Monday, October 22, 2007

An Interview with Ryan Effgen

I asked Ryan Effgen if he wouldn’t mind leading off what we hope will become a series of interviews with recent graduates that we could post to this blog. We’d like to start posting the interviews with the idea that others might be able to check back in and see what’s going on with their fellow Mason writers. Of course, I don’t have as much time as I would like, so we’ll see how many I get to on my own. That said, we’d like to invite current and graduated students who are interested in perhaps interviewing other alumni to let me know, and we’ll work something out; the more the better.

Now, some information before we go on to the interview.

Ryan Effgen graduated from Mason’s creative writing program in the spring of 2006. While at Mason, he was the chief editor of Phoebe, received a department fellowship, and interned at the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. His stories have appeared in Best New American Voices 2007, Folio, and Painted Bride Quarterly. He was one of five writers to receive a 2006 fellowship from the Virginia Commission on the Arts.

As for the interview itself, we emailed back and forth for a few days last week, and here’s what we came up with (my questions are italicized):

What brought you to the creative writing program at GMU? Why did you choose to apply, and what convinced you to attend?

Prior to applying to MFA programs, I attended the Napa Valley Writers' Conference, which is one of those week-long workshop things. I went to that particular one so that I could be in a workshop with Stuart Dybek, who was and still is one of my favorite authors. We got to talking about MFA programs, and he told me about Mason. I hadn't heard of it, but I was very much in awe of Stuart Dybek and I sort of took his endorsement to be an official stamp of approval. Also, I grew up in the Midwest and I had lived on the west coast for a few years, so I liked the idea of going out east for grad school, just for the sake of being geographically well-rounded. So my reasons were sort of incidental, or they didn't have much to do with the particular quirks of the program (e.g. that it was typically a three-year experience, that they require literature courses, that they make you take a writing class outside of your genre, etc.).

I hadn't heard about Mason either, though I'd read some Bausch stories that I liked in an intro workshop in undergrad, and then when it came time to consider programs, I connected his name with the university. My research didn't extend much beyond the basics for any one program. I think I was pretty naïve about the whole MFA thing back then.

Did you apply to other schools or was Mason pretty much it?

Yeah, even if you're doing all you can not to be naïve about the whole MFA thing, it's still difficult to figure out anything too useful about it prior to showing up. Magazines occasionally publish articles where they rank the programs, but they usually make a point to emphasize that it's not so measurable a thing. It seems like it should be less a question of "Which program is the best one?" and more a question of "What am I actually looking for in a program, and which program or programs best match up to that?" I applied to some other schools. I got accepted at maybe one other school, I got wait-listed at a couple of places, and flat out rejected by even more places. But I heard from Mason first, and right away I just sort of knew that I would end up there.

I agree. When you finally show up, you get a sense of where you stand, what you've done right so far, what you might need to adjust. I had to reorient myself completely; I was still in the undergrad mind-set, which was a bit immature, I think, and that manifested itself in my approach to writing.

How did the program compare to your expectations as well as your pre-grad school writing/reading habits and ideas? And I promise we'll move away from the grad school bit very soon.

Before I got to grad school, I thought of the literature (MA) people and the creative writing (MFA) people as being in distant but related camps. When I arrived, it quickly became clear that these were essentially separate universes. And even within the MFA program, the distinction between fiction, non-fiction, and poetry was greater than I had imagined—not the distinction between what those genres are, but it seemed that the students in each of these genres were having a significantly different experience from one another.

I definitely still had some lingering undergraduate residue when I showed up, and it showed in my writing. I took a bunch of creative writing classes when I was an undergrad, and I had "show, don't tell" drilled into my head. It's good advice, of course, but I think I took it way too literally. I thought that exposition was not just something to be avoided, but that if you used it at all, it meant that you hadn't written a piece of fiction. So I had it in my head that my stories should be these quick bursts of dialogue and physical action. Jill McCorkle, who was a visiting writer, said to us, "It's not show, don't tell, it's show and tell – pick up any good book, you'll find plenty of exposition." This should've been obvious all along, but it came as something of a revelation when she pointed it out.

Yes, the "show don't tell" mantra. That seems like a classic hit for beginning creative writers, sort of like the rule that often hampers students' writing when they arrive in first year composition: never use "I" in an academic paper.

Aside from Jill McCorkle's revelation, what else do you think has significantly improved your fiction and allowed it to sort of clear away that undergraduate residue?

Well, as far as my hang up with exposition—I probably could've gotten past that a long time ago if I had approached reading differently. Like Jill McCorkle said, "open any good book…" I had been reading books all along, but I was primarily interested in the effect that the story had on me—whether I thought it was interesting or moving. I hadn't really gone through a story line by line to try to figure out how the author achieved that effect. This started to change for me throughout graduate school. And it wasn't because of the literature classes, really. I think it had to do more with being in workshops week after week and looking at manuscripts and figuring out how the stories were put together. This affected the way I read regular, store-bought books, and I began to learn more from reading them. And this, in turn, fed into my writing. I imagine that this probably happens for most people, and it's probably the most valuable thing that you take from the MFA experience. It's the most valuable thing that I took from it, anyway.

So what have you been reading recently that has been directly, positively affecting your writing?

While I'm confident that reading—particularly reading I've done over the last few years—has had a positive effect on me, it'd be difficult to give a precise answer as far as direct influence. But I've definitely read some books over the last few years that have made me feel like I was learning something about writing. Books that come to mind include the short stories of Eudora Welty and Paul Bowles. I Sailed with Magellan by Stuart Dybek. A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. I'm reading Runaway by Alice Munro right now, and it's making me want to go back and read all of her stuff.

Perhaps that wasn't quite the right question, since it sort of assumes a writer can consistently point at different parts of the text and say how so-and-so's writing exactly influenced a certain combination of words.

One thing I do remember about Welty's work is her sense of humor and how it "functions" in her writing. And I remember the two stories of yours I've read/heard-you-read, and they struck me as funny, but a funny-in-a-sad-sort-of-way kind of funny. I don't mean to suggest that Welty, and only Welty, had this sort of effect on you, nor is she the sole author to have written complicated humor, but I can't help but make the observation. I don't really know where this question is going except to ask, maybe, is this something you see happening in your writing, aside from those two stories? Or is it too mechanical to think of one's writing in that way?

Well, I think I know which two stories you mean, and both of them—and, now that I think of it, pretty much everything I've written—has involved a character or characters that get in over their head in one way or another. And the awkwardness inherent in situations like that can frequently be humorous, though in a way that can also be sad or tense or painful.

There's this moment in the movie The Graduate that I think about a lot. Benjamin moves to Berkeley so that he can be near Elaine (Mrs. Robinson's daughter), despite the fact that Elaine wants nothing to do with him at that point in the movie. In the particular scene I'm thinking about, she's headed to the zoo to meet up with her fiancé, and Benjamin sort of tags along uninvited. As her fiancé approaches, Benjamin says, "He certainly is a good walker."

That always cracks me up, but in a sad sort of way. He's completely defeated and unwanted, but he still feels compelled to make some feeble, meaningless remark as a way of saving some dignity. It might be because I feel like I've been in that exact situation (or variations of that situation) many times in my life, that I'm attracted to stories that feature a character who finds some humorous or mock-heroic way of dealing with their defeat. Cheever's "The Swimmer" comes to mind in this regard. Aspects of that story are pretty funny, despite the fact that it's ultimately a tragic story.

So I've been trying to find a way to hear more about those two stories, and I guess now's the time since we've sort of gotten into your writing; you've already talked about one of the stories, "The Inappropriate Behavior of Our Alleged Loved Ones," in the MFA newsletter, but the second (sorry, I've forgotten the title) is still a mystery to me. All I remember is this: Painted Bride Quarterly published it in their "pirate" issue?

Could you talk some about that process? How did you decide to send it out? Why PBQ? How'd the run-up to publication go?

I lucked out with that one. I brought a draft of that story to a workshop in my first semester. Then, about a year later, my friend Tara Laskowski, who was in that workshop, happened to notice that Painted Bride Quarterly was inviting submissions for a pirate-themed issue. The story I submitted, which was called "The Pirate's Life for Me," fit into the pirate theme in that the protagonist was employed as a promoter for Captain Morgan's rum. His job was to dress up like a pirate and give out free shots at bars. I imagine that when publications announce a theme issue, they probably get a good amount of submissions that are sort of a stretch, as far as how well the story or poem matches up to the theme. But in this instance, I felt pretty confident that I had a pirate story. So that's why I submitted it. And then, months later, an acceptance letter and contract showed up in the mail. And that was pretty much it. I emailed in my manuscript, as instructed, and a few months later, the journal came out.

That's a real nice submission experience. And maybe because of how rare acceptances are, it seems like every one of them has that hint of "luck" about them, despite the obvious fact that the story has clearly made some kind of impression on the editors, has connected with them somehow in a way that the other submissions haven't.

Have you other stories out there, either being considered or published, or are you at work on a book-length work? Or both? Basically, here's the part when I ask you about what you're up to.

I definitely agree that it's merit that gets a story published, but it still seems like luck is a factor. Because it's so subjective. One editor might accept a story that another editor would've rejected. Both editors are probably smart, but they have different tastes. And when your story happens to find itself in the hands of an editor who responds to it—sure, you probably did something right, but I also feel like you got a little lucky that it wound up in the hands of Editor A and not Editor B.

As far as other work, I've got a story coming out in Pindeldyboz (any day now, I think) and, oddly enough, a short story of mine is being adapted for a short film. It's not my project, per se, but I gave my two cents on the script, and I'm excited to see what happens with it. But mostly I'm wrapped up in a novel. It was my thesis at Mason, and I've been working on it ever since. I think I'm approaching the light at the end of the tunnel with it. Not sure what I'm going to do with myself when it's finished. Start another one, I guess.

Congratulations on the short film and the pending publication. Let us know when and how we can see the film.

Pindeldyboz seems to like a few Mason writers; I've seen Jessica Anthony, Tara Laskowski, and Matthew Vollmer in their archives.

That's about it from my side. Thanks again for taking the time to go through with this. And, of course, good luck with the novel.

Cool, thanks for getting in touch. Best of luck with your final year and also with Phoebe.


  1. Thanks for putting this together Ryan! Great questions. See you at the fiction dinner.

  2. Thanks to both Ryans for this interview! I was interested to hear about Ryan's moment of revelation about writing. I feel like I've had two major 'revelations' since being at Mason, and they have occurred as a result of a single comment or reading a single story--it would be interesting to hear what other people have had revelations about at most recent had to do with sentences.