James Livingood, Associate Director of the University of Virginia MFA Program in Creative Writing, has published essays and fiction in Best New American Voices 2001, Yemassee, C-Ville, The Texas Review, andThe Hollins Critic. He serves as the faculty advisor for Meridian, the semiannual literary magazine founded and edited by students in the MFA Program. He is also a commander in the Coast Guard Reserve.
Robin Tung: What do you think sets Virginia’s MFA program apart from others?
James Livingood: We’re small and all our students are fully funded at the same level. We think this fosters collegiality and peer support: once accepted to our program, no one has to compete for funding.
RT: What does the committee look for in a candidate?
JL: More than anything, we’re looking for someone who has taken the time and effort to develop themselves into a serious, beginning artist, and specifically, an artist who would benefit from two years in the UVA MFA Program. A faculty member once said something along these lines: “We’re not looking for perfect, publishable work, but we are looking for interesting mistakes.”
RT: Does the program have certain stylistic leanings?
JL: Our fiction writers tend to be realists, and our poets tend toward traditional free verse. But the faculty is open to all sorts of different styles, subject matter, and techniques. There is no single way to write well. It really comes down to whether the faculty believe your writing would benefit from their influence. We’re not a hugely experimental program, and we have had to say no to writers who were clearly good with words but whose work was so markedly different from the faculty’s that there was little the writer could gain from being here.
RT: How closely do faculty work with students, and will any faculty be incoming or leaving in the next year?
JL: We only take five poets and five fiction writers each year, so our workshops, which have both first-year and second-year students in them, have only ten MFA candidates and one instructor. That’s a small class, and that same intimacy generally extends to office hours and social events. Our website lists all our current faculty and we anticipate no changes in the coming year.
RT: What are alumni doing post-graduation?
JL: Like in most MFA programs, our alumni find all sorts of work after graduation. We’ve had many secure teaching jobs at colleges and universities, while others pursue fellowships to continue work on their first books, and many go back to jobs that have little to do with creative writing. Our MFA books page can give a sense of how many of our recent graduates are now in print. Many MFA programs tell you to read the work of their faculty prior to applying. We suggest [students] read the work of recent graduates.