Meet Joseph Harris
Tell me about yourself.
Hi! I’m Joe Harris. I graduated from Wayne with an MA in English with a creative writing concentration in December 2013, and am currently attending the University of Minnesota’s MFA program in creative writing. I was born in Detroit and grew up in Pleasant Ridge.
What was your background before coming to WSU?
I graduated from Ferndale High School in 2005, then received a BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College in 2009. I worked several jobs in the Detroit area between Emerson and starting at Wayne in 2012.
Have you always wanted to be an author? Or be a writer in some way?
I think I’ve always wanted to write, in one form or another. I wrote plays for my classmates at Ferndale and originally went to Emerson for screenwriting. The more fiction I read there, the more I wanted to try to write it myself.
Do you have some favorite books or author/s that inspire you?
There’s way too many to properly list, so here’s a short version: Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles, Shakespeare’s histories, and anything by Nabokov. I’m also a huge admirer of Charles Baxter’s short stories – reading them showed me that you can write elegantly about everyday life in Detroit, and I’m still in shock that I’m working with him now at Minnesota.
Which publications and awards are you most proud of?
Winning the Tompkins Award for fiction in back to back years at Wayne was amazing – to join the list of the other great writers who won the award in the past was an honor. Also, a story I wrote at Wayne was nominated for the Pushcart Prize last year, which made me feel that I was making progress in my work.
What writing advice has been most helpful to you?
Trying to concentrate on having a unique subject and voice, and constructing cohesive writing projects. Most importantly, maintaining a critical distance from your own work, and removing ego in both approaching your own writing and (MUCH more significantly) approaching the writing of your peers. The writing process is essentially a communal one: many people are involved from scribbled story notes to publication, and it is of the utmost importance to treat everyone involved with respect.
Was there a teacher at WSU that was really helpful to you? Do you have a story about that teacher?
Without a doubt, Dr. Caroline Maun. I knew Dr. Maun as a mentor during our Directed Studies, a teacher during 6800 (the graduate-level creative writing class), and in the end as a colleague, reading her lyrical and profoundly moving poetry collection What Remains while sharing my own publications. I have never met a more tireless advocate for student writing than Dr. Maun, as countless other Wayne State writers can attest to. I can say without hesitation that I would not be where I am now – personally, creatively, academically – without her support.
Why did you choose to complete an MA in English with a creative writing emphasis at Wayne State before applying to MFA programs? What were the advantages of taking this path?
I had a few stories I had written since graduating from Emerson that I thought were interesting, but lacked direction. I was well aware of how competitive the fully funded MFA programs were, and knew I had a lot of work to do. By far the biggest advantage was my ability to work directly with the faculty (Dr. Maun, and Professors M.L. Liebler and Donovan Hohn) to meet deadlines and seriously edit my work for the first time. I also took several fantastic literature courses from Drs. Lisa Maruca and Lara Cohen that not only expanded the way I approached themes and styles of fiction writing but prepared me for the tremendous amount of reading I’m doing now in my MFA classes.
What were some of the aspects of the program that especially helped you prepare for further graduate work?
I did a maximum of 8 credits in Directed Studies with Dr. Maun and Professor Liebler and wound up writing 150 pages for those projects. Including my Masters Thesis and creative work for other classes, I wrote around 300 pages of original work during my three semesters at Wayne, with extensive faculty feedback. In addition, Professor Hohn personally guided me through the MFA application process, providing me a list of compatible programs, editing my manuscript and writing personal letters of recommendation on my behalf (one of the main reasons I was accepted at Minnesota in particular). The willingness of the faculty to help pursue individual projects was a blessing – as an emerging writer, they take tremendous care of you at Wayne.
What are some of your favorite memories from when you were in the degree program at WSU?
I met some wonderful people at Wayne – not just in my writing classes, but in Composition and Literature courses as well. Though many of us have scattered for work or advanced degrees, we’re still in touch, and it has been personally very rewarding to see my friends from the program accomplish their professional, creative, and academic goals. Having the privilege to be a part of the Noon Reading Series was also a great introduction to public readings, which I am now doing frequently in Minneapolis. I also have fond memories of late nights at Circa 1890 Saloon on campus, talking shop with my classmates and blaring the Rolling Stones from the jukebox. I miss it every day.
You did an internship while you were a grad student at WSU.
How did that experience help you formulate your future plans?
I interned at Wayne State University Press during my final semester – a great experience for anyone considering a career in publishing. I was fortunate to intern for the Editorial department, proof-reading short fiction collections for the Made in Michigan Writer’s Series (which every Wayne State student/Detroit resident should be aware of and read!). The experience will serve me well next year when I join the editorial staff of the Great River Review. Professor Liebler and Dr. Maruca ran the Internship class, which I found both helpful and fun – we all met in a common area bi-weekly, drinking coffee and discussing our assignments for the class and experiences at our internships. It was relaxed and ultra-professional – a great primer for working in publishing.
What advice would you give Wayne State undergrads or MA students specializing in creative writing?
The most important piece of advice I can give is this: there is no shortcut to good writing, be it fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction. It’s something you constantly have to work at. Push yourself, your classmates, and keep an open mind – not just about the work you’re submitting and reviewing for a workshop, but the books you read for class. You’re not in the program to get published. You’re there to write, read, and learn as much as you can from your professors and each other. Foster a sense of community with your colleagues and meet as often as you can. You never realize what a privilege it is to be a part of the writing community at Wayne until it’s gone.
Where are you now and what are you studying and writing?
I’m living in Minneapolis, attending the MFA program at the University of Minnesota. I’m studying fiction writing and finishing the short story collection I started at Wayne, as well as a novel.
Since your fiction is often anchored in the Detroit metropolitan area, has your current relocation to Minnesota changed your writing? What are you working on now?
I think it’s only changed in terms of structure – I’m working with some incredible writers right now, focusing mainly on how disparate elements of stories fit together to change interpretation. I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing about Detroit. For better or worse, it is by far the most interesting city in the United States. The collection I’m finishing, The Slow Death, is about the recession in Detroit, and the philosophical issues that arose with the subsequent loss of both manufacturing work and religious faith within the confines of a strictly material worldview (it’s not depressing, I promise!).
What are your plans for after you complete your MFA in Fiction at the University of Minnesota?
Any type of writing job would do honestly (living through the recession was a humbling experience, to say the least), but if the opportunity presents itself, I’d love to come back to Detroit and work with emerging writers. Dr. Maun has suggested expanding the Creative Writing program at Wayne, and I guess I’d like to pre-emptively toss my hat in for consideration.
On a personal note: thanks for the chance to do this interview! I firmly believe in the quality of the creative program at Wayne State University, and would love to have more students have the opportunity I had there – it is a resource every emerging writer in Detroit needs to be aware of.
- By Mary Iverson