By Sara Patterson
Ling Ma (BA’05) and Ben Hoffman are already acclaimed fiction writers. Ma received the prestigious 2018 Kirkus Prize for Fiction for her novel Severance (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), as well as the NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Hoffman was honored by the Chicago Tribune’s 2014 Nelson Algren Award for short fiction work for his story “This Will All Be Over Soon,” as well as a Carol Houck Smith Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University.
Despite these successes, Ma and Hoffman did not expect to receive the National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships. The competition is fierce for these NEA Fellowships of $25,000 each. Biannually, the NEA chooses only 36 Creative Writing Fellowships for prose from approximately 1,700 eligible applications. More significant after receiving NEA Fellowships, many recipients gain wider recognition, such as Anthony Doerr, Louise Erdrich, and Jennifer Egan.
UChicago English Language and Literature Professor John Wilkinson, however, believes the quality of their scholarship and prose is why his two Creative Writing colleagues received the NEA Fellowships. “Ling’s novel Severance integrates tropes from the apocalypse novel and the immigrant novel to narrate a literary thriller about late-capitalist alienation, and that anxiety for the future that plagues those who are cut off from country, culture, and an idealized past,” said Wilkinson, director of the Program in Creative Writing and Chair of the Divisional Committee on Poetics. “Ben’s short stories deal with contemporary familial life and the often irresolvable struggle—for adults as well as children—to connect and disconnect from those they are supposed to love.”
Now that Ma has received the NEA Fellowship, she hopes it allows her more time to write fiction. “This Fellowship will be an investment back into my work,” says Ma, assistant professor of Practice in the Arts of the Program in Creative Writing at UChicago. “But it is also like performing a magic trick: How do I convert money into time?”
As an undergraduate English major at UChicago, she took workshops on poetry, fiction, and performance arts, as well as many film courses. Her understanding of interdisciplinary creativity came to life in Severance, which permeates the familiar world with surreal and apocalyptic features. Her writing style emulates that of Miranda July, Lucia Berlin, and Kazuo Ishiguro.
For her next project, Ma is exploring shorter fiction. “Sometimes a short story becomes a novel,” she said. “I am in the exploratory process and will see how it comes out.”
As for teaching UChicago students, Ma says her students produce outstanding work, which often surprises and inspires her, as well as being full of “wild and trippy prose.” Her teaching helps her examine more elements of her craft critically.
“When I dive into my students’ writing, it forces me to be more analytical,” Ma said. “When I’m out of touch with my work, I’m not as effective as a creative writing teacher. The trick is to balance being constantly in touch with my creative work and teaching students. It has to happen side by side.”
On the other hand, Hoffman finds teaching UChicago students’ creative writing helps him to be more enthusiastic about literature and to get back to the basics. “After teaching, I’m more excited to return to writing my own work,” said Hoffman, lecturer of the Program in Creative Writing at UChicago.
He acknowledges the validation the NEA Creative Writing Fellowship gives him. “I felt a burst of energy when I received it,” says Hoffman, who was returning from a trip to Starved Rock in Illinois with his wife and son. “I want to justify why I received this NEA Fellowship, when so many wonderful writers have applied.”
The NEA Fellowship also reminds Hoffman that he almost veered into a career in public policy instead of creative writing. The first year that he applied to several master’s degree programs in the Fine Arts, he was not accepted. Hoffman seriously considered attending a master’s degree in Public Policy at UChicago’s Harris School, where he’d also applied and been accepted. Hoffman tried once more, and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington accepted him.
“Since I had a circuitous route to creative writing, I have known both sides of the coin,” he said. “A writer has to work hard and has to be good, but luck plays a role. In the end, you can only control your work on the page. The extra is the icing.”
Many of Hoffman’s stories have been published in such magazines as the American Short Fiction, Granta, The Missouri Review, and Zoetrope. Currently, he is finishing a collection of his longer stories that have appeared in the literary journals and is beginning to write a novel. Set in 1979, this novel centers on the Three Mile Island nuclear accident near Harrisburg, Pa., where Hoffman grew up, which adds a more personal dimension to the forthcoming book.
As creative writers and teachers, Hoffman and Ma continue to master their craft. Their NEA Creative Writing Fellowships affirm their skills in appealing to wide audiences with their prose—whether in short stories or novels.