Director's Message

Julie Sheehan, Poet, Professor and Program Director

julie sheehanWhat a lush cultural legacy we have in the Hamptons. Everyone who's anyone has hung out here, from such 19th-century writers as James Fenimore Cooper to giants of the 20th century like John Steinbeck and Kurt Vonnegut. Tennessee Williams even lived on campus, spending the summer of 1957 in a refurbished 18th-century windmill up the hill from where I sit. There he wrote his weirdly wonderful play "The Day on Which a Man Dies," loosely based on another Hampton resident, Jackson Pollock. Long-time faculty member Roger Rosenblatt remembers his own childhood summers in the Hamptons—and his parents pointing out Williams, the famous playwright in his white linen jacket, to the not-yet-famous future essayist.

It's no wonder, then, that the MFA programs of Stony Brook Southampton are able to attract such renowned authors to teach here. Our seaside campus, located in a resort area only 80 miles from New York City, has hosted intimate writing workshops with Melissa Bank, Susan Cheever, Billy Collins, Jules Feiffer, Neal Gabler, Ursula Hegi, Mary Karr, Matthew Klam, Patricia Marx, Patricia McCormick, Heather McHugh, Daniel Menaker, Téa Obreht, Roger Rosenblatt, Grace Schulman, Terese Svoboda, Frederic Tuten, Lou Ann Walker and Meg Wolitzer. And those are just in the past year. Recent visitors to our reading series and summer conference include Laurie Anderson, Mark Doty, Robin Desser, Major Jackson, Alice Mattison, Marilyn Nelson, James Salter, Dana Spiotta and Deborah Treisman.

With a faculty like this, imagine the students. Indeed, our alumni work and publish in many genres. In 2010, Helen Simonson’s thesis project, a novel, debuted on the New York Times Bestseller list at No. 14. (It’s called Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.) Her story is typical of our students for being so singular: she joined the program after leaving a career in business, taking courses on a part-time basis while raising two children. Writing her novel took nearly five years, but she persisted, as writers do, and, more importantly, stayed true to her own unique, sweetly archaic voice, even though she felt its lack of grittiness doomed her chances of getting published. I’m delighted to report that our program supported her quest for her own artistic satisfaction—so that she could emerge with a manuscript she could be truly proud of. It was her name below the title, after all, not ours. The subsequent bidding war by publishers was pure gravy, vindication of our mission to help writers achieve success as they define it.