As a graduate student enrolled in Chapman University’s dual MA in English and MFA in Creative Writing program, Ruben Guzman wrote his debut novel The Fountain in Forsyth Park, the tale of a middle-aged homosexual man searching for meaning in his melancholy life. Guzman and I were peers in the program until his graduation last year. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Guzman about the MFA program from his perspective, his first book, and his experience with self-publishing. The interview will be posted on Archetype in two parts. The first half of the interview is presented below.
Arch: As an MFA student myself, I’m always curious about which came first for other student writers: the program requirement of the 150-page novel thesis or the story premise that needed the discipline and critical feedback of an MFA program. In your case, was The Fountain in Forsyth Park already in progress when you began your work at Chapman, or was it conceived and written entirely while pursuing your English and Creative Writing degrees?
Guzman: Fountain came about after starting my MFA. In my third writing workshop class, I felt I finally had something substantial to write. Up to then I’d been writing short stories – likely bad ones when thinking back. I was inspired to write Fountain while on a trip to Savannah to help my best friend open a furniture and design store. I was so intrigued with the city and was charmed by its history, architecture, culture, and traditions. It was really that first trip that inspired me to write my novel. I even made several trips back during the writing process to do my research.
Arch: I’ve found that the demands of graduate school both promote and hinder the advancement of creative projects. Challenging reading and writing assignments immerse students in classic and contemporary literature and develop their critical thinking and writing skills. However, the course load can be daunting for most and leave little time for thesis work and other creative endeavors. With a full time job and demanding class schedule, how did you carve out the time to write Fountain?
Guzman: I can agree that managing a job and graduate school made for a trying creative writing process at times. I recall that there were semesters when I couldn’t even touch my novel project due to other commitments. That was frustrating.
However, as I reflect on it now, those times were critical in two ways. One, my immersion in other literary topics like critical theory, special authors, and period and contemporary literature contributed in developing my own thoughts about my novel. I had a chance to read Saramago, Nabokov, Whitman, and Wilde – all influential to Fountain in one way or another. Learning theory afforded me the chance to think of fiction and metafiction in different ways. In Fountain, I even took the opportunity to play with literary terms like fabula and syuzhet – two important ideas on narrative intent that I couldn’t have used without studying theory.
Two, it allowed me to let my ideas ferment (whether consciously or unconsciously). Those breaks worked for me in the sense that, when time opened up, I was ready and eager to write something. During those productive periods, I would eat my lunch in the office in order to take coffee breaks instead. I would write at the coffee shop for an hour each day. Come to think of it, I wrote nearly all of Fountain at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.
Arch: One of the most important elements of writing we learn about in workshop is the necessity of revision. The willingness and ability to review early drafts with an increasingly critical eye and make appropriate edits is crucial to the final product. How often did you find yourself revising sections of Fountain? Were the edits you made in response to observations from your peers and professors or to your own development as a writer?
Guzman: I think workshops are effective for writers in a number of ways, but I also realized early on that I could take or leave other criticisms. Readers weren’t going to necessarily understand the full scope of my ideas, so I had to learn which constructive suggestions to take from workshops.
With respect to revisions, the breaks away from writing I mentioned earlier allowed me to realize the greater need to revise when returning to writing. I found that revisions became just as natural as the writing itself after a while. However, I didn’t let revisions get in the way of getting content written first. Instead, I focused more on revising as I got closer to finishing Fountain. I think it was better to have a nearly complete draft of my novel before I could solidify unity in motifs, character development, arcs, and the like.
I also found myself continuing to revise up to the point at which I submitted my thesis, as well as after, when I started the self-publishing process. By then, I was focused on tightening syntax, form, and punctuation; eliminating anachronisms; etc. I’ll confess, I realized at that late point that I’d added references to the autumnal equinox but never changed the time of my story from October to September! I knew when the equinox was all along but didn’t notice the problem until I was focused on revisions. Hence, I can’t stress how important the revision process is.
Arch: Your story is told from the interesting perspective of your protagonist’s inner voice. In Fountain, mystical elements, universal questions, and philosophical themes are probed in a stream-of-consciousness narrative style. Were there times when the criticism you received from your peers or professors seemed disconnected with your artistic vision?
Guzman: Absolutely. I remember not being able to articulate the difference between the inner voice and the conscience. In my mind, the inner voice speaks constantly about anything from the mundane to the fantastic. I had an idea of writing the narrative of one’s inner voice that worked in ways that one’s conscience wouldn’t. In fact, Remy’s conscience is completely absent from the story. It’s his inner voice, the uninhibited voice, the imp, the voice of impulse that fights to tell Remy’s story. Jinn is based on the Arabic characterizations of the djinn or genie as we know it in Western culture. It’s a parallel voice to the human one and can be known to work for or against us. I remember one student in my workshop being really confused about that idea. At the time, all I could explain was that Jinn was a voice inside Remy that wasn’t a moral compass. It just was.
I knew that this inner voice would give greater dimension to my marginalized protagonist. It would have been one thing for Remy to narrate Fountain as a marginalized protagonist. For me it was another thing to read a marginalized narrative voice contained within that marginalized protagonist.
There were so many times I could have resorted to writing Jinn as Remy’s conscience, but it was neither spontaneous nor real to my expectations for the story. Jinn’s stream-of-consciousness narrative left uncertainties and instabilities for the reader – something that was much more interesting for me to write.
The second half of this interview will be published on March 28.