An Interview with Professor Amos Magliocco
Amos Magliocco is a senior lecturer who specializes in creative writing at the University of North Texas. He is also the author of Remedy Wheel, winner of the Pushcart Prize, and has been published in literary journals such as Redivider, Isotope, Yemassee, RE:AL, Oxford Magazine, and Poets & Writers. Mr. M, as he is fondly known amongst his students, taught the Intermediate Creative Fiction Writing class I took last spring. In class, he shared his tips for writing creatively and held workshops for us to learn how to critique and edit our work. I spoke with him again recently to discuss more of his ideas on writing. I’m interested in what got you into teaching. Was it something you always wanted to do?
I’ve loved reading and writing fiction since I was little, so it was kind of natural that I would try my hand at it and see if I could do it. Then I went to grad school and met a bunch of other people that were trying to be fiction writers. I think for a lot of creative writers, teaching is the accidental consequence. For fiction, now, you can’t write short stories and be able to pay for an apartment in Manhattan like Fitzgerald. There aren’t many outlets like that anymore, so the university is a very comfortable and satisfying place for writers to not only share their knowledge about what they’ve learned to do, but continue to do what they love while having health insurance.
The field has definitely been revolutionized. In what ways do you market yourself to combat those changes?
Well, the publishers really expect their authors to pitch in with publicity efforts. They want you to maintain a very active online presence, like on Facebook or Twitter. That includes sending out copies yourself and contacting reviewers. It’s easy to have a media presence when you already have a platform. There’s a lot more responsibility for the writers now to promote their own work.
You’ve had many essays featured in literary magazines. How did you decide what magazines you would submit to, and where did you hear about them? Did you base where you would submit off content or genre, or was there something else?
Actually, you really should think about where your favorite authors are submitting. For example, there’s a book on my desk called Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link. So if I thought my work has something in common with Kelly Link’s, I would open up that collection and see where her work was published originally. There’s a list of the literary magazines each short story was published in before she released her collection. That would be my target list. Also, think about what literary journals you like to read. If you can visit their website, they usually have a few sample stories that will give you an idea of the types of work they’re willing to publish. Just try to find a best fit. That’s how I tell people to start.
When you begin to think about where you’d like to be published, how do you decide what to write about?
You have to write about what compels you. Think about what interests you about human nature and circumstance and the choices people make. Stories tend to arrive at your doorstep if you begin to wonder about why people are the way they are or do the things they do. One way to answer those questions is to write about it. Most fiction writers are trying to learn about something as they write. They use fiction as a means to discover something about the human condition that they didn’t already know.
What is one of the most surprising things to you about the writing and editing process?
It doesn’t get any easier. No matter how often you do it, every story is like starting all over again. I think the writing gets better, but it doesn’t get easier, which is surprising because you expect to get better at things the more you do it.
How much research goes into your writing process?
When I’m writing historical fiction, a tremendous amount of research factors into my creative process, which is why I hope I never write a piece of historical fiction again. It can really gobble you up. Even writing in the contemporary setting can include a lot of research. You want to know enough to fake it. Not everything you write will be in your realm of expertise, especially when you have different characters that are unique in their lives.
Have you ever read anything that inspired you to think differently about the way you read or write?
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion changed my opinion about creative nonfiction. I definitely had the sense that Didion’s book gave me permission to write about things I probably wouldn’t have written about. Before I read her book, I didn’t understand creative nonfiction. I didn’t read much of it. It didn’t occur to me why stories about yourself would be useful. As a fiction writer, I thought fiction was the highest form of literary art, and everything else was underneath. Didion’s book made me understand that I was completely wrong.
There are a lot of different definitions for what people consider literary. What’s yours?
That’s hard. I think my definition would be writing that achieves a high degree of artistic value that illuminates the human condition in a way that most readers find transcendent and satisfying.
I think it’s important to have that definition in mind when you’re writing. However, what do you think is the benefit of taking time away from writing? I know that in your free time you are an avid storm-chaser.
I am! I think the benefit of taking time away from writing is to collect more stories, to hear more snippets of dialogue in coffee shops, and to read. I think most writers, when they write, are responding to something they’ve read—not directly, but artistically. Whenever we step away from writing, we’re picking up a book, and then we are inspired to write some more.
Do you write every day?
No; I wish I could. During the school semester, I don’t write as routinely. I think the idea that you have to write every day becomes a rule that when people fail, they feel badly about themselves and throw away the idea that they’re a writer. The truth is, most writers don’t write every day. It doesn’t matter if you do or not. It only matters that you make a habit out of it. There’s a difference in being a hobbyist and a writer. Try and make an appointment with yourself, and schedule a time to write.
That sounds like a great way to overcome writer’s block.
Yes! Flannery O’Connor said that sometimes she would make an appointment and just sit at her desk, and nothing would happen, but she wanted to be there just in case it did. She had a great chapter in her book, Mystery in Manners, called “The Habit of Art” that spoke about her habits. It had great ideas about how to approach a routine and get into the habit of creating literary art.
What are your thoughts on bad reviews?
Well, I’ve never been reviewed in The New York Times or anything like that, so I’m not sure how that would feel, but I don’t think that reviewers are people that writers should try to impress. Bad reviews are just about drama and retweets, so there’s no benefit in reading negative comments about your work.
Who are some of your favorite writers and why?
Right now, I’m really liking Kelly Link’s work. I’m a huge Marilynne Robinson fan. She wrote Gilead, which is one of my favorite novels. I’ve been rereading Dennis Johnson lately because he’s brilliant. Wells Tower, who wrote Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, dazzled me. He was actually visiting UNT a couple of years ago. Cormac McCarthy is wonderful as well. Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall was one of the best works of historical fiction I’ve ever read. I think these are authors who have great use of creative language and explore the human psyche very well.
What advice do you have to students looking to get published?
Read. Read what’s being published now, like short stories and the Pushcart collection. It’s great to be familiar with the old masters and the classics, because you need to know that, but if you want to publish in 2017, you need to be in 2017. Read widely. Think about books and publishing as a conversation, and respond to that.
Interested students can take Intermediate Fiction Writing, American Literature, or Rhetoric and Composition with Mr. M next semester. He is currently working on the manuscript for his next novel, which is a work of historical fiction about a couple who spend their 20s travelling to London to discover biographical information about Shakespeare.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Emily Pearson is the Online Editor for the North Texas Review. This is her second year as part of the staff.