Introducing Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Residence Melinda Moustakis

Jenny McKean Moore
Melinda Moustakis

The Jenny McKean Moore Fund was established in honor of the late Jenny Moore, who was a playwrighting student at GW and who left in trust a fund that has, for more than 40 years, encouraged the teaching and study of Creative Writing in the English Department, allowing us to bring a poet, novelist, playwright, or creative non-fiction writer to campus each year. While in residence, the writer brings a unique experience to the GW community, teaching a free community workshop for adults along with Creative Writing classes for GW students.  

This year we are pleased to welcome Melinda Moustakis, our 41st Writer-in-Residence.  Professor Moustakis is the author of Bear Down Bear North: Alaska Stories, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the Maurice Prize.  She was a 5 Under 35 selection by the National Book Foundation; you can watch a Vimeo interview about that award here. Professor Moustakis received her MA from the University of California at Davis and her PhD from Western Michigan University. Her story “They Find the Drowned” won a 2013 O’Henry Prize and her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly ReviewKenyon ReviewNew England Review, and American Short FictionWe caught up with Professor Moustakis as she settled into campus to ask her a few questions.  Join us on September 23, when she kicks off our Jenny McKean Moore Reading Series for the semester.

What attracted you to the position at GW, and as Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington?

I have previously taught at two other private liberal arts college and had wonderfully engaged students there. Most recently I taught at Kenyon College, which is about an hour and twenty minutes outside of Columbus, in a small town, or village really, surrounded by green rolling hills and one has to watch for buggies and horses on the road as there is an Amish community nearby. It’s a great place, but I was really hoping for a change of pace, to live in a city, and I’d always enjoyed my visits to DC.

Tell us a bit about your debut story collection, Bear Down Bear North: Alaska Stories.  The linked stories are all in some way connected to a family of homesteaders in Alaska – can you describe this setting for us?  What sets this location apart from other settings in contemporary U.S. literature?

My focus is mostly south-central Alaska– the Kenai Peninsula and Anchorage and surrounding areas. The book covers three generations of one family because I was thinking about my grandparents, who homesteaded in the fifties, and my parents who both grew up in Alaska, and then my relationship to their ties to this landscape as well as my own. The characters in my book hunt and fish and tell stories, ones best told around a campfire or at the bar. But more importantly, I wanted to reveal the stories that these characters try to keep hidden, perhaps even from themselves. There’s so much mystique surrounding Alaska and often people in the lower 48 imagine this beautiful and majestic place they want to visit before they die and they call it the last frontier. But my goal is to write beyond the beauty and to reveal the complexities, the ugliness, the knife-edgeness of this place and its inhabitants. I like to call my writing Northern Gothic. Alaska, like Hawaii, is a state literally set apart from the rest of the U.S. The sheer scale of the wilderness and the harshness of living are added elements to any story I write. A couple could be having a disagreement, which happens anywhere, but at any moment a moose could walk into their yard. I’ll never tire of making a moose-in-the-yard moment an important part of a story. 
What were some of the challenges you faced writing about this location?  Violence of various sorts, for examples, seems a constitutive part of this locale – what are some of the challenges of writing about the often-violent conditions under which characters are struggling to survive?

One challenge was to move past my experiences and my family’s experiences to find the fiction. Anecdotes are not a story and so there was a process of warping and stretching and allowing the characters and their stories to surprise me. 

The book does illustrate cycles of violence and alcoholism in families and the violence of trying to survive in the wilderness. I find I scare myself as a writer when I know I need to write something gut-wrenching and there’s a keen sense of vulnerability and responsibility that comes with trying to make sure I get it right, making sure these moments of violence are integral to the plot and to the character and that the depictions are truthful, not gratuitous. 

Tell us what you’ve been working on.  Will you be presenting from Bear Down Bear North as well as some of your new work when you open the JMM reading series in a few weeks?

I’m working on a novel based on some of the characters in the collection. I might read a newer, published story or one from the collection. I try not to read from works in progress as a general, but breakable, rule. I never want to read something unpolished to an audience. Reading is serious business– people are kind enough to take time out of their schedules to come hear you.

Who are some of the short story writers you have been reading lately?  

I read Lost in the City by [GW English Professor] Edward P. Jones a few months ago and I’d been meaning to read it for a long time and now I’m angry I didn’t read it sooner. Right now I’m reading Get in Trouble by Kelly Link and Long, Last, Happy by Barry Hannah. 

Welcome to GW English, Professor Moustakis!

Similar Posts