Chats With Contributors: Christine Kendall
Written by: Katya Cummins

I’m pleased to welcome Christine Kendall to Niche  Features. I want to take this opportunity to thank her again for conducting an interview about her micro, “Finishing Up” which has appeared in the latest issue of Niche.

NICHE: Could you tell us a little bit about how you began writing?

CHRISTINE KENDALL: I was raised in a family of artists where I was surrounded by a lot of creative energy so I began writing as a child. I have a very active imagination and stories have always been in my head even though there was a long period of time when I didn’t commit them to paper or otherwise record them. Then, about ten years ago I started spending a lot of time in nature and that inspired me to write the stories down again. Maybe it was the peacefulness that gave me the space in which to write. At any rate, I’m fortunate  to now  have the luxury of writing full-time.

NICHE: Short form writing, such as micros, flash fiction and flash nonfiction, has risen in the literary community as a viable art form. Most micros straddle the line between poetry and prose-poetry. Your micro, “Finishing Up,” however, takes after the realist tradition, which some might now call “irregular.” Can you talk a little bit about how you go about spotting a story or condensing a narrative story?

CHRISTINE KENDALL: “Finishing Up” was originally a short story, but it wasn’t a very good one. It was clogged with too many characters and an awful lot of backstory. I’d lost my way with it until I decided to focus on brevity. Brevity of form and language. I cut everything away except the one crucial scene where each of the three central characters are revealed. That approach worked for me with this story but its not my only way into a piece of very short fiction. My stories are almost always character driven and sometimes I just want to paint a picture of a character in one specific moment and that’s how the piece comes into being.

NICHE: What attracts you to short-form writing? Do you like it better than writing longer short stories? That is, how is the process of writing a micros and short stories differ? Do you find one former easier or harder than the other? 

CHRISTINE KENDALL:  I’ve always been attracted to short-form writing particularly children’s picture books. I studied and tried to write them before I moved on to longer forms. Picture books are very difficult because, besides having word count limitations, you have to move the story forward without replicating what is going to be shown in the illustrations. I think struggling with picture books was good preparation for writing flash fiction where economy of words is the key. I’ve discovered that I also like to write novels but that is an entirely different writing experience. With novels you have much more time and space in which to unfold the story. All forms are fun to write and they all present a unique set of challenges so I can’t say that any one form is any easier than another.

NICHE: I know readers would be interested in hearing about the Bread Loaf Writing Conference.  What can you tell readers about your experiences there? Who did you get to work with? Was the experience beneficial?

CHRISTINE KENDALL: Attending the Bread Loaf Writers Conference was a magical experience. It was totally immersive and a bit overwhelming—ten days of eating, sleeping, drinking writing. I had the opportunity to study with the wonderful Margot Livesey who may be best known for her novels, but she’s also written short stories and essays. I was there in 2014 and most of the other participants were much more experienced writers. For instance, there were several creative writing instructors in my fiction workshop and that ended up being extremely beneficial for me. The level of writing was so high that I learned something from every single person I met as well as from the workshop leader.

NICHE: What can you tell us about the novel and the collection of short stories that you’re working on now?

CHRISTINE KENDALL: Scholastic is publishing my debut novel, Riding Chance, in the fall of 2016. It’s a coming-of-age story about an urban teen’s redemption through horses and the game of polo. It was inspired by a real mentoring program in Philadelphia that gives kids an opportunity to work with horses and play the game. I’m also working on a collection of linked short stories and, of course, I’m still struggling with my picture books..

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Christine Kendall is a writer living in Philadelphia. She has attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and studied children’s literature at the Southampton Writers’ Conference. Christine was named a semi-finalist in the 2014 River Styx Micro-Fiction Contest. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories.

PhD Spotlight: University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers
Written by: Niche Lit Magazine

Interviewed by Dustin Shattuck

He is one of the smartest readers and writers I’ve had the privilege to share a workshop with. Todd Gray was in his final year of the MFA at McNeese State when I moved to the heel of the Louisiana boot to start my first. It was clear that he had a good sense of measure as well as humor–I say lovingly that he reminds me of a cross between Hunter Thompson and Bob Hope. Since moving across the state line and becoming a PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi, Todd has continued to be a valuable voice and good friend. When asked if he was willing to talk about USM and his personal experiences for Niche’s MFA Spotlight, he immediately and graciously agreed to this interview, which took place in December 2015 and January 2016, by email. 

DUSTIN SHATTUCK: Tell us some about your journey to this point. I know you were a voracious reader as a kid, but what made you want to write your own stories? Why did you choose to go into an MFA and then a PhD with a Creative Writing emphasis?

TODD GRAY: You know I always had an active imagination and I think that was the draw originally, the way stories capture the imagination. It’s a pretty natural progression, I think, from audience to storyteller. We’re always making up stories as kids, maybe I never outgrew that—I don’t know. For me there’s an innate, irrepressible desire to perform the storyteller function. I make up stories, provide narratives, for everything around me in some way, whether it’s about the toad I happen upon one night while walking my dog or about the man I see buying bullets at Walmart. I guess a lot of it is asking questions about your surroundings, trying to figure that out.

I was told once by Steven Barthelme, and I’m butchering the eloquence of his statement by paraphrasing, that to be a writer you have to be enamored with the world. When that was said to me, after a lengthy story about observing a box turtle to illustrate the point, I wasn’t so sure what to make of it. His point makes a hell of a lot of sense now. A lot of fiction seems to be looking for answers, though not necessarily always the “right” answer, but an answer just the same. Fiction thinking it has the answer isn’t ever that interesting to me.

In short, despite how new-agey this sounds, I think I ended up pursuing an MFA and continuing on to a PhD because I was looking for an answer to my own life. I wasn’t happy doing what I was doing at the time and had always wanted to write, so I thought I might as well try and do what I want. You might as well, you’re only going to get one shot at it. With that view, failing at what I loved seemed better than never giving myself the opportunity to try and succeed at it.

DUSTIN SHATTUCK: What sticks out most to you as the biggest differences between a MFA and PhD?

TODD GRAY: I think differences are going to vary depending on where a person does their MFA and PhD. Though I think it’s safe to say a universal of the grad school experience is being asked to wear a lot of different hats—student, teacher, writer—and that balancing act came easily for me because of my own MFA experience. Honestly the biggest pressure I’ve felt from the transition is from myself. I imagine this is the same for everyone. Having stuck with this for so long you want to exceed at it, you want to prove to yourself and to others that you’re good at what you do—at being a student, a teacher, a writer. A lot of times at the PhD level I’ve felt I’m pushing myself against plateauing in all those areas. In that way it can be very tiring because you have to motivate yourself to work towards goals where the measurements of progress are elusive at best.

Adding to this frustration is the fact that the more I progress the more I realize there’s even more I don’t know. But that’s also exciting because it drives you—or drives me at least. I don’t think you’re ever going to be satisfied, no matter the transition, if you’re doing what we’re doing because you’re playing for keeps and, in doing so, know there’s always room for growth. The danger, I think, at any level, is in becoming complacent.

DUSTIN SHATTUCK: You’re talking about the major issues writers face in the work and wearing all those different hats. Of course another issue is funding, especially now in academia. Southern Mississippi offers competitive assistantships for its graduate students—what’s that competition like? Are most people receiving stipends?

TODD GRAY: As far as I know most full-time graduate students have an assistantship. Funding is competitive in the sense that, in order to keep funding, a student needs to meet the expectations that led to their admittance. That sounds vague, I don’t mean it to be. There’s a qualifying exam at the end of the first year that’s a type of critique/assessment of a student’s progress. It’s a lot like a check-up. But basically, students aren’t competing with one another for funding. The atmosphere is congenial. The only aspect that may appear competitive is teaching assignments and/or non-teaching assistantships. Concerning both, I don’t think either are determined by competition between students but, instead, are more the result of deciding who is the best fit at a given time. The department tries providing students with the most opportunities possible.

DUSTIN SHATTUCK: USM has an English Graduate Organization (EGO), which seems to offer a great deal of professional resources and support. How exactly does the EGO function on campus? To the degree that universities are shifting teaching loads onto graduate students, I’m wondering if the EGO is involved in organizing graduate labor or collective bargaining.  Do you have organized representation at USM?

TODD GRAY: Honestly I’m not heavily involved with EGO, so I’m not that knowledgeable concerning everything they do. All I know is they do a lot. I know it’s open to all English students. There’s a membership fee. They hold several fundraisers that are used to provide money for students to attend academic conferences, etc. They hold open elections each academic year to elect their officers. I’m sure they advocate for us whenever that’s necessary. I know the Graduate Studies Director, Dr. Monika Gehlawat, does a lot in our interests, so I’m sure EGO’s officers work closely with her and the department head, joining forces when they’re called upon to form some superhuman entity—I’m just hazy on the particulars. To answer the last part of your question, as far as I’m aware we don’t have organized, labor representation at USM.

DUSTIN SHATTUCK: Which classes are you teaching now? Will you have an opportunity to teach your own workshop?

TODD GRAY: I’ll be teaching two sections of ENG 333, which is an upper-level English course all about technical writing. This’ll be the second semester I’ll have taught the course. I’m interested to see how the changes I have planned will go. I’ve got a board game design assignment I’m hoping will liven up some of the course’s material. As far as teaching my own workshop, I’d very much like to. Usually, a few students in their final year get the opportunity. I’ll have to wait and see. Nothing is promised.

DUSTIN SHATTUCK: You mentioned Steven Barthelme, and USM’s creative writing faculty includes Angela Ball, Rebecca Morgan Frank, and Andrew Malan Milward. How much are you interacting with faculty at this point and how much are you expected to develop your craft on your own?

TODD GRAY: I haven’t had a class with either Morgan or Angela Ball, though I’ve talked with both at different events and Morgan’s suggestion of a place for a story after my reading led to its publication. As for both Andrew and Steve, if I’m in their workshop, I’m seeing them a lot throughout the semester. For example, we’ll talk privately after workshop if my story was up. Both designate time during workshop to talk individually with each writer that went up that day to reiterate and clarify points, answer questions, etc. Andrew has this tradition where he invites students to meet up after the first and last workshop of the semester to break the ice and talk shop. Of course both are always available during office hours. Steve has emailed me a couple times after a workshop or before to make some additional point or prod me into thought. But you know, writing is a lonely endeavor otherwise. Most the rest you do on your own, you have to.

DUSTIN SHATTUCK: The list of visiting writers that have come to Southern Mississippi includes some heavy hitters. Who has visited since you have been at USM and what have those experiences been like?

TODD GRAY: On the fiction side both Mary Miller and Lauren Groff have visited since I started at Southern Miss. We usually host four visiting writers a year—two from each genre. The general routine with visiting writers here is that they’ll workshop with us students earlier in the day before doing their reading later that evening. After a reading visiting writers will usually go out to socialize with faculty and students at a local watering hole. Mary Miller, an alumna of USM, received her MA here before going on to the Michener Center. At the time of her visit she was the current Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss and was promoting her novel, The Last Days of California, which I can’t recommend enough. She’s a talented writer and a generous person. Her short story collection Big World is also excellent. When Lauren Groff visited with us she had not yet been nominated for the National Book Award but the news that she was later didn’t come as much of a surprise. Another talented writer, she led a great workshop and I remember after her reading we talked go-to karaoke staples. I wish I could recall hers but I can’t even recall what I said mine was so there’s that.

DUSTIN SHATTUCK: In my couple of visits there Hattiesburg seemed like a fun place. You’re not too far from New Orleans and the Gulf. What is it like living in Hattiesburg and southern Mississippi?

TODD GRAY: Hattiesburg is your typical small Southern city. Our respective commercial strip, Hardy Street, is lined with big-box-stores on either side and gets terribly congested come shopping time. Honestly sometimes I find myself wishing Hattiesburg were less homogenized than it is. But like anywhere else Hattiesburg is what you make of it. There’s the Long Leaf Trace, a rails-to-trails project, where I walk my dog often. There’s also a zoo and, unrelatedly, tons of antique markets, thrift shops, and flea markets. A state park is not far outside the city with a lake and trails. Close too is a national forest. I’ve done a little kayaking here. The city’s library is nice. We’ve two comic book stores, laser tag, bowling, etc, etc.

If you want to get outside of town Biloxi isn’t too far and has casinos. Going to the Mississippi Gulf though, it’s surprising the damage that’s still visible a decade after Hurricane Katrina. The proximity to New Orleans and all the city offers is, of course, an added (and welcomed) bonus. Really I’ve noticed lots of places and events I’d like to go to both in Hattiesburg and throughout the rest of Mississippi but, unfortunately, don’t always have the time or money.

DUSTIN SHATTUCK: How does the English department and creative writing program fit into the larger community? Who shows up for the graduate reading series at T-Bones?

TODD GRAY: There always seems like there’s a lot going on, so I’m going to forget something here. First I’ll say that readings hosted by the English department and those at T-Bones have both been well attended by students and faculty. Personally, T-Bones is always fun because of its atmosphere at the local coffee/record shop. There is another readings series too, Viz, which was organized by a couple students and that has brought more writers to read off-campus.

As far as wider engagement, the graduate students also publish an online journal, Product, open to undergraduate and graduate students at Southern Miss. The English department also hosted this past year a ton of events on campus and off celebrating Edgar Allan Poe’s work as part of the national Big Read campaign. Students have done similar events in the past on Halloween, etc. The university’s honor college had Rick Bragg read and that was well attended—packed out really. One of my personal favorites though has been the visiting playwright series that is hosted by the Theater department. Each spring the Theater department hosts a playwright that gives several talks and runs a playwriting workshop that’s open to both students in the Theater and English departments. Later in the spring semester the theater graduate students then hold a contest that selects students’ plays that they’ll produce. It’s a rejuvenating experience being a part of that type of collaboration across disciplines.

DUSTIN SHATTUCK: It looks like recent creative writing PhDs from USM are finding jobs in academia. What is your sense of successful placements for Southern Mississippi PhDs? What are your plans post-graduation?

TODD GRAY: In short I’d say those students that have had success after Southern Miss have all been self-motivated, open to what opportunities are available, and persistent. It’s not hard to be proactive here. Faculty make themselves available to help organize job materials, prepare for interviews, and ready for teaching demonstrations. There’s an involved teaching placement program at Southern Miss that meets throughout the year. That said, I think no matter where you’re at you’re going to have to put in the personal energy and hustle if you’re serious about landing a job. A little luck and humility always help too. Hopefully I’ll land a teaching position myself once everything is said and done. I enjoy being in the classroom. When I toy with the idea of life outside academia I realize this last part, I actually enjoy what I do.

DUSTIN SHATTUCK: That last part is always key. A final thought or word of advice for readers considering Southern Miss or a Creative Writing PhD in general?

TODD GRAY: I’ll give the same advice that Adam Johnson gave me, if you’re considering a PhD, apply to those places with faculty with whom you want to work. Funding, location—those things don’t matter as much as that. What’s important is knowing that you’re going to have someone to inspire and mentor you. Do it because it’s something you love—you want to write, you want to grow as an artist.

My addendum to that advice would be to do the PhD if you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else and being happy, because there’s going to be times when it’s going to only feel like work, even the writing, but knowing that it’s the work that you want to be doing, even when it’s rough going, (’cause nothing is perfect bliss 100% of the time), that knowledge gets you through. And, of course, I’ll plug Southern Miss one last time by saying check us out when you’re putting a list together of places to apply. We’ve a great faculty (on both the creative writing and literature side), a great journal, and an improving football team.

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Todd Gray’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, Southwestern American Literature, Hawai’i Review, Belt Magazine, and others. He is a PhD student at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers.

Dustin Shattuck is originally from Springfield, IL. He is currently an MFA candidate at McNeese State University, where he teaches and serves as the Fiction Editor of The McNeese Review.

PhD Spotlight: University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Written by: Katya Cummins

I’m pleased to welcome author J. Bruce Fuller to Niche Features, and I want to take this opportunity to thank him again for taking the time to offer advice to aspiring authors and to chat about the PhD Program in creative writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

NICHE: There’s a lot of discussion in the MFA Draft on Facebook, and other forums, as to whether doing a PhD in creative writing is beneficial. Obviously you decided to apply. Can you tell us why?

J. BRUCE FULLER: I’m not sure where people are siding on this issue lately, but when I applied five years ago many people finishing up their MFA were opting to not get a PhD. It seems as though the number of people going on to PhD programs now is on the rise. I decided to apply, but even in the moment was unsure about what was the right path for me. I applied to both literature and creative writing PhD programs, but also jobs and residencies. I decided to let the market determine my future and take the best offer I got.

Looking back on it now, I feel like the PhD in creative writing was what I most hoped for, but I was afraid of what direction that might take me in. For one, I had two small children, and a wife that had just put up with three years of me in grad school. We had to decide if 4+ more years of school and poverty were worth it. I got an offer that was exactly what I had been making at the MFA level, with the same teaching load, so the transition was not too difficult for us.

As to the benefits of a PhD in creative writing: I don’t see how 3-5 more years of directed study of your craft could be a bad thing. I learned a lot, and made many friends and connections. I also got paid to write another book of poems. But it all depends on your definition of beneficial. I made the choice that allowed me to write more, which was important to me, but I was lucky to have financial support from my spouse and a fully funded assistantship. I also knew that with a family, if I took a year off and went to work full time, it might be impossible to give up the money and go back to grad school. We made the decision to put our heads down and finish school in one shot.

NICHE: What’s the difference between earning an MFA in creative writing and a PhD with a concentration in creative writing?

J. BRUCE FULLER: The main difference lies in what each degree prepares you for. In my experience, the MFA is focused on your writing. Workshop is the most important class at the MFA level, and at least at my MFA program, writing and workshop took precedence over our academic work and teaching duties. It was stressed to us that we were there to write and writing came first. I grew as a writer exponentially at my MFA program.

The Ph.D. however, to me, is a degree that prepares you to be a professor. If teaching in academia is not what you ultimately want to do, then the Ph.D. may be disappointing. The Ph.D. in English with a concentration in CW is primarily a scholarly degree, so workshop is only one part of your coursework duties. In my experience, there was more focus on critical theory and pedagogy. The creative dissertation is a book length project similar to the MFA thesis, but the critical introduction requirements were, for me, quite a challenge. The Ph.D forces one to become a scholar. The other thing that surprises many is that the student is for the most part left to figure it all out on their own. Approaching faculty, designing coursework, designing classes, developing your dissertation projects, and research, is ultimately left up to the student. I’ve seen many students become disillusioned by this. I’ve seen students have trouble forming a dissertation committee because they haven’t fostered relationships with the faculty. As a doctoral student the real test is learning how to navigate academia. This is not to say that professors are cold or unhelpful, only that the impetus is on the student.

NICHE: Is the PhD Program at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette fully funded?

J. BRUCE FULLER: They offer a certain number of fully funded fellowships and assistantships, but they are competitive.

NICHE: This is a question that’s asked repeatedly by prospective candidates: what did you send in for your creative writing sample? What did you send in for your critical sample? How did you decide what to send?

J. BRUCE FULLER: Seems trite, but obviously send your best work. Send them what it is you do. This will be the overwhelming project in your life for the next 4+ years so send them what you want to work on the most. For me, I sent my best poems, but I also curated them as I would a manuscript, based on the themes/ideas I would use in my dissertation project. For my critical sample I sent my best essay from my MFA degree, which I wanted to expand into my critical introduction. I was lucky that I stumbled upon that research early, but it is alright if you are still unsure. I guess I started my dissertation before I even got accepted anywhere. My MFA prepared me for that.

NICHE: Can you give prospective or current PhD candidates any advice on how to find time to write in between teaching, scholarship, and a part time job?

J. BRUCE FULLER: The same advice that was given to me when I started graduate school, which is, set a time to write and defend it. It is easy to forget that writing is your job. Sometimes it feels so extraneous when you have deadlines and classes to teach and papers due. I have felt quite a bit of guilt at sitting on the porch in the Southern sun writing poems, when I have students who count on me and a family that sees me too infrequently. But writing poems is what got me here, and to stop writing them would be an insult to everyone who supported and sacrificed and believed in me.

It will be difficult at times. Don’t beat yourself up over it.

NICHE: Which authors did you have the opportunity to work with?

J. BRUCE FULLER: I worked with Marthe Reed, Skip Fox, Daniel Smith, and the incomparable Dayana Stetco. I also pulled former Louisiana Poet Laureate Darrell Bourque out of retirement to sit on my committee. His help and support was crucial. That’s one of the great things about a Ph.D. dissertation, you have the opportunity to work with whoever you need to, from any discipline or location. I was fortunate to be able to work with writers outside my genre: Daniel is a fiction writer, and Dayana, who was my committee chair, is a playwright.

NICHE: Are students involved in producing The Southwestern Review or Rougarou?

J. BRUCE FULLER: Yes, graduate students run both of those publications, at all levels of production, from editing to final printing/publication. It is a great way for students to get real experience in the publishing field.

NICHE: You’ve published in several notable literary journals, and four chapbooks, including Notes to a Husband (Imaginary Friend Press, 2013), Lancelot (Lazy Mouse Press, 2013), 28 Blackbirds at the End of the World (Bandersnatch Books, 2010). Your latest collection of poems was entitled Flood (Swan Scythe Press, 2013). What can you tell us about the chapbook?

J. BRUCE FULLER:  Flood is a chapbook in two parts, one part about the 1927 Mississippi River flood, the other about Hurricane Katrina. As a Louisiana native these two disasters shaped me, from the stories my great grandmothers told me about 1927, to my own experience with Katrina. I found it hard to write Katrina poems after the storm, but writing these persona poems set in 1927 helped me understand my own disaster better. The two events are eerily similar.

NICHE: What are you working on now?

J. BRUCE FULLER: I have a new chapbook called The Dissenter’s Ground coming out in February from Hyacinth Girl Press. I’m also finishing up a new full length manuscript called The Woodsman’s Son. Aside from that I am always busy with my own small press publishing house, Yellow Flag Press.

NICHE: Who have you recently published at Yellow Flag and where can people purchase the latest work?

J. BRUCE FULLER: YFP has new poetry books out this year from Stella Ann Nesanovich, Darrell Bourque, and Jack B. Bedell. We have a collection of essays forthcoming from Christopher Lowe, and a book of plays forthcoming by Dayana Stetco. Our in print books are available at our website.

NICHE: Is there any other advice you would like to give those who want to continue onto the PhD?

J. BRUCE FULLER: Don’t be afraid to go for it. It will be hard, but like anything, you will get used to it and it won’t seem that hard. I’m glad I did it…now that it’s over.

You can follow J. Bruce Fuller on Facebook and Twitter