Danielle Dutton’s fiction has appeared in magazines such as Harper’s, BOMB, Fence, and Noon. She is the author of Attempts at a Life, SPRAW L, and the novel Margaret the First. In 2010, she founded the small press Dorothy, a publishing project. She teaches at Washington University in St. Louis
Robin Tung: How did you begin work on your new novel? What was the start of it like, what sparked your curiosity, and how did you prepare to work on the novel?
Danielle Dutton: My most recent novel, Margaret the First, is about an eccentric seventeenth-century writer and aristocrat named Margaret Cavendish. I first came across Cavendish in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, in which Woolf writes: “What a vision of loneliness and riot the thought of Margaret Cavendish brings to mind! as if some giant cucumber had spread itself all over the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death.”
Who could read this amazing description and not want to know more? As it happens, the more I learned—that she designed her own gowns and once went topless to the theatre in London; that she was the first woman ever invited to the Royal Society of London, and the last for another two hundred years—the more I wanted to know who she was beyond the “crack-brained” caricature Woolf paints.
I was also always interested in the world in which Cavendish lived, from the food to the politics, from the earliest experiments with microscopes to seventeenth-century garden design. So I read and read and wrote and wrote, read some more, kept writing, and on and on it went for years until the book was done.
RT: You’ve said in an interview with BOMB that you “have a desire to investigate female lives. . . to press against repression or restriction, or even narrative itself, to press against whatever is holding that life too tightly.” This is visible both in the subjects and forms that you choose to write about and in. Some young writers naturally find themselves doing “experimental writing” but may be afraid to submit these types of work to MFA programs. What advice do you have for writers working outside conventional forms?
DD: Making art that interests you just seems sane. What else could you do? Like any writer, of course, I have certain forms and questions that interest me, that I return to, and yet like any writer my work has also evolved and changed over time. I would encourage a young writer to be curious, fascinated, to follow her passions. That’s what each of us has to offer, and there’s really no other reason to be doing this.
RT: You teach courses such as Literature of Obsession and The Irregularity of Form. What are some texts you’ve assigned in these courses?
DD: In every class I aim for a diversity of texts. I can never know what book or writer will prove important or generative for a student, and so I want options, I want us talking about all sorts of ideas and possibilities.
In the Obsession class we read some canonical texts, such as Frankenstein and Lolita, and we read lesser-known but wonderful books like the novel Annihilation by Polish writer Piotr Szewc. We also talked about artists like Werner Herzog, Joseph Cornell, Cindy Sherman, etc.
In the class on Form, we read novels—Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Madeleine Is Sleeping—alongside work by Renee Gladman, Bhanu Kapil, Patrik Ouředník, Diane Williams, etc. This class too incorporated visual art; in particular we spent time with Tom Phillips’s A Humument and Denis Wood’s book of radical cartography Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas.
RT: How do you approach teaching writers to write their first books in your class First Books Inside/Out?
DD: Actually our focus in that course was not so much on the first books my students might have been in the process of writing, but on recently published first books and how they came to be. I chose about ten first books and we read and talked about them and also about how each had been published, designed, marketed, and received. I interviewed each writer we studied, and was even able to bring two writers and editors to visit the class. Through this we learned what challenges the writers had faced, what surprises they’d encountered, what they wish they’d known beforehand, and about how the publishing industry works (and doesn’t work) for different sorts of first time writers. I didn’t think of this class as a practicum on how to get published so much as an opportunity to expose my students to many different aspects of the literary world.
RT: What insight or advice would you offer for those starting work on their first novels?
DD: Be patient: it might come quickly and it might not.
RT: What do you look for in MFA applicants?
DD: We look for talented and smart and adventurous writers. We hope to find people who will be engaged in their classes and dedicated to their work, people who will be good citizens of the program, who will show up for themselves and for their peers.
We offer a small, intimate program—accepting only five students in fiction each year—and we like to try to choose different sorts of writers to be here together. So we put time into trying to figure out not just which individual writers we want but which ones, together, will make for an interesting group, a group of writers who will hopefully support and challenge and compliment one another.
RT: What advice would you offer applicants during the application process?
DD: I would recommend not leaving everything to the last minute. I would also recommend submitting two (or more) shorter pieces rather than only one long story; when we get only one story it’s harder for us to have a sense of what you can do.
RT: In what ways do writers benefit from the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis?
DD: Well, I’ll tell you what I’ve seen over the years. To begin with, the fact that the program is fully funded means that our students really have time to work. Without fail, over their two or three years here, I have seen my students grow as readers and writers. I know that coming to the program has wound up being a pivotal time of change in most of their lives. I have seen real and lasting friendships flourish within the fiction cohort and also between students on the different tracks, and I know how important these friends can be post grad school, friends who know you and your work.
I have seen our students publish stories (or poems, or essays) while here. Some of them have left signed with an agent, and some have published books within only a few years of graduation—good books, good books published well.
And I haven’t even mentioned my wonderful colleagues, or our visiting readers series, or the animatronic Ben Franklin in the basement of the campus art museum. Basically, this is a place you can come to read and write for two years, fully funded, surrounded by a bunch of other people who also love to read and write and talk (with unabashed excitement) about all sorts of books. I can’t speak for all of my students, of course, but to my mind the benefits of being here are clear.