Chapman MA/MFA candidate and a member of Sigma Tau Delta, Michelle Arch, has been chronicling her journey through Chapman’s program on her blog, Archetype. Recently, she posted an interview with recent MA/MFA graduate Ruben Guzman. Ruben just self-published his novel thesis and, in the interview, opens up about that decision, as well as the MFA program, the merits of workshops, the MFA thesis defense experience, and the creative writing process.
An Interview with MFA Graduate and Author Ruben Guzman
As a graduate student enrolled in Chapman University’s dual MA in English and MFA in Creative Writing program, Ruben Guzman wrote his debut novel The Fountain in Forsyth Park, the tale of a middle-aged homosexual man searching for meaning in his melancholy life. Guzman and I were peers in the program until his graduation last year. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Guzman about the MFA program from his perspective, his first book, and his experience with self-publishing.
Arch: As an MFA student myself, I’m always curious about which came first for other student writers: the program requirement of the 150-page novel thesis or the story premise that needed the discipline and critical feedback of an MFA program. In your case, was The Fountain in Forsyth Park already in progress when you began your work at Chapman, or was it conceived and written entirely while pursuing your English and Creative Writing degrees?
Guzman: Fountain came about after starting my MFA. In my third writing workshop class, I felt I finally had something substantial to write. Up to then I’d been writing short stories – likely bad ones when thinking back. I was inspired to write Fountain while on a trip to Savannah to help my best friend open a furniture and design store. I was so intrigued with the city and was charmed by its history, architecture, culture, and traditions. It was really that first trip that inspired me to write my novel. I even made several trips back during the writing process to do my research.
Arch: I’ve found that the demands of graduate school both promote and hinder the advancement of creative projects. Challenging reading and writing assignments immerse students in classic and contemporary literature and develop their critical thinking and writing skills. However, the course load can be daunting for most and leave little time for thesis work and other creative endeavors. With a full time job and demanding class schedule, how did you carve out the time to write Fountain?
Guzman: I can agree that managing a job and graduate school made for a trying creative writing process at times. I recall that there were semesters when I couldn’t even touch my novel project due to other commitments. That was frustrating.
However, as I reflect on it now, those times were critical in two ways. One, my immersion in other literary topics like critical theory, special authors, and period and contemporary literature contributed in developing my own thoughts about my novel. I had a chance to read Saramago, Nabokov, Whitman, and Wilde – all influential to Fountain in one way or another. Learning theory afforded me the chance to think of fiction and metafiction in different ways. In Fountain, I even took the opportunity to play with literary terms like fabula and syuzhet – two important ideas on narrative intent that I couldn’t have used without studying theory.
Two, it allowed me to let my ideas ferment (whether consciously or unconsciously). Those breaks worked for me in the sense that, when time opened up, I was ready and eager to write something. During those productive periods, I would eat my lunch in the office in order to take coffee breaks instead. I would write at the coffee shop for an hour each day. Come to think of it, I wrote nearly all of Fountain at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.
Arch: One of the most important elements of writing we learn about in workshop is the necessity of revision. The willingness and ability to review early drafts with an increasingly critical eye and make appropriate edits is crucial to the final product. How often did you find yourself revising sections of Fountain? Were the edits you made in response to observations from your peers and professors or to your own development as a writer?
Guzman: I think workshops are effective for writers in a number of ways, but I also realized early on that I could take or leave other criticisms. Readers weren’t going to necessarily understand the full scope of my ideas, so I had to learn which constructive suggestions to take from workshops.
With respect to revisions, the breaks away from writing I mentioned earlier allowed me to realize the greater need to revise when returning to writing. I found that revisions became just as natural as the writing itself after a while. However, I didn’t let revisions get in the way of getting content written first. Instead, I focused more on revising as I got closer to finishing Fountain. I think it was better to have a nearly complete draft of my novel before I could solidify unity in motifs, character development, arcs, and the like.
I also found myself continuing to revise up to the point at which I submitted my thesis, as well as after, when I started the self-publishing process. By then, I was focused on tightening syntax, form, and punctuation; eliminating anachronisms; etc. I’ll confess, I realized at that late point that I’d added references to the autumnal equinox but never changed the time of my story from October to September! I knew when the equinox was all along but didn’t notice the problem until I was focused on revisions. Hence, I can’t stress how important the revision process is.
Arch: Your story is told from the interesting perspective of your protagonist’s inner voice. In Fountain, mystical elements, universal questions, and philosophical themes are probed in a stream-of-consciousness narrative style. Were there times when the criticism you received from your peers or professors seemed disconnected with your artistic vision?
Guzman: Absolutely. I remember not being able to articulate the difference between the inner voice and the conscience. In my mind, the inner voice speaks constantly about anything from the mundane to the fantastic. I had an idea of writing the narrative of one’s inner voice that worked in ways that one’s conscience wouldn’t. In fact, Remy’s conscience is completely absent from the story. It’s his inner voice, the uninhibited voice, the imp, the voice of impulse that fights to tell Remy’s story. Jinn is based on the Arabic characterizations of the djinn or genie as we know it in Western culture. It’s a parallel voice to the human one and can be known to work for or against us. I remember one student in my workshop being really confused about that idea. At the time, all I could explain was that Jinn was a voice inside Remy that wasn’t a moral compass. It just was.
I knew that this inner voice would give greater dimension to my marginalized protagonist. It would have been one thing for Remy to narrate Fountain as a marginalized protagonist. For me it was another thing to read a marginalized narrative voice contained within that marginalized protagonist.
There were so many times I could have resorted to writing Jinn as Remy’s conscience, but it was neither spontaneous nor real to my expectations for the story. Jinn’s stream-of-consciousness narrative left uncertainties and instabilities for the reader – something that was much more interesting for me to write.
Arch: You and I have talked about the creative stall (most often referred to as “writer’s block,” a term I think sounds more ominously permanent); was there ever a time while writing Fountain when you felt unsure about how the story or the protagonist, Remy, was developing?
Guzman: Before starting my MFA, I was in a graduate program in screenwriting. So I think part of that formulaic way of storytelling rubbed off, which is odd because that’s the reason I abandoned screenwriting. When I was told that certain plot points had to happen by page 30 or 45, I felt I wasn’t embracing a fully creative and organic storytelling process.
After writing a couple of chapters of Fountain nonlinearly, I discovered that I was able to formulate the outline of the whole story in my head. What I did find useful was generally planning out what happens through the story early on. I deduced that if I knew something would take place later on and this is what happens, I would have a target to shoot for. My advice is to write nonlinearly. I found that I wanted to write about a drag show at a Savannah nightclub way before my story ever got there. For me, nonlinear writing worked well in this case because I had to get the story and characters to that drag show. It also prevented me from veering off on tangents and losing focus.
Arch: I’m writing my thesis nonlinearly, as well, and couldn’t agree more. It really does help you keep the characters and story moving towards pivotal events or targets, as you referred to them. You once mentioned a breakthrough point at which the narrative began to practically pour out of you. How far along were you in the project when you reached that moment, and to what do you attribute the breakthrough? Once there, how was the pace of your writing impacted?
Guzman: I reached that point when I read James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science during the winter break before my final thesis class. I was simply channel surfing one night and came across a program on chaos theory on cable. It piqued my interest since much of it seemed to make sense as metaphor for Fountain. By the time the program mentioned fractals, I was already online buying Gleick’s book. Fountain really explores the balance between the scientific and metaphysical aspects of life.
In reflecting back on that moment of discovery, I believe that keeping an open mind throughout a project is worth the risk. Passion for the story can emerge at a least expected time. When I started watching that show, I was asking myself how I could possibly apply chaos theory to my story. It sounded really odd at first, but something was telling me to give it a chance. Getting to a point of inspiration and letting the writing happen, with no expectations, was a big and cool discovery for me. It made me a believer in trusting impulse – trusting in my Jinn so to speak.
Arch: I’m a fan of Gleick’s book, too, and applied his theories of chaos and Lorenz’s butterfly effect to the works of Virginia Woolf recently, so I know what you mean about those seemingly unlikely connections. Defense of the thesis is one of the final components of the MFA program. Were you confident about Fountain when you submitted it? Assuming you had been working with your defense committee members prior to submitting the narrative as your final thesis, was there any aspect of the process that surprised you?
Guzman: From the first day of writing Fountain, I’d made a commitment to write something that I wanted to read. My focus wasn’t on something that made sense, was moralistic, was commercially viable, or otherwise. I made my vow and stuck to it. I was fortunate that my faculty advisor, James Blaylock, is a science fiction writer with numerous novels. He was able to give me support when I doubted myself in some of the risks I was taking. He got what I was trying to do and helped me to sharpen my story.
Fortunately, my thesis committee responded favorably to my final product. They praised me for the risks and were unanimous in stating that they hadn’t read anything like it before. When they then asked what I planned to do with it, I told them that I’d reached my goal of writing what I wanted to read. That’s when they urged me to seek publication. Needless to say, I was floating after my thesis defense.
Arch: Last year I attended a writing conference with several other MFA candidates, and we discussed the advantages and value of a literary peer group. After graduation, MFA students lose that inherent forum for critical feedback. Are you concerned about that now that you have completed the program?
Guzman: It will be tough to retain a reliable network of others like one would have in a workshop or thesis setting. Not having a thesis committee to sign off on future projects is a little sad. Like other writers, I do tend to be a loner when writing. But I know a few other writers and peers I can look to for workshopping new projects. I can also do the same for them in their writing projects. I’m also considering finding writing groups with which to share ideas and work. They’re a little tough to find, but they’re out there.
Arch: After finishing The Fountain in Forsyth Park, you decided to self-publish it. What led you to that decision, and what was the process like? Can you offer any suggestions or insights to others who are considering self-publishing?
Guzman: Self-publishing has expanded into a viable way of getting exposure and is at a point where it’s quickly gaining respectability. I wanted to experiment with self-publishing for the sake of getting immediate feedback from others outside of academia. Landing a publisher is incredibly difficult; it could take years or not happen at all. I didn’t want to wait. Much like the writing process, I pursued an unconventional way of publishing. Self-publishing was attractive and was timely and cost-effective for me.
The down side is the reality that I am the marketing department. So connecting with websites, reviews, contests, and blogs like yours are marketing strategies. As a writer, I’ve also had to put myself in a marketing frame of mind with my product.
Arch: What’s next for you? Is there another project in progress?
Guzman: Yes, I’ve got a few projects going. While my priority is marketing Fountain for more readers, I’m also writing a collection of short stories that all revolve around childhood fears. I’m also playing with other forms of narrative such as audio narrative and episodic writing for podcasting to see where they may lead. My focus is to further any one of these projects on a day-to-day basis – and there’s never enough time, that’s for sure.