Interview with Jennifer Davis of Louisiana State University

jennifer davis, lsuJennifer S. Davis is an Assistant Professor at Louisiana State University specializing in short fiction. She has published two collections of short stories, Her Kind of Want, winner of the Iowa Award for Short Fiction, and Our Former Lives in Art, which was published by Random House and chosen as a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her short stories have been published in such journals as TheParis Review, The Georgia Review, One Story, The Oxford American, Epoch, and The American Scholar, and in the anthology This Is Not Chick Lit. She is the recipient of the Reynold’s Price Short Fiction Award, the Julia Peterkin Award, a Washington Arts Council Fellowship, and a Djerassi Residency. Her novel-in-progress was recently selected as runner-up in the James Jones First Novel Fellowship competition.

Robin Tung: What sets LSU’s program apart from other programs?

Jennifer S. Davis: LSU’s program is small and intimate. We admit about seven students per yer. The small size affords students greater access to opportunities in leadership roles. Students run the Delta Mouth Literary Festival, edit the New Delta Review, serve as interns on the Southern Review, assist in curating our reading and lecture series, Readers & Writers, run their own reading series, The Underpass, and hold a variety of other meaningful positions in the department and program.

With such a small program, students really have a chance to shape their graduate experience. We have faculty in playwriting, screenwriting, digital film (Jason Buch taught a phenomenal graduate workshop in video game writing and design this spring), prose, poetry, and starting next year, creative non-fiction with the addition of the amazing Joshua Wheeler.

All of our students are funded for three years, and graduate teaching assistants are required to teach only one class per semester. Almost all students get the chance to teach in their genre. We not only allow cross-genre and hybrid work, we actively encourage it; students take workshops outside of their genre. And finally, Louisiana has a unique and fascinating culture. It’s a fabulous place for a writer to explore.

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

JSD: Certainly, we all have our stylistic preferences, but our students are diverse in aesthetic and style. I think applicants sometimes sell themselves short by assuming a professor who writes a certain way wouldn’t like work that does something different. I admire work radically different from my own. I enjoy stretching myself as a teacher by engaging prose that challenges me. The students, from my experience, are encouraging and supportive of their peers, and I don’t see aesthetic-based cliques or artificial hierarchies of style/form in our program.

RT: What texts and authors did you teach this year?

Me (selected): Paul Yoon, Denis Johnson, Percival Everett, Edwidge Danticat, Jasmyn Ward, George Saunders, Lauren Groff, ZZ Packer, Scott Snyder, NoViolet Bulawayo, Denis Lehane, Hari Kunzru, Karen Russell, Josh Russell, Kevin Wilson, Mona Simpson, Cristina Henriquez, Tobias Wolff, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jennifer Egan, Danielle Evans, Ron Rash

Laura Mullen: Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives; Araki Yasusada, Doubled Flowering; Natasha Trethaway: Belloq’s Ophelia;Brenda Coultas, A Handmade Museum: Poems; M. NourbeSe Philip,Zong!; Sophie Calle: The Address Book; Forrest Gander: “A Life of Johnson Upside Your Head” from Lynchburg; Achille Mbembe, “The Power of the Archive and Its Limits” from Refiguring the Archive; Ian Baucom, “Liverpool: A Capital of the Long Twentieth Century” fromSpectres of the Atlantic; Ulrich Baer, “Deep in the Archive”; Michel-Rolph Trouillot, “Three Faces of Sans Souci” from Silencing the Past

RT: What do you look for in a candidate?

JSD: Personally, I look for someone who shows a delight for the work and a willingness to be part of the community. Sincerity, generosity, humor, and enthusiasm go a long way. As for the writing, that is harder to pin down. I admire work that surprises and unsettles me, has a clear sense of what it is trying to do, and a distinct voice.

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

JSD: Start early. Be extremely organized. Cast a wide net. Don’t fixate on rankings. Look for a well-funded program with a variety of professionalization opportunities, invested faculty, and a community that suits you. Many amazing programs are not as recognized as they should be. Don’t delve too deeply into the online MFA application discussion forums. They can make you crazy. Don’t take it personally if you don’t get accepted into a program the first try. There just aren’t enough slots for all the fine writers who apply. I know we are always stunned by how many excellent and accomplished writers apply each year.

RT: Have you come across any application blunders–or what not to do in an application?

JSD: I like to get to know a candidate’s life and personality in the letter of intent, but I would recommend against being too confessional. Sometimes the extremely intimate personal narratives overshadow the work. Mainly, make sure you have submitted the entirety of your application on time, make certain the work reflects who you are as a writer and not who you think we want you to be, and proofread your work carefully.

RT: What is funding like at LSU currently?

JSD: LSU supports every student admitted into the M.F.A. program.  Stipends for those entering with an M.A. or another M.F.A. are $17,000; for those entering with a B.A. or B.A., it is $16,500.

RT: What are your admissions rates: how many applied last year, and how many were accepted into each genre?

JSD: 159 fiction applications; 3 admitted = 1.89%. 66 poetry applications; 3 admitted = 4.55%.

RT: What are you working on now?

JSD: A sampling: I just finished a manuscript of linked short stories. I am working on a historical novel.

Mari Kornhauser is currently writing an untitled independent feature, researching a new TV series, and shopping an untitled TV series. (All have producers attached.)  She is also exploring short form narrative storytelling for mobile platforms.

Laura Mullen is proofing the galleys for her forthcoming book of prose: Complicated Grief. This is a hybrid text (nonfiction, fiction and prose poems) looking at love and the way that love is shaped by the stories and ideas about stories we inherit and inhabit. Solid Objects will publish the book in fall 2015. Mullen is also working on a collection of lyric poems and an essay on teaching Gertrude Stein. In late October she’ll be at Notre Dame to see the performance of her collaboration with composer Nathan Davis (a piece for chorus and percussion): a Sound uttered, a Silence crossed.

Femi Euba will be directing DISGRACED in the fall for the Swine Palace production company.

Jim Wilcox is working on a novel that juxtaposes different places and time periods in the same chapter. The lack of more normal narrative transitions will reveal, he hopes, a more intricate pattern of association and memory. The time periods stretch back to the 1960s and the places include Louisiana, New Haven, and New York.

Zachary Godshall is making a short documentary that will be part of a series of films that each address the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Zach’s film is about an 88-year old boat builder, his wife of 71 years, the huge oyster boat he’s been building for more than three decades, and how they have survived multiple hurricanes and floods in the marshes southeast of New Orleans.

RT: What advice do you have for new writers?

JSD: I’m going to steal from Faulkner here: “Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.” I don’t buy into the apprentice/master relationship. We are all life-long apprentices, and I am always learning from students. But the gist of the advice is pretty spot on: read and read voraciously.


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