Alumni Interview Series: Mary Allen

When two of this year’s creative writing interns enter the bustling cafe, they immediately begin searching the room for the face they have seen so many times in the Literature office. Mary Allen (Creative Writing Alum ‘14) is the new Book Report Editor for The Rumpus and when they finally spot her sitting at a small table not too far off, they approach her timidly and ask, "Mary?"
Her response is one big smile and both interns, relieved, knew that this was their chance to ask: What is postgrad life really like?
Danielle: For those that don’t know you personally, tell us a little bit about yourself and the work that you do.
Mary: Let’s see...I am from California. I went to school here at UCSC and I graduated from the Creative Writing Department in 2014. Since then, I’ve been working around town. I’ve worked at Bookshop Santa Cruz and I work at the Literature Department. I still write fiction; I’m working on a novel. Out in the world, I do more travelogue writing and human interest writing.
Samantha: We know that you’re the book report editor at The Rumpus now. How’s that going so far? What’s that like?
Mary: It’s great. The book report is a monthly newsletter that gets sent out to subscribers of The Rumpus and my job is basically to compile features from their site in a attractive and cohesive way. I usually write an intro piece for it as well kind of like Nick Hornby’s What I’m Reading. Have you ever read it? He has a column on The Believer right now.
Samantha & Danielle: (shaking heads no)
Mary: Anyways, he’ll take a book that he’s reading and then blog about what’s going on in his life incorporating what he’s reading into that. So, I was sorta inspired by that. I’ll write a piece about something in my life and connect it to the piece, whatever the story that is being told is.
Danielle: How did you happen to land that job?
Mary: I started out as a blogger for The Rumpus. While I was an creative writing intern, I met Zoe Ruiz, who is also a UCSC alumni. She used to be the managing editor for The Rumpus and I hosted her when she was here. They needed people so I did that. I floated around a bit throughout The Rumpus doing different things. I’ve done transcription work for their interviews. I ran their Twitter feed for a bit...That was hard. I think a Twitter feed is hard, like a professional one. It’s a ton of work! I had no idea! Then I eventually met up with the book editor, Bryan Hurley and I started doing this.
Danielle: Would you say that the creative writing internship has helped you in anyway or has it prepared you?
Mary: Yeah, I feel like it taught me a lot about networking and the way the faculty throw things at you like you’re spinning all these plates...That’s something I encounter over and over again in my work life since I’ve graduated. It’s a good skill to know. Depending on the job you’re specifically doing, it can give you the leg up on certain things. I ran the website so I get to put web experience on my resume which is useful.
Danielle: We also run the website.
Samantha: Yeah, we totally get you
Mary: Oh really? Good to know! Web content management! People value that!
Samantha: What’s your favorite aspect of your work right now?
Mary: Well, The Rumpus is totally volunteer. I work at the Literature Department which is my main job and I have a few freelance gigs.
Samantha: You’re doing all these different things so what keeps you going? Do you like being busy?
Mary: That’s definitely a part of it. I have a pretty active brain but as far as my favorite aspect...I don’t know. I think I’m still figuring it out and I’m still exploring my roots that my education can take me. I feel like my degree taught me how to think about my writing and now I have to do the real work of figuring out who I am as a writer.
Danielle: Now that you’ve graduated, is there anything new that you’ve learned that you think would be useful for current undergraduates?
Mary: Read everything. Read forever. You won’t have time when you’re working.
Danielle: So you’re saying to get it out of the way now?
Mary: Well, I feel like my degree taught me how to learn things. I feel like it barely scratched the surface of what I’m interested in doing. I definitely took advantage of my resources but I wish I took even more advantage of the resources I had as an undergraduate. I don’t think you realize at the time how much resources are available to you. Yeah, read all the books. Write as much as you can. Writing gets so much weirder after college. Having the structure of the creative writing major pushed me to keep producing on a consistent basis but when you don’t and you’re working a separate job and paying bills, it gets so much harder to find time to write. Write as much as you can now.
Samantha: This sorta leads into the next question. How does your writing process look like now?
Mary: It depends on what I’m writing. For my freelance gigs, I’m obviously getting paid for those so those take top priority and that’s all driven by what I’m being assigned to write. It’s all been non-fiction when it comes to the freelance stuff so it’s usually research first and then compiling sources. My fiction often gets sidelined in favor of all the other things I’m doing. That’s been an interesting one to navigate because I feel like the sort of fiction I’m writing keeps changing the more I learn. I’m still working with the same themes as I did as an undergraduate but it’s definitely evolved in terms of what kind of story I want to tell.
Samantha: Do you think that your non-fiction work influences your fiction?
Mary: They do inform each other. I’m a much better copy editor now than I used to be and that comes out in my fiction. Things come out as more clear and succinct. I tend to be really wordy when I write so being concise is something I’ve learned.
Danielle: You mentioned copy editing or improving yourself as an editor. How was the process for that? Do you have a structured way of looking at a text when you edit?
Mary: If I’m editing, I usually go through for content first and then I nitpick it after but it is just practice. At my job at the Literature Department, I’m reading tons of documents, emails and newsletters that we’re sending out to you all so I think the experience of looking over everything carefully to make sure it’s accurate helps. Plus, Julie Bower is very detail oriented about that sort of thing so she’s taught me a ton about being a good copy-editor.
Danielle: Do you have any advice for UCSC students who aspire to continue a career with writing or editing other than what you’ve already said?
Mary: Just write, write, and write some more. And talk to people who do things that you like to do. Don’t be scared to reach out to people who do things that you think are cool. Most people like to talk about themselves so they probably wouldn’t mind if you reached out!
Danielle: Even though you touched on this earlier, what would you consider the most fulfilling part of your job as book report editor at The Rumpus?
Mary: I honestly like looking at the work that everyone else is doing. Since the job is compiling features from the site, I have to be selective about the pieces that I think were the strongest or the books that I think are the most important. I really enjoy the different styles that writers do and it keeps me informed about the literary scene around the Bay and nationally. It’s good to keep up.
Danielle: What is a regular work day like? Like when you walk in the room saying ‘Hey world, I’m Mary’ ?
Mary: (laughs) I get up and work at the Literature Department at 8-3pm. I usually write whatever I’m usually working on around 3-7pm. I try to devote some weekend time to it but it doesn’t usually happen…
Danielle: What does your bookshelf look like right now?
Mary: It’s a big mess right now of stuff I’ve written in college and stuff I’ve collected since. I still have all my textbooks and stuff. You don’t realize how much you’ll miss going to your Oxford dictionary and being like ‘Oh yes, I love my Oxford Dictionary.’ No one asks you to think that way after you graduate. I’ve really gotten into reading non-fiction lately. I read almost exclusively fiction when I was in school. I’m reading Spinster by Katie Bollock. She’s an essayist writing about women who decide to remain single their entire lives, who decide not to get married.
Samantha: That’s interesting.
Mary: Yeah, it’s cool! I’ve gotten into food culture too like Michael Pollans’s The Omnivores Dilemma and I’ve been collecting classic feminist texts like Audre Lorde….
Danielle: Like Gloria Anzaldua?
Mary: Yes! That kind of stuff. I’ve just started reading this comic book, Bitch Planet and it’s awesome!
Samantha: Yes! So good!
Mary: I’ve also gotten into reading the news. The New Yorker, New York Times. Never did that as a student but it feels good to remain involved.
Samantha: You’re doing a lot of work spanning different writing styles. I’m interested in how you enhanced those skills or how did you start out?
Mary: To be completely honest with you, I feel like I’m still figuring it out. It took me awhile to get my footing after I graduated before I even started getting writing jobs. It takes time and dedication. There’s been plenty of jobs I jumped into where I don’t know what I’m doing but most editors do want to work with you or want to tailor your voice or style. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification, either. They know that you’re new to the game or not the most experienced but the people I’ve worked with want to help you navigate through this territory.
Samantha: What can an undergrad do to prepare for that line of work or to do various writing styles?
Mary: I’m not an authority on this at all but I’d say to continue applying to anything that looks interesting to you. If you see something in town that you’re interested in, go to them and meet people who might give you an in somewhere but beyond that, don’t be afraid to get rejected. I’m just starting out still but the more I’m getting into it, the more I’m seeing it is putting yourself out there and seeing if anyone out there is going to open a door. I’m interested in you guys, what do you write or what do you want to write?
Samantha: Well, we’re both poetry majors.
Danielle: It’s so hard to answer that or to pinpoint what specifically I write about. I have so much! But I know I like to focus on the veneer of the black aesthetic and that kind of realm. And a little political and politics in there as well. For the most part, I’m still open. I’m still figuring out who I am as a writer. I learn something new everyday.
Mary: Yeah, I’m learning all the time.
Danielle: What is your focus in your writing?
Mary: I’m currently most passionate about the intersectionality of food and feminism. On the fiction end, I write magical realism. Those are my top two but to your point, I feel like I’m barely understanding what I’m most passionate about writing. I’m nowhere near saying I have a niche or full focus. I still feel like I’m discovering myself as a writer. I think it’s good that it changes, too. By the end of my senior year, there was this pressure to immediately know what you’re doing, where you’re going, to have it all figured out and nobody does. That’s totally okay though so you’re not pigeon-holing yourself. I wish I would’ve been less scared of not knowing what I wanted.
Danielle: This is great.
Samantha: I feel the tuning fork. I’m pretty sure we’re all feeling this way and nobody says it.
Danielle: Especially for people who don’t know anyone in the industry.
Mary: It was all mysterious to me when I graduated. I knew I wanted to write but who do I even talk to? Where do I even go? There are so many other fields that you go in a straight line and writing is not like that. So, it’s harder to navigate and it’s different for everybody. I do wish there was less mystery.