With drink in hand, UC Irvine professor Donald Heiney surveyed the crowd at the Saturday afternoon soiree he and his wife, Ann, were hosting in their Newport Beach back yard: The UCI Writing Program's annual garden party and supper in honor of the six new MFA fiction students.
"I'm not a party-goer and find this kind of a horror, but I enjoy it once it starts," Heiney said. "I like to talk to these people. A great many are writers and former students."
Heiney is one of the founders of the 23-year-old UCI Writing Program. Under the guidance of Heiney and fellow novelist Oakley Hall, the current director, the UCI program has become one of the most respected writing workshops in the country. (In 1987, Esquire magazine called it one of the top five in the nation; the director of the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop has ranked Irvine as no less than No. 2--behind Iowa).
As one of the nation's premiere writing programs, UCI is also one of the hardest to get into. Each fall, only six new students are selected to join six returning second-year fiction writers. And each year, the competition gets stiffer: Heiney and Hall had to select the six new students from more than 150 applicants.
The informal party last Saturday--the weekend before the start of the fall quarter--has been an annual tradition since the late '60s. In previous years, Hall usually hosted the party. But now that Hall is on phased retirement--he lives in Squaw Valley and San Francisco and is at UCI only during the winter quarter--it has fallen on Heiney to do the honors. (Observes Hall: "Don doesn't like hosting this thing, but in spite of himself he's a very good host.")
Although Heiney said he keeps in touch with many former students, the informal gathering provides an opportunity to do some catching up.
"A lot of them I don't often see," said Heiney, scanning the crowd of about 50 guests sipping wine and beer out of plastic cups. "Oh, there's Jay Gummerman over there in the sunglasses. He went through the two years and stayed over a third year to finish his thesis."
Gummerman, a June graduate, turned his thesis into a book: a collection of short stories titled "We Find Ourselves in Moontown," which will be published by Knopf next spring.
"I think it's terrific," Heiney said. "That's one of the big kicks about what Oakley and I are doing," he said. As the author of 13 novels himself, Heiney (he writes under the pen name MacDonald Harris) good-naturedly conceded that there is some professional "jealousy" over his students' successes.
"But to be a real teacher is to sort of swallow up jealousies," he added. "It really does make me feel good when a student gets a book published. That's been happening more and more frequently lately."
Indeed, among the program's graduates are Richard Ford ("The Ultimate Good Luck"), Kem Nunn ("Tapping the Source"), Don Bredes ("Hard Feelings"), Roberta Smoodin ("White Horse Cafe") and Patricia Geary ("Strange Toys").
But clearly the program's most visible success story is Michael Chabon, who astonished fellow students last year when, at the tender age of 23, his first novel, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," earned him a $155,000 advance. (First-time novelists typically receive $5,000 to $7,500). Chabon is also the first student in the program to have his short stories published in the New Yorker magazine, and publicity over the publication of his coming-of-age novel last spring landed him in Vanity Fair, Playboy, Newsweek and on the "CBS Morning Show."
Chabon arrived at the party with his wife, poet Lollie Groth, and later did a reading of his most recent short story. (It's in the current issue of the New Yorker.)
The Columbia, Md., native, who has praised the UCI Writing Program in the past, was clearly the brightest literary light at the gathering.
But Chabon was not talking--at least not to a member of the press.
Though gracious, he firmly declined to be interviewed. "Do I have to?" he said. He even refused to comment--even briefly--on the UCI Writing Program. "I'm kind of overdosed on interviews and answering questions," he said. Hall said he understands Chabon's refusal to be interviewed.
"He's absolutely been dogged by the press," Hall said. "If you're writing, you try to keep your balance with all this (publicity). I'd be with him: I'd go hide someplace. All these things get in the way of doing what you're supposed to do, which is get your next book out."
If Chabon wasn't talking, Jay Gummerman was.
In fact, Gummerman credits fellow workshop member Chabon with indirectly helping him find a publisher for "We Find Ourselves in Moontown" before Gummerman graduated.
"I had just completed it and Michael Chabon always liked my stuff," Gummerman explained. "He recommended me to his editor who recommended me to an agent--and that's how that worked."
Gummerman, who is originally from Manhattan Beach and now lives in San Clemente, plans to continue writing short stories. His upcoming short-story collection will mark the first time any of his stories have been published. Grinning, Gummerman said, "I certainly broke one of the cardinal rules that says you have to have them published in magazines before" they appear in a collection.
Gordon McAlpine of Orange, a 1983 graduate, is another success story.
McAlpine, 29, will have his first novel, "Joy in Mudville," published by Dutton in April. The novel, which McAlpine said blends history with magic and myth, begins with the 1932 World Series, in which the immortal Babe Ruth pointed to the outfield stands and then hit a ball there.
McAlpine, who just sold an option on a screenplay he wrote, said his novel is a "vastly different version" of his thesis.
"One of the important things the program did for me was to understand what I did well," he said. "This is the sort of thing I perhaps would have found out on my own, but it would have taken a long time.
"The thing I discovered was that this book allowed me to use my imagination flamboyantly. Before I came to UCI I wrote realistic, slice-of-life kind of fiction and it was fairly ordinary, really. It was one story I wrote that changed things and really it just allowed me to let my imagination go. Don and Oakley are good in their different ways in terms of technical advice and I learned many different things from each of them."
As Hall sees it, the benefit of the UCI Writing Program is not the critical attention he and Heiney pay the students but the "intellectual firmament" of the university and the experience of working within a small community of talented writers.
"I don't think we help as much as get out of their way," Hall said. "What we do have is connections, and publishers and agents will pay attention to us when we say we have someone ready to be published."
Breaking away from a gathering of new students talking to Heiney and Hall, Katherine Vaz, a 1977 UC Santa Barbara English major, said she was "intrigued by Irvine because they take only six (new) people a year. They look out for them. They support them not only with money (as paid teaching assistants) but with attention."
The 33-year-old free-lance writer, who has had her short stories published in small quarterlies, acknowledged that "it's a nice feeling in being selected and the fact they take only six people a year. It's not like they're churning them out."
New student Reid Sherline of Los Angeles, a 1985 Stanford University English graduate, said he didn't start writing until his senior year at Stanford. Since then, Sherline, 25, has lived in Germany and New York, working as an editorial assistant for a publishing house.
He said he had heard a lot about the UCI program and applied "primarily (because) I wanted to come back home. Partly, I think it's just one of the better programs in the country."
Referring to the competition to get into the UCI Writing Program, Sherline said he considers it an honor that the three short stories he submitted gained him acceptance.
"I'm very glad to be here," he said, then grinned: "But, of course, when the works starts, the glory will be short-lived."