J. Robert Lennon is the author of a story collection, Pieces For The Left Hand, and seven novels, including Mailman, Castle, and Familiar. He holds an MFA from the University of Montana, and has published short fiction in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Playboy, Granta, The Paris Review, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, and The London Review of Books. He teaches at Cornell.
Robin Tung: What does the review committee look for in an applicant?
J. Robert Lennon: Evidence of an unusual mind. Most of the students we admit don’t seem to care what we think of them—they are just doing what they do, well. It doesn’t have to be polished, it just has to read like something only that writer could have done.
RT: Does the program have certain stylistic leanings?
JRL: Students ought to read the faculty’s writing to see what kind of thing we produce—but our students are all over the map, and we encourage stylistic and other kinds of experimentation in our workshops.
RT: How closely do faculty work with students?
JRL: Depends on the faculty member, but our program is very small and intimate, and most faculty make themselves regularly available.
RT: Does the program help support students in any special way? For instance, are agents or editors brought in to give talks?
JRL: Yes, we have a “Shop Talk” event every year, featuring literary agents, editors, and other people in the literary business. It’s part of the Barbara and David Zalaznick Reading Series, which also brings a half dozen writers to campus for readings every year. Every other year the Zalaznick Series also funds a visiting writer for a semester. Recent readers include Salman Rushdie, Seamus Heaney, Margaret Atwood, Paul Muldoon, Jonathan Franzen, and Edwidge Danticat; visiting teachers over the past half decade have been Denis Johnson, Mark Doty, Stewart O’Nan, and, this coming year, poet Cynthia Hogue.
RT: While the exact stipend amount for students isn’t public, can you give a range of what students receive?
JRL: It changes slightly from year to year, but it’s a living wage—between $24,000 and $25,000 annually, at the moment.
RT: What are alumni doing post-graduation?
JRL: We offer the chance to apply for two additional years at Cornell as lecturers in English; most students stick around for both of those years. At that point we hope that they will have begun their publishing careers; some of them enter academia.