HFA Alumni Profile: Rob Roensch '99
Rob Roensch '99, English alum and winner of the International Scott Prize for Short Stories, talks about why he loves writing, his new collection of short stories titled The Wildflowers of Baltimore, and his plans for the future.
Where did you grow up, and what brought you to UMass?
I grew up in Groton, Massachusetts, a small town just south of the New Hampshire border. I transferred to UMass because of its affordability, because of the variety of educational and cultural life offered by UMass and the Five College consortium, and because of the beauty of the Pioneer Valley.
What was your greatest takeaway from your education within HFA?
I think the most important idea I took away from my time at UMass is that learning is not about memorizing material for a test, but a process of exploration and conversation—moving through seminars and independent studies at UMass taught me not just subject matter but also how to learn and think. I was also lucky enough to be able to write movie reviews for the Daily Collegian. The experience of having to write a review or article every week, and trying to make the review or article interesting and clear (and on time), was invaluable.
Which faculty made the greatest impression on you during your time at UMass?
I took lots of great literature and writing classes in my time at UMass. My first writing class, with Karen Skolfield—who was then in the MFA program there—really stands out. I also remember vividly a seminar on Faulkner and Erdrich that I took with Prof. Margo Culley—the conversations around that seminar table really convinced me how rewarding it is to think hard about great stories, how connected great stories are to our lives.
You are publishing a collection of short stories titled The Wildflowers of Baltimore – what inspired the collection?
I’ve always written short stories, but I often only understand the source of a story after the story is written. The stories in this collection The Wildflowers of Baltimore are about young men searching for meaning and understanding. The city of Baltimore is also important in the book. I moved to Baltimore with my wife in 2003; many of the stories are about a small-town person trying to find a place in a big city.
What other projects you are working on currently?
I’m working on a novel, set in small-town Massachusetts, about the aftermath of the Catholic Church abuse crisis. Writing novels is very different from writing stories—it’s sort of like having a new person move into your house.
Tell us about winning the International Scott Prize for Short Stories.
I knew Salt Publishing by their reputation for publishing a wide variety of interesting poetry and literary fiction (one of their novels, The Lighthouse by Allison Moore, was just shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize). When I entered the contest for the International Scott Prize, I knew how long the odds were; the day I found out I won was one of the best of my life.
Do you have any advice for HFA students who are aspiring writers?
It’s difficult to give advice about writing because writers are all different, and writing itself is so difficult. All I can say is, read a lot and write a lot. Don’t give up.
What is your favorite thing about writing? What is the most challenging?
The most challenging part of writing is the blank page, always having to start from nothing. That never gets any easier. My favorite part is the moment—rare—when a story takes on a life of its own, when the characters somehow become not words on a page but people with their own language, desires, energy.
Are there any favorite writers or books that you feel have influenced or inspired your work?
If I had to choose only one writer as most important to me, I’d have to choose Virginia Woolf. I actually first read her fiction (her novel The Waves) in a class at UMass about time and memory in literature. I love Virginia Woolf because of the intensity of her attention, the fluid motion of her prose, and her magical ability to use language to make an imaginary world real.
Where would you like your career to go from here, and what do you plan to do to get there?
I’m currently teaching composition and creative writing at Towson University just outside of Baltimore. I’m trying to improve my teaching every semester, while also trying to squeeze in as much writing time as I can.