Alumna Molly Prentiss: Debut Novel a Critical Success

Molly Prentiss with Tom Barbash reading at Green Apple Books, spring 2016

Molly Prentiss graduated from CCA's MFA Program in Writing in 2010. Her first novel, Tuesday Nights in 1980 (Scout Press, a new imprint of Simon & Schuster), has debuted to rave reviews. A native of Santa Cruz, she now lives in New York.

In one sentence, Ms. Prentiss captures a sense of intoxication and possibility that six seasons of voice-overs from Sarah Jessica Parker never could.  . . .  Ms. Prentiss concludes her novel on a note that’s both ethereal and brutally realistic. She cauterizes wounds, but they’re still visible and bare. But for her characters -- for this promising author -- it’s enough.

-- The New York Times

What attracted you to CCA's MFA program?

I really only applied to CCA, mostly because I wanted to go to an art school so I'd be able to cross-pollinate with other art classes. Also I wanted to be in the Bay Area. Mostly, it was the fact that CCA is an art school.

Did Tuesday Nights in 1980 start as your thesis?

Yes it did. It was very different then. I started it actually in Tom Barbash's novel-writing class. I was very wary to start on a novel. I was writing short stories, but professor Barbash convinced me to take his class.

I turned in short stories as chapters and eventually started linking them. For my thesis I kind of jammed them all together.

How did the novel change over time?

At one point half the book took place in Argentina and the rest in New York City. Once I signed with my agent, she helped guide my story and tighten it up to achieve a stronger narrative drive and better momentum.

It made sense for the parts in Argentina to bookend rather than go back and forth between the two places. As it reads now, Argentina begins and ends the book.

I read that you like to follow “whims” when you write. Some writers say they write about “obsessions.” Are these the same thing?

I think so. Really what I mean by “whims” is to follow your natural inclination, to pursue the things you are drawn to.

How did CCA prepare you for the writing life?

One of the things I learned at CCA was a writer's work ethic: That you have to do it every day all the time even when you don't want to. I learned how to make it my job. I’m interested in artists' lifestyles, and I’m also interested in writers' lifestyles.

So being around the professors at CCA was a great guiding force for figuring out ways I could move toward that goal.

And in terms of actual writing tools -- so many. Before, writing had always been a side passion. At CCA I studied all of the basics of craft in fiction, and also dabbled in experimental essay writing, and poetry -- which really informed how I write fiction.

They pushed me to think about language a lot. I loved the reading lists that professors gave us. Even though I'm a voracious reader, I'm not always adventurous with the types of things I read.

So the tailored reading lists were amazing. I expanded my scope a great deal.

Were there faculty members or classes that you had a particular affinity for where you felt yourself really coming into your own or developing new skills as a writer?

Cooley Windsor was fantastic. I took a bunch of his classes. He really cracked open new ways of reading and writing for me; he was really into theater, too, and brought in a lot of plays.

Tom Barbash was hugely influential when it came to studying craft in fiction.

A really seminal class was Claudia Bernardi's The Violent Task of Remembering -- about mass disappearances and killings around the world, and the art that stemmed from those large-scale losses.

Miranda Mellis, Daniel Alarcón, and Claire Chafee were also very influential during my time at CCA.

How did you balance working as a senior copywriter for Bloomingdale's and writing a book?

That's what I was doing for the last five years. I basically just wrote on the weekends. I had a really hard time getting onto a computer after being on a computer all day. I wouldn't write all day, more like five hours each weekend day.

I actually sort of liked that. I like the feeling of a day that's balanced between working and relaxing. And artist residencies were a huge help in getting the novel written. I was involved in three different residency programs.

Those were pure, month-long periods of just writing.

What's ahead for you?

I'm working on something totally new. It takes place in the mid-seventies in northern California. There's a big cast of characters at a commune, eight perspectives.

It's strange to work on something new after so long on one project, but it's exciting, especially because I know the process better now. 

I’ve also just launched a small creative writing program called The Blue School. It’s an intimate, progressive, conceptual program with an emphasis on tapping into the writing and arts community here in North Brooklyn. It offers students a middle ground between short workshops and a two-year MFA commitment.