Features Editor Janet Moore talks with Great Smokies Writing Program Coordinator Jennifer McGaha about building on firm foundations.
Jennifer McGaha is a Lecturer of English at UNC Asheville who has taught many courses with GSWP over the years. She is the author of two memoirs, Flat Broke with Two Goats (Sourcebooks, 2018); and Bushwhacking: How to Get Lost in the Woods and Write Your Way Out (Trinity University Press, 2023), linking the author’s experiences in the wilderness to insights about the creative process. Her writing has also appeared in The Bitter Southerner, Brevity, CHEAP POP, The Huffington Post, Lumina, PANK, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Passengers, HerStry, and Baltimore Fishbowl, among others. She contributed a Craft Session essay to a previous issue of this publication: “Fallibility as Art: The Deeply Flawed Narrator in Memoir.”
Janet Moore: The Great Smokies Writing Program has thrived since its launching in 2000. How do you account for its success?
Jennifer McGaha: I have to credit our wonderful faculty and students. Together they form the community that is the program’s foundation. I say this as someone who started out as a student, gained the confidence to get an MFA, and became a Great Smokies instructor. UNC Asheville values this program. Its worth shows in the faculty we are able to attract and the number of students who enroll in our classes.
Moore: As the program’s new leader, what are your plans for it?
McGaha: We want to keep the strong foundation Tommy Hays created when he started the program and look for opportunities to build on that. That’s my starting point. One of my goals is to increase the diversity of both our faculty and our students, including those of different ages and life experiences. It’s no secret that our typical format—off-campus, in-person evening classes—has lent itself well to retirees. I would like to expand our class offerings to make the Great Smokies even more accessible to those who are still working.
Moore: I’m guessing you already have some ideas.
McGaha: I do. Take what happened on a Saturday in February when the Great Smokies held a not-for-credit workshop with Lauren Harr, co-founder of Gold Leaf Literary Services. Titled Submit Your Work! A Mini-Class and Community Event, the fee was a minimal twenty dollars. Attendance was excellent, and while we had a couple of Great Smokies veterans there, most of the participants had never taken a class with us. Events like this help extend our reach to a wider community.
Moore: Speaking of expanded reach, what about Zoom? It helped us get through the pandemic, and there are still a few Great Smokies classes being offered this way. Do you see it as an ongoing option?
McGaha: We are all too familiar with the benefits and drawbacks of Zoom. Yes, it increases our accessibility, but it is still a poor substitute for in-person classes. That’s where the community-building takes place. Also, because Great Smokies is affiliated with UNCA, tuition for regular semester classes is based on students' residency. This is true even for Zoom classes. Therefore, we don't draw many (if any) out-of-state students. So, I would have to say that one of my goals is returning the program to in-person classes, where students can begin to feel part of a larger writing community once again.
Moore: In addition to continuing your work as a lecturer in the English Department, you are now at the helm of the GSWP. Will you still have time to teach Great Smokies classes?
McGaha: I will be teaching a fifteen-week nonfiction class in the fall, in large part because I have such capable administrative support from Lilly Danzis. They know so much about the program and are a tremendous asset to the program. Generally, I handle course planning, faculty recruitment, and our Writers at Home events at Malaprop’s Bookstore. However, Lilly and I work closely together on many different aspects of the program. We’re a good team.
Moore: Can you give us a hint about what’s next for Great Smokies?
McGaha: Summer! We have six five-week classes for fiction writers, poets, and memoirists. Registration opened April 17, and at the time of this conversation there were still a few slots available. [greatsmokies.unca.edu/apply]
Moore: Given all of these responsibilities, your chickens and goats and wilderness adventures, are you still finding time for your own writing?
McGaha: We all benefit from having a writing goal. Mine is to compose fifty-five lyric essays in 2023. Unlike my first book, which focused on the past, and my second book, which was part writing memoir and part nature memoir, this collection focuses on the present. Why fifty-five essays? To emphasize the present. Fifty-five is my age during this year of my writing life.