Q&A: NYU's Landau Directs Paris MFA

Michael Bourne

Many writers have dreamed of following Ernest Hemingway’s lead and living in a tiny garret in Paris where they can be very poor and very happy while learning to write. Thanks to New York University’s new low-residency MFA program in Paris, twenty lucky writers can skip the garret and the poverty and apprentice with acclaimed writers such as novelist Nathan Englander and poet Meghan O’Rourke in the City of Light. The new program, which is accepting applications for its spring 2013 term until September 15, requires students to spend five ten-day residencies in Paris over a two-year period on the way to earning an MFA. Poet Deborah Landau, author of The Last Usable Hour (Copper Canyon Press, 2011) and director of NYU’s creative writing program, discussed the new MFA Writers Workshop in Paris.

The first, obvious question is, Why Paris?
Oh, why not Paris? Generations of writers have gone to Paris for inspiration. It’s a fantastic city in which to be a reader and a writer. We have a program over there already, the summer Writers in Paris Program, for undergraduates; we have a thriving literary community and collaborations already in place with some of the bookstores there, so it seemed like a good next step.

Who do you expect to apply to the new low-residency MFA program?
I imagine it might attract someone who always wanted to be a writer but got off on another track—maybe she became a lawyer, maybe she got married and had kids and never had a chance to study or to read or to write as seriously as she wanted to. This program will be an opportunity for that person to say, “Finally I can do this thing I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to be a writer and this is my chance. I can go to Paris and study with Nathan Englander. I can finally take this dream seriously.”

Will the low-residency program be as selective as NYU’s full-residency MFA program?
We hope so. It may even be more competitive. We’ve had a lot of interest in this program, and I don’t think we’re going to have any problem filling it, so we will be able to be very discerning.

What advice would you give to an applicant to the Paris low-residency program?
“Send your best work” is certainly the most important advice to applicants. Beyond that, we’d like to know why an applicant feels he or she would benefit more from a low-residency program than a traditional MFA, and why, specifically, a writer would like to come to Paris and be mentored by the novelists and poets on our faculty.

How does the low-residency MFA program fit into the literary life of Paris?
We’ll be collaborating with the bookstore Shakespeare and Company, where Gertrude Stein and Hemingway visited. When the students come for the summer program, they get to hold the manuscript of James Joyce’s Ulysses in their hands—they have that upstairs at Shakespeare and Company. We’ll have readings that relate to the city, that relate to French writers, because we do want it to feel organic and to not just be a bunch of American writers transplanted over there in their own little bubble.

Why did you want to do this? Do you have a personal connection to Paris?
We’ve been doing this undergraduate program for five years, and it’s been perfect. The students love it. They can’t believe they’re there and they’re reading these books and they’re studying with these mentors. There are little bookstores everywhere in Paris still—everywhere. There’s always a perfect place to have your coffee and sit for hours and read. It’s just so unbelievably beautiful, and it seemed to make sense.

For more information about NYU’s new low-residency program, visit cwp.fas.nyu.edu. 

Michael Bourne is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.