An Interview with Alum Samara Kanegis

Samara Kanegis, Fiction ‘12, is a playwright, fiction writer, and poet from New York City. Her work has been published in Ploughshares, The Goucher Quarterly, and Manhattan Theater Society’s Anthology Estrogenius. Her plays have been seen at Manhattan Theatre Source, New York’s Makor/Steinhardt Center, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Living Image Arts on Theatre Row, Wings Theatre, the Irish Rep NYC, and Delaware City Theatre Company. Her full-length play, Infinite Potential, was commissioned by New York’s Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and also received a production there. She has received the Reese Award for a fiction collection from Goucher College, the Women Writing About Women Award for fiction, as well as a nomination for the Ruth Lily Poetry Fellowship. While at Warren Wilson, Samara received the Lissel Mueller Scholarship from Friends of Writers to support the completion of her MFA .


I had the opportunity to ask Samara a few questions about her life before and after the MFA Program, how her writing life has changed since completing the program, and what she’s currently working on.


Can you tell me a little about your life before the MFA Progam for Writers?

I studied and wrote fiction and poetry as an undergraduate at Goucher College, with Madison Smartt Bell and Elizabeth Spires, who were both incredibly supportive, then bounced back to theatre and spent a long stint in NYC, studying playwriting at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, writing and workshopping plays, seeing plays.  A play is very much like a poem I think, in the necessity for distilled language, the possibility of extended metaphors, and the way meaning can rise out of the whole without ever being directly said.  But, a play also requires someone to need something, to pursue something.  I was struggling with this concept while writing a full length play (with a deadline!) and so temporarily “escaped” into writing fiction again, except this time, I tried making one of my characters need something.  And writing fiction became much more interesting.  Which led to my pursuing an MFA at Warren Wilson, a truly wonderful experience.


What was Warren Wilson like for you?

My time at Warren Wilson was life-changing in ways it’s hard to explain sometimes because the changes were so interior, but there are many I think of often.  On a personal level, I learned some hard and long-overdue lessons about being accountable and pushing through my blocks in order to finish things (from the most supportive people I could wish for).

I spent my essay semester reading and writing about William Trevor’s work, and honestly I’d have to say that is probably what most stays with me, in my current reading and writing.  I’m STILL absorbing his use of rotating viewpoints and structure to create riveting emotional situations that are then “spoken” quietly, with that kind of common man’s poetry.  And what’s best about this is I’m not really thinking about it consciously anymore, but I’ll suddenly realize while reading that someone has accomplished something similar, or that they’ve not accomplished it, and I’m mulling over those structural concepts in my own writing without even intending to.  My essay semester was spent in almost constant argument with my great advisor, Megan Staffel, who kept telling me Love and Summer was about point of view, and I disagreed, and disagreed, until suddenly it all became a revelation.  It was like a Zen Koan.  And after that I just couldn’t read the same way.  Which is good.


You work in several genres and have received awards, publication, and recognition in each. Can you tell me more about your work?

I’ve always bounced around between genres in my writing.  When I feel burned out or stuck (or have a deadline) for a story, I’ll suddenly have bursts of inspiration to write a poem or play, and vice versa.  I’m always working on about ten things simultaneously, a little of one, then a little of the other.  This could be avoidance, indecisiveness, who knows…but if managed correctly that tendency to jump from thing to thing can also be productive.  Each piece I’m working on informs or connects with the others unintentionally.   I always take heart from the fact that Beckett wrote “Waiting For Godot” as a break while struggling with prose (his novel trilogy).  Anything I begin as an escape from something else, something hard, has a kind of flow and freedom and purity that I can’t reach very easily otherwise.  Of course, I then have to return to that “hard” task, but often, it’s no longer so difficult.
How has your writing life changed since the MFA?

My writing life post-MFA is different I would say mostly in not having deadlines. Deadlines that I believe in, for real.  I’m the kid who pulled all-nighters for every paper or test, so for me, deadlines help me push through blocks and complete things I otherwise feel perfectly free to leave unfinished indefinitely.  On the good side, though, despite no longer having “mentors” and the social community of the residencies, I still “hear” the encouragement of my mentors and peers, it’s there in my head alongside the inner critic and the censor, balancing it all out.  That’s maybe the best long term benefit of this program, for me. And, of course, the friends.


Recently, you had the opportunity mentor students yourself as a visiting writer at Gavilan College. What was that experience like?

I had a really wonderful time at Gavilan College as a visiting writer, and was so glad my Warren Wilson peer, Kimberly Jean Smith, brought me in to teach.  It was soon after graduating from Warren Wilson, and for me, a real treat to have the chance to work with a completely different and diverse community of mostly beginning writers.  Along with teaching a more literary/craft oriented seminar, I was able to visit a poetry class, give a public reading, and most happily, conduct a playwriting workshop where the participants worked on short scenes and read them aloud.  Some people were writers, some were there, I think, for extra credit.  One young woman was there with her mother, who didn’t understand my definition of dialogue. “It’s like texting,” she explained.  And that’s true!  Some dark and amazing stories were shared in dialogue, between fictional characters- the best place for dark stories. I would love to do more of this kind of work with adult learners, in particular seniors who’d like to use their life stories in forms other than memoir.


What projects are you working on these days?

Currently I’m working on several short stories and a novella that will complete the collection I began during my time in the MFA program.   I also have my “escape” projects:  a few TV pilots, a grown up novel, a children’s book, and the beginnings of a blog.  I’m finding myself suddenly, obsessively interested in the history of New York City and how people of the future might look back on our time in the city, so that is also finding its way into a lot of my work.

We live in NYC, but are in transition due to making sure our daughter is in a good public school when she starts kindergarten this coming fall.  So we’ll see where we end up!  Life outside of work has a LOT to do with my daughter- spending time with her, going to museums, reading books, making art and food, having increasingly complex philosophical conversations (she’s especially interested, my four year old, in how humans will evolve in the future, and wants to become a police detective)


The Lisel Mueller Scholarship was provided to Samara Kanegis by Friends of Writers.  This endowed fund provides an annual, non-renewable scholarship to enrolled students with small children.  No application is required.