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Success Stories

The fiction writers of the Stegner program are on a publishing roll.

By Yvonne Daley

Jason Brown arrived at Stanford with a stack of short stories, an unpublished novel and an attitude. He'd been working on the manuscripts for several years, diving deeper into the writing as he recovered from a dysfunctional family life and years of substance abuse. He figured his work must be pretty good. After all, it had gotten him into one of the country's best creative writing programs.

But there was a problem: the other Stegner fellows in Brown's graduate workshop didn't like his stuff. The stories are misogynistic, some of the women said. Others found the characters unconvincing. Hurt and defensive, Brown took refuge in his apartment or found himself shouting at writers he had hoped would be colleagues. Then one day, he recalls, "I calmed down and began to admit there's a lot I don't know." By the end of that first term, he had learned to listen to the criticism and cull from it what was useful. In the process, he was becoming a better writer.

The result, Driving the Heart, is a collection of gritty short stories that capture the pain of growing up in a senseless world. Brown still has his own voice, but he says the collective wisdom of the writing workshops helped him find its full expression.

Fiction writers have been making similar breakthroughs since novelist Wallace Stegner founded the graduate creative writing program in 1946. But in the last two years, an unprecedented number of Stegner fellows were successful in publishing first books. The crop of new fiction includes novels by Lan Samantha Chang, Keith Scribner, V. Diane WoodBrown, Tom McNeal and Peter Rock, and short story collections by Brown and Michael Byers. "It's as if the book publishing world suddenly took notice of our writers," says John L'Heureux, a former director of the program and author of 17 books. "And they're getting buckets and buckets of money -- more than I can dream of." Several authors have been paid as much as $150,000 -- plus royalties -- for their first books.

The dozen or so poets and fiction writers accepted into the two-year program each year have a sweet deal. They aren't expected to earn degrees, and they receive annual stipends of $17,000 to help cover living expenses. But the weekly writing workshops can be grueling affairs in which writers must sit silently while their work is picked apart by fellow students. The process, L'Heureux once wrote, is "wanton with energy and talent; it can crush the weak and empower the crass; it offers endless opportunity to give and receive injury; it is frequently as frustrating, indeed as maddening, as life itself."

Over the decades, Stegner fellowships have helped launch the careers of dozens of important authors. A short list of fiction-writing Stegner alums includes Edward Abbey, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff (now a professor in the program), Ken Kesey, Ernest Gaines, Larry McMurtry, Scott Turow and Tillie Olsen. Yet, at no time in its 53-year history has success come to so many young Stegner alumni at once. L'Heureux and current director Eavan Boland believe it's a combination of luck and talent -- and the growing prominence of the program.

Once you're in, "then, it's like skating in the Olympics," says L'Heureux, a professor of English. "You had to be good to get there, but suddenly you're skating with and against the best. It does something miraculous to you." Stanford talked to these writers about their lives and work. Here are their stories.

samantha chang
Photo: Linda Cicero
The Reluctant Novelist
Lan Samantha Chang
Age: 34
Stanford Writing Program: 1993-95
Hunger, W.W. Norton, 1998
Quote: "I thought if I had a job that required panty hose, life would make sense."

Lan Samantha Chang tried to follow her parents' advice: don't become a writer. So she earned a bachelor's degree in East Asian studies from Yale in 1987, then dabbled in premed courses before receiving a master's in public administration from Harvard in 1991. "I thought if I had a job that required panty hose, life would make sense," Chang recalls as she sips hot chocolate in the Stanford Bookstore café. "But I woke up one day in economics class and said, 'I don't want to do this.' I was taking a writing course and doing all my assignments for that course before I did my real work. That's when I admitted I had always wanted to be a writer."

Back home in Appleton, Wis., her parents thought she was going through a phase. She didn't let on that she'd decided to pursue writing. "I misled them. I lied," Chang says. "But I had decided I didn't want a normal life." Halfway through the master's writing program at the University of Iowa, she published a short story in the Atlantic Monthly. Clearly gifted, the Chinese American with the mesmerizing style was besieged by agents and publishers intent on discovering the next Amy Tan. "I was really terrified by this industry and felt this pressure to write something that could be sold," she says. "I was afraid that the development  of my work would suffer."

She found refuge at Stanford, where she continued to sharpen her craft. In each of her two years in the program, she contributed a story to the annual anthology Best American Short Stories. When her fellowship ended she taught undergraduate writing at Stanford through a Jones lectureship, a three-year appointment awarded to a select group of Stegner graduates.

One day while having coffee with L'Heureux, Chang mentioned she wasn't creating whole stories but rather fragments. "Oh," he observed casually,"you must be writing a novel." The pronouncement shocked Chang, who had never produced a piece longer than 20 pages. To learn how to handle the genre, she set a goal of writing a 100-page story. She studied the novellas of Truman Capote, Philip Roth and Willa Cather. The end result was Hunger, which consists of a novella and several short stories. The book has received five-star reviews and several prestigious accolades, including a Los Angeles Times Best Book of 1998 nomination and a citation from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, an annual endowment that celebrates emergent women writers.

The novella tells the story of a Chinese immigrant couple whose hunger -- for acceptance, love, success -- can never be satisfied because its tems from the loss of homeland. Despite all it has cost them, however, the couple pass their unquenchable longings on to their two children. Chang says Hunger is not autobiographical. Her parents were eager to leave behind the memories of their escape from war-ravaged China, happy to embrace the Midwest. But she admits there is a similarity between her and Tian, the father in her book, who swims to a refugee ship holding his treasured violin above the water. He dreams of becoming a great musician in America. "I'm like him -- relentlessly interested in one thing," she says."Writing is my obsession. It's all I think about."

tom mcneal
Photo: Laura McNeal
Second Time's the Charm
Tom McNeal
Age: 51
Stanford Writing Program: 1977-79
Visiting Scholar: 1985-86
Goodnight, Nebraska, Random House, 1998
Quote: "I always wrote, even when there was no validation. But it's nice . . . to have people who believe in you."

Tom McNeal believes in second chances. Consider his protagonist, Randall Hunsacker, the teenager who flees to the small town of Goodnight, Neb., after a suicide attempt and a stint in juvenile hall. He's a loner, misunderstood and searching for a code of values. He gets his second chance in Goodnight.

McNeal's fresh start came much later in life --six years after the official end of his Stegner fellowship. "My writing career and my first marriage were falling apart," he says from his home in Fallbrook, Calif. "John L'Heureux invited me back to Stanford as a visiting scholar to sit in with the Stegners. It was a much better experience than the first time I was in the writing program. It was a time in which everything had traction. I learned so much."

The inspiration for Goodnight, Nebraska came from the stories his mother told him as a boy, stories that made Nebraska sound as exotic as India or Egypt. In 1976, when he decided he wanted to write about Nebraska, he moved to a small town about 60 miles from his mother's childhood home. He taught high school, drove the pep-rally bus and soaked up the local color. McNeal modeled his main character after a boy who showed up at his school one fall afternoon and dragged himself wearily through his classes -- only to play like a hellion on the football field. When the season ended, the boy disappeared. In his novel, McNeal imagines the youth's past and future.

After a year sitting in with the Stegner fellows, McNeal stayed on at Stanford as a Jones lecturer for three more. He finished his book and married writer Laura Rhoton McNeal. They have an infant son, Samuel, and make their home in Fallbrook, where McNeal lives on a small avocado grove and runs a general contracting firm with his brother.

Having made the most of his second chance, McNeal is finding that new opportunities keep coming. In June, Vintage published a soft-cover edition of Goodnight, Nebraska. He is working on a second novel. Meanwhile, he won the James H.Michener Memorial Prize -- a $10,000 award given to writers who produce a first book after age 40 --and was named a finalist in Barnes and Noble's Discover Award for new novelists. "I always wrote, even when there was no validation," he says. "But it's nice to have it -- and even nicer to have people who believe in you."

Photo: Michael Scarpelli
Writing Her Way Out
V. Diane WoodBrown
Age: 37
Stanford Writing Program: 1994-96
HalfBorn Woman, Anchor Books, 1998
Quote: "I had been holding everything in for 32 years. I was a big knot. Now it's out."

For V. Diane WoodBrown, writing has been as much about psychological healing as artistic expression.She arrived at Stanford determined to finish the book she had started while working as a Massachusetts political aide. "I had been holding everything in for 32 years. I was a big knot," she says. "Now, it's out."

The secret to loosening those emotional strings, WoodBrown says, was to recast her life as fiction. HalfBorn Woman tells the story of Arlen, a teenage girl who is physically abused by her mother and neglected by her father and his string of trophy wives. Often left to care for herself and her siblings, Arlen struggles to understand love, sometimes seeking it in the wrong places, sometimes coming close to destroying herself just to get a small measure of affection. The story exudes the sultriness of WoodBrown's native Florida and, though fictional, reflects the physical and psychological damage she experienced as a child.

She carried that damage with her, developing a neurological disorder at Stanford that made typing difficult. The creative writing program helped by giving her a voice-activated computer. Finishing the book brought her some degree of spiritual healing -- and most of her neurological symptoms subsided. WoodBrown's parents recognized themselves in her tale, she says, but took its publication as reassurance that she had overcome her childhood woes.

Now she hopes to get on to other stories -- that is, when the demands of her 16-month-old son, Peyton, don't get in the way. She and her husband,Douglas, met as students at Tampa State University and eventually settled in San Anselmo, Calif., where he teaches at a private school. Recently, WoodBrown was in a Capitola bookstore giving a reading along with novelist Chris Gottschalk. As the two women traded writing stories, Gottschalksaid it had taken her 20 years to finish her first book while raising her children. When they were grown, it took only two years to write her second book. "It was like looking at my mirror image," WoodBrown says. "I hope I won't take 20 years to write my second book."

keith scribner
Photo: Marina Brodskaya
Telling an American Story
Keith Scribner
Age: 37
Stanford Writing Program: 1995-97
The Good Life, Riverhead Books, 1999
Quote: "I know I'm a lucky man, but if all else fails, I can always take up the hammer and pound a few nails."

Keith Scribner couldn't stop thinking about Sidney Reso, the Exxon executive who died after being kidnapped, shot in the arm and locked in a stifling storage locker by a former company security chief. The kidnapper, who at one point earned $60,000 a year, told tv interviewer Barbara Walters he committed the crime to provide for his family. He wasn't a bad man, the kidnapper said -- not like those bums and drug dealers you see hanging out on corners. "Man, it really grabbed me," Scribner says of the incident, which he fictionalized in TheGood Life. "It seemed to be a microcosm of American culture."

Scribner transformed the episode into a dark tale of misguided motives, failed pyramid schemes and cruelty. In the process, he explores complex themes that preoccupy contemporary America -- racism and class prejudice, sin and redemption, family loyalty and personal integrity. But in his sunny Menlo Park apartment, Scribner talks mostly about the blessings of the past few years -- the Stegner fellowship, marriage to poet Jen Richter (also a former Stegner fellow), a first book and a first child, a boy due in August.

Scribner began to think about becoming a writer in his senior year at Vassar, where he studied economics. He took a fiction course and fell in love with the simple grace of E.B. White and Joan Didion. Until then, he had planned to pursue a master's or maybe a law degree. Instead, he took a job teaching English in Japan and began a self-directed course in writing.

Winning the Stegner fellowship in 1995 was a turning point. "Finally, you have all this time off to write," he says. "You're with one group of people so long, they all know your work and you know theirs. People are supportive, yet they tell you when it's not working."

Now a Jones lecturer, Scribner is working on a second novel. Not that he has given up the carpentry skills that got him through the lean years of his writing apprenticeship: he's built himself a writing desk and a bedroom bureau, all made in the clean, simple arts-and-crafts style he admires. "Our dream is to move somewhere where we can afford some land and teach and write and build a home, have a family," he says. "I know I'm a lucky man, but if all else fails, I can always take up the hammer and pound a few nails."

peter rock
Photo: Frank Ouderman
Snakes, Power and Spirituality
Peter Rock
Age: 31
Stanford Writing Program: 1995-97
This Is the Place, Anchor Press, 1997, and Carnival Wolves, Anchor Press, 1998
Quote: "When I left Stanford, I thought, 'It's not hard to write a book a year.' I definitely got spoiled."

Before he got to Stanford, Peter Rock had lived enough to gather material for several books. His travels took him to a string of inhospitable places: a junior college on a cattle ranch near Death Valley, a ranch in Montana where he lived in an unheated cabin, a polygamists' town in Utah. In between, he earned a bachelor's degree from Yale.

His fictional world is anything but ivory tower. Both his novels are about loners, people living on the fringes of society, searching for something -- snakes, power, connection, spirituality. The characters sometimes confound the reader; it's hard to grasp what they really want out of life. Rock likes it this way. He says he's never after "an easy story."

As a Stegner fellow, he found himself having to defend his raw, confrontational style of writing, his characters and his plots. "The process pushed me and helped me see more clearly what I was after," he says in an interview from his apartment in Philadelphia. "I'm never satisfied with my own work -- but for different reasons than everyone else." Before his second year in the fellowship, he had a two-book contract. The manuscript for This Is the Place won the prestigious Henfield Award in 1996.

Such early success may have spoiled him, Rocksays. "When I left Stanford, I thought, 'It's not hard to write a book a year.'" he says. These days, he answers phones and otherwise "works as a lackey" for the University of Pennsylvania football team while his wife, Ella Vining, completes medical school there. Rock says he's lucky to get in a few hours of writing a day. "Still," he says, sounding a little like one of his hard-bitten characters, "it's better than nothing."

jason brown
Photo: Dylan Willoughby
The Road to Recovery
Jason Brown
Age: 29
Stanford Writing Program: 1996-98
Driving the Heart, W.W. Norton, 1998
Quote: "I felt like I was exorcising some of the demons when I was writing this book."

Jason Brown sits on the futon in the two-room apartment he rents from a Stanford professor. It's hard to reconcile his earnest face and open demeanor with his dark tales of young people working in "jobs that allow the rest of us to go on living." His characters deliver human organs for transplant and investigate scenes of untimely deaths, then deliver the bad news to loved ones. One man takes care of an alcoholic mother; another sits in a detox center trying to remember how his knuckles got bruised. Reminiscent of minimalist master Raymond Carver, Brown's stories stay with you. The title piece of his collection was included in 1998's Best American Short Stories anthology.

Brown writes from experience. Growing up in Maine, he was kicked out of two boarding schools before settling into public school. He attended Bowdoin College and got a master's in creative writing from Cornell University while working a string of unusual part-time jobs -- delivering body parts, capping test tubes full of testosterone, volunteering as a subject in pharmaceutical experiments. And he wrote. By his early 20s, he had a serious drinking problem. "But it was the depression that clobbered me," he says.

Brown and a friend joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1991. They rented the top floor of a run-down brownstone in Ithaca, where he got sober and recovered from depression. As Brown sees it, his reward was the Stegner fellowship and the completion of his first book. "I felt like I was exorcising some of the demons when I was writing this book," says Brown, now a health nut and yoga practitioner who remains at Stanford as a Jones lecturer. "I came here with a [still-unpublished] novel I thought was so wonderful. I'd written it in four months. I'd been in workshops in graduate school, but I realized I hadn't ever had the higher level of feedback I needed. Now I'm writing another novel and it's not so dark."

michael byers
Photo: Linda Cicero
Northwest Passages
Michael Byers
Age: 39
Stanford Writing Program: 1996-98
The Coast of Good Intentions, Houghton Mifflin, 1998
Quote: "I see my job as a writer to get into everyone's head, to make them real and not caricatures."

Michael Byers grew up in and around Seattle, which probably explains why the Pacific Northwest is almost a character in his stories. But his Seattle is not the new city of software start-ups and coffee bars. This is a town of crab factories and cranberry bogs populated by retired schoolteachers, carpenters and ferry operators.

Byers starts writing his stories by devising setting and characters. The action and feelings come later, through a series of revisions that he describes as more technical than artistic. "The emotions come last. I can't do it the other way around," he says. "I see my job as a writer to get into everyone's head, to make them real and not caricatures."

After graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio, Byers taught elementary school for two years, then took a year off to write before earning a master's in fine arts from the University of Michigan. The two years as a Stegner fellow gave him the time to finish his collection of stories. "You're expected to show up and write. You're not given assignments, but rather you're expected to live as a writer. You bring your work in when you think it's ready," he explains. "You don't want to look stupid with something, so you work as hard as you can. That kind of peer pressure is something I both dreaded and enjoyed, but most of all, learned from. It was the hinge that finally made everything work."

Byers has returned to the Seattle area, where he lives with Susan Hutton, a poet he met in the Stanford writing program. The two support each other's writing efforts, Byers says, but he misses "the friends we left behind and the people you could trust with your work."

Yvonne Daley, a frequent contributor to Stanford, writes and teaches in California and Vermont.

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