Interview with Marla Akin, Michener Center

Marla Akin is Senior Program Coordinator at the James A. Michener Center at the University of Texas, Austin. She has been with the MFA program “since God was in kneepants” or 1988, respectively.

Robin Tung: What sets the Michener Center program apart from other programs?

Marla Akin: The financial support and the chance to work across genres set us apart.  The fellowship is $27,500 a year for three years; tuition and fees are entirely paid, and about $6,000 in project or summer support is also available.  Students apply and work in a main genre, then have to take a couple of courses in a second genre–both chosen from fiction, poetry, playwriting and screenwriting.  It’s produced some interesting cross-fertilizations.  Some students come in prepared to just get the basic requirements out of  the way in that second field—they aren’t deeply invested in it—and they’re surprised by what those workshops outside their comfort zone provoke.  We’ve got about six fiction grads in Los Angeles right now pursuing writing for TV and film.  Playwrights have turned into novelists.  Strange things happen.

RT: How closely do faculty work with students?  Are any faculty leaving or incoming in the next two years?

MA: Resident faculty and visiting writers all teach workshops, which of course can be very intimate encounters.  The resident faculty then work in conference courses and in very close thesis supervision with students, and we’ve even had some visiting faculty go on to supervise theses long-distance.  While it’s not contractually part of their deal with us, it’s been amazing the dedication and mentorship some visitors have shown to our students, helping then find agents, reading revisions, blurbing the finished books.

RT: What does the committee look for in a candidate?

MA: Good writing.  No GRE score or letter of reference will seal the deal.  In terms of what we look for in the writing, it’s something fresh, but not necessarily novel—God spare us simple novelty.  Willa Cather said there are only two or three stories that go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they’d never happened before.  Maybe what we’re looking for is in that fierceness.

RT: What advice would you give applicants?

MA: First, to read the instructions and meet the deadline; we get too many applications to fuss over the strays.  Worry less about scores and missing references and more about polishing that writing sample, and always submit work that’s had other eyes on it, professional or at least peer level feedback.

RT: What are some sample classes taught by faculty?

MA: Peter LaSalle might be teaching Borges, while Colm Toibin has taught a whole course on George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda.  Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s seminar on poetics of the novel ran the gamut from Kobo Abe to Eudora Welty.

RT: How are graduates of the program faring?

MA: Check out our website–the “student achievements” section is staggering.  Right now we’re putting finishing touches on an annual newsletter article that features the 17 (that’s right, seventeen) books published or sold just since last September’s newsletter.


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