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Kit Haggard, MFA ’18, on Writing, Getting Published, and Social Responsibility

Kit Haggard, MFA ’18, has always been a writer. It started with stories scribbled onto giant yellow legal pads, progressed to include stories published in the Kenyon Review, Electric Literature, Four Chambers Press, and Mays Anthology, and gained her accolades including the Rex Warner Prize and the Nancy Lynn Schwartz Prize for Fiction. She’s lived in San Diego, Oxford, and New York. Now she’s in Boston, working as an Assistant Editor at Ploughshares literary journal, teaching undergraduate writing courses, and pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson. We sat down with Kit to talk about life at Emerson, advice she has for other young writers, her inspiration, and what role she feels her writing can play in social responsibility.

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

A: I think I’ve always known. I started writing the summer between fourth and fifth grade. I had all of these giant yellow legal pads that were my dad’s, and I’d tear off his first couple of pages of notes–or whatever he was doing with them–and I’d write. I did that for a really long time, and then when I was in high school, I went on two, two-week long programs. One was at Iowa, and one was at Kenyon. I went to this high school that was very tech-oriented and very science-oriented […] so I’d never really met anyone who was like me or interested in the arts like I was. So I went on these two programs, and I met people who were thinking the way I was thinking and were interested in the same things and reading what I was reading and at a higher level, more interesting stuff, more challenging stuff. And that was the beginning of taking myself seriously, thinking about it as a career, and thinking about what steps I had to take to make the things that I want happen for myself.

Q: What do you enjoy most about the MFA program at Emerson?

A: I love the program. One of the reasons I chose it in the beginning is that there is a big emphasis at Emerson on literature and teaching. So I felt, especially when I was applying and always now, that I was getting skills outside of writing that would be marketable. And even though my hope is that tomorrow I’ll be offered a million-dollar book deal, the reality is that I’ve taken publishing jobs, I’ve worked in bookstores, I’ve worked at Macmillan; I worked at a literary agency, I work at Ploughshares. I do all of these things because I know that I’m going to have to have something that brings in money while I’m writing. Being able to teach at Emerson has meant that I’m developing those skills and I’m able to do that.

Q: Now that you work at a literary journal, do you think differently about how you submit your own work?

A: Definitely. I have a really good cover letter now because I read about a hundred of them. I read so many. And it’s also just nice to see what people are sending in and where the work is coming from. You know, there’s a huge conversation about MFA versus NYC. There have been books published about it and articles published about it, so it interesting to see where the submission are coming from, who is teaching, who is–you know–a pediatrician with their day job writing poetry at night. You get a wide look at who is writing out in the world, and that’s really cool. But then I’m also thinking about it from a marketing perspective: These people are my peers, [so] where do I stand among them, and how do I get my work out if this is the stuff that is getting published?

Q: Where do you normally send your work?

A: Haha, [I aim] too high probably! I had the very good luck to be published in the Kenyon Review when I was in undergrad, which is a pretty major top ten journal. So, since then, I’ve been sending my stuff to places like that. I had to scale back a little bit, but I’ve been aiming a little high. I was rejected by Tin House and Prairie Schooner, and The New Yorker doesn’t even respond to my submissions anymore, so those paces. I’ve got stuff out right now at The Masters Review and AGNI. Those are the top places, and then you kind of work your way down from there.

Q: What do you want to write about? What inspires you?

A: For a long time, what I was interested in was kind of marrying what was fantastic and what was more serious. I was really, really interested in the North American edge of magical realism or fantastic literature, and you can see there are tons of people writing this right now: Ramona Ausubel, who was just published in Ploughshares, Amy Bender, and Michael Cunningham is rewriting fairy tales. And I just read this article in Vulture actually about how there are trends of different writing during different presidencies. So you can look at each decade, each presidency, and look at how trends developed at that time. One of the things [it] said about the coming Trump presidency is that we’re going to see even more of this sort of swelling of dystopian novels which have been really popular over the last couple years, and so I’m interested in that stuff in the fringes. That’s the kind of stuff that is closest to my heart.

I’m [also] interested right now in writing stories that ask the reader to do a lot of work, to put together a lot of pieces, and intentionally leave gaps that the reader is sort of forced to fill in. And this means that for a long time, like the last year and a half, I’ve been writing a lot of stories about absence. I have this theory–and this is crazy–I have this theory about Sonar. You know, the way Sonar works is you have a submarine, say, and you send out all of these sound waves, and then the way you can tell where the object is is because when the sound waves bounce back, you’re left with an outline. I’m interested in trying to create something like that, in short stories. We’ll see how it goes.

Q: Is this going to be your thesis?

A: I don’t know what my thesis is going to be. I’m going through a bit of a crisis right now. I’m kind of in a post-Trump era about what I should be writing. [I’m] thinking about what’s urgent to me and what is urgent to other people at this moment, but that’s at least something I’m interested in.

Q: What are you working on right now?

A: [The sonar idea] is sort of a guiding principle for a lot of my work right now. It’s weird to be a female writer, and I’m struggling a lot with that right now. Especially post-election and as a queer person. Those are identities that are important to me, and those are identities that need to be talked about more, but also–I mean we talk about queer novelists, like I mentioned Michael Cunningham earlier, and we think about him as being a “gay novelist.” Even though I identify openly as queer, and I’m out to everyone, I don’t want to be limited that way. And I don’t want to be pigeonholed. And the same thing goes for female writers. A lot of us think of women’s lit as being a separate category. So I’m conscious of those things in a way that I haven’t been previously.

I’m really trying to decide what my thesis is going to look like right now because I have like five stories that I’ve written in the past year and a half that are definitely things I’m interested in, and are, I think, good, that are going out to the world. And then I feel like I have a responsibility to write stories that feel urgent to me and other people, so I’m torn.

Q: Any advice for other young writers?

A: If you’re submitting, you just have to keep submitting. I heard this actually from my boss, Ellen, who’s the managing editor of Ploughshares. Her line is that your work should always be out at six places. So you’d send a piece out to six places, and as soon as it’s rejected from one, you send it to another one. You start at what you think about as being your reach places, and you work your way down. I’m really working on doing that right now.

Q: So, you’re doing the MFA, you’re working at Ploughshares, and you’re teaching. How do you have time?

A: I wake up very early.