Congratulations to Kangkang Kovacs (MFA ’23), who was featured in The College Today magazine as one of “2023 Graduates Poised to Change the World.” See article below.
A tomboy kid thumbing her nose at the gender norms in her hometown in southeast China, a doctoral student studying nuclear physics at the University of Virginia, a scientist teaching math and physics at UC Santa Barbara, a mother homeschooling 5-year-old twins during the pandemic: Kangkang Kovacs has been a lot of things over the years.
But, at her core, she’s always been a writer.
That’s what led her to the M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program at the College of Charleston, where she has been a Dorothea Benton Frank Fellow, a graduate research assistant for the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, a graduate assistant for swamp pink literary journal and an integral part of the program’s writing community.
“This community of support is one of my most valuable takeaways from the program,” says Kangkang, noting the faculty in the program – including her advisor, English professor Anthony Varallo – enhanced her storytelling and encouraged her growth as a writer. “These brilliant writers and teachers inspired me to find my own voice.”
It’s exactly what she needed to develop her thesis project into a novel – a multigenerational family saga following a Chinese grandma, mother and daughter.
“Professor Varallo encouraged me to go with this particular topic, and to stumble down the path of an expansive novel,” she says. “He was like a window and a mirror at the same time, in the sense that he affirmed some of my choices and shined a new light on the others. My manuscript would not have been the same without his guidance.”
And her career, it turns out, may not have been the same without that manuscript, which caught the eye of a William Morris Endeavor literary agent visiting campus for the Dorothea Benton Frank “Industry Talks” series last March.
Before long, the agent offered her a contract with the agency – a gamechanger for both her career and her confidence.
“It does mean a lot to have the affirmation from the outside world, to have an experienced agent see value in my writing,” she says.
Kangkang is, of course, a writer – always has been and always will be.
“I will always try to write from a place of truth, a place of genuine curiosity,” she says. “I guess I’ll start from there and give it my best, one sentence at a time, page by page.”
Hanna Reynditskiy (Fiction, ’24) & Emilie Ross (Fiction, ’24)
On the evening of March 14th, Curtis Sittenfeld read to a full house at Randolph Hall, Alumni Hall. The audience buzzed with excitement, but before Sittenfeld stepped up to the podium to read, MFA director, Anthony Varallo, greeted the audience, presented an overview of Sittenfeld’s work, and introduced Dorothea Benton Frank Fellow, Kangkang Kovacs. Kangkang discussed Sittenfeld’s 2020 novel, Rodham, a reimagining of Hillary Clinton’s life had she remained as Hilary Rodham instead, and the ways in which it acts as a “thoughtful defiance to cynicism.” She went on to discuss the emotional authenticity of the text which rings true for the rest of Sittenfeld’s work.
After a round of applause, Sittenfeld took the stage. She then read from her short story, “Show Don’t Tell,” which appeared in a 2017 issue of The New Yorker. She started off by saying that it doesn’t ever say that it’s set in an MFA program, “but it’s definitely set in an MFA program.”
“I think I tried to write a version of this story in about 2004 or 5,” Sittenfeld said, but nothing came of it. Years went by and she got into a groove of writing novels instead of short stories. Then at one point, she somehow uncovered the story, dusted it off, and got so embarrassed with herself, alone, in her small office, that in her words, “it almost burned my eyeballs.” But there was one part in the story––“a party that all these grad students attend, and three of the grad students sort of meet in the middle and give like a five-minute hug”––and the emotional turmoil of those characters meeting up again struck her, and she felt compelled to visit the piece again. She rewrote it, but all in all, this one little piece took her about 13 years to write. Then, of course, it was published in The New Yorker.
On the topic of her forthcoming book, Romantic Comedy, Sittenfeld said, “The short way of explaining this book is that I wrote a novel about Pete Davidson.” Sittenfeld warned us that when you write a book, you become what she says “a magnet for people’s confessions about that topic.” When she wrote Eligible, 2016, for example, she became swamped with people telling her that they reread Pride and Prejudice annually or that, would you know it, they had never in their whole lives picked up a Jane Austen novel. Now, with Romantic Comedy, people are responding to her Tweets confessionally, letting her know that they personally never understood the allure of Pete Davidson, the poster boy for the talented but “ordinary-looking, or mortal,” male SNL writer getting together with a gorgeous, younger musical guest or guest host after the show.
Sittenfeld’s Romantic Comedy turns this phenomenon on its head––well, gender-wise at least. Fictional comedy sketch writer for the fictional show, The Night Owls (TNO), Sally Milz, is heartbroken and ordinary and hates the pattern of regular-looking male sketch writers on her show getting together with goddess-like women guest stars. There would never be a super-hot male guest who would ever get together with someone like her.
Sittenfeld gave us a rundown of how the idea started with getting her kids into Saturday Night Live during Covid, and when her kids, who may or may not be too young for SNL, started to notice the Pete Davidson effect, she felt that if there was a screenplay where the woman was the ordinary writer, she would happily watch it. Then, as Sittenfeld said through audience laughter, “a few months passed and I thought, ‘Oh it shouldn’t be a screenplay. It should be a novel, and the someone who should write it is… is me!”
Romantic Comedy is slated for release on April 4th.
After Sittenfeld’s reading, the floor was opened to questions. Rachael Mockalis, a CofC MFA student, led with an intriguing question. In Sittenfeld’s short story collection, I Think It, You Say It, the stories seem to be based around false perceptions, and Rachael brought this to attention. She asked whether Sittenfeld had done this purposefully and if the answer was yes, what sparked the intention. As it turns out, it was intentional on Sittenfeld’s part: she is drawn to characters with false perceptions. “The particular kind of character that I’m drawn to writing about is a person who is not brilliant or a genius, but is reasonably intelligent and turns out to be wrong,” Sittenfeld said. This kind of character is very prominent in her story collection, and Sittenfeld explained that she is, “drawn to that structure over and over.”
Intrigued further by her characters, another student asked how Sittenfeld goes about writing her characters. Sittenfeld explained that her writing professor gave her and her class a good piece of writing advice that she uses to this day. She said, “When you’re writing a character, think of who the character most physically resembles, like a celebrity or a childhood neighbor, then think of who the character’s personality most resembles, which is probably a different physicality than personality.” By connecting your character to a real person and thinking in terms of specifics—for example, what kind of snack would this character eat or what kind of gesture does the real person have that resembles your character?—Sittenfeld believes a writer may achieve a deeper realism with their characters.
CofC MFA student, Campbell Sullivan, asked if Sittenfeld has any sort of writing rituals or creature comforts at her desk and whether these acts or objects helped with motivation. “Every day that I write, I write down the date, the time that I start and then the page that I start on,” Sittenfeld said. “It’s a marker of my progress. It’s an encouragement that I’m giving myself.” Another student wanted to know what keeps Sittenfeld moving forward. Though Sittenfeld is at the point in her career where she can make contracts with publishers before having a manuscript, she said having a community of writers helps her with her personal motivation. Declaring her goals to her writing community and keeping herself accountable to those goals has kept her on track.
“For those of you in the MFA program,” she said, “if you can find your readers, people who give you valuable feedback, then you’ve found a precious thing.”
I recently caught up with MFA alum Emma Stough, whose story, “Jenny Watches The Exorcist,” was recently selected for inclusion in Flash Fiction America, just out from W.W. Norton. You can read my interview with Emma here:
How did you find out that your story would be included in the anthology?
I received an email from one of the anthology editors, Sherrie Flick!
What was your reaction?
My immediate reaction was to do some quick Googling to be sure this was for real—but once I did that, I was floored! Having my work in such a stellar anthology alongside some of my favorite flash writers is unbelievable. I feel so lucky to be included!
Could you tell us a little bit about the story? What is it about? Where did it first appear?
What struck me after watching The Exorcist for the first time was how quickly the little girl, Regan, goes back to “normal” after such a horrific possession. So I took that seed and let Jenny process all the oddities of The Exorcist through the lens of her own sleeplessness/hopelessness, finding ways that she and Regan overlap, like their lack of autonomy. To Jenny, that imprisonment and loss of control is scariest thing about possession, whether demonic or medical or self-inflicted.
What do you enjoy about writing flash fiction?
I think what impatience I have for the short story is forgiven by the flash form; you can get the same sparkling story but in such a small time, and with such a punch. And then to use a series of flash as an exercise in trying to create something bigger, that really rings my writerly bell.
What are you working on now?
I’m still writing flash and trying to wring out the occasional short story here and there, but my most exciting project is the long form something where Jenny emerged from. Flash has been a great tool in excavating her larger narrative. I’m thrilled to keep digging!
For the first part of their talk, Gluck and Blatt reviewed a selection of “pitch letters” (query letters from writers to potential agents that try to persuade the agent to read their manuscript) and shared tips for what makes for a successful letter. Both agents noted the importance of choosing the right “comp titles” (books that you feel are similar to yours) for your letter, the value of letting your voice speak through your letter (yes, you may use humor, if that’s appropriate to your book), and the merit of shaping your bio so that it ties back to your book (if your background directly relates to your subject matter, make that connection clear).
For the next part of their presentation, the agents divided the MFA students into two “workshop” groups where they reviewed student pitch letters and writing samples. Students took notes, asked questions, and got great ideas for shaping their creative projects into book-length manuscripts. Our writers were so lucky to have a one-on-one experience with two wonderful literary agents from the biggest literary agency in the world, William Morris Endeavor (WME). Many, many thanks to Suzanne and Andrea!