The novel that started it all

By Kathleen Driskell, Chair, Spalding School of Creative & Professional Writing

The novel that helped launch the Spalding MFA Program: As we celebrate our twentieth anniversary, our Residency Book in Common for Spring 2021 is Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife

Several years before the MFA program was founded at Spalding, the Humanities Department, of which I was a faculty member, invited founding editor Sena Jeter Naslund and managing editor Karen Mann to move the literary journal The Louisville Review from the University of Louisville to a new home at Spalding. Sitting around the editorial table in my campus office, I remember when I began to hear that Sena was finishing her newest novel, Ahab’s Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer. She’d published a number of beautiful books of fiction before, but Ahab’s Wife was about to launch her into the stratosphere. After an exciting auction involving several New York publishing houses, we were delighted to learn that her novel had been acquired by William Morrow. The literary world was soon buzzing with anticipation for the publication of Ahab’s Wife.

During that buzz, Sena and Karen began to share their dreams of founding a low-residency MFA program—there was no MFA program in Kentucky at that time. Now there are several, but the Spalding MFA was the first in our state. Spalding’s administration, open to innovation and impressed with Sena and Karen’s plan to build a graduate creative writing program, enthusiastically agreed to establish the MFA.

The publication and fabulous reviews of Ahab’s Wife led to an international book tour for Sena. At each reading, she talked of the low-residency graduate program in creative writing she was helping to start in Louisville, Kentucky. This was to be a new kind of MFA program, where faculty and student writers would encourage their colleagues, instead of engaging in blood sport during workshops aimed at tearing down writers instead of supporting them. The Spalding MFA would have an innovative pedagogy and methodology: It would welcome cross-genre experimentation and encourage writers to develop their own aesthetics—not merely adopt the aesthetic of faculty. I would join the program as Associate Program Director and poetry faculty member in 2003, largely because the program had grown so quickly. In 2017, when Sena retired, I happily joined Karen to continue leading the program with our talented team, Katy Yocom, Ellyn Lichvar, Jason Hill and Lynnell Edwards.

Twenty years since our founding in 2001, with more than 700 alumni, and having recently become a school after adding an MA in Writing with two tracks and new graduate certificate programs, we continue to thrive and look forward to celebrating this milestone with our students, alums, and faculty throughout the year.

The first celebratory anniversary event is to feature Sena’s novel as our Residency Book in Common for Spring 2021. All students should read Ahab’s Wife before attending the Spring 2021 residency May 21-29. Early in our residency, we’ll share a discussion on the novel. Later in the week, Sena will visit to read from and talk about her novel and answer questions posed by our literary community.

I imagine many of you have read Ahab’s Wife already and may own a copy, but if not, you may want to purchase the edition published through the Harper Perennial Modern Classics series. It’s a high-quality paperback with flaps and readable print, and it includes a Meet the Author feature, Q & A, and Sena’s statement about the origins of Ahab’s Wife. Better yet, if you purchase it through our Bookshop.org site, a small portion of the purchase price will be donated to the School of Writing general scholarship fund.

Other Fiction Cross-genre Sessions Scheduled for Spring 2021 Residency

In addition to the Residency Book in Common Discussion and visit by our distinguished visiting writer, Sena Jeter Naslund, we will present sessions that center on fiction, the cross-genre area for Spring’s residency. As always, we will include a curriculum session that discusses fiction and presents a cross-genre exercise. I’m delighted that that session will include noted fiction writers Kathy Fish and our own celebrated alum K.B. Carle, who will come together to discuss elements of flash fiction. At that discussion, we’ll present our cross-genre assignment, which asks all students to complete a flash fiction exercise. We’ll discuss the results of that exercise in our cross-genre follow-up session, which closes our time together.

Our Faculty or Guest Books/Scripts in Common

Students also read the Faculty Book or Script in Common for their areas of concentration to prepare for faculty- or guest-led discussions. These discussions take place ahead of the residency on Sunday, May 16, 2 – 3 p.m. EDT. A link to meet virtually will be provided beforehand by the SCPW Office. Students can find more information on the FBIC session in their Spring 2021 syllabus for the residency course.

Fiction: K. L. Cook’s Marrying Kind
Poetry: Kathleen Driskell’s Next Door to the Dead
CNF: Fenton Johnson’s At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life
W4CYA: Silas House’s and Neela Vaswani’s Same Sun Here
Playwriting: Larry Brenner’s Saving Throw Versus Love
Screenwriting:  Sheila Callaghan (guest), script TBA


Kathleen Driskell is Chair of the School of Creative and Professional Writing at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. She is the author of four collections of poetry, including Blue Etiquette and Next Door to the Dead. She is currently serving in her second term as Chair of the Board of Directors of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.


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