How boarding schools and low-residency MFAs shaped Alexander Tilney’s ‘The Expectations

Alexander Tilney always knew he wanted to be a writer, but after finishing college, he wasn’t sure how to make it work. After finding an MFA program that worked for him, he found himself writing the type of novel he never thought he’d write. Nine years later and his coming-of-age at a boarding school novel, The Expectations, is finally out in the world.

His debut balances the classic story of an outsider trying to fit into an elite school with an insider realizing maybe this life isn’t the one he expected it would be. Throughout the story, Tilney uses the American privilege at a boarding school as a lens to view what role race and socioeconomic class play while trying to figure out who you are.

I spoke to the author about his low-residency MFA, how his guilty pleasure turned into his first novel, and why boarding schools are such a popular setting for literary fiction.

What’s your background with writing?

Depending on how far back you want me to go, I have been compulsively writing stories since second grade. All through high school and college, I wanted to be a writer. It’s hard to figure out how to do it for a living and pay for rent. [After college] I got a few jobs writing for business and government correspondence and speechwriting. At a certain point, gave that up. I realize in retrospect that the giving up [writing fiction] was important because I realized I could not survive. So I came back to it with renewed energy.

I went to grad school at Warren Wilson College, which was a low-residency program. That was perfect for me because it was on more of an apprenticeship model where I was matched up with an instructor and corresponded with them. The workshop stuff was limited to the 10 days I went to the campus every six months. It really helped with developing my skills.

During that time, I would wake up and write for a few hours, go to my job, and then spent nine years doing that. I doubted that this book would be anything at all.

What was the low-residency like for you?

Warren Wilson was one of the very early low-residency programs. Bennington and this one kind of started the movement. It was perfect for me from a logistical point of view. I had seen a few of my friends go do very terrific MFAs but the transition out of them was extremely difficult to navigate. They were in this very absorbing and heavy almost monastic environment. Then they had to go through a major shift into the real world where they had to find a job and a place to live. It threw a lot of my friends. 

Because I was living in New York, had a job, and didn’t completely remove myself from that life, it was an easier transition back.

Most people in grad school go from a general American public that mostly doesn’t give a shit about fiction or poetry. Then they’re with a tribe of people in this extraordinarily intense, and very pleasurable experience with other people who adore fiction writing and poetry. The low residency [allowed me to stay in that world] and rocket me with a lot of energy.

I think those traditional MFAs are great for a lot of people. I had seen some of my friends had a hard time with the politics and insularity. You would have a lot of people offering great comments on a piece, but a lot of those comments might also be about finding ways to curry favor with the workshop leader.

Because my workshops were limited to intense 10 day periods, we left right as some of those dynamics would start developing.

What was your relationship like with other classmates throughout the year?

There was a fair amount of back and forth. We were all in the trenches and feeling isolated. It was great to have. I would say I came out of grad school with two or three very intense relationships as opposed to someone who went to a residential program who may come out with more ties that are medium-strong across a wider group. There are two or three people who are vital to my writing.

Those nine years you mentioned it took to write the novel, were they during or after the MFA?

In grad school, because you have limited time and attention from the devoted faculty, short stories are much more useful. I wrote stories after and submitted to magazines where it would take months to hear back. Eventually, a friend of mine asked me what the difference was between me and someone who was ready to write a novel. I threw up my hands and threw myself into writing a novel.

When you finally sat down to write the novel, where did this idea come from?

In a certain way, the last thing I wanted to do was write a prep school novel. Many beautiful, excellent ones have been written. I had been assigned many of them in school and the whole genre felt assigned for a summer reading list a little. A lot of them had to do with a fair amount of the “Dead Poets Society version.”

I thought I would write something more sophisticated or cool in some way. This started as a guilty pleasure, but eventually I realized this is where the juice was… Eventually, I didn’t have a choice.

What were those “cool” stories you were trying to write at the time?

I was obsessed with Denis Johnson, Lydia Davis, Toni Morrison, and people who were not writing about the cloistered ivory tower thing. Not to mention their formal innovations were very challenging and cool. When I read them, I thought wow. It was just what I wished I could do and tell stories like that.

I had to try and emulate those writers and fail over and over again until I just had to listen to what was arriving in my lap.

What arrived in your lap first here? The characters, the setting, the plot?

When I think about the strangeness, which I became accustomed to because I lived through it, but the experiences were extremely bizarre. The particular things that happened with the administration, the slang that was so alive there, and the amount of unsupervised time and the bizarreness that came out of it. Those were the things I was excited by and pulled along by. Trying to figure out which direction the fictive work would go came later.

I was almost writing to live again in that imagined landscape. Almost to keep hallucinating that same dream over and over. What was going to happen in that dream and who was going to assert themselves in that dream had to come later.

When did the novel actually become the novel then?

I wrote so many versions of this book. I wrote an entire book that was about the students. The character Ahmed from the United Emeritus came forward. I hit a dead end with that. Then I realized how interesting the lives of the faculty at these schools are. They have these lives where they want to be dating or having a career, but can get stalled in these places in the woods. I wrote an entire book about the adults at the school. I had to abandon that one. I wrote a book that went back and forth between those two worlds. Then, finally, I came to the way it came now. It’s about the students, but also about the wider predicament of the faculty and administrations of the school.

Earlier you said you didn’t plan on writing a coming-of-age story in a boarding school novel because you had read so many of them. What do you hope people come away with from your book?

For a certain stretch of time, I had to pretend I was the only person who was writing this kind of book. I had to go into the tunnel and hallucinate that dream to take notes of it. When I came out of it, I think it’s a little bit difficult to sum up what those great books are trying to do, but I wanted to focus on the intense experience of these kids… I was interested in how these schools exist in the wider world.

A lot of these books are about the insider trying to fit in. I’m so electrified by that story, but I am also interested in how a character like Ben, who couldn’t be more of an insider, only begins to see the confines of the school as he gets pushed out of it. It should be that he has the world by the tail by a lot of ways, but he’s still caught up in always wanting more and being uneasy about the position he’s in. Even though his family doesn’t have the money to pay his tuition, if they did he would still have a craving or hunger that things will be okay over the horizon. He’s supposed to belong at this school as opposed to being someone who is trying to assimilate to the school. That’s the dynamic I hadn’t seen a lot and was wanting to explore.

Ahmed is the one who is very much trying to assimilate and his story is very much about what about his origin is he willing to trade away to become whatever he thinks the school will allow him to become. I needed to balance that with the person who seems to have all of the money and power in the world, but there is a gnawing sense of incompletion.

Follow Alexander Tilney on Twitter and visit him on his website.

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