Alumni Achievement Award
A Conversation with Darin Strauss, Alumni Achievement Award Winner

Darin Strauss (M.F.A. '97) is the author of the internationally bestselling novels Chang & Eng, The Real McCoy, and More Than It Hurts You, which have been translated into fourteen languages and published in nineteen countries. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the American Library Association's Alex Award, and his books have been listed as New York Times Notable Books and NPR's Best Books of the Year. His most recent work, Half a Life, won the National Book Critics Circle award and is a memoir that explores the tragic repercussions of a car accident in which Strauss was involved as a teenager. He is currently a Clinical Associate Professor in NYU's Creative Writing program.

Q: What led to your decision to pursue a master's degree? Why did you choose GSAS?
A: I didn’t think I wanted to be a writer until I had that car accident [chronicled in Half a Life] and then I started focusing on writing in college. I went to Tufts University and one of my professors, Jay Cantor, encouraged me to get an M.F.A. He had published a book called Krazy Kat, which was a best seller, and he had just won the [MacArthur] “Genius” Grant so I thought “Oh, that’s what it’s like being a writer; someone gives you $500,000 for nothing.” It didn’t seem as hard as it ended up being. I knew I wanted to go NYU above anywhere else because I wanted to be in New York City and I wanted to study with E. L. Doctorow. Actually, I applied to NYU and Columbia, and the first time around they rejected me but then I ended up teaching at both.

I reapplied and I got into NYU the next year. It was a good lesson because there’s a lot of rejection in this business and so many really good writers I who know were rejected when they applied for an M.F.A. Even David Foster Wallace got rejected everywhere he applied except for Arizona State, but he wanted to go to Iowa, or NYU.

Q: What are the benefits of a graduate education for creative writers?
A: That’s a tough one. If you need to clear away the brush of all your distractions it’s a good way to make space and time for writing in your life. I do believe that writing can be taught. I think there’s a ceiling of how good a writer can be without in-born talent, but I remember talking to Jonathan Lethem (who used to teach at NYU) and he said he thought talent had nothing to do with becoming a successful writer, it all comes down to dedication and work.

The nice thing about being in an M.F.A. program is that you can benefit from other peoples’ work and the tricks that writers had to develop on their own can now be passed on. Maybe there’s something lost when people don’t put in all the “woodshedding” time themselves. I recommend that if you want to be a writer, and think you want to get an M.F.A., find out where your favorite writer teaches and study with that person, because so many professional writers teach today. Years ago, if you liked Hemingway, Faulkner, or Fitzgerald you would just read their books. But now if you like Jonathan Safran Foer, you can come to NYU. Or if you like Gary Shteyngart, you can go to Columbia. Or Lorrie Moore, you can go to [the University of] Wisconsin [Madison]. It’s nice.

Q: What was memorable about your experience as a student at NYU, both while studying within a community of your peers and also living in New York City?
A: To be honest with you, I didn't feel much of a sense of community in the MFA program as a student here. But luckily Deborah Landau, who runs the program now, has done such a great job and we have this amazing house at 58 West 10th Street. The Lillian Vernon Writers House has created a community because writers hang out here and there are readings maybe four nights a week. So I feel a greater sense of community with the students now than I did when I was a student.

Another great benefit to the program is that fact that Lillian Vernon donated money and that's allowed NYU to attract its amazing faculty. When I was a student we didn't have the faculty that's here now. It allows us to not only hire the best writers but also pay visiting writers to come speak, so that really benefits the students. Also, when I was a student, there were not as many scholarships as there are now and that's because people are generously giving. These donations have made this program arguably the best in country.

And being a student in New York is great. I often wonder how important it is to be in New York if you want to be a fiction writer, because so much of [the] publishing [industry] is here, and so many writers live here and give readings. It probably is a career benefit just to live here. A good chunk of my friends are professional writers now, and it's obviously because of where I live. We can talk shop [because we understand] the anxieties of being a writer. We don't necessarily talk the craft of writing so much. Many of us teach, so we're happy to turn off that part of our brain, but we can talk about this crazy career that has so little job security. I'm in a poker game with other writers and it's nice to blow off steam with them. We have a lot of good writers in the game: Colson Whitehead, Nathan Englander, Myla Goldberg, John Wray, Jonathan Lethem (before he moved to California), Hannah Tinti, and John Hodgeman.

Q: Who wins the most money?
A: Colson is a good, good card player. And Colson taught here at NYU last year.

Q: What brought you back to NYU to teach?
A: I was teaching at Columbia and it didn't have the nice vibe that this place has now. So when Deborah asked, I was very excited to join the faculty. I was about to have kids so I was glad for the benefits and being in the community of so many talented writers is very rare. So I feel lucky.

I was here one summer day and I was working on Half a Life, and Jonathan Safran Foer was working on Eating Animals and Zadie Smith was working on a book and Anne Carson was working on something, so it was a lot writers working all in one place and it felt very electric. We weren't sharing our work but I knew they were working on fiction or poetry in the house, which was really cool.

Q: Can you tell me about the classes you're teaching?
A: I teach one graduate and one undergraduate class each semester. I switch off teaching craft classes and workshops for the grads and I teach a workshop for the undergrads. In workshop, students read one another's work and look at it critically. The main thing I try to do is get them to read as writers; that means not reading for pleasure anymore but talking about what's working and how. We also examine how you can learn more from things that don't work than you can from things that do work. Craft classes are like literature classes but without the normal focus; we don't talk about the theme or societal impact of a book, or the authorial history. We look at the nuts and bolts of it: how the plot works, how characters are built, whether the language is working. We talk about the construction of the book and its flaws, sometimes.

Q: What do you find the difference is between your graduate and your undergraduate students?
A: Not that much actually. I teach advanced undergrads so they're really good. The level of storytelling ability is always surprising. Maybe this is because we're inundated with so much narrative; we all watch so many movies and TV shows that these kids know how to put a story together. However, few of them really engage with books in the way that writers should so I think that there's still a lot they can learn, but there is a baseline level of skill that didn't exist when I was an undergrad. Everyone talks about the decline of the American student, but I think, in terms of storytelling, there's probably been improvement. It's kind of like the four-minute mile. People used to say that you couldn't run a mile in four minutes but now it happens all the time.

The grad students are more challenging, in a way. Being an undergrad professor feels like being a college coach of a basketball team. You can get in there and teach. Whereas, with the grad students, it's more like the NBA. They already have their skills figured out and they already have their aesthetics. They know what they want to do, so there's not as much room to teach, but it's also very gratifying because they're really talented. I've had some students who are publishing books and that's exciting.

Q: How old were you when you published your first novel?
A: I sold my book when I was twenty-eight, so I was either twenty-nine or thirty when it came out. I knew thirty was my self-imposed deadline. I figured if I didn’t sell it by the time I was thirty I would have to reconsider. I probably wouldn’t have reconsidered but I wanted to scare myself into it. Honestly, I don’t think there’s any cutoff. That’s the thing I learned from Doctorow when I was in grad school. I took two years off after college and when I was in grad school, the guy who was my agent was also a writer and he sold one of his stories to The Paris Review. The woman I was dating was a grad student and she also sold a story to The Paris Review and I sold no stories anywhere, so I was sort of freaked out. And Doctorow said, “It’s not a race.” That was the most beneficial thing he could have said, career-wise. He was the oldest of his friends to publish a book and the only one who’s still in print. No one cares how old you are except for you. There’s no tantamount benefit of publishing your first book at thirty-five as opposed to twenty-six, so make it good.

Q: How has your experience as a GSAS graduate affected your role as a professor?
A: [As a graduate] it helped my writing a lot because I had friends who I could show work to, who were also writing. In terms of teaching, I had spent years taking the same exact classes so was able to feel authoritative when I was on the other side of the table. I knew attending NYU would be educational in terms of how I wrote but I didn't know that it would also be educational for how I teach. It's funny, I used to think of myself as a writer who taught on the side but now I'm equally doing both.

Q: How do you balance writing now, with teaching?
A: It's hard. I try to teach all my classes in one day. I wake up early and spend that entire day preparing, then teaching the classes, and finally having office hours afterward. The other four days are reserved for writing and then I hopefully have the weekend to relax. I used to never need a weekend, I used to write seven days a week but now I have twin three-and-a-half year-old boys so I have to pitch in at home. My wife would not want me to write seven days a week, although I probably would be happy if I could at least write for an hour or two on the weekends. But I think someone once said that each kid you have costs you a book so I have two books at home who need to be fed.

Q: Are you working on anything right now?
A: Yes, I have a couple of projects now. I'm working on a literary novel that's due in two years. And then I have a young adult adventure trilogy that I'm writing with my friend David Lipsky. He also taught at NYU and is teaching here again. He's a good writer and a good friend.

Q: Is it fun to write together?
A: Sometimes. I mean, we're both kind of stubborn. I'm not used to collaborating because, as a fiction writer, you never have to collaborate and when you're a professor, you're at the head of the class, so it's reintroducing me to democratic principles. [It's no longer] one man, one book.

Q: Did you think about splitting it up, so you might write the first book, he'll write the second, and somehow you'll write the third one together?
A: No, but we're going to split up the writing of the first book in that way. Like he'll do chapter one and I'll do chapter two. And we'll see how it goes from there. We've done some of the writing already and it's been fun. David has a very quick mind so it's exciting to work with someone like that.

By Lily Ladewig, Special Projects Coordinator for GSAS. Her first collection of poems, The Silhouettes, will be published by SpringGun Press in 2012.

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