Q&A with Michelle Goshen, 2020 Cabell First Novelist Fellow
October 14, 2020
Michelle Goshen is the 2020 Cabell First Novelist Fellow and in her third year in the M.F.A. program with a dual-genre concentration in fiction and poetry.
Thanks for taking the time, Michelle. Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I was born and raised in Germantown, Maryland, but I’ve studied, lived, and worked in cities around the world for the past fifteen years. As a teenager, I moved from Maryland to North Carolina for my undergrad, attending Elon University, where I studied both English and Spanish. Elon is also where I took my first creative writing course and was introduced to the short-story form. I quickly became enamored with the works of Raymond Carver and Jhumpa Lahiri and began trying my hand at writing creatively. By my sophomore year, I’d changed my major from Biology to English, and signed up for a semester abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. By the time graduation rolled around, I’d narrowed my concentration to fiction writing and was seriously considering applying to full-time M.F.A. programs.
Convinced that I was too green to the world to be a ‘real’ writer yet (whatever that means), I ultimately decided against a return to academia. Instead, I joined the United States Peace Corps and served a two and a half year term in Tumbes, Peru. While in Peru, I worked with my community to implement a series of health and conservation projects, including the development of a waste-management, or trash disposal, system. My writing took a backseat for a few years, but my experiences in Peru, my friends and family there, continue to influence my life in profound ways. It’s these same influences, the themes of love, friendship, and family that I find recurring in my writing time and time again.
Upon my return to the D.C. Metropolitan area, I became further involved in the international non-profit sector, volunteering with medical missions to Honduras and Ecuador, and securing a position with a Baltimore-based maternal and child health organization. I spent the last seven years managing health programs in countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, expanding my Spanish language skills and learning Portuguese along the way. It was also around this time that I finally began writing again. I started a semi-private blog where I posted my artistic and writerly endeavors for close friends to view, and I began attending several local reading series’. It was at one of these readings, during intermission, that a colleague encouraged me to enroll in the Hopkins’ M.A. program. I started taking night classes, commuting between Baltimore and D.C., and after a few years' time, I’d earned my master's degree in fiction writing. From there, I began applying to full-time M.F.A. programs and was accepted by VCU. Now I’m here, a dual-genre fiction and poetry student, chipping away at my theses.
What drew you to creative writing and fiction?
I suppose my passion for writing stems in part from my love of telling stories. I’ve always been an extrovert and I delight in the art of oral storytelling, especially when it involves entertaining my friends, making them laugh. My mother likes to remind me that ever since I was about three years old, instead of playing with the other kids my age, I preferred to chat up their parents—in the grocery store, at the pool, by the playground. Of what we talked about, I have no recollection, but I’m sure it was a ‘story’ in some shape or form—maybe a retelling of the day’s events, of my mom’s profession, of my siblings' births. From there, I remember writing and directing plays in our basement (much to my younger siblings dismay), penning detective mysteries, and journaling.
What do you love about fiction? Poetry?
All writing—be it fiction, poetry, or creative non-fiction—enhances our lives by allowing us to temporarily embody the reality of another. Think about *this* for a second. Through the act of reading, the mere turning of a page, we are given the incredible, other-worldly ability to dive in and out of one another’s consciousness. We can sit in the depths of tragedy, empathize with a broken heart, root for villain, or hero. We are whisked away to other worlds and by doing so, we’re able to broaden our own understanding of life, and one another. For me, there’s nothing quite like reading a good story—and the really good ones always get you, no matter how many times you’ve read them before.
The Cabell First Novelist Award (CFNA) is a nationally prominent award, named for Richmond writer James Branch Cabell, that is organized and run by the yearly appointed Cabell First Novelist Fellow. The award receives hundreds of debut novel submissions a year. How are the students in VCU's M.F.A. program involved in determining the winner?
The winning novel goes through a rigorous selection process conducted by the Cabell Fellow and the M.F.A. students. Each year we receive about 150-200 books, so the first round of evaluations is a collaborative effort. During the fall semester, the M.F.A. students and our ‘Community Readers’—i.e., volunteers from the university and the greater Richmond area—work together to read and rank all submissions. These rankings determine our initial ‘Top 20 Long-List.’ From there, during the spring semester, the M.F.A. students are then responsible for narrowing the Long-List to a ‘Top 10 Short-List,’ and the Short-List to the “3 Semi-Finalists.” The last step in the process is the casting of votes. It’s a three-pronged ballot, where the M.F.A. students, the First Novelist Committee, and the winner from the previous year, each vote to determine the recipient of the award. In the case of a three-way tie, the vote defaults to the M.F.A.’s selection. The entire process is a really cool opportunity for the M.F.A. students and the community alike because so many voices come together to choose our winner.
What do you look for in a winning novel?
I’ll answer this by sharing an anecdote a guidance counselor once told me years ago. When advising students on how to “set themselves apart” during the college application process, she posed the question: When you have five bars of gold shining in front of you, how do you choose the ‘best’ one? And it’s this question, despite being a bit cheesy, which rings true: how do you choose a winner from such a phenomenal list? It’s always hard.
I guess, for me, I’m fairly open. The book can be about anything really, any genre, any point of view. From there, I look for dazzling prose. Lyricism that blows me away. An innovative, fresh, artistic vision and voice. If the book has soul, I’ll feel it and that charge will stay with me, tuning me in for a long while even after I’ve put it down
As Assistant Cabell First Novelist Fellow last year, you were extremely involved with the selection of the winner, John Englehardt, for his novel Bloomland. What made Bloomland stand out amongst other entries?
For me, I knew Bloomland was special because I read it straight through, in one sitting. I was compelled by the story, invested in the characters; I couldn’t put it down. The writing was smart, the prose—at the line level—was sharp, and the subject matter (i.e., a mass shooting), was handled with both the complexity and care it needs and deserves. I remember finishing the book and immediately texting a colleague to cheer: What a lovely novel!
Being the Cabell First Novelist Fellow really gives you an insider’s look at the traditional path a debut novel takes through the publishing process. How do you think this has prepared you for your own future novel?
Oh, boy. If I’m ever so lucky to finish writing a novel… One of the unique opportunities this position offers is exposure to the diverse range of publishing houses (and paths to publishing!) that exist. Look for example, at the Cabell Award’s previous winners. We’ve got novelists who were published with and without agents. Folks who were picked up on social media. Others who passed a manuscript onto a friend. They’ve been pubbed by big presses, small presses, and indie presses alike. And despite the assortment of styles and aesthetics—ranging from zombie apocalypse to western to family drama—each author found a publisher and each publisher found a story worth telling. I guess what I’m getting at is, it’s obviously not an easy road to publication, there’s no magic algorithm, but this position has provided me with countless examples of how it can be done—and that’s not only edifying, it’s also encouraging!
Thank you so much for taking the time, Michelle!
John Englehardt, winner of the 2020 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award for Bloomland, will participate in a panel discussion about the writing and publishing of his book on Thursday, October 15, 2020, at 7:00 p.m. on Zoom. The event is free and open to all. Please register in advance.
The Cabell First Novelist Award is presented on behalf of VCU's M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program. Sponsors include the James Branch Cabell Library Associates, VCU Libraries, the VCU Department of English, Barnes & Noble @ VCU, and the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.