Jason Brown has published two books of short stories, Driving the Heart and Other Stories (Norton/Random House) and Why the Devil Chose New England For His Work (Open City/Grove Atlantic). He has been a former Stegner Fellow and Truman Capote Fellow at Stanford University. His stories have won several awards and appeared in Best American Short Stories, The Atlantic, Harper’s, TriQuarterly and other magazines and anthologies. Several of his stories have been performed as part of NPR’s Selected Shorts, and his collection Why The Devil Chose New England For His Work was chosen as a summer reading pick by National Public Radio. He is currently an associate professor at University of Oregon.
Robin Tung: What sets Oregon apart from other programs?
Jason Brown: We have a small program. We only admit five people in each genre a year. We have three professors for each genre. Other programs have a similar student/teacher ratio, but here at UO we spend a lot of time with our students. During the first year, students work one on one with a different professor each term during a tutorial. In the second year, they work one on one for the whole year to work on their thesis. Few programs offer our level of individual attention.
RT: Does UO’s program lean toward a certain style of writing?
JB: I would say we are primarily a realist program. Having said that, I also appreciate and teach a wide variety of American and international literature.
RT: How would you define “good writing”?
JB: Good writing is hard to define. In the end it is clearly subjective. Some of the writers we embrace (through awards, etc) I love, and some of the writers we embrace make me scratch my head. In almost all cases, though, the books that win major awards and are lauded in the press are written well on a basic level. On a surface level, I think there is broad agreement about good sentences. After that, most of what we think of as good becomes subjective. People would say I am a traditionalist because I think good stories are based in character (most of the time). I would include Chekhov, Sebald, and Virginia Woolf among the many writers who privilege character. Obviously, Woolf and Sebald are distinct stylists, but in the end their stories are about the mystery and struggle of human experience. The engine of this kind of fiction is empathy
What I do not appreciate as much in contemporary fiction: thinly disguised allegory, clever language tricks designed to serve as advertisements for the writer’s skill, and cultural satire (story as op ed essay).
We live in a cultural driven by empty narcissism. Quite often you see this reflected in fiction, even (or especially) when the fiction purports to criticize this very problem.
RT: What is funding like for this or next year?
JB: At the moment we offer 18K a year for two years. All students teaching one section of creative writing in their genre during their first year. During their second year, they teach one section of composition each term.
RT: How many students apply each year, and how many are accepted?
JB: We have 700-800 applicants each year, and we accept five in each genre.
RT: How are alumni faring post-MFA?
JB: Our MFAs are doing very well. Most recently, Kirstin Valdez Quade’s book came out (New Yorker, National Book Foundation Award).
RT: What advice do you have for new writers?
JB: I have rather basic advice.Write the kind of stories you would want to read. Surprise yourself. Work hard at it.
RT: What’s your writing process like?
JB: For me the writing process is very slow. My process reflects my philosophy, which is that writing as an art is a calling, not a career. If I have something to say, I try to say it just right no matter how long it takes. When I run out of things to say, I will stop. I believe Richard Ford said that people write too much. I believe this is true. I want to read writing that is deeply felt, deeply considered. Books like Robinson’s Gilead. Those books don’t come around very often, and I suspect that even great writers like Robinson can only write a few of those books in a lifetime. I don’t think I can write a book as beautiful as Gilead, but my only goal in writing is to come as close as I can.