You did a low-residency MFA at Bennington College, starting five years after completing undergrad and with lots of experience under your belt as a science editor. Tell me a little bit about why you decided to pursue the degree.
From 2011 to 2013, when my family was living in the Marshall Islands—a very isolated string of atolls in the Northern Pacific Ocean—my days were devoid of television, billboard ads, and people telling me what kind of woman I should be. With such freedom from cultural constraints, this incredible wave of words was released. It was like a broken fire hydrant blasting pressurized water everywhere. With hermit crabs crawling over my toes as I typed furiously on the edge of Majuro Lagoon, I wrote several essays and poems, finished a novel, and created the Unbound Bookmaker Project, in which 300 Marshallese students from all over the Marshall Islands wrote and illustrated 15 Marshallese-English children’s books. I feel like remarkable things happen when we take time to shut out opinions of the world and think our own thoughts.
It was during this time that I discovered the low-residency MFA option. In a Foreign Service family, since we move to a new country every two to three years, scheduling a master’s degree is rather difficult. But I knew an MFA would allow me to channel all those pressurized words more effectively—a fire hose for my broken fire hydrant. I still remember director Sven Birkerts calling me in the Marshall Islands—I could barely hear him on the other end of the line as he welcomed me to the Bennington family. By sheer coincidence (and the advent of Arab Spring), we were reassigned from Tunisia to Montreal. This allowed me to drive down from Montreal, drop my son off with his grandparents in New York, and then drive to the Bennington campus in Vermont for the ten-day residency. This I did every six months for two years. It was an amazing adventure on top of the already amazing adventure we were having, and I wouldn’t have been able to get an MFA in Writing and Literature without the low-residency option. Additionally, I was able to take a crossover term in nonfiction, which gave me a sense of both the fiction and nonfiction tracks.
What writing/communications skills do you feel you developed in your work as a science editor and teacher, and what skills did you develop as a fiction student? I know you’ve written about this at length elsewhere (i.e., in your KR essay), but in your own professional life, how did these skills inform or compete with one another?
For me, as a science editor, clarity and efficiency in conveying information are critical writing skills. A presentation of unclear or undefined words is a waste of time for readers and has the potential to leave readers behind or drag them along uncomfortably, like me as a kid trying to learn how to use a ski tow. It’s a frustrating, potentially painful experience. The same can be said of incomplete characters in fiction or a poor presentation of the story. It’s hard to connect to the characters, and you feel you’re being dragged along. Fiction and nonfiction science writing both have tools that could benefit the other, and it is that intersection I find particularly fascinating.
I struggle not to edit my own writing endlessly, but there are advantages to having an in-house editor. Jo Ann Beard, speaking at one of our Bennington residencies, said that her writing process includes screwing in each sentence tightly as she goes, which makes me feel a little better. My process includes lots of picky revisions, but I’m usually pleased with the result. I also feel, like Flaubert, that sound contributes to sense, and I like to read my drafts to myself, as Flaubert read Madame Bovary to himself in his garden.
You’re now teaching science – how did you find your current position, and what skills and experiences do you think were most valuable for the role? How do you approach language in the classroom?
As soon as I heard about the Pierre and Marie Curie School in Managua, Nicaragua, I wanted to be a part of it. A school whose mission is to help develop scientific and humanistic foundations in their students? Yes, please. It sounded like a perfect place to explore the intersection of science and literature. The school already had a telescope and an observatory, and the administration was thrilled to find someone willing to hold astronomy observation nights for each grade, preschool through twelfth grade. Two other high school teachers joined me in teaching the astronomy lesson before we went to the rooftop, and while I spoke in English, they spoke in Spanish—so between the three of us we could answer students’ questions.
I enjoyed it so much that I proposed a new high school interdisciplinary class—Writing the Universe—whose curriculum is based in astronomy but where every assignment deals with some kind of science writing: formal essays on scientists, persuasive travel brochures inviting a chosen audience (even imagined extraterrestrial visitors) to visit an assigned planet or moon in our Solar System, science poetry, plays depicting constellation myths and origin stories, magazine articles, and—for the final project—a short story in the science fiction genre. It’s science writing across the spectrum of fiction and nonfiction, something for everyone. It’s the class I wish I could have taken in high school, to be honest. So far, my favorite response is encapsulated in this student’s email: “Here you have my first draft of project 2. I can’t believe I’m saying this but even thought this took almost a full afternoon, I actually had quite a lot of fun writing this.” Because English ability varies so widely in my classes (it’s a trilingual school: Spanish, English, and French, with quite a few Arabic-speaking students), I take students where they are and get them as close to where they need to be as I can, but with the understanding that English is usually their second, third, or even fourth language.
The skills needed to teach this class include a hell of a lot of humility and a willingness to be flexible when I need to modify the course; enthusiasm, which is easy when you’re teaching what you’re passionate about; and the ability to track down resources and then teach the students how to use them. My class uses Edmodo, Quizlet, and IXL.com, as well as parts of the Big History Project, all of which are teaching tools I love. The administration of Pierre and Marie Curie has been immensely supportive; they purchased over 80 science literature books, from Asimov to Andrea Barrett to Tracy K. Smith to Lisa Randall. It’s been lovely to see students clustered in front of our Science Lit Library shelves and get excited about their book reviews.
You’ve discussed the idea of “versed” and “unversed” characters in fiction that deals with complex ideas, such as the work of Andrea Barrett. Do you find yourself using these models in your own creative work? Do you find yourself modeling them in your teaching?
Right now I’m finishing up a story about a girl who sells iguanas along a highway leading to León, Nicaragua. The iguanas are not pets; they are for iguana soup, a valued home remedy for the sick and the dying. A white tourist in the story decries the abuse of the creatures but fails to understand the larger need. I like the idea of a knowledgeable character teaching another character something new, but as I also found in Barrett’s work, sometimes there is power in keeping a gap between the character who knows or understands something and the character who doesn’t. I find myself using this gap of understanding in my work to highlight the many miscommunications and tensions between characters and cultures.
In my Writing the Universe class, I haven’t focused on this particular method of including complex ideas, but I have talked a lot about audience—how to reach readers with concise and clear explanations but also through emotion, logic, and appeals to character. Nicaragua is a country of poets (most famously, Rubén Darío and Alfonso Cortés), and many of my students already grasp the importance of connecting to their readers through emotions and images. One student, in the process of describing Mary Somerville, a Victorian science writer and one of the first two women (along with Caroline Herschel) to join the British Royal Astronomical Society, wrote that Somerville’s skin was “wrinkled as an old white rose.” Fantastic.
I try to teach science through metaphors as well: one day in class I was describing the work of Henrietta Swan Leavitt to my students and trying to explain how Leavitt, in 1908, used the regular pulsing of Cepheid variables to figure out how far away stars are. There was a flickering fluorescent light in the middle of the classroom ceiling—the super annoying ones that make me twitch—and I used it to describe the flickering nature of Cepheid variables. It was lovely to see the light of understanding flick on in my students’ faces in response—and stay on.
What space does writing fiction occupy in your current routine? How has its place changed from when you were an MFA student? From before your MFA?
It’s been a tough balancing act to write fiction, since so many things seem to call for my attention, but I’m slowly discovering how to teach, write, edit, read, rest, and love. I teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays and write on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Obviously it’s more complicated than that, especially living in Nicaragua. One day I was writing in my office and the house rattled and wobbled—a 5.3 earthquake. Another day I went to school to teach, all the while checking Twitter since lava was actively rising inside Masaya Volcano, just 16 kilometers away from Pierre and Marie Curie. The first night of teaching astronomy I had just finished talking about Galileo when a strong earthquake shook the building and the power went out. I had to point out constellations in the parking lot instead of on the roof. I never had to worry about those kinds of things while pursuing my MFA in Montreal (although a blinding snowstorm nearly blew me out of my highway lane and into a semi-truck on my way to Bennington one winter). I don’t feel that I have the same inspirational isolation I had in the Marshall Islands, but there are certainly plenty of new adventures to inform my fiction. It has been a remarkable experience to hear the stories of Nicaraguan friends and learn from their perspectives.
What advice would you give to current MFA students? How about to MFA students who have previously had careers in STEM fields (I know they’re out there)?
Some literary fiction bores me to tears but is heralded as remarkable art, and I remember feeling like something must be wrong with me if I didn’t appreciate this or that book. Like different style of paintings, find the subset of literary fiction that you love, and don’t worry if you don’t like or can’t access other types of literary fiction. As a dear friend of mine is fond of saying, “There’s no arguing over a matter of taste.” For MFA students who have had careers in STEM fields, don’t be afraid to write what you know, even if it’s technical—just write it in a way that is accessible for your audience.
What are some of your favorite volumes of a) literary non-fiction about science b) literary fiction that deals with scientific events and ideas?
Besides the books I mentioned in the KR article, I have to say I’m an Oliver Sacks fan (Hallucinations astounded me) and The Best American Science Writing series. Fiction-wise, I’m a major fan of The Martian by Andy Weir, even though I wish the protagonist had been a nonwhite woman (sorry, Matt Damon). I am already partial to the physics/astronomy strain of science writing, but I loved how The Martian intertwined technology and conflict to create a realistic scenario. It was a nice surprise to discover Andrea Barrett, Rivka Galchen, Amy Brill, and so many other authors who entertain, edify, and inform through fiction.
The Fiction Meets Science program at the Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg (HWK) Institute of Advanced Study has a great database of literary science fiction. It has been wonderful to find the kind of writing I love, and I certainly credit the MFA program at Bennington for helping me discover it.
Jamie Zvirzdin creates, encourages, and refines writing that involves science, from fiction to non-fiction and across all genres of writing. She’s currently working on her first novel.
She teaches at the Pierre and Marie Curie School in Managua, Nicaragua, and has been a science editor for seven years, acting as managing editor for Atomium Culture and as a proofreader of graduate-level textbooks for CRC Press on engineering, computer programming, optics, mathematics, statistics, and astrophysics.