If you think Michael Chabon, who wrote the much-touted “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” was just a flash in UC Irvine’s literary pan, check the bestseller list. Graduates of the school’s 26-year-old writing program are enjoying so much success that someone might want to test the water. Whitney Otto, 27, who got her degree last year, is the school’s latest prodigy; her first novel, “How To Make an American Quilt,” hit the New York Times bestseller list this May and stayed there for eight weeks. Another, Marti Limebach, Class of 1988, earned her 15 minutes and then some as the author of “Dying Young,” the book on which the movie of the same name is based. “Who Whispered Near Me,” by poet Killarney Clary, Class of 1977, was up for the Pulitzer Prize last year, and with “A Model World,” Chabon, Class of 1987, is solidifying his bestselling status.
All this fame and fortune is generated from an MFA program run by four full-time faculty members (two in poetry, two in fiction) that admits 12 students each year (six in poetry, six in fiction). How are they doing it? “It started with Michael Chabon,” says Oakley Hall, acting director of the fiction program. “He was in a workshop we called the magic workshop. Everyone was good. That workshop had Jay Gummerman (‘We Find Ourselves in Moontown’) and Louis B. Jones (‘Ordinary Money’).”
Success in so concentrated a dose gets attention, and attention sells books. Writers are flocking to Irvine; applications to the program doubled during the past two years, to more than 300 a year. Not bad, considering that the University of Iowa’s MFA Writing Program, the program against which all others are measured, gets about 500 applicants for 50 spots. The only thing keeping Irvine from becoming as renowned as Iowa may be its location. One would-be professor from Vermont came out, took one look at prices of Orange County homes, turned around and went home.