Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Interviewing the interviewer: A conversation about 'Conversations from the Iowa Writers' Workshop'

Originally printed June 9, 2011.

For some perspective on this week's 75th anniversary of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, I interviewed Kecia Lynn, a 2007 Workshop graduate, a staff member of the International Writing Program and host of the television program "Conversations from the Iowa Writers' Workshop" on the Big Ten Network.

JCC: How much research do you do before a show?

KL: I do quite a bit. I read the works, research what's online and then ask questions I think the audience will be interested in hearing.

And it helps that I'm usually a fan; so I'm usually asking questions that I want to know.

Over the course of our 15 interviews the show itself has changed from being a more promotional show -- focused on a new book -- to a show focused on the writing process, the writing life and teaching creativity.

JCC: How do you get from a discussion about an upcoming book to those larger questions?

KL: Lately, we haven't even begun talking about a specific book. We've just focused more generally on their body of work. And from that higher altitude we talk about their overall methods. We may zero in on a particular book for one question, but then we zoom out again.

JCC: You graduated with an MFA in fiction from the workshop in 2007. What keeps you in town?

KL: Working for the International Writing Program combines two of my great passions -- writing and travel. It feeds my interest in the world and allows me to work with a lot of different people. Back in 2008, I did consider moving to the west coast. But it was not time for me yet. I had more things to do here. ... Iowa City had more to give me.

JCC: Did you have experience with television before hosting the show for the Big Ten Network?

KL: I was a contestant on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" (Longtime Workshop program associate) Connie Brothers saw that and thought, "Well, she's a game show contestant. Why not?" But, of course, there's big difference between being a good contestant and being a good interviewer.

I guess it helps that I'm eager to know what makes writers tick. I'm both curious and a little selfish. I ask the questions that I would like to ask. It's been a great privilege.

JCC: I recently was watching your interview with Paul Harding. Would you have approached that interview differently if you had done it after, rather than before, the Pulitzer Committee announced he had won the fiction prize for 2010.

KL: No. I wouldn't have changed a thing. I thought "Tinkers" was a great novel, and I already had interviewed Pulitzer Prize winners. So I would have launched right into the same discussion about his own life story.

JCC: What's the difference between interviewing a writer you know personally and work with often -- such as Iowa Young Writers Studio director Stephen Lovely -- and a writer you're just meeting at the studio?

KL: Knowing the person does make it a bit easier, but it does mean I have to mind myself a bit more. Although I do ignore the camera, I never forget it's there. I'm always aware that this is a television show. That I have to sit and not slouch. I can't get get completely comfortable with the people that I know.

I know that Stephen and I could sit around talking for hours. But the format is not one in which you can just hang out. I'm as much myself as I can be on camera, but the program is "Conversations from the Iowa Writers' Workshop," and there is an artificiality with television.

JCC: Have you thought about expanding the show's focus to include poets? Or are you planning to stay with just fiction writers?

KL: It was a conscious decision to make the program about fiction. It would be great if we could get the poets, too. There's a hesitation on my part because I'm a fiction writer, and I'm not as confident in my knowledge of poetry and poetics. But since we've been moving into a broader focus about writing and the writing life, we could talk about what poets and fiction writers do differently. There could be some interesting conversation.

JCC: What have you learned about Workshop history from your interviews with Workshop graduates that range from Allan Gurganus to Yiyun Li?

KL: It's been fascinating -- especially for someone who initially was quite skeptical about the whole concept of the MFA and writing programs. But now I see the benefits of that long tradition -- especially when you consider what the term Writers' Workshop means and why that term was coined. When you think about how, in those hundreds of workshops all through the county, you have masters who teach journeymen who teach apprentices. It helps you realize that they're all working together to make the writing -- and the writers -- better. It all provides a sense of history and connection.

JCC: What is your day job when you're not coordinating the television interviews?

KL: I'm the coordinator for the IWP's Between the Lines, in which I collaborate with Stephen Lovely's Iowa Young Writers Studio during the summer. I focus on bringing students, ages 16-19, from the middle east to Iowa to study creative writing in two languages. We bring in Arabic writers for the first part, and then many Workshop graduates and other MFAs for the English component.

The goal is to encourage creative writing in the Arabic-speaking world as a means of fostering cultural exchange among high school students. We've been doing that since 2008. It's a program
I really feel privileged to work for.

JCC: Some of these writers have been interviewed hundreds of times before. What do you do to ensure that you're pulling something fresh out of the conversation?

KL: When I do my research, I do read through the past interviews but not a whole lot of them. I know I only have about 22 minutes for the program. So it's not really my goal to get the writers to reveal something that they've never revealed before.
I also know that our audience is the Big Ten Network. So I won't be asking exactly the same questions that I'd be asking if the writers were in my living room.

JCC: How do you gear your literary questions for a Big Ten Network audience?

KL: I could be asking a lot more academic questions, but that wouldn't be all that interesting. I try to think about the general readers -- those familiar with the Workshop as well as those who aren't. I think about those avid readers and the fans of writers.

I also keep in mind that most Big Ten Network viewers aren't looking for this kind of program. But they might catch us while flipping channels. It might spark some curiosity, and they might get interested in learning more.

We've had some very interesting personalities among the writers we've interviewed. They really are the ones who do the best job selling their own work.

JCC: You mentioned you used to be a workshop skeptic. What changed your mind?

KL: Realizing how many different kinds of people come to a program like Iowa, and how many different kinds of writing come out of Iowa. The classic criticism is that writing programs somehow put out similar work and that it's bland or dumbed down. That hasn't been my experience.

When I came to Iowa, I expected to find everyone writing in a flat, literary style -- dull and boring. But there are all kinds of talent here. It seems the classic criticism is nothing but a cheap shot.

Plus I came to feel that I was part of a community -- an intensely focused community that celebrates writing and literature. That's something you can't get in many places in the United States.

JCC: What pushed you over the edge and made you gamble on getting your MFA?

KL: Since I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a writer. But I also did well in math and science, so I was an engineering major who took English classes on the side. Then I got a job in IT and did writing on the side. But eventually I decided it wasn't fulfilling enough to have it on the side.

JCC: How has your own writing been going?

KL: I've been working on a novel. I'm in the process of writing and revising it, but I'm on my own schedule.

JCC: Your own writing still seems to be "on the side" as you focus on the IWP, the television show and other projects. Is this arrangement closer to the writing life you were always dreaming for yourself?

KL: I'm still working on the novel, but it is part and parcel of a larger life focused on writing. It is very different than what I used to do. And I'm around people who really care about making the writing better. I wish I had had this opportunity at 16.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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