Posted in Interviews

Interview with Daniel Mueller of University of New Mexico

daniel-mueller-new mexicoDaniel Mueller has authored two collections of short fiction, How Animals Mate (Overlook Press 1999), which won the Sewanee Fiction Prize, and Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey (Outpost 19 Books 2013).  His work has appeared in numerous journals, magazines, and anthologies, including The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Story, The Mississippi Review, and Playboy among others.  He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Massachusetts Cultural Council, Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Henfield Foundation, Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and University of Virginia. He serves as Director of the MFA program at the University of New Mexico.

Robin Tung: What sets UNM apart from other programs?

Daniel Mueller: One of the many things that sets UNM apart from MFA Programs of our size is our commitment to admitting only as many students as we can support financially and in one-to-one mentorships.  While first year MFA students are required to teach Freshman Composition (English 110 and 120), by the time they graduate all have taught at least two sections of Introduction to Creative Writing (English 224) and many have extensive teaching portfolios that include sections of Technical Writing (English 219), Expository Writing (English 220), and Literary Analysis for Non-Majors (English 150), giving our graduates a leg up when applying for university teaching positions.

Our MFA students run UNM’s nationally recognized literary journal, Blue Mesa Review, and serve as interns at the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference, which USA Today called “one of the ten best writers’ conferences in the nation.”

For as long as I’ve taught at UNM–I’m going on my fifteenth year–our MFA students have been part of a self-supporting, tightly knit writing community that pre-existed my arrival and will likely outlast the faculty of any era.

I would be remiss not to mention the region our program calls home.  Albuquerque, New Mexico, lies in the Rio Grande Valley with the Sandia Crest towering over it to the east.  In addition to providing a socially and culturally rich and diverse writing environment, the city is surrounded by National Forest, filled with municipal parks and “open spaces,” and home to an ever-expanding, interconnected system of bike paths.  The city is also home to a burgeoning microbrew industry.  

RT: What is funding like for this or next year?

DM: Teaching Assistantships are our predominate, virtually sole, means of financial aid, and because our program is committed to not admitting more students than we can support, in the past several years we’ve admitted between 6 and 9 MFA students distributed between the three genres of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction.

This year we’ve admitted six, five with TAships and one who doesn’t want or need one.  Next year, due to the number of students graduating, we’ll likely admit more.  TAships, which require students to teach a 2/2 load and are guaranteed for the six semesters it takes most students to complete the MFA Program’s 54-credit hour course of study, include a stipend of roughly $7.5K per semester and a tuition remission.  A few GAships are also available to MFA students once they’re in our program.

RT: What are UNM’s admissions rates?

DM: This year we received just over one hundred applications in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction and admitted six, two in each genre.  Because we are so small, we are also extremely competitive.

RT: What, to you, makes a candidate stand out in the application process?

DM: In my experience, what makes a prospective student stand out most are the uniqueness of his or her voice and vision, observable not only in the writing sample of poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction but in the letter of intent, and the promise of eventual mastery of formal elements.

RT: What advice would you offer applicants during the application process?

DM: My advice to prospective students isn’t profound: apply to as many MFA programs as you can afford to, personalize your letters of intent, and in your writing sample and letter of intent showcase your promise.  These two documents–the writing sample and letter of intent–are the most important elements of your application.

RT: Are there stylistic or form leanings (traditional vs experimental, certain writers or texts taught each year)?

DM: UNM’s MFA Program isn’t governed by an overriding aesthetic.  All of us on the creative writing faculty are committed to building upon each student’s strengths and helping him or her to cultivate positive writing habits and to realize more of the potential of each piece.  While no teacher is without his or her particular tastes or predilections, our faculty is committed as much as possible to responding to each piece of student work on its own terms.

RT: How closely do faculty work with students?

DM: Graduate workshops in all three genres cap at 12.  In an MFA student’s final two semesters, he or she works intensively with the faculty member he or she has chosen as his or her dissertation director.

Additionally, two more in-house faculty members and one outside faculty member serve on his or her dissertation committee, reading and critiquing the finished dissertation, a publishable, book-length work of contemporary literature that is celebrated at a formal defense in the student’s final semester.  Because our program is small, we are able to provide quality mentoring.

RTWhat is your own writing process like? What advice do you have for new writers?

DM: My writing process is a cocktail: sometimes consisting of two parts forward movement and one part revision, at other times one part forward movement and two parts revision.  My advice to new writers: don’t let anyone or anything deter you; and if you’re called to this life, you won’t be deterred, and probably can’t be.

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