By Susie Allen, AB'09
Photo by Jason Smith
“ I began to think, could I be contributing something more than a check—something that might have a more profound effect on the University.”
Margaret Hagan discovered her love of interviewing during a nonfiction writing workshop she took with Alex Kotlowitz, author of the celebrated book There Are No Children Here and the 2001-02 Robert Vare Nonfiction Writer-in-Residence.
Hagan, AB'04, chose to write about a South Side high school, where she followed a young woman running for senior class president. The culture gap between Hagan and the students seemed enormous — she felt "completely clueless" listening to the unfamiliar references and rhythms of their discussion.
But Hagan wanted to better understand the students' world, and driven by her abiding curiosity, she started asking questions—and making connections with her subjects. The lessons of the assignment took root. In graduate school she started a radio show where she interviewed everyone from a whirling dervish to the illegitimate son of a Catholic priest.
Kotlowitz's class started it all, she says. "[It] gave me some kind of bug for interviewing people."
Hagan isn't the only student to benefit from the Vare writer-in-residence program. Now in its tenth year, it continues to give students a rare opportunity to study with some of America's finest nonfiction writers—and the experience has had a lasting impact on both students and the teachers who guided them.
Every year since 2000, Robert Vare, AB'67, AM'70, has brought a distinguished nonfiction writer to campus to teach a one-quarter nonfiction workshop through the Committee on Creative Writing. This year, Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows is teaching a course called "The Art of Nonfiction."
Vare, an editor-at-large at The Atlantic, says the idea for the program grew out of his passions for both nonfiction writing and the University of Chicago. "I began to think, could I be contributing something more than a check—something that might have a more profound effect on the University. I thought, why not start a nonfiction writing program where I could draw on my own professional experience and contacts?"
The accomplished group of writers-in-residence has included David Hajdu, Jonathan Harr, Edmund Morris, Walter Kirn, Ron Rosenbaum, Dava Sobel, and Simon Winchester. Next year's writer-in-residence will be Steve Coll, a staff writer for the New Yorker, the former managing editor of the Washington Post, and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner.
From the start, Vare knew he wanted to find exceptional writers who were actively engaged in writing projects. "I think that's enormously helpful to writers who are just starting out. I'm hoping that these talented writers who come out to Chicago can be very honest about the challenges and the rewards of their work—how difficult it is, but also how exhilarating it can be."
Former teachers say that juggling writing and teaching helped them find common ground with their students. "I find it's really helpful when I'm teaching to be reminded, in the midst of a project, of the unpredictability of this kind of work. It certainly makes me more sympathetic," Kotlowitz says.
Darcy Frey, author of The Last Shot and the 2005 writer-in-residence, recalls: "I had one student who wrote a piece about the local army recruitment facility, and he actually went in as a potential recruit to see what tactics were used to recruit kids of his age. He had never done any reporting before, and he dove in with incredible gusto. My class was filled with kids who just took the plunge, both writing-wise and reporting-wise. I identified with [them], because I know how hard it is to start from a stop and just go full-tilt at something like that."
The lessons of the courses continue to shape students' work.
Hagan, who took classes with Kotlowitz and Hajdu, says writing narrative nonfiction impacted her academic work at Queen's University, Belfast. In political science, she says, the emphasis is on charts, graphs, and quantifiable data. But Hagan struggled to make her work more "human-centered." She even included photos of the people she interviewed for her dissertation.
A-J Aronstein, a graduate student in the MAPH program currently enrolled in Fallows' course, feels the program has benefited his academic writing. "You never have to think about people
Other students have found mentors through the Vare program. Megan Buskey, AB'04, studied with Hajdu. Now an editor at the Wilson Quarterly, she has written for publications including the Nation and the New York Times Book Review.
"Being introduced to a writer and teacher as talented and kind as David was an incredible stroke of luck on my part," says Buskey, who has stayed in touch with Hajdu since graduation.
It isn't just students who benefited from the experience.
"[The Vare program] had a huge impact on my working life," says Frey, who now teaches at Harvard. "It opened up a whole other career to me besides writing, which was teaching."
"It was sort of tongue-in-cheek, but I had such a good time that I called [Vare], and said, 'I know the point of the program is to circulate the job around to different writers, but if you ever break that rule or want a repeat candidate, keep me in mind.'"