Friday, June 20, 2008

An Interview with Andrew Wingfield

In his own words, Andrew Wingfield “grew up east of Sacramento, California, in the bumpy transitional zone between the flat floor of the Central Valley and the steep slopes of the Sierra foothills.”[1] A sense of place pervades his work, drawn from the Sacramento where he grew up, the changing neighborhood in Alexandria where he lives with his wife and two boys today, and places he has lived in and traveled through in between. His writing shows this sense, but it also became evident early into our e-mail exchange, in which we discussed his novel, Hear Him Roar, published in 2005, and his current project, a collection of short stories. We talked as well about writing in general; life after the MFA, which he earned at GMU in 1999; and teaching, particularly his work at George Mason’s integrative studies program, New Century College, where he has taught since 2000.

Q: Your novel, set in Sacramento, follows semi-retired biologist Charlie Sayers as he sorts through the region’s cougar dilemma as well as his own restlessness with life, past and present. Not only is your novel set in Sacramento—it seems to capture its essence in terms of setting, environmental issues facing the region, and the mix of personalities you’ve brought to life—locals and transplants, old-school department of fish and game officials and suburban conservationists. It seems like part of your heart is still out there. What brought you out of California, and what brought you to George Mason?

Andrew Wingfield: Yes, California will always have a special pull on me. I imprinted on that Central Valley landscape, that climate, which is so distinctive. The hot, dry summers with their tawny palette of colors. The smell of rice fields burning after the harvest. The joyous relief the fall rains bring. The dense tule fogs in winter. The bright green grasses on the hills in early spring. Those are all part of me. And California is a truly fascinating place—in its diverse natural environments, in its 
human communities, and in the meanings it holds (and has long held) for so many people. A lot to unpack there.

I left California after my first year of college because I was restless. I had decided to be a lit major, I liked history and art. I wanted to go east, where the “culture” was. I guess I went east in answer to the flip side of the impulse that brings so many young people west, a lot of them right after college. And then I just wandered—Chicago, Bloomington, Madrid, Philadelphia. I’m very attached to more natural landscapes, yet I’ve chosen to live in a lot of heavily populated areas. I just really like cities, too. One of the nonfiction writers I like, Edward Hoagland, shares my dual attraction to cities and wild places. For me, each place has its poetry. Sometimes it takes a while to find it. That’s why I’ve never been much of a tourist or much interested in travel writing (unlike Hoagland). I like to live in a place, to experience it day to day, explore its 
crannies. Some places reveal themselves very slowly. Madrid is an example. That city takes time. I visited Rome and fell in love in about two hours. In Madrid, a more austere place, I had to get to know the 
neighborhoods, the tapas bars, the public gardens, the picture collections, the language—and then I was hooked. It took about a year.

What brought me to George Mason? The writing program, especially Alan Cheuse. Alan and I bonded on the phone after I got accepted to the program, I think when we discovered our mutual admiration for Saul Bellow. We developed a real affinity while I was there. I’m still in frequent contact with him. I never planned to stick around as long as I 
have. The fact that I’m still at Mason is a combination of happenstance 
and intention. New Century College, the integrative studies program where I teach, was just a few years old when I taught my first class there. I just kind of carved a niche for myself, and I’ve been having too much fun to leave.

Northern Virginia has yielded its poetry slower than anyplace else I’ve lived. Much of the region flat out repulses me and probably always will—you know, the tract house wastelands. But I live inside the Beltway in an interesting, complicated, and changing neighborhood. The stories I’m writing now are set in a community like the one where I live. And I find it increasingly fascinating—and at times, I admit, a bit horrifying—to live hard by the nation’s capital, especially during the Bush years. Until a couple of years ago, everything I wrote dealt with California. Not anymore.

Q: So do you think you are definitely a proponent of “write what you know”? I know, that’s a cliché—perhaps you have a better way of putting it.

AW: I like the way Wright Morris puts it: “Writing is finding out what you don’t yet know about what you know.” I write about places that are familiar to me, but my work is about exploring aspects of these places that hold some mystery. I’m searching for what I don’t yet know about what I know. For instance, I know what it was like for me to grow up between Sacramento and the Sierra foothills as my home landscape succumbed to sprawl, but what would that experience be like for a cantankerous Dept. of Wildlife biologist who’s growing old in that place? How does he, a man beginning to feel the bite of his impending mortality, experience the changes in the land? I can’t know until I write it.

Here’s another example. My wife and I are relatively privileged white Americans. When we decided to make a family, we bought and began renovating a rundown corner store building in a neighborhood just beginning to emerge from decades of blight. I know what it’s been like for me to live in this neighborhood the past eight years. But what does this place mean to a teenage African American girl who lives two blocks away, where blight persists? She’s here because her great-grandparents settled in the neighborhood decades ago, when her great-grandfather started working in the big railyard nearby (blight began when that railyard closed). Curiosity about such a girl led me into one of the stories in my current collection.

Q: Current collection—do you have a short story collection going out? I see you have a story in the Antioch Review this year and one in The Fourth River and another in Prairie Schooner forthcoming—congratulations. Do you have a preference for short pieces like stories and nonfiction articles or a long-term project like a novel?

AW: I have a nearly finished collection of stories that are all set in a “recovering” neighborhood near D.C. Some of them are out in journals, some forthcoming, a couple still looking for homes, and a couple still in process.

I started writing these stories when I became a parent and a professor and my writing time was pretty fragmented. I liked that I could sit down at my keyboard, read the few paragraphs or pages I’d already written, and push forward—using the writing time to write, rather than using it to try and remember what the story was all about, who the characters were, etc.

While writing my novel, I lived with it more fully day to day, week to week, because my life was less complicated and my writing time more regular and predictable. That said, I think I’m more of a novelist by nature. I tend to bite off novel-sized chunks of material. It’s taken me a long time learn the discipline of the short story, to resist the temptation of exploring side characters, subplots, and back stories that can be fatal to a story.

Even now my stories, the ones that work, push against the boundaries of the short story form in terms of the kind of complexity it can accommodate. Novels are roomy, and I like that. Once I wrap up this story collection my next project will be a novel. My life is still complicated and full, but I’ve become a bit more savvy about how to manage it all. Plus, my kids sleep through the night now. That changes everything! I look forward to getting back to the novel.

Q: About your novel, the way each chapter wraps up was very satisfying—finishing, in a last paragraph or even the very last line, with a new thought that reflects the whole, the way a good short story ends or an essay concludes. Do you feel you picked up novel-writing techniques like this instinctively, by reading, or do you think it was more a conscious effort? I am particularly curious how the MFA program influenced the way you approach a novel, if it did—such techniques seem hard to come by in a workshop, for example.

AW: My way of closing chapters is an instinctive thing, as far as I know. It’s certainly not a skill I tried consciously to hone in a workshop setting. Your question about novel writing techniques and workshops is a good one. When I was in the Mason program, every fiction student was working on a novel but every fiction workshop focused on the short story. The craft of novel writing was something I pursued independently for the most part, reading lots of novels, talking about them with Alan, and getting feedback from him on my manuscript. A couple of the lit courses I took also created opportunities to talk about novels from a formal point of view. For obvious reasons, the novel doesn’t lend itself as readily as the short story to the workshop format, but I think it’s important for writing programs to be intentional about helping students develop their novels and study the craft of novel writing.

Q: What about the end product, after you’ve finished it? Some MFA students and alums have said they would have liked more help navigating the publishing world, while others have been adamant that it’s better that we remain focused on the craft. I suspect it’s probably a little like the Appalachian Trail mantra of “hike your own hike,” but can you tell us a little about your own experience getting the book out there?

AW: As an MFA student, I fondly hoped that one of my professors would recognize the brilliance of my work, set me up with an agent, and launch my career for me. I doubt I’m the only person who has ever entertained such a fantasy. To be passive, yet to achieve success—sounds pretty nice! But it’s not realistic, or even desirable. The real service writing programs can provide is helping their students learn how to be smart, active, and persistent about getting their work into the world. Some teachers are pretty good about incorporating this part of the writing life into their workshops. I suspect there should be a short course devoted to it, a required course for the degree. Absent such a course, I poked around for clues on my own, gathering hints wherever I could. A more structured introduction to publishing would have served me well and saved me some time. But, hey, some of the most critical learning happens outside school.

Getting my novel into the world provided me with a kind of crash course on publishing, from which I gleaned some good lessons. I found an agent fairly quickly, and this agent found a junior editor at a commercial press who liked my manuscript. I worked with her to make it shipshape before she showed her bosses, who didn’t like the novel enough to publish it. Big disappointment.

Eventually the agent and I parted ways, and I started searching on my own for small independent presses and university presses that publish fiction. (Agents usually aren’t interested in such presses because there’s not enough money to make it worth their while.) I did some of my searching online, and some of it at conferences on literature and environment. I got to know some writers who shared my interest in environmental themes, chatted up editors at the book display tables, and made myself familiar with their lists.

The landscape and environment of the American West is a big focus for Utah State University Press, the publisher that bought my book. A great fit, but it took some time and effort for me to discover it. The near misses and rejections were tough to take, but I believed in my story, believed I’d find the right editor, the right press, and eventually I did. You have to persist.

So, sure, part of a writer’s education is putting in the time to learn the lay of the land. Who else is writing the kind of stuff you like to write? Where are those writers hanging out? Where are they publishing? How can you get your foot in the door at the places where your work will be valued? I’m not saying, however, that publishing should be the primary focus of students in a writing program. It’s one piece only. The primary focus should be working on the craft—and by craft I mean not just writing, but reading. Most writing students don’t read as much as they should.

Q: On reading, do you find yourself reading in a strategic way to suit your writing? Or do you read what you’re interested in, and the writing follows?

AW: After I wrote the first of my neighborhood stories, and decided it might be fun to write a whole batch of them, I re-read a couple of the place-based story collections that I’d read in the past—Joyce’s Dubliners and Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Then I read other collections of this kind—Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago, Maxine Claire’s Rattlebone, Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, a couple of others. Those books helped give me a feel for this particular niche within the larger genre, which in turn helped me clarify for myself the kind of book I wanted to make. So, that was some strategic reading tied directly to an existing project. But as you say, much of the reading I do feeds my writing in less direct, more mysterious ways. I’m kind of fatalistic about it. I figure if a topic or an author holds interest for me, there must be a reason, and eventually I’ll come to perceive some ways different things I’ve read percolate into my writing.

Q: In our earlier conversation you said teaching for New Century College allows you to investigate topics that feed your writing, and I imagine this in itself lends a great variety to what you read? I’m looking through the courses you have taught, from the 100-level “Community of Learners” to upper-level courses like “Narratives of Nature” and “Conserving Endangered Species: An Integrative Approach” . . .

AW: For years, I’ve been teaching “Self as Citizen,” this freshman course on citizenship and civic engagement. I began teaching it more or less by accident, but I’ve grown hooked on the material over time. I keep seeing the themes of this course—the challenges of tolerance and diversity, individualism vs. community commitment, and so forth—surface in my neighborhood stories. My teaching colors my writing in other ways as well. I have a lot of 
flexibility in what I teach, and I often team-teach with colleagues whose disciplinary backgrounds differ from my own. I sometimes build a class around a group of readings I want to explore, and often my teaching partners introduce me to material I never would have discovered on my own. Some of the stuff my colleagues want to put on syllabi doesn’t excite me as a reader—academic prose can be pretty dry—but it introduces me to ways of knowing and engaging the world that were alien to me previously. How does a conservation biologist understand a cup of coffee? What kinds of stories do economists tell? This is good exercise for a fiction writer. It stretches the imagination.

Q: About teaching—when I talked to you earlier you gave me some really sound advice about looking for a teaching position, how someone just getting out there with an MFA, with the hope of balancing teaching with writing, might approach it. Can you speak to that a bit, given your experience and that of some of your fellow alumni?

AW: I assume anyone in a graduate writing program is already passionate about writing. If you go into teaching, you should have a passion for that as well, because you’ll do a whole lot of it to support yourself and your writing habit—unless of course you’re independently wealthy or supported by a gainfully employed spouse whose big salary enables you to teach for experience rather than a living. (I’m not independently wealthy, and my wife is a painter. She and I both teach to put food on the table.)

I love writing, of course, but I also really love teaching. It’s work that stimulates me intellectually, as I’ve already said. It also draws me out of my shell, requires me to interact with students and colleagues. For me the give and take of the teaching life is a healthy counterpoint to the solitary work of writing. Also, I like the university atmosphere—the learned people, the visiting writers and speakers, the arts programming, the libraries. These are wonderful resources.

You will probably need to teach a while to find out if the passion is there. That’s fine. Just don’t teach for ten years, letting your writing go dormant, and then look up one day and decide teaching isn’t right for you. What I’m saying is that you should always be strategic, always keep the big picture in mind if you’re a writer who teaches. A few of my peers who came out of the writing program around the same time I did took teaching jobs that paid them peanuts and sucked up all their writing time. That’s a predicament you want to avoid, and avoiding it can be tricky.

One person who seems to have managed the transition well is my fellow Mason writing program alum, Sally Shivnan. Sally graduated the same year I did and now teaches full time at University of Maryland Baltimore County while building up an impressive portfolio of published work. She interviewed me a while back while writing a magazine piece about balancing teaching and writing. I just re-read the piece; it’s full of sound advice, and more thorough than I could hope to be on this topic. Here’s a link.

Q: So—you have taught undergraduates for nearly a decade, you put out your novel in 2005, you’re working on a collection of stories, you’ve written and published a number of personal essays over the last five years, and you look forward to the prospect of getting back into another novel. There is so much in the media now about how students today, and by extension, our future populace, have so much less appreciation for reading fiction or writing a decent sentence, let alone a good piece of creative work (the latter according to a recent Washington Post article). You don’t seem to be buying it?

AW: I was teaching a course with this conservation biologist who has devoted his life to saving species whose populations are pretty much doomed to extinction in the wild. One of the students asked him why he bothers. “What else am I going to do?” the biologist shot back. “Sell Volvos?”

I’m not looking to sell Volvos—I’m not that resigned. But I am pretty realistic about what it means to devote oneself to literary art in these times of iPods and ear buds and young thumbs busily massaging miniature keyboards. As a writer, I don’t fret much over the changing literacies of the young. I write the stories I have to write, according to my own lights, and I try to find a home for them in the world. That’s what I do.

As a teacher, this issue concerns me more. In the 10 or 11 years I’ve taught at Mason (including as a grad student), the students coming in have arrived better prepared academically because admissions standards have risen. But that doesn’t mean they’re more literate, in the conventional sense. They’re not. Oh, they encounter a lot of text and images in their daily lives, and they can be pretty savvy about certain kinds of “reading.” But many of today’s college students arrive on campus with a real deficit of experience when it comes to navigating complicated academic writing, or sophisticated literary works. A big part of my job is helping my students develop some fluency in working with these kinds of texts. It’s a struggle. But it can be very satisfying to see students learn to read and write better. Once in a while the writing bug will bite one of the kids in my class—or, more rarely, it will infect the whole group like a virus—and when that happens, I remember why I bother to try.

Q: Well, I, for one, am glad you are not selling Volvos. You or the biologist. Thank you so much for your time—this has been a great exchange. And again, congratulations on the recent publications, and good luck with the rest of your collection. I’m looking forward to reading what you have out there.

AW: I’ve enjoyed it too. Thanks for your thoughtful questions.


  1. Really great interview... apart from the information, there's a nice calm tone that's very soothing for writers tending toward the anxious.