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Today, I’ve invited Ian M Rogers to tell us about his writing, his novel, and the best pens to write with.
Ian is the author of MFA Thesis Novel, a comedy about life in a midwestern creative writing program. He grew up in New Hampshire before studying literature at Bennington College in Vermont and creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which totally wasn’t the inspiration for his novel at all. He’s worked as a copy editor, a greenhouse assistant, a school secretary, a grocery clerk, an online test-grader, a housepainter, a gardener, and a teacher of English in Japan.
Welcome to the Fountain Pen, Ian. Tell us a little bit more about yourself.
I’m a recovering academic turned editor/writing coach who’s spent a lot of time living and teaching in Japan (most recently at Kanagawa University in Yokohama). Career-wise, I’ve always sought out jobs that would allow me time to do my own writing, though it took me some time to admit to myself that I was doing-this. Hobby-wise, I enjoy classic video games, hiking, and trying to get through the 80+ books in my to-read pile.
How did your writing career begin?
That’s a good question. I wrote sparingly when I was younger—I’d always loved books, but I got discouraged with writing because whenever I tried writing my own stories, I always sensed a gap between my own writing and the published books you could buy at the store. I found more freedom with writing that felt purely fun: writing comedy skits with friends, LiveJournaling (remember LiveJournal??), crafting silly emails, or writing about video games.
I didn’t start to take writing seriously until college, when some excellent teachers helped me hone my academic writing and I learned more about fiction craft. Then, when I was 24, I started thinking that maybe, if I tried hard enough, I could start to bridge the gap between my own writing and the published authors I loved. That gave me the confidence to start my first (unpublished) novel.
Tell us about MFA Thesis Novel.
MFA Thesis Novel emerged from my experience in a creative writing master’s at the University of Nebraska—I got a lot out of grad school in the form of writing skills and career development, but found the academic environment stressful, competitive, and materialistic. The program was set up to groom students for tenure-track professor jobs in English that were rapidly being replaced with tenuous adjunct positions, and most of my classmates cared more about their own job security than about creating great art. They often talked like getting a novel published was merely a step toward developing your CV to make you a better job applicant.
After finishing the program and taking time to de-stress, I imagined a character who cared deeply about writing and art, but was just starting out as a writer and didn’t have a lot of confidence. How would he respond to a bunch of absurd grad students telling him to make his novel just like everybody else’s? That’s how MFA Thesis Novel was born.
What do you hope your readers take away from your work? What are you trying to achieve?
I’ve always felt that the best writing reveals bigger truths about the world around us: things we inherently understand but can’t describe, or that we understand in only a very basic way. Humans have always told stories to help us understand the world around us—that’s why the earliest civilizations told myths about the gods instead of writing research dissertations.
When people read my work, I want them to laugh and be entertained, but to also walk away feeling like they understand something about the way the world works—both in that exact moment, and as they carry those ideas into the future.
How do you approach a new project? Are you a plotter, or a pantser? Or somewhere in between?
I’ve always been a big outliner, and empathize with something Joseph Heller said about needing both a first line and a last line in his mind before he could even start writing. I’m not so strict as to have an actual last line, but I do need to lay out the story arc so I know how to connect different elements as I move forward. With the novel I’m working on now, I’ve been leaving room for more spontaneity on the page and playing with ideas that emerge naturally as I fill out each scene. Some of these spur-of-the-moment ideas have been quite effective, and I’ve been able to develop them into major story arcs.
I do think, though, that writers who follow the pantser philosophy should be careful about revising their work so they can integrate spontaneous ideas naturally into the bigger story. Otherwise, readers can be left with a novel that jumps from one idea to the next without a sense of unity.
*This pantser interviewer fiddles awkwardly with her fountain pen* So, um… Is there anything you need to have with you when you write?
Since high school I’ve been writing with plain blue Bic pens—the kind with the white body, plastic cap, and no grip that the company stopped making more than ten years ago. I like the weight of them, the thickness of the ink on the page, and being able to slide the cap on and off with one hand. I like them so much that I bought a lifetime supply of them from a Korean reseller several years back, since they’re impossible to find in the US now. I’m a creature of habit, and the comfort of using the same pen helps me focus more on the actual ideas when it comes time to write.
Does social media help or hinder?
Both—it’s a tremendous way to network, reach readers, and find cool stuff, but it can also be an enormous time-suck if you let it. My advice: Set limits, and stick to them!
Where do you see your writing career heading?
I want to write more novels. I’m fascinated by the idea of novels as entertainment that make people excited to dash home on a Friday night and read the same way they’d get excited about a video game or Netflix series. A lot of people have the mistaken idea that books should be read out of obligation or because the book is important in some way, so that reading becomes like doing homework or taking medicine. But people don’t watch The Shawshank Redemption because it’s quote-unquote “serious cinema,” they watch it because it’s a damned good movie. Reading should be a rewarding experience too, and I’m always searching for ways literary fiction can push boundaries and appeal to people’s natural sensibilities.
Other than that, I have a blog called But I Also Have a Day Job where I explore balancing creative work (writing, acting, visual art, etc.) with keeping the bills paid. I’ve found that creative people across the spectrum struggle with how to manage their careers or mentally define themselves as artists (especially when they’re just starting out!), and I’m trying to make these conversations more open. My goal is to keep talking with more creative people about how they built their careers, and eventually turn But I Also Have a Day Job into a nonfiction book.
What’s next for you?
The novel I’m working on right now is new territory for me—like MFA Thesis Novel, it’s about young people and has lots of jokes in it, but I’m also playing with fantasy elements and storytelling in ways that make it uniquely absurd. It’s a fun novel to work on, but it’s also far more complex than MFA Thesis Novel. As such, it’s been nice having more time to work on it in larger chunks, rather than having to squeeze writing time into evenings and weekends.
Thanks for talking to me today, Ian, and good luck with the next novel – it sounds great!