A 200-Year-Old Writing Center
Noreen Tomassi Tells Michele Filgate About the Origins of the Center for Fiction
There are a lot of writing centers across the country, but the only writing center completely devoted to fiction is located in NYC. The Center for Fiction, currently based in Manhattan, will move to Brooklyn in 2018. A thriving organization that offers classes, hosts readings and panels and book clubs, and offers emerging writers fellowships, the Center is also known for its awards, including the coveted First Novel Prize. (The 2015 winner was Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer.) I emailed Noreen Tomassi, the Executive Director, to talk about the past, present, and future of the nonprofit.
What year did The Center for Fiction open, and what was the mission?
The Center began life in 1820 on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan as the Mercantile Library, a lending library for clerks who worked in the mercantile industry. It predated public libraries and in the mid-19th century was one of the largest cultural institutions on the eastern seaboard. Edgar Allen Poe wrote at “The Merc,” and Mark Twain gave readings and talks there, as did William Thackeray and Frederick Douglass. In 2008, the name was changed to The Center for Fiction and it is now the only literary center in the United States devoted solely to the art of fiction.
How many classes are offered at a given time?
It varies. We offered ten classes in fall of 2015, led by Stefan Merrill Block, Jonathan Santlofer, Alison Gaylin, Rebecca Schiff, Gabriel Roth, Tracy O’Neill, Teddy Wayne, Christine Schutt, Kathleen Alcott, and Ted Thompson. Some of these writers are new to us, but most are returning teachers.
What are your thoughts on MFA programs vs. writing programs like Sackett, Grub Street, The Loft, The Center for Fiction, etc?
MFA programs can be very useful for writers who want or need to step out of the work world and focus very specifically on writing for two years. For writers who can afford the hefty tuition or who are lucky enough to receive full scholarships this is a great alternative. Writing programs like those at The Center, The Loft, Grub Street, and other institutions are a great alternative for people who want to receive low-cost MFA-quality instruction and for one reason or another cannot take time away from work or family commitments. And who can’t afford $50,000 a year! In addition to great instruction and feedback from the accomplished writers who lead the workshops, they also provide interaction with other writers, a sense of community, and the impetus to keep writing.
What are the biggest challenges when it comes to running workshops at The Center for Fiction?
Keeping costs low and, at the same time, paying teachers very well. That’s always a balancing act, but it is in our DNA. Also, scheduling the spaces in our building to accommodate all our workshops is sometimes challenging. That won’t be a problem when we move to our new space in Brooklyn, though.
How did you come up with the structure for the workshops?
We work very closely with the writers who lead workshops to determine the structure of each. Depending on individual teaching styles and interests, they often vary a great deal.
I'm interested in how writing programs help shape a literary community. What does community mean to you, and how does the Center for Fiction promote community for both instructors and students?
One of the key advantages of our writing programs is that both the students and the instructors can connect to The Center in so many ways. If you take part in our writing programs, you can also write in our writers studio, check books out from our collection, use our reading room, meet with other writers outside the classroom by booking rooms for more informal meetings, get discounts in our bookshop, etc. Because we are not only a writing program or an event space or library or bookstore, but a space for all of these things at once, it’s easy to feel part of a community, to feel that the place is a second home, not just a place to come once a week for a workshop.
When is The Center for Fiction moving to Brooklyn? What are your goals for the future?
We will be in our new home in Brooklyn in January 2018. I’m excited about the new space for a number of reasons: First, the superb location across from BAM at the corner of Lafayette and Ashland and a space of nearly 18,000 square feet was just too good to pass up!
We will be at the heart of a great cultural district. It’s an intellectual and cultural hub in a great city and we are thrilled to become part of that energy! Our immediate neighbors are not only BAM, but also Mark Morris and Theater for a New Audience and others like BRIC and Urban Glass are only steps away. It’s important to us that the literary arts be featured very prominently in that mix. It’s an added benefit that this location gives us so many opportunities to look at how the art of fiction intersects and complements other disciplines. In the new space, we’ll have an opportunity to think of fiction in a more inclusive way, to talk about television and film and theater, to book events that involve music (like our current Notes on Fiction series) and dance and to connect the visual arts and fiction.
Brooklyn is home to so many great writers—both well known and emerging—and so many of our audience members already are Brooklyn residents. The borough may have more readers per square inch than anywhere in the country. It also has so many interesting lit organizations. We are really eager to work with all the indie bookshops, lit mags, and small presses that are in Brooklyn and provide a beautiful space for the exchange of ideas and the sharing of resources.
So many of the schools we already work with through our Books for NYC Schools/Kids Read program are located in Brooklyn and in Queens, so it will be very helpful to be in closer proximity to them and to be able to increase our children’s programming in general.