On January 18, 2015, on the final day of the upcoming residency, the MFAC program will have a Graduate Recognition ceremony, honoring the men and women who have just completed their studies and will receive an MFA from Hamline University. Between now and residency we’ll be posting interviews with many of the grads. Andrew Ruscito is today’s grad; he lives in Rhode Island and can also be found on Twitter: @BeQuietAndrew.
What do you do when you’re not working on packets?
I try to get as far away from the project I’m writing as possible. I suppose it is always in the back of my mind but I try to clear my head when not writing so I can come back to it with a fresh perspective. I do have a multitude of hobbies all of which I am only moderately skilled at. I love playing music. I have half a dozen guitars and basses and an electric piano. I’ve been playing since I was young. I was in and out of bands in high school and as an undergrad but I continue to play in my basement just for fun. In addition to that, I like playing video games on my computer. I like something I can immerse myself in. Something with a lot of lore and expansive world. Even though it is a few years old at this point, I still find myself in awe of the world in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
Of course, I like to read too. My library is quite eclectic. I also have a large collection of comics and graphic novels. I’m a big fan of the magical characters like DC’s Zatanna and Marvel’s Doctor Strange.
How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?
and Kelly Easton
. They were both faculty at the Alliance for the Study and Teaching of Adolescent Literature (ASTAL)
. That group ran through Rhode Island College and was headed by my undergrad advisor, Dr. Jean Brown. Kelly and Liza repeatedly told me about Hamline and when it came time to graduate, I knew Hamline was where I wanted to go next. I always joke that when Liza and Kelly tell you to do something, you do it. Truth is, I am so happy I listened to them.
What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?
ASTAL gave me a unique writing experience. In addition to Liza and Kelly the faculty at ASTAL also gave me the opportunity to work with local authors Mark Peter Hughes (Lemonade Mouth, Crack in the Sky, I Am the Wallpaper), Peter Johnson (Loserville, What Happened, and others), and Padma Venkatraman (Climbing the Stairs). All of those authors gave me tremendous insights into my writing and prepared me for my time at Hamline. There were, of course, various writing groups and college workshops along the way but none were as helpful as ASTAL.
What do especially remember about your first residency?
How not cold it was! I was told over and over again about the Minnesota winters and how harsh they could be so when I arrived in January for my first residency I was a bit unimpressed and noted it was only a few degrees cooler than it was back in RI. I also remember being nervous but excited. My buddy, JJ, had done a good job of preparing me for the actual program so any lingering nerves I had disappeared when I met the other students and staff. Finally, I remember waking up incredibly sad on the day after residency. Yes, it was nice to be back home in my own bed but it was odd and lonely not going to breakfast with all of my new friends from the program.
Have you focused on any one form (PB, novel, nonfiction; graphic novel) or age group in your writing? Tried a form you never thought you’d try?
Each semester brought something new for me. I arrived at Hamline with part of a YA realistic fiction book. Liza and I worked on that during my first semester. During the second semester I worked on Middle Grade Horror with Anne Ursu
. That was new to me and a ton of fun. When the big critical semester came around Swati Avasti
also advised me through a YA Speculative Fiction Hybrid novel. That work helped set the ground for a graphic novel during my final semester with Gene Yang.
The Middle Grade Horror opened my eyes to the great field of Middle Grade and further enhanced my love for Horror. The hybrid novel, while interesting, proved that while I love sci-fi, I don’t love WRITING sci-fi. Working with Gene was great too. I was able to carry out a childhood dream of writing a comic book. Gene guided me to a completed first draft of a super hero graphic novel.
Tell us about your Creative Thesis.
My thesis wasn’t what I originally intended. I thought I would pick something I started in a previous semester and bring myself to a complete first draft. I circled Gene’s name for advisor not thinking I would actually be paired with him. When I saw his name on my advisor slip, I thought, “Okay, I guess it’s back to the spec-fic hybrid novel.” I kind of dreaded that thought as it wore me out the semester prior. Instead I remembered a short story I wrote as an undergrad about a girl who grows up in the shadow of her super hero father. The girl, Liberty, goes on to find that her father isn’t quite the hero he is made out to be. Things get more complicated when she is unexpectedly forced to don a cape of her own. She doesn’t feel like she can quite fill her father’s boots and has to deal with the discovery of many family secrets buried deep in the past. The comic form was interesting. In writing prose fiction an author avoids saying that their character is annoyed—instead we show it. In comics we MUST write that in the script. If we don’t clearly convey the emotions, settings, and everything else in a scene the artist may not capture the vision. I loved seeing this side of comics. Every time I open one from my collection I wonder what the writer wrote on paper in the script to achieve the end result of full color graphics. Perhaps most fulfilling was getting to type THE END. Gene led me through new territory for my writing and, while it was a lot of work, it was a hell of a lot of fun. I also learned how much better I am when it comes to writing girl characters than boy characters. My Critical Thesis should have clued me in on that but three out of the four stories I worked on while at Hamline had female protagonists—and the one that didn’t was a sidekick narration by a brother about his sister.
What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?
There are so many changes but they are all for the better. I had a nasty habit where I would show something and then I would immediately TELL the reader the same information. I thought, perhaps, I didn’t trust my reader. Then, I realized, I was the only one who read the material. I had to learn to trust myself as a writer and not be a perfectionist. Anne actually had me write a paper during our semester together on perfectionism in writing. It was an eye opening experience for me. Foreshadowing and reader expectations became a big part of my story too. I think of it like that movie A Christmas Story. Everyone tells that annoying kid with glasses that all he will do is “shoot [his] eye out” with that silly BB gun and sure enough in the final act, what does he do? He shoots himself in the eye with the BB gun! The viewer of that movie experiences a great payoff when that happens. I talked about that experience a bit in my critical thesis. I called it the Narrative Payoff. I love it when a story I write has multiple narrative payoffs. I try to avoid the opposite, the narrative letdown, at all costs. In Liberty, my graphic novel, I think I provided the reader with a few of those moments. At least, I hope!
With packet deadlines removed as an incentive, do you anticipate it will be harder to keep writing? Any plans for your post-Hamline writing life?
I think it will be tough to keep writing for a little while. I can tell myself to write a page a day or write for a half hour everyday but when it comes down to it, I just don’t know. I hope to be enrolled in a PhD program by the fall so hopefully I will have more deadlines for that so I can keep writing on schedule. I will probably take the spring and summer to put some polish on my graphic novel so I can send that out for publication. There is a Urban Fantasy/Horror series with comedic elements that has kicked around in the back of my mind since 2009 that I want to write. I think that will be my next big writing endeavor before jumping into my PhD program.
Any thoughts for entering students or for people considering the program?
Just do it. The MFAC was seriously one of the best things I have done in my life. I’ve made friends that will last a life time and learned so much in two years. Yes, it is a lot of work but that shouldn’t turn anyone away. I came in an okay-at-best writer and learned so much to help my craft. You learn about yourself too. Each process letter, each essay, each story you work on might make a light bulb in your brain turn on. I’d also suggest you don’t limit yourself to just one story/genre. Diversify your own portfolio. You may start something you never come back to but the faculty here is diverse and has so much to offer. Don’t discount picture books if you “only write” YA realistic fiction. Picture books help you be concise and cut, cut, cut out the garbage. Try some fantasy. If you can build a cohesive world in a fantasy setting, you can build on in a real-world setting. Circle some advisors you wouldn’t normally because all of them will help you learn some amazing stuff.
Next, when it comes down to the big critical, find a passion and pursue it. My critical was a ton of work and I had to spend time reading the most depressingly passive characters ever. Not only was it insightful, but it made me look at my own writing in ways I never saw before. I now have a passive character checklist when I write. If my character falls into passive behavior, I make sure to give her the agency she needs to establish herself on the page. Finally, HAVE FUN. You’re writing for children and young adults. Those books are supposed to be read for pleasure. It’s okay to take a step back and laugh at yourself when you’re up at 3 am putting revising your essay or fiction for the umpteenth time.