The majority of ‘lit-interested’ tourists visiting Ireland seem to show a preference for dead distingué, while ignoring a very vibrant ‘living writers’ scene. How will the new MFA in Creative Writing at American College Dublin concentrate on contemporary Irish authors and what their writing can offer students? The historical legacy of the Irish literary canon is extraordinary. Still, its weight can be a burden in terms of the perception of contemporary literary activity. The quality of writing produced in Ireland right now is remarkable. The recent Guinness world record Read For The World marathon event at the Irish Writers’ Centre was a striking snapshot of the excellence and breadth of the work of Ireland’s current writing fraternity. Over a hundred contemporary authors read from their works and the standard never flagged. It’s not surprising. A quality standard has been established in this country over a long period of time. Much as it’s hard to get anything less than an excellent espresso in Naples, the expected writing standard in Ireland is such that the general quality is very high – and the best of it is world class. And the writing environment is great. You need only attend a book launch on any given evening in Dublin, or indeed a random event at the Irish Writers’ Centre, to be impressed by the vitality, generosity and enthusiasm of Ireland’s writing culture in the here and now. Without wanting to gainsay the glories of the past – indeed, much of the MFA is delivered in Number One Merrion Square, the childhood home of Oscar Wilde – the programme seeks to tap into the rich and diverse resources of the present Irish writing and publishing scene, in terms of teachers, engagement with the contemporary Irish literary community, exposure to a wide variety of writing styles and approaches, and access to current publishing industry players and trends.
Who will be teaching on the MFA for the first year, what are their credentials? The writing workshops will be taught by Sean O’Reilly and Mike McCormack, both of whom are highly regarded authors and experienced teachers of creative writing. Sean is the author of a short story collection Curfew and Other Stories, novels Love and Sleep and The Swing of Things as well as an experimental novella Watermark. He is also contributing editor to the literary magazine The Stinging Fly and has a wide range of contacts in the Irish writing and publishing communities. Mike was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 1996 for his short story collection Getting it in the Head and has also published novels: Crowe’s Requiem and Notes from a Coma. He has been a writer in residence and teacher of creative writing at NUI Galway. The academic modules will be taught by our head of liberal arts, Dr Peter Sadowski and Dr Peter Rooney, both of whom have long experience teaching in the English literature field. There will also be a number of guest lecturers teaching on the publishing industry module in the second semester, among them agents, publishers, booksellers and publicists. The second semester also provides for master class presentations by a variety of well-known writers.
American College Dublin is a small University compared to most, but this surely has several advantages above some of the gargantuan institutions out there? The established institutions have many advantages over a small, private, not for profit college like ACD – vast resources, lofty reputations, the unswerving support of the state. But they are also, by nature, establishment-bound, conformist and conservative organisations. The state institutions have an internalised, inward-turning hierarchical culture that makes them genetically less predisposed to a programme of the sort we have developed – outward-looking, drawing heavily on interactions with the writing community outside the academy, open and reacting to the influences of non-academic prose practitioners and organisations. Make no mistake, the MFA is as academically demanding as any master’s level creative writing programme in Ireland. However, it does not limit itself to the confines of academia – it pursues an active and intimate engagement outside the walls of the academy with the current practice and practitioners of writing in Ireland today.
Could a compendium of courses by living Irish writers across many genres - the short story, the novel, artist as critic - make the point to the world Irish literature is not parked in the past but is very much part of the present? Exactly, that’s the point. The achievements of Ireland’s literary past are astonishing. We’re right to treasure them. We’re delighted to be able to deliver a creative writing programme in the childhood home of Oscar Wilde. But let’s use those historical associations as inspiration for new achievement, not huddle meekly in their shadow. There’s a richness of writing in Ireland today. Let’s celebrate that. Forget the robber bankers, the vapid ephemera of the recession, the gloom – writers and writing are building new monuments right now – ones that will stand long after the last ghost estate is bulldozed. We’re living in an exciting age for literary endeavour. This MFA wants to be a part of that.
Do you hope this course will allow students to see 21st century Ireland through a modernist prism, to observe a country not through the misty lens of rural Celtic arcadia and theme-park Paddy-Whackery!? There are no prescriptions on subject matter or interpretive approaches. The students’ themes may or may not be Irish, and the programme accommodates all manner of writing styles. The only thing that the programme insists upon is that the writing is done well. Having said that, students will be encouraged to develop material that steers clear of cliché, that is located in original experience and perception and reflects their own imaginative impulses. Some of that process may involve referencing of historical issues, popular imagery, popular culture. On the whole, the direction of the course is geared towards the production of material that is engaged with the writer’s contemporary concerns, rather than the creation of self-consciously canonical works.
The publishing industry and how writers are ‘getting their work out there’ is changing rapidly at the moment, so much so, it will be hard to apply the usual retrospective learning techniques to a module on publishing, for instance, how do you propose to overcome this? With difficulty! The pace of change in publishing is such that whatever you describe today will be different tomorrow. We’ll be using a team teaching approach on the publishing module in order to cover the gamut of publishing possibilities available. There are challenges in publishing as there are in all sectors of the economy. That said, the new technologies mean there are a lot of opportunities for getting work into the public domain. Alongside a full coverage of mainstream hard copy publishing and marketing in the programme, the class will also hear a lot from industry experts in present and emerging fields in electronic publishing, social media and the like.
How cost effective is the course for US students? Very. The tuition for the course is €8,000, currently about $10,000. Add accommodation and expenses for the year and return airfare and the total outlay is competitive by US standards for a master’s degree in creative writing – especially when you throw in the overseas experience in Dublin, a literary epicentre and as stimulating a city for the creatively inclined as you could expect to find. One important matter to note for US students – American College Dublin’s accreditation with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education means the MFA, like all the institution’s programmes, is eligible for US federal financial aid.
What other resources and add-ons will be available to students during the year? The programme’s association with the Irish Writers’ Centre is the first that springs to mind. Although most of the classes will be delivered at ACD’s Oscar Wilde House on Merrion Square, there will be regular programme events at the Centre. Students will be members of the IWC for the duration of the course, and will be encouraged to be fully involved with its community of writers and to participate in its schedule of activities, such as the novel fair and publishing days. It may be whimsy, but we also like to think that the regular peregrinations between ACD’s campus on Merrion Square and the IWC building on Parnell Square will provide a stimulus for the students’ creative processes!
Would one of the key achievements of the course be the production of real material from students potentially for publishers…to have this course as a practical launch-pad for writing careers on both sides of the Atlantic? That’s the ultimate goal. First and foremost, we want to work with the students so that they are producing material that is of a publishable standard and represents the best of their abilities. Over those processes we have a lot of direct influence. The goal of publication follows on from those primary aims and, although we cannot guarantee publication post-graduation and have a limited influence over such decisions, the course will do everything it can in terms of technical instruction, advice, motivation and education in how publishing works to facilitate the students in developing careers as writers.
When is the deadline for application(s) and how can people apply? The course begins the week of 17 September. We will be accepting applications up until the course fills, which we trust will be before then! Potential applicants can ring our admissions office for guidance on the application process at 01-676-8939, or applications can be made directly online through our website at www.amcd.ie.
June Caldwell in conversation with Rory McEntegart before the start of the new MFA. Rory has been with American College Dublin since its foundation in September 1993, serving as Lecturer in History until 2001 and later as Academic Dean. He holds a BA in History and Politics from the University of Auckland, an MPhil in Reformation and Enlightenment Studies from Trinity College Dublin and a PhD from the London School of Economics. He is the author of Henry VIII, the League of Schmalkalden and the English Reformation, as well as numerous chapters, articles and reviews in historical books and journals. His current research is concerned with Assertio septem sacramentorum and the development of the theology of Henry VIII and the culture of religious discourse in England in the 1520s. Rory was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2007.