Carla “C.J.” Spataro is the MFA program director at Rosemont College and the editorial director of Philadelphia Stories and PS Books. She is an award-winning short story writer, Pushcart Prize nominee, and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grant winner. Her short fiction has appeared in Phantom Drift, december magazine, Italian Americana, Iron Horse Literary Review, Pithead Chapel, Permafrost, The Baltimore Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and others. Poetry has appeared in Ovunque Siamo. Her work has also been anthologized in Another Breath, Forgotten Philadelphia, Extraordinary Gifts, and 50 Over 50.
Curtis Smith: A disclaimer—we’ve known each other for a number of years, first through your work with Philadelphia Stories and events in the Philly area. Can we start there—with your arrival in Philadelphia and your co-founding of Philadelphia Stories, which just entered its fifteenth year of providing a free print journal to the area? That’s a pretty amazing run.
Carla Spataro: Thanks! It is kind of amazing. Time goes so quickly, I don’t really know what to think anymore. I came to Philadelphia kind of by accident. My intention was to pursue a career as a professional opera singer. I have two degrees in music. Opera is maybe one of the most competitive artistic disciplines out there, mostly because there are just so few opportunities. At any rate, I made a promise to myself that I would re-examine my career, or lack thereof, by the time I was in my early thirties. The truth was I wasn’t singing very much, and the singing I was doing was not making me happy. I knew I needed some kind of creative outlet, so I started writing again. And I say again, because I had always been a writer as well as a musician. I almost went to college for journalism but decided on music. Anyway, that’s how I found my way back to writing. I got into a regular writer’s group fairly early on and then in my early 40s decided to get an MFA so that I could teach, which is something I thought I always wanted to do.
I met Christine Weiser, my partner at Philadelphia Stories in that first writer’s group maybe 20 years ago. It’s all her fault really, because she didn’t tell me no when I suggested we start a literary magazine.
Smith: How would characterize the lit scene in Philadelphia? How has it changed over the years?
Spataro: When Christine and I started PS, we naively thought that there was little to no lit scene in Philly. Wow, we were so wrong. We’d been in our own little bubble and didn’t realize how big and vibrant the scene really was, and is, until we launched and all of a sudden (and that’s kind of what it felt like) there were all these other writers out there who wanted to be involved and support us. Since then, so many other journals have launched, in addition to the ones who were around before us. My apologies to anyone I might leave out, but right now I’m thinking about, Painted Bride, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Philadelphia Poets, Mad Poets, Apiary, City Key, Bookends, Root, Cleaver, Story Quarterly, American Poetry Review—and then there are all the college run journals like Rathalla Review, which we publish at Rosemont. There are a ton of indie/small presses like Lanternfish, Hidden River, and New Door, and literary organizations like Blue Stoop. The city has instituted an official poet Laureate Program. There is practically a reading every night.
The thing I hear from people who come into Philly from other places with maybe more well-known scenes like New York, is that they are really surprised by the level of support that writers in this community seem to genuinely have for each other. Maybe it’s all that Quaker live and let live philosophy that’s been baked into the city, or maybe, despite the city’s reputation, people are just a little bit nicer here—who knows, but it does seem that most writers do tend to celebrate other’s successes and there’s been a lot to celebrate lately. So many amazing writers coming out of the area to real national acclaim. It’s a fantastic time to be a writer in Philadelphia.
Smith: For the past eight years, you’ve run Rosemont College’s MFA program. Can you tell us about the program? What makes it unique compared to other MFA offerings? What are the things you like most about it? What have been some of the accomplishments/highlights of your tenure?
Spataro: I’ve been running the MFA program at Rosemont since May 2012. I graduated from the program in 2007 and started teaching here in 2009. I have a lot invested in Rosemont and I really care about the program and the students. One of the best things about Rosemont is that we are small. The program itself is not all that small. Comparatively, most MFA programs aren’t that big, but the college is small, and the class sizes are very small. We have a tremendous, student-centered faculty. Writers who really love to teach, which is important. Everyone is here because they want to be. We also don’t have any genre restrictions, which is particularly important to fiction writers. No one is telling the students what they’re “supposed” to like or be passionate about. Some of our most successful alumni are writing middle grade, YA, and speculative fiction. We also have very robust poetry and creative nonfiction tracks and I encourage everyone to step outside their comfort zone at least once while they are in the program. Grad school is the time to take chances and write something crazy. Another thing that sets us apart is our two retreats, or residencies, that students can take for credit. One is in the summer at Rosemont and the other is in January, someplace warm-ish and exotic. This January we’re going to Morocco. We’ve been to Sicily, Malta, and Greece. The whole program is designed to accommodate working adults, who maybe can’t take three classes a semester. The student population is diverse in all aspects—and this makes for dynamic classroom conversations. One of my lottery fantasies is to go back to school and do nothing but take classes. I think that’s why I started teaching—being a teacher was the closest I could come to being an eternal student.
Smith: I grew not too far from Rosemont, and I must have passed it dozens if not hundreds of times—yet it’s kind of tucked away—and once one steps onto campus, it’s a such pleasant surprise, a little oasis of green and tall trees and beautiful buildings. What would you tell someone who’s considering Rosemont—both in terms of what they’ll find on campus and in the MFA program itself? I think there’s a real sense of community there, which is pretty cool.
Spataro: Thanks, Curtis! We work so hard at creating that sense of community. As I said earlier, I do think it’s part of the larger Philly vibe, but at Rosemont, I think we take it a step further. When most of the students are working adults with kids and families, it’s not always easy to create that sense of community. That’s why having writers who really want to teach on the faculty is so important. We also do a ton of events on campus. Almost everything is open to the public and many of the events are free. This helps the students see that they really aren’t alone. The act of writing, ultimately, is a very solitary endeavor, so finding your tribe and having a support network is so important. We have alumni working as adjunct and full-time professors at over 20 area colleges. There are MFA and grad publishing alumni working in all areas of the Philadelphia (and NYC) publishing business as agents, editors, and in marketing. It’s pretty exciting. When alumni get a book published, we love to have them back on campus for a reading so we can celebrate together. We had three alumni back in September, all with new books out. It was really great.
Smith: If you could look ahead ten or fifteen years, what would you like to see for the program? For Philadelphia Stories? For the lit scene in Philly?
Spataro: Wow, I hope things are only bigger and better!
Smith: Running the program means you have both teaching and administrative duties which claim a lot of your time—but you still find time to write. Can you tell us about your work—both in the past and what you’re working on now?
Spataro: Yeah, this is a big challenge for me. I’m kind of a one-woman show at Rosemont on the administrative side. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have amazing graduate assistants—without them nothing would get done.
For a long time, I felt really guilty about not writing every day, but even if I didn’t have a job, I’m not sure I could do that. When I was singing, I probably sang every day, but I definitely didn’t practice every day. Writing takes a tremendous amount of mental energy for me, so during the school year most of that space is taken up by my job. But in the background my brain is always churning on new ideas, things I want to write about, stories I want to explore. I’ve become what I’ve coined as a binge writer, and this seems to work pretty well for me. I have a bizarre capacity to be able to sit for hours at a time. So, what I like to do is set aside a long weekend, once a semester if I can, and in the summer, and go somewhere like the Highlights Foundation up in Honesdale, PA. and just write. For days. Ideally, I’ll go up on a Friday and come home after lunch on Monday. I’ve been known to crank out 70 pages or so. Up there all I do is eat, write, and sleep. My idea of bliss.
Back in Philly, we have two 12 hour write-a-thons at Rosemont, one each semester. I’m able to get quite a lot done at those as well. This year I finished a new short story draft, which I was happy about. I will sit down and take an afternoon to write, if I have space in my brain, or something that just can’t wait. I’m also able to get a lot of revising done in shorter periods of time, but I like to do the initial drafting in big chunks if I can. Right now, I’m shopping (to agents) a speculative novel about a woman who is feeling sorry for herself and wishes that her dog was her boyfriend. Some faeries show up and grant her wish. I’m also shopping a collection of more traditional literary short stories. I’m mostly doing this by submitting to contests and small presses. Currently, I’m working on a new collection of speculative short stories and a novella. I really love writing short stories and I get kind of mad when the idea is too big for a short story, but you can’t abandon a good idea just because it’s going to be long. My favorite form, the long short story, of course, is the one that is almost impossible to sell. I’m always in the process of sending things out, processing rejection, and sending out some more. I’ve also started to write poetry that I’m taking more seriously. I’ve taken a few poetry classes in the Rosemont Writer’s Studio, which is our non-credit program, and I love that. Like I said, being an eternal student is my dream.
Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (Ig Publishing) and the novel Lovepain (Braddock Avenue Books).