Wendy Rawlings is the author of the novel The Agnostics, which won the Michigan Literary Award from the University of Michigan Press, and a collection of stories Come Back Irish, which won the 2000 Sandstone Prize for Short Fiction and was published in December 2001 by Ohio State University Press. She is the recipient of residency fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Yaddo, and Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. Rawlings’ teaching interests include: form and theory of fiction, short fiction by women, narrative voice in the American short story, and the comic novel. She is Director of the MFA program at University of Alabama.
Robin Tung: What does the admissions committee look for in a candidate?
Wendy Rawlings: We look for writers who are trying interesting things and taking risks. A risk might be an experiment with form, the use of an unusual voice or point of view, an interesting way of beginning or ending a story — things that show the writer is alive to and interested in what she or he is doing. We also try to discern whether or not the candidate is community-minded. We like candidates who don’t just want to improve their writing, but who want to be part of a writing/arts community.
RT: Are there recurring themes, emphases, or texts taught in the MFA program?
WR: We really try to be as eclectic as possible, in order to give students a wide range of things to read and write. Faculty are encouraged to develop new courses on a regular basis. In recent years we’ve had a lot of interest in courses such as “The Uses of History,” in which students read and write creative pieces that engage directly with historical events. Another colleague teaches a course in which students collaborate with each other and students in dance, art, and theater to produce creative pieces.
RT: How closely do faculty work with students, and will any faculty be incoming or leaving in the next year?
RW: All of our faculty are “boots on the ground” faculty. We all at least teach one graduate course every semester and we all direct theses and serve on thesis committees. Two of our faculty (Dave Madden and Peter Streckfus) left this year and we plan to hire replacements for them ASAP.
RT: What do you think is unique or sets Alabama’s MFA program apart from others?
RW: My colleagues and I often liken Alabama’s program to a hothouse or a Montessori school. Our method is to get a bunch of creative people in one place and then offer them lots of things to stimulate their creativity. Our program requirements are very flexible, so students can take workshops in a variety of genres as well as literature courses and forms courses (forms courses are focused on a topic or form, such as Comedy or The Graphic Novel or Writing about Place, and engage students by having them read texts related to the topic/form and then respond with creative rather than critical projects). But students can also take courses in other departments, such as Book Arts or Dance. And/or they can intern with the Black Warrior Review. They can teach creative writing to undergraduates. They can teach creative writing in an Alabama Prison! There are a huge number of experiences a student can choose to have (or not), and each strengthens his or her writing in a different way.
RT: How are alumni doing post-graduation?
RW: Some of our students teach at colleges or high schools. Others write for television or do freelance writing. Others get jobs as magazine editors or in arts administration. I know others who are writing full-time by getting gigs as young adult novelists or genre writers. Still others go on to law school and become lawyers!