By Thomas Walko
University of Pittsburgh alum Karin Lin-Greenberg caught up with HMB and let us in on what life after grad school has to offer. Karin is the winner of the 2013 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for her short story collection Faulty Predictions, published last fall by the University of Georgia Press. Her short stories have appeared in literary journals including The Antioch Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Epoch, Five Chapters, Kenyon Review Online, and North American Review. She earned her MFA from the University of Pittsburgh in 2006 and currently teaches creative writing at Siena College in Loudonville, New York.
HMB: So tell us a little about yourself. How did you begin to write short stories?
Lin-Greenberg: I grew up in New Jersey and went to Bryn Mawr College, where I earned a BA in English with a concentration in creative writing. Throughout college, I took fiction writing classes and wrote quite a few stories for those classes. I wanted to work and live in New York City after graduating, so I figured as an English major I should apply to editorial jobs at publishing companies. I ended up not getting any of those jobs, so I took a job as a grant writer for a nonprofit in the city. I was living with my parents in New Jersey and commuting to the city each day because I wasn’t being paid anywhere near enough to afford to live in the city. My days were often twelve hours or longer, including the commute. After six months, I quit the grant writing position and got a job teaching a GED and Adult Basic Education classes to adults in Philadelphia, where I could actually afford to live. I started taking continuing education night classes in writing. Even though I’d taken all those writing classes in college, I knew I still had a lot to learn, and I wanted to build my writing skills and learn more.
Two years after I graduated from Bryn Mawr, I went to Temple University for an MA in English. That program was half creative writing and half literature, which was good for me because I knew I wanted to go on to study further, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue a PhD or an MFA after I finished the MA program. By the time I graduated from Temple, I knew that I loved writing and reading, but found I was more interested in producing creative writing than critical pieces, so I applied to MFA programs.
HMB: How did you transition from graduate school to teaching full time? And what’s your role like at Siena? Are you in an adjunct position?
Lin-Greenberg: No, I’m lucky to be in a tenure-track position. After my MFA, I took a position as a lecturer at Missouri State University. I got that job after I graduated from Pitt. I stayed there for two years, then took a Visiting Assistant Professorship at the College of Wooster in Ohio for three years. Then I took another Visiting Assistant Professorship at Appalachian State University in North Carolina for one year, and now this is my third year at Siena.
HMB: That’s a lot of moving around…
Lin-Greenberg: People use the term “academic nomad,” and that’s exactly what it’s like—you’re moving around, on the job market every year, looking at what’s out there, what you’re qualified for, and there can be lots of stress as you wait to hear back from jobs. When I was at Wooster, I knew my three-year contract was ending, but I hadn’t found a new job by the end of the school year. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to teach the next year. I found out I had gotten the position at Appalachian State during the summer and had to quickly pack up and move from Ohio to North Carolina. I was lucky to enter the market when I did—the job market is really, really tough these days. There are so many people out there now with graduate degrees who would like teaching jobs, but there just aren’t enough jobs out there. I’ve been extremely lucky to have been employed full-time since graduating from Pitt.
HMB: How has your writing changed since finishing your MFA?
Lin-Greenberg: The best thing that happened to my writing was teaching. At Missouri State, I taught four introductory fiction writing classes a semester, each with 22 students. With each student handing in four stories a semester, it meant I had to read and talk about hundreds of stories a year. Because I was looking at and thinking about so much student fiction, I learned what makes for a strong, engaging story. Through workshops, I saw what readers responded to and what they didn’t.
At Wooster, I served as the fiction editor for a literary journal called Artful Dodge. I got to read a lot of stories, and I started to notice patterns about what worked and what didn’t work in submissions. I started to pay a lot of attention to beginnings and I thought a great deal about what drew me in as a reader on the first page. For example, I noticed that stories that started with a lot of exposition or backstory moved more slowly than stories that began right in a scene.
HMB: What advice would you give to writers considering an MFA?
Lin-Greenberg: I would say to take some time off after college. This gives you time to experience the world outside of academia and to focus on your writing. When you’re in college, you’re so busy with all sorts of requirements and activities, and even if you take writing classes, you generally don’t have a ton of time to devote to your writing.
I would also say that writers shouldn’t worry too much about trying to publish. It’s better to wait until you’re ready. Focus more on learning and trying to improve.
HMB: Can you talk a little about your experience winning the Flannery O’Connor Award? What was the submission process like for you? How did you shape that collection?
Lin-Greenberg: I’d been submitting to the Flannery O’Connor Award, and other awards for book-length collections of short stories, every year since earning my MFA. I’d probably submitted the manuscript thirty or forty times to different contests for book-length manuscripts. And I probably started sending out the collection too early. At first, I thought that if a story had been published in a literary journal, it belonged in the collection. The year I won, I started thinking about how the stories worked together. All of the stories in the collection have some element of humor to them, and I chose stories that I thought fit together in terms of voice and style. There’s also the thematic link of characters thinking they know how their lives or relationships will turn out and encountering some sort of surprise or detour to their plans or expectations.
Overall, though, I think there’s an element of luck to publishing, whether it’s a collection that comes out of a contest like this or a story in a literary journal. What matters is that your first reader doesn’t put your piece down and that they pass it along to the next reader or editor. I knew I was taking a bit of a chance with the ordering of my collection. I started with a story written in first person plural, the “we” voice. I knew that a reader might be turned off by this point of view, so I was lucky that my preliminary reader found the story interesting and read on and that the collection was ultimately passed on to the final judge.
HMB: How did it feel to hold that first book in your hands?
Lin-Greenberg: It was fantastic. It was great to have this object in my hands that represented years of writing and revision. I thought, “Oh, this is real now.”
HMB: What’s next for you?
Lin-Greenberg: I’m working on a novel now, but I’m also at work on another collection of stories. And since I teach fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, and find myself thinking and talking about all these genres, I’ve been working on some poems and essays too.