INTERVIEW: LILY HOANG
Your first novel, Parabola, is one of the most formally innovative works in fiction published within the last 10 years in the US. Can you describe a little bit of the process by which you composed it?
I wrote Parabola during my MFA program. I was - and still am - very influenced by the OuLiPo, and I wanted to write a constraint-inspired novel. Each chapter-story has a different constraint, some are obvious, others more subtle. With all my books (and this all started with Parabola), my writing process is a game, only I get to make up all the rules and I don't have an opponent, which is great because it means I always come out the winner.
Okay, yeah, you're an MFA graduate and now teach in an MFA program yourself. What is the best thing about MFA programs for creative writers?
I can't really speak for other writers' experiences, and I will start teaching in an MFA program in two weeks, so my pool of knowledge is limited. But I can say this about my own experience: I started my MFA program knowing that I wanted to be a writer, but my conception of "writer" was ungrounded and unrealistic. I started my MFA program thinking I was well-read, that I knew something about something, and I didn't. The semester before I started, I was lucky enough to receive a fellowship, so I moved to South Bend early and had the chance to do directed readings with Steve Tomasula. Arguably, Steve taught me how to read. He gave me a behemoth and magnificent reading list.
Being in an MFA program didn't teach me how to write. It taught me how to read. As a writer. How to steal. How to imitate. How to take criticism that is sometimes generous, sometimes cruel.
So, in two weeks, I'll start teaching in an MFA program. I will teach my students how to read. I will give them fantastic readings lists. I will bombard them with books by authors they've never heard of. I will make them read and re-read the canon in a different way. And in reading, broadly and indiscriminately, I hope to pass on some of what Steve taught me when I was in my MFA program, which was, ultimately, how to be a writer.
Of course, there's also the time bit. Yes, you get two or three years to focus entirely on everything writing: actually writing, reading, craft, shop-talk, etc. MFA time is irreplaceable. Enjoy it.
What's the worst thing about MFA programs for creative writers?
Two things: one, being in an MFA program means that you're not doing something else, anything else. During those two or three years, you're a student, which is an experience, sure, but no one really wants to read about someone's experience of an MFA program in novel form. Yawn. During those two or three years, you could be doing anything at all, and whatever that is, it's probably more compelling to readers than what went down in your MFA program. This is given, of course, that most young writers write first and foremost about what they know. (That's what we've had drilled into us, right?)
Two, I suspect that I am an exception: during my MFA, I wrote two book mss, both of which were accepted for publication soon after I graduated. That being said, portions of both books went through workshops, and they were demolished. I am not being hyperbolic in my word choice. "Demolished" is accurate, so much so that I actually trained myself to write and submit more traditional stories (my program at that time was very conservative, except for Steve. It's changed a lot since I graduated.) for workshop, just to temper the criticism. Let me give you an example. During my last semester, I had a professor (who was visiting, that is, NOT a regular faculty member) tell me on the very first day of workshop that she'd read the first page of my story and would read no more because she "got it": I was smart, she was dumb, she didn't need to waste her time reading any further. Again, let me emphasize that my experience was not the typical MFA experience; however, the worst part of my MFA was learning how to take criticism in its many various guises. The writing world outside of the academy is not generous. This is a hard lesson, and I learned it well.
LILY HOANG is the author of Unfinished, The Evolutionary Revolution, Changing (recipient of a 2009 PEN Beyond Margins Award), and Parabola (winner of the 2006 Chiasmus Press Un-Doing the Novel Contest) and co-editor of the anthology 30 under 30.