Lan Samantha Chang, author of the acclaimed book of stories, Hunger, and a novel, Inheritance, that was ten years in the writing (see? stop stressing out, people!), will become the Director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the start of the next term, just a few weeks from now. In the middle of preparing for yet another move, this time from Harvard back to her native Midwest, she was gracious enough to answer a few questions for us. It's exciting to have Sam heading back to town!
What is the first thing you did or will do as director?
Since I'm not the director until January 10, 2006, I haven't officially done anything yet. But it was my pleasure last spring to invite George Saunders to judge the Iowa Short Fiction contest. He will also read and give a masterclass on campus in spring, 2006.
What will the program be like under your direction?
The most important activities at the Workshop are writing, teaching, and learning. With this in mind, I'd like to support our most signficant resources, our students and faculty. I look forward to working with the university administration to locate funding for visiting faculty and financial aid. Thanks to the administration, the UI Foundation, and generous donors, we will begin Fall 2006 in an expanded facility. The expansion will include two more seminar rooms, four office/classroom spaces, and the Schaefer Library, which will provide meeting and reading space for up to 100 people. The library will have high ceilings and wood floors. It will be furnished with couches, tables and chairs, and a coffee machine.
Many former fiction students valued Frank's direct, unstinting, no-sugar-added method above all else. How does Frank's passing affect the palette of pedagogical styles at the Workshop? In other words, is anyone going to bluntly and publicly kick the asses of those who might benefit from it, or is that in the past now?
Frank is irreplaceable, and his passing will certainly be felt in workshop, but I don't believe that he has taught in vain. Hundreds of his former students, all over the country, think of him every time they enter the classroom. In my own teaching, I honor Frank's method, but I will admit that I do include positive remarks.
What do you think of the suggestion of mandating that the faculty hold office hours and meet with each student individually after their workshop, as you do?
I don't mandate individual student conferences for myself, and I don't plan to mandate them for the other faculty. My students always have a choice as to whether they'd like to meet with me or not. Many of them choose not to, and I respect this.
What about the TWF system? Is there any possibility of assigning financial aid for two years to eliminate the need for reapplying and the awkwardness of uneven distribution that sometimes results? Or is that kind of competition good for writing?
Ah, this is a good question. Currently, the way in which our program receives funding from the University and is given TA positions from different departments makes it necessary that we reassign funding in the second year. In the next few years, I will look into this system
and see if there is anything I can do. Frankly, I think it would improve the Workshop if all students received full and equal financial aid. It's up to Workshop alumni, donors, and the University to help bring this about.
Since so many students end up teaching creative writing studio for the English Department, what would you think of a kind of "boot camp" seminar that would give everyone at least a ground-level familiarity with the mechanics and terminology of poetry and fiction? The big stack of materials our class got seemed unwieldy.
Stay tuned on this--I'm aware of the situation and I'm definitely going to undertake an investigation.
Do you plan to retain the Workshop's focus on writing and the de-emphasis on the formal bureaucratic processes found in most graduate programs?
For the past seventy years, the Workshop has given our country an outsized percentage of its most accomplished and farsighted poets and novelists. As a Workshop graduate, I have enormous love for the place both as an institution and as an potent--and, in certain necessary ways, untamed--community where much of the work that takes place is undeniably mysterious. In other words, the work in this place has thrived to some extent because people are left alone. I don't want to enforce strictness on the creative process. However, I would like to encourage everyone in this community to think about the needs of his or her own artistic education. I want you all to feel free to take what you need from our rich community and its unmatched resources.
What are you working on in your own writing now?
I've been thinking a lot about the passage of time, which is, they say, the novelist's true subject. This fall, before a spate of traveling for the paperback of Inheritance, I wrote a 10,000 word draft about two characters who find themselves in a troubling love affair in which they are separated by time. I am waiting to see if this fragment will eventually grow into part of a novel or whether it would be best as something short.
Here is Part I of the interview, back in February 2005.