Kangkang Kovacs featured in The College Today

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.”

Curtis Sittenfeld Reads at College of Charleston

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.”

Interview with Emma Stough (MFA ‘19): On Being Selected for Flash Fiction America (W.W. Norton, 2023)

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.

Barrelhouse first published “Jenny Watches The Exorcist” in 2020, and I’m so grateful that now it has a second life!  

 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!

DBF “Industry Talk” with Literary Agents Suzanne Gluck and Andrea Blatt of WME

On a recent Thursday afternoon, MFA students met with literary agents Suzanne Gluck and Andrea Blatt as part of our Dorothea Benton Frank “Industry Talk” Series at the College of Charleston.

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!

Meet Hanna Reynditskiy, Woodfin Fellow in Fiction

Tanner Crunelle interviewed Hanna Reynditskiy, our new Woodfin Fellow in Fiction. Read on to learn about Hanna’s inspirations, writing rituals, and favorite color.

When you explain your fiction to other people, how do you explain it to people who don’t read that much and to people who do like to read?

It’s pretty difficult for me to explain my fiction. I don’t usually talk too much about it, so explaining it is a difficult task for me in general. I usually say I write literary fiction. People who don’t read literary fiction will then ask me what literary fiction is and I’ll fumble and say, “Well actually I don’t really know what literary fiction is.” But I’ll try to give names to it. You know, like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, writers that I find myself gravitating toward, or more contemporary authors like Carmen Maria Machado, Joyce Carol Oates, and Haruki Murakami. Most people, even non-readers, know who the older giants are. So eventually, you get to a name that someone recognizes and you say, “That kind of fiction.” And if they want a further explanation, I’ll then attempt to talk about what fiction does. Which, for me, is trying to capture a reality, or truth, about life.

What truths do you think fiction is particularly disposed to? Or that you feel your writing of fiction is especially well positioned to elucidate?

 It depends on the author. It also depends on the type of fiction. But I would say most fiction is geared toward subjective realities. How someone goes through life, how someone feels about life. Things that are very personal and subjective to us. Things that put us into the shoes of the narrator or the character so we can feel their truth for ourselves. For me personally, I try to investigate the multifaceted nature of truth, how things are often different than they appear.

Have you found that moving to Charleston is influencing your fiction writing and if so, how?

 There’s the program itself, which is influential. You have a deadline and only a limited amount of time to get your story done. That’s not necessarily related to Charleston, the place, but I feel like deadlines are important for me. I have a hard time getting things done in a specific amount of time. But thinking in terms of place now: I’ve never been in a place so flat. That sounds kind of weird, but when you can see everything on the horizon, there’s something kind of strange about it. It’s as if things should be clear because it’s literally visible, but instead there’s something mysterious and opaque about it, especially within the swamps and woods that exist here. You also have this split of what Charleston is in the present (a beautiful city with well preserved structures) and what it was in the past (a site of historical horror) that creates a strange paradoxical duplexity. It is at once beautiful and horrifying.

Do you draw inspiration from any artists who are working in non-linguistic mediums? Or who work outside of fiction?

It depends. I think there’s something to visual art that relates to fiction. I did a lot of visual art when I was a kid, but I found it kind of limiting. That’s because, in visual art, you’re capturing a moment in time and that moment is solidified within a frame. There’s an element to that in fiction as well with each scene being fixed after it’s been written. But there’s more space for the imagination in fiction. But I suppose I’m starting to look at paintings nowadays and ask what the story is outside of the frame. Then there’s cinematography. Another thing I dabbled in. I’ll look to Hayao Miyazaki, Akira Kurosawa, and Wes Anderson for inspiration. Specifically, I’ll look at how they block scenes, how they linger on certain moments. But for the most part when I write a story I look to other fiction for inspiration.

Describe a typical occasion for your writing: where are you, what time of day is it. Do you have a ritual? How do you piece together a story?

 I used to have a ritual of waking up before the sun rises and writing in partial darkness. But now with the program, I have to find time to write whenever, wherever, which is very difficult. But it’s productive because I’m forced to get something on the page and not rely on my ritual of waking up before the sunrise. Piecing together a story is always difficult. For me, it’s usually the idea that comes first, a sort of daydream. Something I read or saw or heard sparks my interest and I start to investigate it by dreaming about it. Then I have to keep having that dream while I write. I have to let it fall into the background while I focus on getting one sentence done and then another.

Are there any people who have left an especially pronounced mark on your writing and how?

I have a lot of inspirations when it comes to writing, but I would have to say Joyce Carol Oates is a big inspiration of mine. I’m currently thinking about her right now as I write. Kind of like what you were saying about having dialogues with philosophers, I like having that with other writers. I try to engage in the conversations they are having and move them toward more modern, or different, ways of thinking. So her. My dad comes to mind, too. He’s always helped me through the writing process and has sometimes acted as my editor. Since a young age, he’s tried to guide me in my writings. He also introduced me to my first love of cinematography.

Last question: have you always had a favorite color? Has it changed over time?

 I loved the color blue as a kid. Any shade of turquoise or teal. Now it’s more of a light blue, and even a light pink. There’s something about those colors, light blue and light pink, that I always associated with my husband, Dennis. They’re such lovely, soft, vibrant colors. It’s hard for me to not think of him when I see those colors. He even wore those colors on our wedding day. His suit was light blue, the tie light pink.

Meet Tanner Crunelle, Woodfin Fellow in Poetry

Hanna Reynditskiy interviewed Tanner Crunelle, our new Woodin Fellow in Poetry. Read on to learn about Tanner’s inspirations, writing rituals, and influences.

What drew you to poetry and who are your biggest inspirations?

My favorite poet is Harryette Mullen because she writes about identity, but experimentally, through the condition of our immersion in language. Identity itself, as both a topic and analytic lens, is engaged in her writing, which I find profoundly freeing. What drew me into writing poetry? Really, it was studying and learning about poetry. That and how forms persist overtime. That’s another question I’m fascinated by. We may be modern, but what makes us historical is the persistence of form across time. So studying poetic form is a way to see how form persists and transmogrifies. Poetry gives us a rarefied discourse of meta-cognition. It allows us to think about thinking itself. I don’t know of many other art forms that do it so well, being that we are creatures of language.

Do you see yourself fitting into a certain movement or school of poets, and if so, who and why?

There are some really interesting things happening right now—and Harryette Mullen is a part of this—that is somehow tentative in its social, public identity. There’s somehow stability in that identity while also being foundationally unstable and open, coming from a sublation of confessional forms and a critique of language and poetic expression, especially that of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. So this is one “school” that seems to have rigorous philosophical commitments while also containing some of the rhetorical features of lyric poetry that convince us of the different formulations of human being. But I don’t uncritically agree with all they say and do. I think it’s much more interesting to think about my work in relation to these poets than to categorize myself as a part of their “school.”

What is your writing ritual and routine?

Usually I am accosted by a poem. So I am usually scribbling a first draft. Then there is the delightful task of trying to read my own handwriting! But I find that the most pleasurable part of writing poetry is revision, because it gets me closer to what lies at the core of a given mental formation, relation, affective state, or whatever else a poem may be interested in.

What topics, themes or tendencies do you notice bubbling up in your poetry?

Desire. Desire in relation to speaking. It’s not like, “Oh, I write about being a man who desires men.” I mean, there is some of that, because I am gay and I am writing poetry. But my poetry isn’t gay poetry, per se. So desire would be one. Sound, as a formal feature, is the single most prominent rhetorical feature of my poetry. All of that and our relation to sound, as subjects who are shaped by sound, but also speaking, which is a sonic act. In some ways I see my poetry addressing philosophers, so that’s one of the themes in my poetry. But they are ultimately very different styles of writing, that of critical study versus poetry. If I could tentatively distinguish between the two, philosophy and critical study lets me see truth obfuscated in the written words of others, whereas poetry lets me see the truth obfuscated in my own speaking.

How does music influence your poetry and who would you consider your favorite musician?

I am always perplexed by explanations of music that give music meaning. Music to me is almost like pure sense and abstraction. Pure sense in the way that we feel it in our bodies. It may evoke some feeling that connects us to others or inspires us into action, like when we’re marching, or the feeling of being held or contained by a song. And pure abstraction in the sense that music evokes unnamable states in our bodies. I grew up playing the drums, the timpani, so there is some quality of my poetry that retains this panache of a drum that is tuned, adds flare, and carries the orchestra forward. So there’s that quality to my poetry. When it comes to pop music, I really like Khruangbin, Sufjan Stevens, Beach House, Joni Mitchell. I don’t have a favorite musician. I have a set of musicians that I will consistently listen to and even rely on, but I like remaining open to many different types of music.

What are you reading right now (outside of class, of course!)

I’m reading Judith Butler’s The Force of Nonviolence, which is really a masterpiece. It’s about how to militantly combat violence, which is figured not just as aggression within ourselves on a subjective level, but also corporate degradation of the natural ecological environment, and war. War especially. It’s illuminating for me as someone who practices yoga and seeks tools for living nonviolently, but I hadn’t really considered nonviolence as an active force. I’m also reading Little Mr. Prose Poem by Russell Edson, which is a collected edition just released in October, and The Pleasure of the Text by Roland Barthes. I’m working through some of the big names, and I like to have books in different genres going at once, so I can satisfy my curiosity through whatever style of engaging with a text.

What are your plans after your MFA degree?

 I will also finish my MA in Philosophy, Art, and Social Thought at the European Graduate School and seek admission to a PhD program in the critical humanities. I know my vocation is teaching. So I am preparing my mind and spirit for a career as an educator.