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How I Chose My MFA Program, or, Doing Your Research

How I Chose My MFA Program, or, Doing Your Research

It’s a funny story how I decided to get my MFA in Fiction Writing.  Spoiler alert:  it does not involve research.

I was twenty-four years old and in my second year as a full-time math teacher when I stopped by a little bookstore near my house in Uptown New Orleans and my eyes fell on a paperback called Pretty Little Dirty by Amanda Boyden.

I didn’t know Amanda Boyden then. I didn’t know that she lived in New Orleans and that one day I would sit with her and her husband at a bar in Spain, or that, a few years later, we would have margaritas together in Mexico. I didn’t know I would go to parties, and even a wedding, at her house in Mid-City New Orleans. All I saw was the skinny girl on the cover of the book, her arm cocked like she might be holding a cigarette, her face scribbled out with fluorescent yellow highlighter, and I knew it was just the sort of thing I liked to read: a literary coming-of-age story.

So I bought the book and devoured it. Then I read the author bio and learned that Amanda Boyden taught a class on fiction writing at the University of New Orleans.



It was around this time that I started thinking to myself, gosh, do I really want to be a math teacher for the rest of my life? The answer was no. What I really wanted to do was write novels, but I’d always assumed that was something people did in their spare time – it wasn’t  a viable career option. (And, to be honest, I still think that’s somewhat accurate… at least for a lot of people.)

The problem was, teaching left me emotionally, physically, and mentally drained. It was difficult to find the energy to write in the little spare time I had. So I made a bold move: I quit my teaching job and embarked on a series of random jobs (barista, receptionist, orthodontic assistant) that gave me more time and energy for writing.

That summer, I sat down to write what I hoped to be a literary coming-of-age novel. When I finished the last sentence, I was elated. A day later, I reread the whole thing and was completely dismayed. The book wasn’t good – I knew it wasn’t good – but I had no idea how to make it better.

That’s when I decided to contact Amanda Boyden.


Author Amanda Boyden


I’ve since looked to see if I could find the original email I sent to Amanda, along with her reply. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I can’t, but I know I said I’d enjoyed her book, and then I explained that it was the sort of thing I hoped to write, but I was having trouble figuring out how exactly to write a novel in the first place. I was thinking maybe she and I could get together for coffee sometime to talk about writing.

Yes, I realize now how naïve that sounds. So I don’t blame Amanda for how she responded. I don’t remember her exact words, but it was something along the lines of, no, I don’t have time to meet with you, but maybe you should check out the MFA program at The University of New Orleans.

And here’s where I’ll admit that up until then, I didn’t know there was even such a thing as a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. (It does sound rather absurd, right?  A Masters degree in creative writing?!)  I realize that might make twenty-five-year-old Eva sound a bit dumb, but, to be honest,twenty-five-year-old Eva was a bit dumb.

Twenty-five-year-old Eva was also excited. Going to school was something I’d always exceled at. No wonder I was having trouble writing a good novel: I needed to go back to school and learn how to do it properly!

So I went online and found information about the University of New Orleans “low residency” program, which sounded cool. In the program, students took classes online during the school year and then did intensive summer abroad sessions. That sounded good to me. Online classes meant I could keep my day job at the orthodontist’s office, and I hadn’t studied abroad as an undergraduate, so this would be my chance to do some traveling.

I’m embarrassed to say that I did no other research. None.  I didn’t look to see if there were other MFA programs that were more highly rated, or that perhaps focused specifically on novel-writing. I didn’t look into ways to get my tuition paid for. I didn’t even realize that there was also an in-person MFA program at the University of New Orleans I could have applied to.

I’ve never been a fan of research, and I’ve always been a bit trigger-happy when I’m excited about something. At the time, I honestly didn’t think that anyone would pay for my MFA. I didn’t realize that many schools offer teaching assistantships – something that would have been smart for me to do because not only would my tuition have been covered, but I would have gotten experience teaching at the college level.

Instead, without researching any other programs, I applied for the low-residency MFA at the University of New Orleans, and I was accepted. The following summer, I headed to Madrid, and my Fiction Workshop professors were Amanda Boyden and her husband, Joseph.


My first year in the MFA program, Amanda Boyden gave a reading while doing THIS.


It’s hard to say whether or not I regret making such a quick decision. Yes, I did have to take out a student loan to pay for my degree, but I paid if off pretty quickly. And it’s true I could have gotten a teaching assistantship that led to a college teaching job, but I don’t want to be a teacher (remember?) And I probably could have gone to a more “prestigious” school, but to be honest, I’m not sure I would have liked that any better.

Besides, so many good things have come out of my MFA from UNO. I met some wonderful (and eccentric!) people, and I had some amazing travel experiences. If not for my MFA from UNO, I never would have become involved with Burlesque Press or gotten to spend a month in Mexico on a writing fellowship.

In this case, my utter lack of research didn’t seem to hurt me. In other words, I got lucky.


Here I am in Madrid with fellow writer Jeni Stewart(now Jennifer Wallace), who has become a very dear friend and resource.


I’m thinking about all of this as I prepare to query agents with the novel I recently finished revising. In the past I’ve been trigger-happy about contacting agents, and I’ve learned my lesson. This is one case where I am definitely doing my research. I am spending time on Twitter and agency websites and Manuscript Wishlist. I’m reading agent blogs and interviews. I’m making a spreadsheet of possible agents and revising my query letter over and over again. I know that when it comes to querying agents, it pays to do your homework.

My MFA didn’t teach me anything about querying agents. That’s something I learned on my own after a lot of practice, and probably in part because I did it wrong the first time around.

And, in a way, that’s how I’ve learned to write as well.


Here I am in Madrid for the running of the bulls.  There’s a story in this picture.  There definitely is.

Interview with Kevin Fortuna, Author of The Dunning Man

Interview with Kevin Fortuna, Author of The Dunning Man

Back when I was getting my MFA through the University of New Orleans, I work-shopped a story by a fellow classmate, Kevin Fortuna, about an Atlantic City landlord dealing with his crazy tenants:  a hedonistic rap star and a couple of Russian tiger trainers (who are keeping the tigers in their apartment). Now, nearly six years later, the polished version of that memorable story can be read in Kevin’s debut collection, The Dunning Man.

The characters in the six stories of The Dunning Man are real people — flawed people –but they are all searching for redemption. The collection, published by Lavender Ink, has gotten positive reviews from Esquire, Vanity Fair, and Kirkus, among others. C.W. Cannon of Ask Men calls it , “a great new exemplar of hard-boiled serious literature. Gritty, boozy, fast-paced … Fortuna’s characters careen and collide their way through eventful nights and somehow remain standing.”

I reunited with Kevin recently at a mutual friend’s wedding in New Orleans and asked if I could interview him about his new book. Naturally, he said yes.


The Dunning Man was named one of the “22 Most Exciting Literary Debuts of 2014” by Buzzfeed. Esquire calls the stories, “funny, explosive, and disarmingly moving.”


Kevin, you are, at least in my mind, an entrepreneur, business man, and real estate mogul. How does writing figure into the mix?

I became interested in writing in college, where I majored in English Literature and tutored fellow students at [Georgetown’s] Writing Center. After graduating, I started the full-time MFA program at UNO but dropped out to pursue a career in business. I never lost interest in writing but decided it wasn’t the right “day job” for me.

Eventually I ended up working in the high-tech start-up world, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the past two decades. Along the way, thanks to some good friends including Bill Lavender [owner of Lavender Ink], I had an opportunity to go back and finish my MFA through UNO’s low-residency program. It’s been really great, kind of a “bucket list” thing, and I’ve been really lucky to get the support of some phenomenal writers and teachers.


I remember reading the title story in an MFA workshop class I took with you. When did you write the others?

All of the stories were written during my MFA. In fact, the book is basically a revised and expanded version of my thesis.


You’ve gotten a lot of great press. What’s your marketing secret? How did you get your book into the right people’s hands?

I live and work in NYC, so I’ve got access to some great contacts in media. Unfortunately that doesn’t count for much. My friends and contacts certainly helped with advice and introductions, but I owe a lot to my publicist, Louise Crawford, who has been a tireless supporter of the book. She has been amazing.

Kevin Fortuna

Kevin Fortuna


To me your collection has an overall masculine vibe, and yet two of the stories are told by female narrators. What inspired you to write stories from the female perspective?

Well, to be honest, one of the stories, “Flogging Maggie,” was inspired by the fact that I had a great friend and writer named Amanda Boyden as a workshop instructor. I have immense respect for Amanda and her talent, and she and I were classmates together at UNO back in the nineties. When I came back to finish my MFA, Amanda was supportive but also justifiably skeptical. She knew I’d become a capitalist of sorts and wondered if I’d take the writing seriously. So when I learned that I’d have her [as my workshop leader] I wanted to do something different. I wanted to show her I had some range and could write from a female perspective. It was really gratifying to me that she didn’t hate the story.


Many of the stories in the collection are gritty and alcohol-soaked, often populated with tough, Irish-American characters. Would you say that there’s a single theme that could tie all of these stories together? If so, what is it?

I think the theme is redemption. These characters definitely march to their own beat, but they’re all searching for meaning, to find something worth seeking. Ultimately, I think the stories are very hopeful. Also — the title story, “The Dunning Man,” is almost half the length of the book, and it’s a very positive, even uplifting story. It’s not dark, and it’s not about drinking. It’s not even a very Irish story. It’s really a love story at its core.


Tell me about your experience publishing with Lavender Ink. What was the process like?

Bill Lavender has been absolutely amazing. I’ve worked with some very driven, professional people in the Internet industry, people who routinely work 15 hours a day and run through walls to achieve personal and company goals. The competition for jobs is fierce and the standards high. And I would rank Bill at the very top of the list of people I’ve worked with in terms of intellect, commitment, work ethic and an ability to get results. He’s a great champion for his writers and his books.

Kevin at the Franklin Park Reading Series.

Kevin at the Franklin Park Reading Series.


What are your future plans for your writing? A novel, perhaps?

Right now I’m totally focused on producing the movie version of “The Dunning Man.” My writing partner is fellow UNO graduate, Michael Clayton, who wrote an amazing adaptation of the story. We’re hoping to shoot the movie this summer in New Orleans and Atlantic City. I think the movie will be my focus for the year, but after that I might try my hand at a novel.


Awesome!  Okay, last question:  What is your favorite piece of writing advice?

Hmm… I like what Tim O’Brien said: stories should be about extraordinary things happening to extraordinary people. I tried to make sure my stories were fun to read, and the best complement I’ve gotten about the book is that people wanted to keep turning pages. I’m not sure how much light I was able to shed on the human condition with this book, but I’m glad that people don’t think it’s boring. That’s good enough for me.

I totally agree.


A big thanks to Kevin for doing this interview and waiting so long for it to go live.  Be sure to get your own copy of The Dunning Man here.