We thought it’d be nice to get voices of new admits for the blog, and incoming fiction writer Patrick Henry was nice enough to talk with me about his background and his reasons for pursing an MFA at Rutgers-Newark.
KM: Tell us a little bit about your background. Where do you hail from and how did that prepare you (or not) for the writing life?
PH: Until my move to Newark a little over a week ago, I spent my life in central Pennsylvania. I was raised in the town of Bellwood, which is about eight miles outside of Altoona, an old railroad hub on the mainline from Philly to Chicago. Altoona’s suffered and crumbled, and I usually joke that the only things you’ll find there are collapsing department stores and rusted trains. But it’s an interesting place to consider for a setting, because it’s this decrepit industrial city surrounded by farms, forests, and small towns whose residents are trapped in the haze of high school football glory days. After graduating from high school, I attended Susquehanna University, where I double-majored in Political Science and Creative Writing. Though the combination seems a strange one at first glance, I feel that my political science foci—law and state politics—complemented my writing. First of all, political science courses provided excellent tools for analysis, for taking apart the reality of a story and seeing how it pieces together. But it also reminded me that the best students, writers, and researchers need to get out of the classroom. If it’s not your style, you don’t have to do the sort of Jack Kerouac cruise across the country, but you have to remember that there’s more to life than art.
KM: I see you already have your MA from Bucknell. What was that like?
PH: I attended Bucknell because the program offered an opportunity for me to pursue my interest in literary criticism while being able to take at least one fiction workshop. I believe that writers and critics are equally valuable; while an excellent writer should be able to strike at a person’s soul and intimate a reader with the private nature of a fictional world, an excellent critic should be deft enough of a writer (be the essay for an academic or general audience) to convince readers that they need to pick up a particular book.
KM: So, what made you want to pursue an MFA degree, specifically an MFA at Rutgers-Newark?
PH: Though I do see myself pursuing a PhD in the future, an MFA in Creative Writing seemed like the logical next step. I applied to schools where my mentors received their Master’s degrees as well as a few others that I held in high esteem. I first heard about the Rutgers program from my fiction mentor at Susquehanna, Tom Bailey, during fall of 2009; Tom spoke to the program’s strength, and he also told me about how much Nick Ripatrazone—another Susquehanna alum—was loving the program. When I spoke to my fiction instructor at Bucknell, Porochista Khakpour, she basically reiterated all the positives I had heard from Tom: an energetic faculty, extensive reading series, rigorous but fun workshops, and a community of writers brought together by readings and events.
KM: What aspects of the program were the biggest draw?
PH: I visited the campus in April, after I had accepted, and meeting Jayne Anne, Alice, and Tayari—as well as a number of the MFA students—convinced me I had made the right choice. Here was a community of writers who demonstrated that they work hard but have fun doing it, and sitting in on Jayne Anne’s workshop that evening revealed the mentality of R-N MFA students—helping each other with sharp, insightful critiques and searching for the chinks in a narrative’s armor, all with the intention of assisting each other in generating the strongest stories they can. The reading series was another draw; when I was first looking at R-N’s reading series, I was surprised to see that R-N has perhaps the most ambitious schedule of visiting authors in American MFA programs.
KM: So, you’re living in Newark. How’s the transition been?
PH: The most intimidating aspect of the program isn’t, ironically, actually associated with the program itself; it’s been getting used to Newark, which is the antithesis of rural Pennsylvania. I’ve spent the better part of my time here trying to find my way around, and I’ve already been accosted by my fair share of bus drivers and panhandlers. What surprises me the most is how, just across one block, you can see the city transforming into different neighborhoods, each with their own atmospheres. Like I mentioned before, I’ve been stuck in the white bread culture of rural Pennsylvania for my entire life, so I find this diversity new and interesting.
KM: Looks like we’re both in Alice’s workshop this fall. How have you been preparing for the new semester?
PH: I’ve spent a lot of time traveling, mostly by train, and so I’ve been devouring about four or five books a week. Instead of focusing on hammering out full stories, I’ve worked more on generating individual scenes and building up a folder of character sketches and scenes that I might be able to rework when I hit a roadblock.