Anatomy of a Writer: An Interview with Christine Montross

Christine Montross is the author of Body of Work and Falling into the Fire, due out August 1st from Penguin Press. She holds an MFA from the University of Michigan.
Why did you decide to pursue an MFA?

I loved reading and writing poetry, and I wanted to seriously commit to learning more about the craft of poetry.

When you started the degree, what were you leaving behind?

I had also applied to and been accepted to several law schools, but when I received my acceptance letter to Michigan’s MFA program I burst into tears. I knew then that the MFA was the route I really wanted and had been hoping for.

When you started your program, what did you envision happening afterward?

I hoped to teach creative writing at the university level.

What kind of work, other than writing, are you doing now?

I’m a psychiatrist. I work in an inpatient psychiatric hospital treating mentally ill patients who are in crisis.

Do you like your work? Why or why not?

I love my work. It feels important and rewarding, and there is never a dull moment.

How did you get involved with the field/ skill set that your current job requires?

I was writing poems about madness in my MFA years, but I gradually became more and more interested in the experience of mental illness, and the discoveries being made in the brain sciences. I did a postbaccalaureate premedical program at Bryn Mawr College, then attended medical school and did my psychiatry residency at Brown.

How long did you spend looking for work after the MFA?

I got a job as a lecturer at Michigan the year after the MFA, and then taught high school the following year in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Are you writing? Publishing?

I am. My first book, Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab was published by The Penguin Press in 2007. My second book, Falling Into the Fire: A Psychiatrist’s Encounters with the Mind in Crisis will be published by Penguin on August 1st. Both books are works of creative nonfiction.

Do you feel that with your job, you’ve been able to structure your time to privilege your writing? How do you do that?

I have done so very intentionally, though it’s been easier at times and harder at others. I took a year off of medical school between 3rd and 4th year, and the bulk of the writing of Body of Work was done during that year. I now have a clinical job in which I work weekends only so that I can write (and be a mom!) during the week. That structure allowed me to research and write Falling Into the Fire while still regularly working on the psychiatric wards.

Did you have the opportunity to work in academia after you graduated? How did you respond to that opportunity?

I loved my year as a lecturer at Michigan, but wasn’t able to find a similar job in San Francisco when my partner and I moved there.

Do you ever have any regrets about getting an MFA?

Never! Two years of being paid to read and write poems? Why would anyone regret that?

What is your response to the articles that pop up every so often condemning the MFA as misleading or bad for literature?

I interpret those articles as responding to degree programs that are unlike Michigan’s. I think those arguments attack programs that churn out streams of moderately talented writers who mimic the faculty, or one another. Michigan is fortunate because of its ability to fund students and because of the integrity of its faculty. Those factors mean that the program can attract particularly talented students, and commit to developing their unique voices.

Read an excerpt from Falling Into the Fire on Christine’s website.

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