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May 16, 2014
By Julie Buntin
How much does an M.F.A. have to do with a writer’s success?

In 2010, it was Téa Obreht (Cornell ’09) with The Tiger’s Wife. In 2011, it was Chad Harbach (Virginia ’04) with The Art of Fielding. In 2012, it was Karen Russell (Columbia ’06) with her Pulitzer-finalist Swamplandia!, and a year or two from now, it will be Garth Hallberg (NYU ’06). Knopf recently purchased the 34-year-old author’s 900-page debut novel, City of Fire, after a bidding war escalated the closing price to nearly $2 million. But how much does an M.F.A. have to do with a writer’s success?

Nickolas Butler, whose Shotgun Lovesongs is one of the most anticipated fiction debuts of this spring, credits his M.F.A. for his success. He started the book while enrolled in Iowa’s M.F.A. program. There, Butler met agent Rob McQuilkin, who went on to negotiate the sale of Butler’s first book to Katie Gilligan at St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne Books. Danielle Evans, author of the acclaimed short story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (Riverhead, 2010), also met her agent, Ayesha Pande, during agent-student meetings orchestrated by Iowa’s M.F.A. program.

Exposure to agents and editors is often one of an M.F.A. program’s major selling points. The New School, UC-Irvine, Columbia College, Michigan, and Houston all make no secret of their efforts to introduce students to industry insiders. Sonja Condit first made contact with her agent, Jenny Bent, when Bent was visiting Converse College’s M.F.A. low-residency program while Condit was a student there. Starter Home, Condit’s debut, was published by Morrow in December 2013.

Lorrie Moore, who taught in the M.F.A. program at University of Wisconsin–Madison for 25 years and recently began a new gig at Vanderbilt, has watched many students transition from apprentices in the classroom to highly successful published authors. “A surprising number of my students do go on to become writers,” she says. Two of her former students, Emma Straub (The Vacationers, May) and Chloe Benjamin (The Anatomy of Dreams, Sept.), both thank Moore in the acknowledgments of their upcoming books. Moore, too, is an M.F.A. graduate; her first story collection, Self Help, is largely composed of pieces from her Cornell thesis.

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Stony Brook’s M.F.A. program has seen a recent spate of graduates go on to publish evolved versions of their M.F.A. thesis manuscripts. Helen Simonson’s bestselling novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, began as her thesis; fellow alum Victor Gianni recently inked a deal to publish his M.F.A. thesis, Counselor, with Silverthought Press. The University of New Orleans also boasts an award-winning roster of M.F.A. alumni, including former Stegner Fellow Skip Horack, who won the Bakeless Literary Prize and has published titles with Counterpoint and Mariner Books.

Julia Pierpont, who graduated from NYU’s M.F.A., sold her first novel at auction to Noah Eaker at Random House while she was still in workshop. “Being in the program helped me create the right mind-set both for writing the book and selling it,” Pierpont says. Pierpont’s agent, Elyse Cheney sold Among the Ten Thousand Things, the story of a New York family falling apart, in 2012 for six-figures. Pierpont wrote its first pages in Zadie Smith’s workshop.

But what about graduates whose deals aren’t lucrative enough to make headlines? Many writers wielding M.F.A.s are building careers in the indie lit world. The first collection of stories from current Michener Fellow Kelly Luce, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, was also the debut title from the Austin, Tex., indie-publisher A Strange Object. “Being in the same city for grad school meant I got to work more closely with my editors than I otherwise would have. We got a lot of support and attention from the city’s lit community,” says Luce. The book received glowing reviews, including a star from Publishers Weekly, and was mentioned by the New York Times in an article about Austin’s literary scene.

Nouvella Press, a novella-only print publisher formerly known as Flatmancrooked, has published M.F.A. grads from Iowa, Wisconsin, Emerson, and Syracuse, among others—one of its authors, Edan Lepucki (Iowa ’06) has a debut novel from Little, Brown coming out this June. Sarabande Books, a 20-year-old indie, just released Praying Drunk, the second collection of stories by Kyle Minor, a graduate of the M.F.A. programs at Ohio State and Iowa. Many poets have found their publishing home at Sarabande, too, including Kathleen Ossip (New School ’00), Rick Bursky (Warren Wilson), and the genre-defying Ander Monson (Alabama). Still, despite these successes, writers asked about their experience getting an M.F.A. are more likely to wax nostalgic than discuss publication details, signifying that for many, a program’s real value is intangible. “Iowa gave me freedom and time and community,” says Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams, which just weeks ago landed Graywolf Press a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. “I had room to experiment, to discover different approaches to writing. I crossed paths with Charlie D’Ambrosio, one of the most important mentors of my life. The community at Iowa didn’t end when I left: it persists across distances, in feedback and commiseration.”

In fact, Charles D’Ambrosio, too, graduated from Iowa’s M.F.A. program, class of ’91.

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