A conversation with Christopher Castellani

When Christohpher Castellani ’94 was a student at Swarthmore, he did not expect to become a writer, let alone the author of three successful novels. However, he may have predicted that in 18 years he’d be back at Swarthmore as a professor — just not a visiting professor and writer in residence, teaching the Advanced Fiction workshop.

“I came into college knowing that I wanted to be an English major and that reading and writing were what I was mostly interested in,” he said. “I didn’t think that I was going to study creative writing to become a writer, I just thought it was always something I was going to do on the side.”

After graduating from Swarthmore with a degree in English literature and getting a certification as an English teacher, Castellani taught for a year at a high school near Swarthmore. At that point, he was still sending his stories to his creative writing professors at Swarthmore, and getting feedback every now and then. Not done with being a student, Castellani went to graduate school at Tufts to study English Lit, where he learned that being an English Lit professor was not his passion.

“I went through most of the graduate program in English Lit at Tufts but I sort of had a bit of a career crisis,” he said. “I didn’t want to go back to teaching high school after all; and I also wasn’t convinced that being an English professor was right for me because I couldn’t decide what area of English Lit I wanted to focus on.” While at Tufts, Castellani had formed an informal workshop for grad students and professors interested in creative writing. “I decided to take some time off — and by taking time off I mean I went to a different program,” he said. Castellani pursued his pervading interest in creative writing at an MFA program in fiction writing at Boston University.

At BU, Castellani wrote the first 100 pages of a novel, and a fellow student who was already published connected him with her literary agent. The rest, as they say, is history. “Every writer’s ultimate goal is to have their work in print. That was when it started to feel like a real possibility,” he said.  Fortunately, Castellani had also recently discovered a literary arts school in Boston called Grub Street that was hiring teachers. “I was teaching fiction writing workshops to adults while I was writing this novel, so that was how I made my living for a few years,” said Castellani.

Writing while teaching fiction finally proved to be a perfect fit: “I loved teaching fiction — it was a different discipline, closer to my heart.” Fast-forward to 2007 when English Professor Nathalie Anderson asked Castellani to come back to Swarthmore and teach the first Advanced Fiction Workshop offered at the college. Now, six years later, Castellani has returned to serve as writer-in-residence and professor of the Advanced Fiction Workshop for his second time.

Teaching the class for the second time, Castellani said he is even more convinced by the workshop model and that focusing on the mechanics of writing works. “The workshop process is a really important process to go through as a writer — it is a process that has a shelf life. You should only do it for a certain number of years until you feel like you have developed your voice, or until you feel like your craft is your craft,” he said. “The process of a student reading another student’s work and writing feedback is just as important as writing and receiving feedback on your own work.” While Castellani himself has moved beyond the workshop process, he emphasized that it is an essential step for every writer. “You are training your eye,” he said. “You go through a period where that is really, really important and you build those muscles and you tune your ears and you tune your eyes.”

Equally important in Castellani’s class is learning how to be a reader.  For Castellani, reading and writing have always been inextricably linked. “I started as a writer really as a reader — sometime around 5th or 6th grade was when I really fell in love with reading and I would devour book after book.” Even now as a published writer and college professor, Castellani remembers what his 5th grade self knew. “You have to always be reading and always be writing simultaneously if you are a writer,” he said. “They should absolutely go hand in hand: you can not do one without the other.”

This symbiotic relationship between reading and writing is an element that was missing to a certain extent in Castellani’s own creative writing education at Swarthmore. “My main goal for the class, which is not something that my professors explicitly taught me while I was at Swarthmore, is to how read fiction like a writer rather than as an English Lit student” he said. “We are not reading [stories] for themes, for race/class/gender. We are reading them for how they are constructed, what each piece is trying to do, and how to better allow it to do that.”

Castellani does emulate his own past professors in trying to introduce his students to writers and books that they would not otherwise find. “I had excellent creative writing teachers at Swarthmore,” he said, “and the best thing that they did was they introduced me to writers that I had never heard of and whom we weren’t reading in my English Lit classes.”

I asked Castellani, who has had the unique experience of teaching a class at his own alma matter,  if his trajectory would have been different had his college self enrolled in an Advanced Fiction Workshop. “I’d like to think it would have given me a more sophisticated approach to the craft,” he said. “It would have helped me better understand what I was doing and would have helped me to be more intentional about what I was doing rather than rely on instinct. You get very far on instinct, but it doesn’t take you all the way. Classes like this help students to refine their instincts and hone them in a way that is more practical. It would have saved me a bit of time and a bit of trial and error.”

For now, Castellani is keeping busy by working on two writing projects, while remaining artistic director of Grub Street, teaching at Swarthmore, and teaching at Warren Wilson, a low-residency graduate program. He would only divulge the details of one writing project because he is signing the contract this week which will ensure that it is published. This superstition, that talking about a piece before it is fully formed can damage the final product, is one that many an artist can comprehend. On his forthcoming work, “I’m writing a book about writing,” Castellani said. More specifically, he is writing an installment about point of view in Graywolf Press’ “The Art of” series.

Castellani appreciates the chance to be back in his old stomping grounds, this time having figured out his twin passions, writing and teaching, and how to pursue them:  “I do just want to say how honored I am to be back on campus. I have such great respect for Swarthmore as an institution and I am completely impressed by my students and feel really lucky for the opportunity to work with students who are so passionate and so invested in this art form. Emotionally, it’s really meaningful to be back on the campus where I was a student on the other side of the classroom.”

The Phoenix