A Faculty Who’s Who
Behind every great writer is … often another great writer. One key to the prowess of UCI’s M.F.A. program is the caliber of its faculty and visiting lecturers.
The fiction professor hall of fame starts with founding director James B. Hall, a wordmeister whose pre-UCI protégés included Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. In 1969, the torch passed to Western and mystery writer Oakley Hall, an ex-Marine whose most famous books (The Downhill Racers and Warlock) were turned into movies. He was later joined by founding English professor Donald Heiney, a novelist who wrote under the pseudonym MacDonald Harris.
They were followed by Australian author Thomas Keneally, whose Booker Prize-winning Schindler’s Ark inspired Steven Spielberg’s film, English-born writer Judith Grossman, and acclaimed novelist and biographer Geoffrey Wolff. The current fiction regime consists of Michelle Latiolais, a 1988 M.F.A. alumna whose debut novel, Even Now, won a gold medal from the Commonwealth Club of California (putting her in the company of John Steinbeck and Ray Bradbury), and Ron Carlson, whose short stories have been adapted into a film (2008’s “Keith”) and featured in Esquire, in The New Yorker and on National Public Radio. Latiolais began teaching at UCI in 1997, co-directing the fiction branch with Wolff until he retired in 2006 and was succeeded by Carlson, the former chief of Arizona State University’s creative writing program.
The M.F.A. poetry program also began under James B. Hall, then spun off into a separate wing piloted by poets Charles Wright, who later won a Pulitzer Prize and became the U.S. poet laureate in 2014, and James McMichael, a founding professor of English and National Book Award finalist who has been honored with multiple awards and fellowships. After Wright departed in 1983, future poet laureate of New Hampshire Cynthia Huntington filled the gap until 1990, when Michael Ryan came on board. Ryan’s credits include teaching stints at Princeton and the University of Iowa, as well as five poetry books, a memoir, an autobiography and a slew of awards. His most recent poetry collection is This Morning. In 2011, McMichael retired and was replaced by Amy Gerstler, whose poetry, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review and The American Poetry Review. Her poetry anthology Bitter Angel won a National Book Critics Circle Award.
Rounding out that lineup, UCI has attracted a stellar parade of visiting lecturers. Ragtime author E.L. Doctorow, who arrived in 1969 and finished The Book of Daniel while teaching here, was one of the first fiction instructors. Others include P.D. James, Ann Patchett, Ann Beattie, Wilton Barnhardt and Robert Stone. The visiting poet roster began in an Iowa bar, where James B. Hall offered Wright, a recent University of Iowa writing grad, $3,500 to spend a year in Irvine. “I said I wouldn’t do it for less than $4,000,” says Wright, whose visit evolved into co-directing UCI’s poetry writing program. The poets-in-residence list has since grown to feature the likes of Robert Pinsky, Louise Glück, Robert Hass, C.K. Williams, Galway Kinnell and Carol Muske-Dukes.