plus years of no confidence at all with writing to being in an environment where everyone is so nurturing and encouraging of your craft. I feel more extroverted now in regards to sharing work and not feeling guilty about telling someone I have to miss plans because that’s my writing time. Cherish your writing time and guard it, man. It’s the only way you’re gonna get better.

What’s your next step? What sort of steps does your program take to prepare you for your post-graduate experience?

I really didn’t want to think about this until my last year, but I guess now’s as good a time as any, right? Probably publishing, any sort of design. I would love to continue working with design. I’d be happy going back to Durham, NC and returning to work at my previous job at an indie bookstore. Maybe at a letterpress. Anything creative. As long as I have time to write.

I know there are email postings about job opportunities, but again, I haven’t looked into this too much since I’ve only started my second year (out of three years). The professors here are always more than willing to help us out, so that’s cool.

What tips would you give a prospective student who is considering attending your program?

Visit! Check out the campus, the Pub Lab, Downtown Wilmington, the beaches, the islands, but most importantly, see if you can write here. If you can go somewhere and feel as though you could write all day, then that’s all that matters. That’s why we’re here.