Washington University’s Summer Writers Institute (SWI) has brought a number of acclaimed writers, professors poets and memoirists to St. Louis to teach or take courses over the years. Two such writers, author Susan Perabo, and Kristina Darling, discuss the program from two different junctures: Darling as a former student, and Perabo as a fiction workshop instructor for this year’s program.
A St. Louis native and acclaimed author, Perabo has published two novels—titled “The Broken Places” and, most recently, “The Fall of Lisa Bellow”—as well as two short-story collections, “Who I Was Supposed to Be” and “Why They Run the Way They Do.” She also teaches English and creative writing at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Darling knew she wanted to be a writer from an early age and began with a course at the Summer Writers Institute when she was 18. Darling then went on to achieve a bachelor’s degree in English from WashU and a master’s degree in American Culture Studies. She also earned her Ph.D. in English literature from The State University of New York at Buffalo last year and currently teaches full time at Wichita State University. Keep reading to learn more about each writer and their respective relationships with SWI.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I knew very early on—I started writing when I was a teenager. I wrote this horrible, bad poetry, but I remember being so excited to learn. Eventually, I took a class at the Summer Writers Institute and then started sending my work out to journals. Then I enrolled at WashU as an English major through the School of Continuing & Professional Studies (formerly University College) and went on to get a master’s degree in American Culture Studies. Then I got my PhD at The State University of New York at Buffalo, where I earned my PhD in creative writing.
That’s an amazing story. And that whole journey really began for you at SWI?
It did! I think what resonated with me so strongly with that first class I took was that I had never been part of a community as a writer before. When you’re in high school, not many people are interested in poetry. I was 18 years old at the time, and that was my first exposure to a diverse, active community of writers. Every poetry class I’ve taken has opened up something completely new for me in terms of what forms I learned to try out and has given me an expanded sense of permission of what I could do as a poet. And really, the key is not to give up. I got something like 80 rejections of my work before I got one piece accepted to a literary journal. Writers should never get discouraged by rejection. It’s something you can use to build on in your career.
What do you tend to write about?
I work on a lot of collaborations. One I’m really proud of is a book I co-wrote with writer Carol Guess called “X Marks the Dress: A Registry,” which came out in 2013. The book is written in two voices, a husband and wife. I wrote in the voice of the wife, and she wrote in the voice of the husband. It ultimately became a book about marriage equality, and we worked on a second collaboration that was an extension of that. Much of my work has some component of social justice. I’m very interested in taking academic forms—like footnotes, glossaries, or bibliographies—and creating a space for women’s experience. I wrote another book called “The Moon and Other Inventions: Poems After Joseph Cornell,” which was written entirely in footnotes. Things like that really interest me.
There are a number of ways one can develop a career in writing, but you’ve been especially successful in developing a career through academia. What have you learned from that path?
In my Ph.D. program, we focused a lot on our roles as scholar-practitioner—meaning it wasn’t just about writing our own work but studying the work of people who may have a completely different style, or approach and background. That focus taught me so much about craft. There are also great alternatives to academic careers. When I was working on my dissertation, I attended several artist residencies for a period of about three years; it gives you that chance to be a part of an artistic community, and I met artists I still work with. It was amazing, not just to see different parts of the world, but to meet so many different artists of all kinds.
How did you make your way into writing and teaching?
I’m not the kind of writer who always knew that’s what I was going to do, or who was always reading, at first. That was actually my sister and my mom. I played a lot of sports growing up and was much more of an outdoorsy kid. I was definitely influenced by my family’s love for literature, but it wasn’t until college that I really started reading and writing more seriously.
After completing my undergraduate degree, I decided to get a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Arkansas, and at that point, I still had no real ambitions to teach: I’d never really considered it as a career. But at the University of Arkansas, they had a great assistantship program where everyone taught two undergraduate classes per semester, and I realized that I really love teaching. I could also write while teaching and paying my bills. As I was finishing up my master’s program, I applied for a position at Dickinson College, completely as a shot in the dark. I got the job, which was a big shock, but I was incredibly grateful. That’s how I started my teaching career: I didn’t plan to be a teacher but ended up really loving Dickinson. I was really fortunate—that’s the short story as to how all of this happened.
How have you balanced the demands of teaching with your own writing pursuits?
It’s true that teaching is absolutely demanding, as are all the things that come with being a full-time professor. They’re all things I value and enjoy doing, but it does limit the amount of time I have for my own writing. That’s why it’s taken me 20 years to write four books. Maybe I could have written 10. But who knows—maybe I would have only written one. I write during the summer and breaks in the school year, and I also try to carve out some time during the semester to do some writing—but honestly, it’s not very much. For my first novel, I was on sabbatical for part of the time, and the short-story collections are composed of pieces that took years to write.
Your work definitely does not shy away from harrowing subject matter. “The Fall of Lisa Bellow,” for example, tackles the abduction of a young girl. Your short stories explore equally difficult themes. What draws you to that type of content, and how do you approach it?
I’m drawn to it because I want to dig into it; it’s what I find fascinating. Most of the stories I write aren’t inspired by any particular event, though some have been. But most are created entirely from my imagination. I often tell my students, usually the way a story or a novel starts for me is that I think to myself, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if X, or Y, happened?” Oftentimes those kinds of thoughts come up when I’m daydreaming, or in my car, and something in my mind gets triggered. I think that happens for every writer. And then 49 out of 50 times I think, “Eh—that’s not a story.” But then I take that one idea out of 50, and then characters start to take shape around it.
More specifically, the way people respond to tragedy or terror has always been interesting to me. How do characters react when something happens to them that’s really shocking and out of the ordinary? Everyone has a different kind of response to a tragedy based on the baggage they carry into that tragedy—that’s ultimately what interests me. For “The Fall of Lisa Bellow,” I started with the situation, and that family grew around it. They were living their normal day-to-day life and then this terrifying thing happens, which redefined their ordinary ways of relating to the world.
What do you have in store for your students at SWI?
I’m from St. Louis, and I’m always interested in different types of teaching possibilities. Since the class is 10 sessions over two weeks, I’m taking at least a semester’s worth of material and compressing it into that time frame. It’s challenging but very exciting. It’s an art of striking the balance of how much I can give to students without thoroughly exhausting them. I teach undergraduates at Dickinson, but I’m also interested in doing workshops for all different kinds of students. It all came together at the right time.