Q & A with Joshua Isard, author and MFA director
Joshua Isard is the author of the novel Conquistador of the Useless (Cinco Puntos Press, 2013), and his short stories have appeared in journals such as Wyvern Lit., Northwind, and New Pop Lit. He founded the MFA program in creative writing at Arcadia University and currently serves as its director. Joshua lives in the Philadelphia suburbs with his wife, daughter, son, and two cats. Visit him online (http://joshuaisard.com/) and follow him on Twitter: @JoshuaIsard.
GB: Josh, thank you for taking the time for this Q&A. My first question is usually: Can you share a little bit about yourself? What’s some background info worthy of noting for the readers? Any publications you’d like to self-plug?
JI: Happy to share, but I’m afraid my life is a bit boring. I grew up around Philly, and still live here — in the suburbs with my wife and two kids. I did get my graduate degrees from schools in Scotland and England, so I guess living over there was pretty cool, and does continue to influence my writing, but otherwise it’s all boring by design. I like it this way. Sixteen-year-old me would be ashamed…
Also happy to self-plug my novel, Conquistador of the Useless, which continues to be my favorite thing I’ve ever written. It’s available pretty much everywhere. Please buy it, I have kids to support…
GB: So you’re the founder and director of Arcadia University’s MFA program. Can you tell us a little bit about what it’s like to be on the educational side of creative writing? How did you get started and what influences did you experience to find a place on that side of the creativity?
JI: Yeah, so, there’s lots of debate right now about MFA programs and MFA culture. Some of it has to do with money, and I’m sympathetic to that issue, but I’m still paying my college and grad school loans and I haven’t missed a meal because of it — the finances are totally possible to manage. And grad students are grown-ups, they can see what they’re signing up for.
More to the point is the academic and artistic debate about MFA programs, and that’s where I feel really torn. To be honest, I don’t like a lot of writing that comes out of MFA programs. I think it tends to be stock, competent prose and relatively unimaginative stories. Often times, theme reads as heavy handed or shoehorned in.
I know that’s all general, but I’d need ten pages to go through specific examples. Trust me, I could.
However, all that’s inspired me to do things differently as an MFA director. When I was tapped to found this program in 2010 — which was largely due to my boss trusting me with a ton of responsibility and for which I can never adequately repay him — I knew I didn’t want the same old MFA program. So I designed it my way. For example, we work with literary writers and genre writers. We encourage our students who have some stranger, more alternative kinds of writing. We want to make our students better so they can reach their goals, not ours, because there’s lots of kinds of good writing.
That part of it’s been pretty invigorating.
Otherwise, you know, there are ups and downs, like any job. But that overall philosophy in my program, that I love.
GB: Do you have any advice for someone looking to get into that side of the craft? What kind of experiences should someone graduating from high school or college try to find in order to take a step in that direction?
JI: Getting into teaching creative writing is tough. It takes a lot of determination, a lot of teaching classes you don’t really want to in order to pay your dues, and the acceptance that there’s no a big financial reward at the end.
Teaching is a great job — I love it — but it is a job. It is not writing. In a way, there’s more pressure to write, given the publish-or-perish atmosphere of academia, and yet there’s no more time to write than one has with a regular office job. If you work at some magazine, no one’s evaluating your fiction output every year, that’s just for you. In academia though, it’s on your annual review. So, there’s more pressure to get stuff out there, which can be a good motivator, but also drive you crazy.
Point is, teaching creative writing is great, but I don’t like the idea that it’s the absolute 100% best career for someone writing fiction. It’s great for some people, not others. If you’re looking to get into teaching, really scrutinize if you’re the kind of person who will thrive in the academic environment, because I’ve seen it hinder people’s writing as much as facilitate it.
GB: Part of any great writing class is the analytical reading of contemporary and classic lit. I always tell my students that a good writer is a great reader. Do you have any similar models for your graduate students? Can you share a few pieces that you’re using? Any reads (short or long) you suggest we take a look at?
JI: Couldn’t agree more: reading is massive. Absolutely massive. Any budding writer who thinks sacrificing reading time for writing time is a good idea is dead wrong. I ask my grad students to read 8–10 books per semester, and the ones who do usually have the best results in their writing.
Despite the mediocrity of contemporary literary award winners (in my opinion, at least), there’s some great stuff out there these days. I’m a devotee of Amy Hempel, Tom Spanbauer, Aaron Gwyn, and Alan Warner, among others. I don’t want to put these out there in the context of “these writers will teach you how to write,” because they write in their own ways, and to an extent kind of like I do (or, rather, I write like them). But I think they’re creative in style, plot, and character, much more so than a lot of the literary bestsellers these days, and I think would help any writer at least a little bit.
GB: In your novel, Conquistador of the Useless, you tackle some pretty heavy human experience while managing to keep true to your style and form. How does knowing the “rules of writing” help you to break them effectively?
JI: One of the cool things about writing fiction is that the big rule is to set your own rules. Of course, then you have to stick to them, so by no means can it be a wanton process.
For example: if you’re going to eschew conjunction for stylistic effect, you do it through the whole piece. The reader will see the terseness, deliberation, intensity in those moments.
One of the toughest things to do is keep to the stylistic and formal conventions you set for yourself from start to finish. It’s the mark of a good writer.
And I guess the complementary rule to all that is just never confuse the reader. If you’re doing things like dropping pop music references all over your text, you have to make sure no one is ever confused, even those who never heard a Pixies album in their lives. I’ve actually had some very nice feedback on this part of my novel, which is maybe the most gratifying thing (besides seeing it in print at all!).
GB: How has being a director/professor at Arcadia helped your career as a writer?
JI: Mostly it’s allowed me to meet a lot of people. I go to conferences for free (well, the university pays for them), and have access to all kinds of events because it’s my job. Networking’s a real thing, even in the arts. All this sort of stuff would be prohibitively expensive if I had to pay for it, not to mention if I had to take time off work. But at these conferences and events, I’ve met people who’ve published my work, read my work, and become my friends. Probably I wouldn’t have done a quarter of it all without being a program director and professor. The job has its perks…
GB: What does “success” mean to you? What keeps you going?
JI: Right now: making myself happy.
When I was younger I used to measure success in publications, in positive reception of my work, in money (which, of course, there was very little of). All of that is nice, don’t get me wrong, but none of it is how I measure success.
I can look at my bookshelf any time I want, see my copy of Conquistador, and think, “yeah, I did a great job on that.” That’s success. It’s the reason there’s no follow up right now. I have another book I’ve written, but I don’t love it, and can’t imagine how I’d get it to the point where I feel as good about it as my first book. So, I’m just sitting on it, writing yet another one. If there’s no money, if not that many people will read your book, and if reviews are fleeting, then the only reason to do any of this is that you look at the book you published and you’re proud of yourself.
I am a little worried I could take this too far, but for the moment that’s my metric for success.
GB: A positive attitude is the driving force behind much of humanity’s success. It is the foundation of many relationships and networks. How does this concept help your professional career? Do you have any anecdotes about personal or professional success that could help us understand this?
JI: Unfortunately, I have one of the worst attitudes known to man. Everything is horrible and nothing works. I am grumpy, pessimistic, and cynical.
That’s kind of my make up. I am definitely on the Woody Allen/Philip Roth side of the Jewry spectrum.
Any success I’ve had comes less from a positive outlook and more from a raw drive. Writing, particularly, is like this. It’s a compulsion. I just have to do it. So I do it. And I don’t stop until I’m happy with the result.
I can’t say this is my finest attribute. I think that pairing it with a more positive outlook might do me some good. But, it’s who I am, and it’s always good to be honest about that sort of thing.
GB: I imagine teaching in higher ed is quite time-consuming. As is the same with parenting. How and when do you find the time to change gears and shift into using creativity to produce content? Is it difficult to remain focused or self-disciplined in one or the other?
JI: I’m incredibly reliant on a daily routine, and so as the MFA program that I direct has developed, and my family has grown, I’ve had to create a routine that allows for creative time.
This is where I thank my wife who is sympathetic and supportive — I really believe that one of the keys to being a successful writer is a good spouse.
Anyway, given my time constraints, I’ve had to start getting up earlier and earlier in the morning to make time for everything. Right now my weekday alarm is set for 4:30am. Let’s say I’m usually up and the coffee is made closer to 5:00am. Then I work for two hours, go to the gym around 7:15, come home and help out with getting the kids ready in the morning, and I’m showered and ready to get back to work at 10:00ish. Usually, then, I’m done my regular work by three, and I can hole up to write fiction until dinner time. Knowing that there’s no job work hanging over me, that’s huge for me to be able to shift gears.
Not all days go this way, of course, and like anyone I have to be flexible enough to squeeze in time where I can, but mostly that’s what I try to do.
Grad-school-me is horrified by this. I used to stay up writing until 4:00am, and sleep until noon. I felt like I was living this wonderful, bohemian lifestyle. And I was studying in Edinburgh. Now I live in the Philly suburbs, and can’t count on doing anything at night because there’s a 50/50 chance one of my kids will refuse to go to sleep.
But you know, growing up is cool. Even if I now get up pretty close to when I used to go to sleep and sometimes have to stop writing to change a diaper, I’m a better person and author for those experiences. But the bohemian stuff was cool, too…
GB: What are some routines you believe people can do on a daily basis to better themselves as both individuals and as members of the ever-changing global community? This doesn’t have to pertain to just writing, editing, or teaching. Could be anything.
JI: I think it’s important to continually put yourself in a position to be exposed to new information and ideas. There’s a worrying trend of people trying to shut down ideas they don’t like, and I think the only reason people might want to do that is they’re not secure in the ideas they claim to hold fast. But there’s no shame in changing one’s mind in the face of new information, so I think it’s essential to be able to access and consider that new information. And, if you don’t change your mind, then you’ve reaffirmed those original ideas.
Basically, don’t be afraid of new and different ideas. Welcome them every day.
GB: What’s next for Joshua Isard? Got any projects you’re working on that we can keep an eye out for?
JI: I’m working on a new novel. I wrote one right after Conquistador, like I said, but it’s not really anything I think will find a home. Maybe. We’ll see. I’m burnt out on it, which is a terrible place to be in if you’re going to pitch it. So I’ve got a new project, an excerpt of which was published on New Pop Lit if you want to check it out.
Otherwise, just trying to stay focused on these teaching and fathering things. The latter, especially. Everything takes a back seat to family.
Interview originally published in June 2016 at ONLY HUMAN. If you enjoyed this conversation, please recommend, comment, ❤ and share. Spread the love and be better, friends!
Thanks for reading!