Interview with Holden Scholar Fred Arroyo

Posted on Feb 22, 2016

Arroyo Photo for WW Interview

Fred Arroyo (Fiction, 1997) was the Program’s first Holden Scholarship recipient. He has published two books, The Region of Lost Names: A Novel (2008) and Western Avenue and Other Fictions (2012), shortlisted for the 2014 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. He is currently completing a book of literary nonfiction, Second Country: Stories in Memory, and is also working on a novel, Fruits of Paradise. Fred’s fiction has been included in the Library of Congress series “Spotlight on U.S. Hispanic Writers.” This spring Fred will take part in the Voices of the Middle West festival.

 

 

You graduated in 1997, and since then you’ve earned a PhD, published two books, and taught creative writing at several universities. With 18 years and a lot of work between your time at Warren Wilson and now, are there specific experiences or insights from the program that you continue to find useful?  

This past summer I stayed in a farmhouse in Maine, and on a bookshelf in the front room I discovered this thick book: World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, by Christian McEwen. Each morning I sat on the screened-in front porch with coffee and read, and occasionally wrote small paragraphs. A green hummingbird visited almost every day, and I would look up, follow its thundering wings for a bit, and then look further to the inlet filling with the tide, and the changing colors of sky and ocean. When I left the farmhouse and the book, I was on the road for another six weeks. Recently, I got my own copy of World Enough & Time to continue reading. I begin with this brief story, I suppose, because this summer was the first time in some 25 years that I made a conscious effort not to write. Except for those few small paragraphs in the slow quiet mornings, I didn’t have a regular writing practice for some three months. I needed a break, a pause, from my hectic world. And this time reminded me of something very important I value from the Program for Writers: the slow, patient discovery of art and craft. When I started in the program my fiction writing might have been characterized as arising from lyrical haste. I was filled with all these lush images and memories. Feelings and stories I could write quickly because I was in love with words. And although folks admired my lyricism, I needed the program to help me hone or contain or form that lyricism into a realized story. I had a gift, it seemed, and I had to discover how I might shape that gift. From the program I learned to inhabit or wallow more slowly and patiently in the art and craft of fiction writing. Beginning to read literature at the age of 22 was a revelation—and I read through stacks of books with wonder and awe. But when I joined the program, I needed the focus and precision of the annotations to help me read like a writer. My sense of time (reading and writing) became much more particular and detailed, focused on smaller wonders, because of the annotations, and this process helped me greatly to understand the personal possibilities of my art and craft.

Over the years I’ve become fascinated with the story behind the story, or what might be called the natural history of our stories, and how it is necessary to explore the story behind our practices, processes, and craft so they can become a vital source for how we create aesthetic equality, elegance, and form. The story behind the story, as Richard Russo once pointed out, “brings home the fact that our struggles with our material is as individual as we are, as individual as the motives that impelled us to write stories in the first place.” I think I first encountered this very possibility in writing my critical thesis—that was the crux, the crossroads, the crucial moment of taking my writing to where it needed to go. And my mentor guided me in a way that helped intensify and capitalize on my individual struggles and motives. I never forget that. Now, every three or four months, I choose a writer to turn to, and arrange close to my desk their fiction, a book of their letters or nonfiction, and a biography or perhaps some criticism. I re-create, through my reading and the writing of brief annotations and reflections in my notebook, the experience of the critical essay semester. I need this to happen two or three times a year so I can affirm my writing life, so I can experience curiosity and wonder as I imagine new possibilities for my writing. I must add, moreover, another essential quality of the program I return to: the writing of the packet letter. That is, the generous, illuminating, and caring dialogue that arose in those letters with my mentors. All my mentors seemed to write to me as if there was no writing more important than mine. Each mentor reflected on, responded to, and pushed me to consider further how I was describing and naming my art and craft. Recently, for example, I’ve been reading as much Patrick Modiano as I can. I try to trace how festina lente, hurry slowly, is composed in his pages, and how he places a simile at the exact space in the novel so it seems both inevitable and surprising in illuminating the dramatic forces of memory and forgetting. From this reading, I write notes that, to my way of thinking, might become a letter to one of my mentors. Or to Modiano himself. A letter exploring how I’m trying to develop my art and craft.

 

In addition to honing your craft in the program, did you know that you also wanted to teach creative writing? I’m curious whether those two skills (writing and teaching) are acquired simultaneously, as they are gathered from the same source, or whether your own writing had to come first, or something else altogether.

I did want to teach creative writing. Very early I had a small dream. It contained an old house or apartment, a kitchen with light and a table to write at in the morning, and for work I’d teach at a community college. The dream was rural, always fall or winter, and I’d spend many hours at the table with my writing and student writings. That idea of a future probably started because I had already spent years writing at a kitchen table, and my education began at a community college. Later, I was working on an MA in creative writing, and I had to immediately begin teaching the first semester. My writing and teaching were suddenly connected, and I didn’t see any great divide between them. Each semester I was teaching poems and stories I had recently encountered and was passionate about, and I was certain that to be a writer one had to read voraciously, minutely, in order to get as close as possible to how a writer discovered and shaped the creativity and power of language. About a year before I applied to the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, I took a trip to Montana; I wanted to visit Livingston and Missoula because they were places connected to writers I admired, and I was thinking of applying to the MFA program at the University of Montana. One day—this was July, no classes in session—I was walking around the campus and decided to go into a building where the English department was housed. Down some hall I opened a classroom door. The tables where arranged in a squared circle, and I remember that over the chalkboard there was a series of framed photographs, perhaps eight by twelve, of various teachers and writers. Richard Hugo was in the center. There was an electric magic in the room. I suppose this is naïve to admit in this day and age, but it was essential to read The Triggering Town, Making Certain It Goes On, and The Real West Marginal Way during that time in my life, to immediately feel the possibility of a life guided by teaching and writing. When I started in the Program for Writers and experienced the creative, intellectual, illuminating, and nurturing teaching and learning found in the workshops, classes and lectures, or talking outside after the evening’s readings with fellow writers, I felt that magic continuing as I discovered new possibilities for teaching and writing.

Yes, writing and teaching were connected very early. And that seems right to me on an intuitive level. If you take six months to read, read, and reread a James Joyce story that not one detail of its form and content to goes unexamined, if you read that story so much you begin to dream it even when you are not reading it, you begin to understand the primary power of that kind of reading, the importance of discovering models, of choosing to immerse yourself in the craft and art of fiction writing. You can begin to possess it. You begin to know how certain poems, stories, and books are our best teachers. You try to take these possibilities into the classroom and workshop. These were particulars I was gaining from the Program, and they helped me to know that teaching and writing can be “acquired simultaneously.” At the same time, however, I have had to see my writing as separate from my teaching. Some teacher-writers talk of not writing when teaching. I always wake early, usually around 5:00, and write until 7:00 on a teaching day, and then my writing is with me all day ruminating in the background. I try to make one day a week—usually Thursday—a “stay at home day.” Turn off the phone, don’t check email, and put in a very sustained and immersed day of writing. I create reading projects for myself, too. It’s a struggle, though, keeping the writing and teaching separated. We are always writing whether we’re sitting at the desk, and I suppose, in some ways, we are always teaching even if we are not in a classroom. Or better yet, in my case, I am always a student who dwells in the possibility of learning. Not trying to learn everything so much as learn something else I can take into my narrative art.

 

How, if at all, has your definition of a “successful writer” evolved or changed over time?(As a thirty-four-year-old recent-graduate with one published story, I’m still expecting a Nobel—preferably for literature.)

Your question says it best for me. Writing is so closely aligned with belief; I imagine that one’s definition of himself as a writer is always changing. I believe my identity as a writer is always changing or evolving. All I ever wanted was to have a writing life. I wanted to write regularly, I wanted to continue exploring, inventing, and discovering writing. I’ve tried to take out the “successful” part because I can’t seem to live up to or understand what others bring to that. And, even so, I find I write from a sense of failure. Four years or so before I enrolled in the Program for Writers, I was failing a remedial English class at a community college. I had grown up bilingual, and yet for all that language I was rather silent, and probably linguistically confused given that all my education was in English. I was a terrible student. Books were never very important at home. Jorge Louis Borges once said, “If I were asked to name the chief event in my life, I should say my father’s library. In fact, sometimes I think I have never strayed outside that library.” Borges was remembering the importance of his father’s literal library. My experience was similar, albeit my father’s library contained a story that had never been written: the story of my father having only a third-grade education because his own father made him go to work. This was a story I couldn’t understand how to read—it seemed too fantastical, strange, and foreign as I finally tried to make sense of it in my teens growing up in Michigan. It was unbelievable, and it became something better to forget, better to silence. I still find it incredible that I imagined I could be a writer. Actually, I can’t really dwell on that too much or all the belief will escape from my writing room like a slowly deflating balloon.

I was lucky, fortunate that for some reason I started writing paragraphs in a notebook. I was lucky that a teacher read some of them, talked to me about them, asked me to write more of them, and then took the time to help me discover what my writing might do. Later, the writer Chuck Wachtel was my teacher, and he told me that I had promise but I was writing too much for him to keep up with it, and he was concerned that I needed to work with others if my promise was to grow. He recommended that I apply to the Program. I was accepted into the Program, and I am fortunate that they saw something in my writing, that they believed in my writing. Essentially, writing has been a gift to my life. And there’s a mystery to this gift I don’t want to destroy, let alone understand. What I can do is continue to recognize the gift I’ve been offered, try to create a life where that gift can continue to reside, and continue to discover what my writing can accomplish. In the last year I’ve written some 18 to 20 stories I haven’t thrown away. In each one I felt a great amount of impossibility and failure. But I stayed with them, revised the sentences, rearranged them, discovered what I needed to invent, what to subtract. I learned, once again, even after all these years of writing, to accept “success” one story at a time.

 

 

Friends of Writers endowed the Holden Scholarship and provides a range of other financial support to students in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

Follow this link to add your support to Friends of Writers: http://friendsofwriters.org/donate/

 

 

Adam Jernigan (fiction, January ’15) received The Carol Houck Smith Scholarship in July 2014. He lives in Black Mountain, North Carolina.