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Program Gives Writers a Professional Polish

Education: Already selective to a rare degree, the classes at UC Irvine will get more so with new novels by graduates.

September 02, 2002|JEFF GOTTLIEB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold has sat atop the bestseller lists for weeks, a rare literary novel that is a hit with the masses.

Glen David Gold received a $700,000 advance for his novel "Carter Beats the Devil," and it was optioned this year by Tom Cruise's production company for $200,000.

Maile Meloy's short-story collection, "Half in Love," was the featured review in the New York Times Book Review, a distinction in itself.

What these authors have in common is that they are recent products of UC Irvine's graduate program in creative writing. Long considered one of the best writing programs in the country, its graduates have had a string of successes that has brought the program to even greater prominence.

UC Irvine's reputation is expected to be enhanced further when Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon, one of the program's best-known graduates, comes out with his children's novel "Summerland" next month. Then, around Christmas, comes the release of the Spike Lee-directed film "The 25th Hour," based on the novel of the same name by UC Irvine writing grad David Benioff, who also wrote the screenplay.

Applications to the class entering this month were up 43%, and that was before the recent flood of successes. "I'm sort of shuddering in my boots about what will happen next year," said Michelle Latiolais, co-director of the program.

Even before the sudden boost, it was nearly impossible to get one of the six slots that open each year in the two-year master's of fine arts program. Last year, 327 people competed for the six openings, meaning only 1.8% were admitted.

Those numbers make it more difficult to get into than Harvard's law or medical school, people close to the program like to say. It is nearly twice as hard to get into UC Irvine's program than the nation's oldest and best-regarded creative-writing program, the Iowa Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa, which annually enrolls 25.

Over the last seven years, only two admitted to UC Irvine's graduate writing course decided to go elsewhere, said novelist Geoffrey Wolff, who heads the program.

"I don't think a credit from there guarantees anything, but certainly if I see the name 'Irvine' on a submission letter, it gets my attention," said New York literary agent Henry Dunow, who represents Sebold and fellow UC Irvine grad Aimee Bender.

Perhaps the best known writer to come out of UC Irvine is Richard Ford, class of 1970, who received a 1996 Pulitzer Prize for his novel "Independence Day," the second half of a saga that started with "The Sportswriter."

But it was Chabon who brought the program national attention. "We owe him," said Oakley Hall, co-director of the program for 21 years. When Hall retired in 1990, Thomas Keneally, the Australian author of "Schindler's List," took over the program.

UC Irvine students write a novel or short-story collection for their master's thesis, and often, these turn into books. The story of Chabon, a 1987 graduate, though, is legendary. He gave his thesis to his professor, who sent it to an agent in New York without telling Chabon. Publisher William Morrow paid Chabon a $155,0000 advance for "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" at a time when first novelists were lucky to receive $7,500. Chabon has gone on to write "Wonder Boys" and won a Pulitzer for "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay."

As word of Chabon's deal spread, applications to the program doubled. "It caused a lot of New York interest for people in our program," Hall said. "A lot of people got published on his shirttails. In their crass way, [publishers and agents] were looking for another Michael."

UC Irvine writers like Louis B. Jones and Jay Gummerman developed strong literary reputations, and other alums' books crowded into bookstores and received promising reviews. Some landed on bestseller lists, such as Whitney Otto's "How to Make an American Quilt" and Aimee Bender's "An Invisible Sign of My Own" and "Girl in the Flammable Skirt."

But in the last year or so, UC Irvine writers began hitting the bestseller lists regularly and gaining attention, starting with Gold's "Carter Beats the Devil." Charmaine Craig's "The Good Men" crept onto the list, and so did "The Color Midnight Made," by Andrew Winer. Phil Hay wrote the screenplays for "crazy/beautiful," which starred Kirsten Dunst, and "The Tuxedo," starring Jackie Chan, scheduled for release this fall.

Along came Benioff, selling his novel to Lee. Much to his surprise, because he hadn't planned on writing for movies, he has sold four screenplays for millions of dollars.

But in terms of combined literary and commercial success, the topper has been Sebold, whose book has been the surprise publishing success of the summer.

However, anyone who becomes a writer to get rich has been reading too much science fiction.

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