Lauren Grodstein is the author of five novels, including the New York Times bestseller A Friend of the Family and the Washington Post Book of the Year The Explanation for Everything. Her most recent novel, Our Short History, published in 2017, has been listed in Oprah’s Top 20 Books and Flavorwire’s Book of the Month. She directs the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden and lives in New Jersey with her husband, son, and dog.
Robin Tung: What sets Rutger’s program apart from other MFAs?
Laura Grodstein: Well, since we’re decidedly multi-genre, we encourage students to experiment with other forms. Even students who think they’re only poets, or only fiction writers, have to at least try one workshop in a different genre, because we believe that poetry has something to teach prose writers, and that the skills of, say, nonfiction are quite applicable to other kinds of writing.
We also have a remarkable community: friendly, connected, driven but not competitive. I’ve never seen anything like it, and it feels almost miraculous how closely knit our community remains, year after year. Our students form these incredibly tight bonds – long after graduation I’ll see them on social media celebrating each other’s birthdays or visiting each other across the country and, of course, sharing writing with one another.
RT: What can writers expected to get out of the program at Rutgers?
LG: Students get so much: a lifelong community of writers and friends, an immersive experience in reading and writing, the opportunity to teach, the possibility of engaging the broader Camden community, the chance to meet the nationally recognized writers and publishing professionals who visit our campus regularly. They get a devoted, well-established faculty: we have three Guggenheim Fellows, a Pulitzer winner, and a New York Times bestseller on faculty. Students also get to live in or around Philadelphia, one of the most vibrant– and affordable!– cities on the East Coast.
RT: What courses do you teach?
LG: I myself teach fiction workshops and craft classes: Plot, mostly, but also Writing the Woman and Humor Writing. But we also offer classes as diverse as Point of View, Publishing and Editing, Music Writing, and The History of the Short Story.
RT: Are there stylistic or form leanings (traditional vs experimental, certain writers or texts taught at the program each year)?
LG: Not really. We’re a pretty diverse faculty, and we all share our separate reading and writing interests with our students. I know J.T. Barbarese, for instance, tilts toward classic American and European novels, while I tend to teach and admire contemporary American short stories. My college Patrick Rosal teaches an incredibly diverse roster of poetry and always has an eye out for writers who aren’t typically celebrated by the academy (at least not yet). We encourage students to find what they love, and to develop their own styles and evolve from there.
RT: How closely do faculty work with students?
LG: We work very closely indeed with our students, in workshops, in independent studies, and in advising them one-on-one as they write their theses.
RT: What are Rutger’s admissions rates: how many applied last year, and how many were accepted into each genre?
LG: We had, I believe, close to 300 applicants, and accepted 13 (with a robust waitlist): 5 poets, 5 fiction writers, and 3 CNF.
RT: What do you look for in a candidate when you’re reading through applications?
LG: We look for talent, potential for growth, seriousness, strong references, and a general sense that the candidate would fit in with our community. We also interview everyone we accept to see if they’d make good teachers, since all our students teach.
RT: What advice would you offer applicants?
LG: Work hard on that writing portfolio! Spend time on it, put it in a drawer, take it out, read it again. The portfolio is the thing we look at first, and it’s what we keep coming back to as we make our decisions, so please read it and read it again, and share it with the good editors in your life so that you can consider their input. Don’t just race through something last minute!
RT: Have you come across any application blunders–or what not to do in an application?
LG: The most common blunder is the unedited manuscript, but we’ve also gotten people who’ve sent in academic work or work aimed at children, neither of which we consider. But most people applying to MFA programs seem to know the deal: send in your best stuff, get references from people who know you well, and take the whole thing seriously.
RT: What is funding like for this or next year?
LG: We are happily fully-funded; all students receive tuition remission and either a teaching assistantship that pays around $26,000 and comes with a 2-1 composition teaching load, or an Interdisciplinary Fellowship that comes with a combined stipend and paycheck of approximately $22,000. This Interdisciplinary Fellowship matches students with professors across all the fields in the College to allow them to pursue their research interests as they write. Interdisciplinary Fellows also teach composition on a 1-1 load.
RT: What’s one piece of advice you’d offer an emerging writer?
LG: Get a day job. Seriously. It’s hard to write if you’re worried about paying the rent, and a day job forces you to create a schedule to write around. I never would have written my first novel if I hadn’t had a job that covered my expenses, and if I hadn’t learned the trick I still rely on: write first thing in the morning, while the coffee’s hot and your imagination is fresh.
RT: What are you working on now?
LG: Mostly essays. I published a new novel last month and have been in a sort of reflective, essay-writing mood.