On January 19, 2014, on the final day of the upcoming residency, the MFAC program will have a Graduate Recognition ceremony, honoring the 11 men and women who have just completed their studies and will receive an MFA from Hamline University. Between now and residency, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, we’ll be posting interviews with many of the grads. Daniel Holly is today’s grad; he lives in Whitewater, Wisconsin.
What do you do when you’re not working on packets?
For the past four years I’ve been a stay at home dad to my wonderful daughters, working freelance doing everything from manuscript editing and formatting to graphic design and even jewelry making. Life is a banquet. I’m also an illustrator in my free time and spend my non-writing creative time designing book covers and illustrations to my work, even 3D printing models of characters!
How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?
My mentor at my undergrad writing program got her MFA through a low-residency program and advised me to pursue a master’s degree upon graduation through a similar method. Such wonders were unbeknownst to me, and after having our first daughter and wanting to keep one of us home with her and subsequent offspring, low-residency seemed the only way for me to follow my writing education further. I searched for schools that used this format and applied to two—Hamline and Vermont (no, not the children’s lit sister program; that didn’t even show up on searches).
What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?
For the sake of redundancy I’ll retell that I had my undergrad experience in writing, but I was among the only fiction writers and absolutely the only novelist in a whole program devoted to poetry and memoir. I was the lone warrior, valiant and fearless in my devotion to the fictional arts among the unforgiving hoards of poetry majors. I’m sure it was exactly like that. I wrote my first manuscript in the common rooms between classes and spent most of my less desirable class time jotting notes and outlines for books. It’s amazing I graduated, really.
What do especially remember about your first residency?
Lots and lots of humans. You’re talking about someone who spent(s) most of his time with toddlers, doing horsy rides and Kermit the Frog impressions. Don’t get me wrong, the Kermit impressions have served me well at Hamline (haven’t found a use for horsy rides yet), but I remember the sheer number of faces and words coming out of them—some aimed at me—to be overwhelming at first. Adult conversation? What is this strange wonder! But I also remember feeling a familial connection I never had at a school environment before. My wife joked upon my return home that I’d finally found my people.
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?
I write mostly YA science fiction, both before and during Hamline, but I tried my hand at some middle grade and picture books during my time, and I found I have a real passion for less conventional picture books, ones using more visual narrative than words or which utilize art styles or layout or even sometimes the proportions of the book to convey its meaning. I’m fascinated by methods of storytelling, especially in very sparse ways. Once I’d discovered books like these, my interest in the form escalated, and they’re often my first stop at a bookstore. But most of my work was YA. I’m doing several projects at once and found that using various ones helped me get the most out of my time with advisers at my disposal.
Tell us about your Creative Thesis.
I did an experiment piece in undergrad to see if it was possible to write a short epic. I failed. But all was not lost! I later found myself working on two other fledgling book ideas—with entirely different settings and characters—but I couldn’t shake the feeling that these three stories were deeply connected, so what finally came of it was a project of three very different books, all interwoven in events and occurring at the same time. During my final semester, my unnamed advisor was brave (or foolhardy) enough to accept all three manuscripts at once so I could work on them simultaneously. The last of them, Chains of Clay, became my creative thesis, and its heroine, Dune—a fifteen year-old Brazilian half-mask wearing, rifle slinging hunter—really took off into a story. This image of a girl with half her face covered in clay and a rifle in her hands stayed with me until I started thinking of reasons she’d want to cover part of herself, and she ended up as a girl who her own people believed was unholy. At seven years old, she and the deeply troubled boy who shared the same fate were drugged, tattooed as a warning to others, and dumped naked in a ditch with only rifles for survival. Both were exiled forever. The book takes place eight years later when she’s working for this trading caravan but periodically flashes back to her younger years as she watched the boy who was her only real connection become slowly possessive and sociopathic. In the present, her caravan is taken over by nomads on an expedition to find their mythic paradise, and the boy she left behind and fears more than anything is now employed by her captors and along for the journey. His presence is a slowly-tightening noose for Dune. I’ve never gotten to play with a character of such extremes, both fierce and formidable, yet deeply vulnerable at the same time. It’s a story about family, specifically what is and what isn’t, and like its two counterparts, Chains of Clay is about a search for paradise.
What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?
Concision. If there’s one thing to narrow down on, I’ve learned concision, and in the broader scope of that same thought, voice. I really had no concept of voice work before, having grown up largely on classical and often long-winded literature. My work all sounded alike and all very distant and ‘lofty’ in its form, not very fitting for YA. My undergrad work was once described as a “mindf*** of detail.” I’ve learned to shut my mouth at Hamline. Members of my writing group noted the radical 180 my style had taken after my first or second residency, and while this came about obviously because of instruction and lectures, a large part of it was due to the literature I was exposed to.
Any thoughts for entering students or for people considering the program?
I think a truly successful book is less about relaying events and more about conveying what it was like to live them. Write what haunts you, what keeps you up at night in those moments you don’t want to dwell on. People recognize that kind of writing even if they can’t put into words why. Don’t be satisfied with a story with skin. Dig down and expose the nerves.
I look forward to hearing Daniel read from his thesis at the residency–but we'll be sorry to see him leave! Daniel: hope you return as a grad assistant someday.