Interview With Brooklyn College
Author: Jai Chakrabarti
Let’s start by talking about the culture at your program. What’s the location like? What are some local hangouts for writers?
I would describe the culture of the program as supportive and close-knit. The students in my year come from a variety of backgrounds, ethnicities, and age groups. The program director, Joshua Henkin, does a great job in bringing folks together, through parties at his house, Coney Island baseball outings, etcetera and, from early on, I felt that was part of a community of writers working towards the same goals.
Since the program is located in Brooklyn, NY, we have access to the multitude of literary events happening all over NYC. The craft talks, readings, and literary meetups that are part of NYC culture were a major reason for me to choose an MFA program in the city. BC MFA students tend to live mostly in Brooklyn, and many of us hang out at Franklin Park after workshops, and there are regular happy hours and a program reading series hosted at Sycamore in Ditmas Park.
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?
There’s a strong focus on many elements of craft in the program. I especially appreciated Joshua Henkin’s first year craft class, where we cover a diverse range of topics through an extensive short fiction reading list, as well as Ellen Tramper’s tutorial on the art of time in fiction. Each professor does have his or her own style, and, whether it’s for workshop or for the revisions or thesis tutorials (which are designed as classes where students study one-on-one with a faculty member), students are given permission to develop their own aesthetic.
A number of the regular faculty in the program place a great deal of emphasis on character development, and it’s something I’ve tried to get better at, deepening my relationship to my characters, asking the questions that place them more firmly in the world of the story.
What sort of funding opportunities are available? What are you teaching? How easy is it to balance your teaching and writing?
The program offer partial funding for some incoming students; there are also departmental awards that you can apply for each semester. Students who take a teaching methods elective offered in the spring of the first year are eligible to start teaching in the second year of the program.
I chose not to teach and instead took a graduate history elective that was pertinent to the subject matter of my novel. What I’ve heard from other students who have taught is that can be challenging to balance teaching with writing, but that it’s great preparation for folks who want to go into teaching post-MFA.
What’s been your best memory of working with faculty?
The BC program is unique in that it offers a novel workshop, where students can bring in 150 pages of a novel draft twice in the semester. Ernesto Mestre usually teaches this course, and he’s a wonderful instructor who’s able to get to the heart of a story while encouraging students to keep making progress. We met outside of class during the semester and then, incredibly generously, he re-read my novel over the summer and took a great deal of time to go over his feedback with me. That interaction was vital to seeing important patterns in the novel, realizing what its strengths were, and then figuring out a roadmap for revisions.
Many of the students in my year will tell you a similar story about their own experiences with faculty, and I think this is what makes BC stand out. The professors treat your work with great respect, and you get a lot of personal attention.
What’s been your greatest struggle in graduate school thus far? How has this program shaped your view of craft?
I’ll have to stick with the writing of a novel draft. During the writing process, I experienced every emotion from despair to elation! Still, it feels great to have a draft to work with, though the process is far from complete.
As to how the program has shaped my view of craft, I think workshop has certainly made me a better reader, both of my own work as well as that of others. These days, I think a lot more about craft subjects like narrative structure, and while I try to leave the internal editor behind during the writing of a first draft, there’s always an aspect of learned intuition that comes into play. I also feel that my view of craft has broadened; I’ve been exposed to writers I hadn’t read before, and so my ideas of what are possible in fiction have expanded. While I was applying to grad schools, my fear was that I’d come out writing the same story as everyone else in the program, and I can now say that the work fellow students are bringing into workshop continue to be as diverse as their voices and interests.
What’s your next step? What sort of steps does your program take to prepare you for your post-graduate experience?
I plan to keep working on my novel, and, as I have time, revising some of the short stories I wrote in workshop and sending them out.
For those folks working towards publication, the BC program connects students with agents and editors in the city, through panels and one-on-one meetings. There is also the option of teaching a full course load after graduation. Aside from that, I think the most important thing is that you leave having built relationships to your peers, to a crew of folks who are good readers of your work.
What tips would you give a prospective student who is considering attending your program?
For those students who are coming from out of state, the first decision is really the question of location. NYC is expensive (Brooklyn somewhat less so), exciting, and full of great culture and literary events, but it’s not for everyone—so the question of where you want to live is a big question to answer.
Secondly, I would encourage them to contact current or past students, and, if possible, to sit in on a workshop. I was admitted to a few different programs in the city, but the workshop experience at BC stood out in terms of the range of the conversation, the quality of the student work, and the depth and insightfulness of the written critiques.