In celebration of the 50th anniversary of women’s admission at Fairfield University, as well as the National Day of Writing, the Dimenna-Nyselius Library, The Office of Alumni Relations and The Office of Community and Lifetime Education hosted a virtual event on Zoom called “Alumnae Author Panel: A Writer’s Journey to Page and Stage” on Oct. 20.
Brief introductory remarks were made by Christina McGowan, dean of the library and university librarian, who emphasized why National Day of Writing is so important.
“Writing is critical to literacy, but needs greater attention and celebration,” McGowan said.
McGowan introduced the moderator for the event, Carol-Ann Davis, who is a professor of English at Fairfield, as well as the director of the Master of Fine Arts program. Davis is a poet and essayist, and author of the poetry collections “Psalm” and “Atlas Hour.” Her newest work, entitled “The Nail in the Tree,” is a collection of essays about her experience raising two sons in Sandy Hook, CT. during and after the horrific shooting that occurred there in 2012.
Before introducing the first panelist, Davis spoke about how happy and excited she was to be moderating this event celebrating the great work of some Fairfield alumnae who have been successful in the field of writing.
“Writing can be solitary work, and community is the key to keeping us going,” Davis said.
The first panelist was Alena Dillon, who graduated from Fairfield’s MFA program in 2011 and now teaches creative writing on the north shore of Boston. She is the author of “Mercy House,” which is currently in development as a CBS All Access television series, produced by comedian Amy Schumer. “Mercy House” is a story about a nun named Sister Evelyn who runs a women’s shelter in Brooklyn, NY and is investigated by the Vatican for breaking church doctrine at the shelter, of which she was guilty. When the bishop comes to visit, the women at the shelter band together to hide her secret and keep the shelter open. “Mercy House” is Dillon’s fourth attempt at a fiction novel, and she is very excited about it’s success.
Dillon is also the author of “The Happiest Girl in the World,” which is set for publication in April 2021.
Since “Mercy House” came out this past February, right before the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dillon spoke about how she has been able to connect with her readers during this time.
“[It is an] unexpected gift that people have done these creative, connective events, like we are doing right now, where I get to join readers in their living rooms virtually, where they have their book clubs, and maybe there’s more of a personal connection in that way,” Dillon shared.
Meredith Kazer, Ph.D. was the second panelist of the night; she is a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of New York University’s Steinhardt School and is a 2015 graduate of Fairfield’s MFA program. She is also currently the dean of Fairfield’s Marion Peckham Egan School of Nursing and Health Studies, as she is also a nurse herself. Kazer has published 11 professional nursing books and won four American Journal of Nursing Book of the Year awards.
Other than being a nurse, Kazer expressed her love of fiction and how she can devour two to three novels in one week. Because of this passion for fiction, she decided she was going to write a book, which she realized was not as easy as it seemed. Kazer described her thought process of how she decided to join the MFA program at Fairfield.
“Well, I guess I can’t write…I’m gonna go back to reading books and writing professional novels, and it occurred to me, well, Meredith, you’ve had situations in your life where you really didn’t know what you were doing and somehow you figured it out, what did you do?”
After tabling her first attempt at a novel, Kazer decided to join Fairfield’s MFA program. After graduating in 2015, she had her first novel published in 2019, called “The Keeping House,” which is about a fearless, young nurse whose husband recently passed away and who convinces her mother to buy a house with her. The book follows their experiences of finding the many hidden secrets of the house, and Kazer explained that there is even a surprise ending.
The third panelist was Loan Le who graduated from Fairfield with a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism in 2014. She was a member of The Mirror all four years of her undergrad, and even served as editor-in-chief. In 2017, she received her MFA in fiction from Fairfield. Le mainly focused on writing short stories during her time in the program, and many of them appeared in CRAFT Literary, Mud Season Review and Angel City Review. She is currently an editor at Atria, which is a division of Simon & Schuster Publishing.
Le decided to join Fairfield’s MFA program because she was feeling stuck. She explained how she felt about balancing what she wanted as a career versus what she was passionate about.
“I felt as though I was losing my passion for writing itself and the act of writing. I never wanted to do that,” Le expressed. “I wanted a career, obviously, but I also wanted passion, because those two words…sometimes they are mixed together, but sometimes they need to be separate. You can’t be defined by your career, but I love the idea of being defined by your passion.”
Le’s first novel, “A Pho Love Story,” will be published in February 2021. The story is a rom-com about two Vietnamese American teenagers whose parents own rival restaurants. The teenagers fall in love, and even though they feel pressure to follow the paths they are destined to by their families, they want to explore their own paths.
The final panelist of the event was Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, the medicine woman of the Mohegan Tribe in Uncasville, CT, who received her MFA from Fairfield in 2012. Her first work was a biography of her mentor, Gladys Tantaquidgeon, called “Medicine Trail,” published in 2000. After this, Tantaquidgeon Zobel moved into fiction and published a couple books, “Fire Hollow” and “Oracles: A Novel.”
Though gifted with many talents in writing, Tantaquidgeon Zobel expressed that she had one weakness: writing ‘scene.’
“I would have liked to learn ‘scene’ first, before I wrote the other two novels, I’ll be completely honest about that,” she said. “If you do have a major weakness, that’s a really good reason to go into an MFA program, even if it’s just one.”
After reading her fiction, director Steve Nash requested her to write screenplays which are all about ‘scene,’ and she ended up writing the screenplay for “Flying Bird’s Diary,” about the woman who saved the Mohegan language. It won dozens of awards. In 2020, she entered a full-length stage play of “Flying Bird’s Diary” in the Eugene O’Neil Theatres National Playwright Conference. It has currently advanced to the final round of the conference.
Tantaquidgeon Zobel also helped create a five-part radio drama that comes out the week of Nov. 20 called “Up and Down the River” which chronicles the struggles of Mohegan leaders from the 17th through 20th centuries.
After a question and answer session, Davis ended the event by sharing her closing thoughts.
“I couldn’t be more grateful for the community that has sustained each other, and myself, over this long year, and I just loved hearing from all of you. Congratulations, and thank you so much.”
For anyone who is interested in learning more about Fairfield’s MFA program, please email Carol-Ann Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org.