Q & A with writer, alpinist, and new MFA Director David Stevenson

David Stevenson, who confirms that he “managed the descent of Mt. Rainier without strangling himself.”

UAA’s new Dept. of Creative Writing and Literary Arts low-residency MFA got off to a strong start last year, and recently welcomed a new director, David Stevenson. He was kind enough to answer a few of Andromeda’s questions.

What brings you to Alaska and what do you hope to bring to the low-res MFA program?

I came to Alaska to work as director of the new low-residency MFA program in creative writing at UAA. Even though I was born in the Midwest I spent twenty years in the west. Then I found myself in the Midwest again, teaching at a state university, and it was wearing me down—not just the landscape—there’s actually a stark flat beauty there, but something about the character of the people—I’m generalizing, of course. It’s hard to articulate but there is something like a mass sense of compromise, of having settled. Maybe it’s just me and I’m projecting how I feel when I’m there onto the whole area, but it sure feels like some kind of regional collective unconscious fueled by too much lethargy and resignation. I feel at home here in Alaska in some fuzzy quasi-spiritual way. I mean how much further west on the continent can I go? I can see Russia from here, right? Or is that only from Wasilla?

The low residency MFA program here is a newly launched enterprise and I am continually amazed by how carefully conceived and designed it is. If I were drawn here initially by the landscape, I have to say I am staying because of the people. The faculty here is so impressive—working with them is humbling. I bring about twenty years experience teaching and working in university administration, a life-long passion for reading and writing, and an enduring habit of, as I tell my students, “paying attention.” I know that writing can be learned, and working backwards from that assumption, I believe it can be taught. The promise I make to our students is that I’ll take their work seriously.

Can you tell us a little about your writing background?

I suppose the main thing to note about my writing background is that I’m on the slow road. I believe what Diana Ross said,” You Can’t Hurry Love.” I think of myself as a fiction writer even though I’ve been more successful with nonfiction, almost all of which is about mountaineering or writing about mountaineering. I’ve been the book review editor of The American Alpine Journal for many years, and that’s been very satisfying–like all writing, it’s a labor of love. I suppose I should just admit now that I find fiction writing frightening: so many ways to go wrong. That’s one of the reasons I so admire Jo-Ann Mapson: there’s a certain amount of fearlessness, a pushing forward against the odds that keeps those words coming. With nonfiction one has, at least, the armature of reality to hang a story on (even if it is up to the writer to locate that armature).

I just finished a long novel called Forty Crows that’s set in Mexico City in the early 1970s. I can’t even say for sure how long it took me to write it—a long time. I wrote a good portion of it in 2006 at the rate of a page per day. Then it took me almost two years to get the last 100 pages. I had some naive notion that the momentum of the first 400 some pages would carry the story to its conclusion, that the thing would somehow miraculously “finish itself.” That didn’t happen. I’m just now beginning the process of searching for a publisher.

What is the Alaska book that you wish you’d written yourself, and what is the Alaska book that you’re embarrassed you haven’t yet read but hope to read soon?

A couple Alaska mountaineering books have been influential, but that’s not the same as wishing I had written them. In fact I’m glad I didn’t write them, because each expedition experienced the loss of a friend, not to mention an inordinate amount of physical suffering. I’m talking about David Roberts’ Mountain of My Fear which describes establishing the Harvard Route on Mt. Huntington (Alaska Range) and Art Davidson’s Minus 148, about the first successful winter climb of Denali. I read them as a freshman in college (when I was supposed to be reading assigned texts) and both made a deep and lasting impression.

The list of Alaska books that I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t read is far too long. I hope to read Seth Kantner’s Ordinary Wolves soon. I also plan to read books by my colleagues and friends, books like Rich Chiappone’s Water of an Undetermined Depth, Nancy Lord’s Beluga Days, Eva Saulitis’ Leaving Resurrection, and Sherry Simpson’s The Accidental Explorer.

You’re pleasantly snowed into an Alaska wilderness cabin. Name your junk food, your drink, and the book (Alaskan or otherwise) you’d like to have with you.

Once I was snowed in for eight days in the St. Elias Range, pleasantly. We were in tents, of course. The weather wasn’t dire, but you couldn’t climb in it. This was late May, so there was lots of light and our sleeping became random, loosed from the sun, or the night sky, or even a watch. We went into a daze eating popcorn and drinking huge pots of tea with milk and sugar. Though we skied in we had a cache of supplies flown onto the glacier, including several books and in those days I read both Moby Dick and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for the first time. So my theory is to take a book that I would otherwise keep shuffling to the bottom of the list. Remembrance of Things Past or Gravity’s Rainbow—some massive tome that would require more discipline than I am normally able to muster, a book that launches its own universe into being and lets the reader live in it for a while.

1 thought on “Q & A with writer, alpinist, and new MFA Director David Stevenson”

  1. David, thanks for articulating a couple of thoughts I’ve had a hard time putting into words. The first is about the inertia of the Midwest. Resignation and compromise describe it nicely.

    The second is about how tough novel writing can be. With so many ways to wrong, I sometimes wonder why I bother. And yet there’s that’s the challenge…

    A belated welcome to Alaska. You’re a more conscientious reader than I, holing up with Moby Dick.

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