Garth Risk Hallberg

BA, Washington University, St. Louis. MFA, New York University. Author of City on Fire: a novel (international bestseller), and the novella A Field Guide to the North American Family. Named one of Granta's decennial "Best of Young American Novelists" (2017); stories and essays published in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Prairie Schooner, The Guardian, Glimmer Train, New York Magazine, Slate, The Pinch, Los Angeles Times; National Book Critics Circle Balakian Prize finalist (2011 and 2012); 2008 New York Foundation for the Arts fellow in fiction. SLC, 2011–

Graduate Courses

MFA Writing 2020-2021

“What Do You Know?”: A Narrative Laboratory

Graduate Seminar—Fall

“Write what you know” is simultaneously one of the most shopworn maxims of the writing program and one of the fuzziest. It would seem to have little to say about the achievements of novelists as innovative as Octavia Butler or Samuel Beckett - or even those of the farthest-ranging writers of nonfiction, from Hunter S. Thompson to Joan Didion. And what does it mean to “know” something, anyway? What can we postmoderns really claim to “know”? Still, as the recent vogue for “autofiction” suggests, some strange power inheres in first-hand experience, and its transmutation, whether slight or radical, seems to lie at the shadowy heart much of the best imaginative writing.

The purpose of this course is twofold. First, we will interrogate and attempt to shed light on the range of things “knowing” can mean in fiction and nonfiction – where it can enliven and where it can kill. And second, we will try to help each other access the most powerful kinds of “knowing” in our own experiences, and to practice transforming them in writing. Our experiments will encompass readings from a range of fiction and nonfiction writers, likely including Renata Adler, Amit Chaudhuri, John D’Agata, Peter Ho Davies, Mavis Gallant, Sheila Heti, Edward P. Jones, Porochista Khakpour, Ben Lerner, Jonathan Lethem, Grace Paley, Zadie Smith, and Clare Vaye Watkins. And lab participants will be expected to complete short writing assignments and submit a piece for a culminating workshop.


Previous Courses

Fiction Craft: A Million Windows: Voice, Style, and Point-of-View in Fiction


When we discuss the craft of narrative, particularly in workshop, the easiest stuff to focus on is scene, structure, and description—the joists and struts of what Henry James called “the house of fiction.” How many times have you heard, “beautiful imagery” or “wooden dialogue”? Harder to nail down, because they are less concrete, are questions of voice, style, and point of view. Still, in 20 years of writing fiction, I’ve been continually surprised by how often problems in the strutwork feel intractable and how often they can be solved, transcended, or written away altogether by attending to the windows: the point of view by which we’re accessing the house in the first place. The very best prose is, from a certain angle, just the prose that gives that attention most deeply, passionately, and steadily. In this class, we’ll be reading a lot of prose—work by Grace Paley, Edward P. Jones, Henry James, Toni Morrison, Mavis Gallant, V. S. Naipaul—and looking at how voice, style, and point-of-view inflect concerns like form and character and plot and the passage of time. We’ll do low-stakes writing exercises to play around, explore, and generate a storehouse of material. And then, in our culminating workshop, we’ll look at a longer piece of your work through the lens of voice, style, and point-of-view—with an eye to cementing your discoveries.


Fiction Craft: The Drama of Fiction


Prose fiction is a mongrel genre, stuck halfway between poetry and the stage. It's hard enough to talk about the poetry part…but what about the drama? This craft class will focus on the complex relationships among character, plot, and structure—and what fiction writers can steal, and have stolen, from their colleagues in the theatre. What makes a great character? In what plot should she find herself? What separates an urgent scene from a flat one? How can we move from any of these starting points to any of the others? And what can all of this tell us about the larger drama of writing itself? Craft readings will draw on the work of novelists who have wrestled with these questions, as well as directors and playwrights: Henry James, Constantin Stanislavski, David Mamet, Anton Chekhov, Suzann Lori-Parks, Deborah Eisenberg, Don DeLillo, Edward P. Jones, Grace Paley, Denis Johnson, Christine Schutt, and others.


Ficton Workshop


The dream of the perfect short story has haunted writers for as long as the form has been around. In this workshop, we'll be looking at the way a great story is more often a masterpiece of imperfection; that is, we’ll be exploring the tensions between constraint, elegance, and order on one hand and transcendence, disorder, and "lifeness" on the other—and the strange harmonics that can arise from all of the above. Each writer will be asked to turn in two stories and one radical revision. Along the way, we’ll be reading and arguing with work by Grace Paley, Deborah Eisenberg, Edward P. Jones, Denis Johnson, and Mavis Gallant, among others.