Image of René Steinke
René Steinke joins Adelphi University as director of the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing. (Photo credit) Michelle Ocampo

René Steinke joined Adelphi University in January 2024 as the new director of the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing program in the College of Arts and Sciences.

An accomplished author and educator, she is charged with transitioning the program to a low-residency format, with a relaunch scheduled for this August.

The new low-residency MFA at Adelphi targets graduate students who want to devote themselves more fully to their writing, but for various reasons, need to have a flexible academic schedule. Students work closely with faculty in online coursework and intensive writing mentorships offered throughout the program. The five-day in-person residencies in New York City incorporate workshops, lectures, one-to-one conferences, visits with writers and publishers, readings, and lots of inspired conversation.

René Steinke was a founding member of the low-residency MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she served as director from 2012 to 2023. Throughout her career, she has also penned three novels, most recently, Friendswood, an Amazon book of the month, which was also named a “great read” by National Public Radio. Her second novel, Holy Skirts, was a National Book Award finalist. René Steinke is also the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her essays, stories and articles have appeared in The New York Times; Vogue; O, The Oprah Magazine; Salon; The Arkansas International; Literary Review; Bookforum; and in anthologies.

René Steinke is excited to share some insights on her background and plans:

What interested you in this new role at Adelphi?

I was impressed by Adelphi’s robust commitment to the arts and its legacy of alumni who are well-known authors and artists—Alice Hoffman ’73, ’02 (Hon.), Jacqueline Woodson ’16 (Hon.), Justin Vivian Bond ’85, Jonathan Larson ’82 and many others. And it was an exciting proposition to work on relaunching the MFA as a low-residency program with a presence in Manhattan.

Adelphi has a vibrant English department and an incredibly accomplished and innovative creative writing faculty. Katherine Hill, Igor Webb, PhD, Jan-Henry Gray and Maya Marshall are writers I greatly admire, and I feel lucky to be teaching alongside them.

What experiences from academia and the literary world translate well to your new role?

I’m a novelist who has lived in New York City for a long time, and over the years, I’ve been active in many literary projects and organizations. I’m looking forward to introducing MFA students to the richness of the city and its literary life.

One of the accomplishments I’m most proud of in my previous position is that I helped to create a strong writing community with close ties among students, faculty and alumni. The atmosphere of an academic program is hard to quantify, but I’ve seen firsthand how important it is to provide an environment where writers feel supported and empowered to take creative risks.

What changes are in store for the Adelphi MFA program—and why?

There are two big changes: the addition of the five-day residencies in New York City and the low-residency structure, which will make this program a more feasible option for many students.

Some people are ready to go to an MFA program as soon as they graduate from college, but others might not discover their desire to take their writing seriously until later on. One of the things I love most about teaching in a low-residency program is that the students come from a wide variety of experiences, professions and backgrounds. My last writing workshop included a lawyer; a recent college graduate; a translator and computer scientist; a public relations executive who specialized in sports; and a high school English teacher and long-distance runner. All of this makes for rich and surprising conversation about literature and the craft of writing.

Why should students pursue an MFA in Creative Writing at Adelphi?

If you want to devote yourself to writing for an intensive period and focus on deepening your knowledge of craft, perhaps with a goal of completing a first book, those are good reasons to pursue an MFA degree. An MFA also invites you to become part of an artistic community, to be among people who value literature and writing as much as you do, and that’s a great way to find the writing partners and peers you’ll trust with reading your drafts, long into the future. An MFA is considered the terminal degree in the field, and it’s one of the minimum requirements for teaching creative writing at the college level.

In Adelphi’s MFA program, the residencies in New York City will allow us to host some of the most exciting literary authors at work today, and because the city is home to so many publishers and literary nonprofits, we’ll be able to introduce our students to many practical aspects of the writing world.

There’s also a unique openness to genre in the Adelphi program. Students might focus on one kind of writing (fiction, say, or poetry), but we offer much more flexibility than many other MFA programs. So if you’d like to write a book that combines poetry and nonfiction, we’ll tailor your program so that you can do that.

Which authors do you read or admire?

It’s important to me to read widely, to seek out literature that challenges my assumptions or perceptions and somehow broadens my perspective on the world.

I have many favorite contemporary writers, too many to name here, but I especially gravitate to novelists who make me reconsider something I thought I knew before, whose storytelling relies on the adventures of the inner life. And I try to read as much as I can in translation, so that my sense of what’s possible in any form is expanded.

I read a few poems every morning—poets are the inventors in literature, the ones most attuned to the music of language, the ones who continually discover new ways of saying things that otherwise didn’t seem possible to get into language. Although I’m a fiction writer, poetry inspires me to go to my desk each day.

Can you tell us a little about the books you’ve authored?

Each of my novels is very different, but I’ve always been fascinated by female mystics and prophets, women who see too much, or see so far beyond the “ordinary” that their vision threatens people in power. I write about contemporary Cassandras and Joan of Arcs. These characters are intriguing to me because there’s a conflict between what they see and what everyone else sees. Which view of the world is more perceptive? Do the visions serve a purpose only to the person who sees them, or do they reveal something more? I work very hard to imagine these women, with all the texture and idiosyncrasy of their daily lives. In my three previous novels, I’ve written about a young arsonist; a poet, artist and provocateur; and a grieving environmental activist.

My first novel, The Fires (William Morrow), explores the life of a troubled young woman trapped in a provincial town in Indiana. Kirkus Reviews called The Fires a “darkly compelling and beautifully written story,” and Publishers Weekly called it a “sensitive, eerie first novel.”

My second novel, Holy Skirts (William Morrow/HarperCollins), is based on the life of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, a little-known Dada artist and poet, who made her mark in Greenwich Village circa World War I. It was one of five finalists for the 2005 National Book Award and was translated and published in Italy and Spain.

My most recent novel, Friendswood (Riverhead/Penguin Random House), about the aftermath of a devastating toxic spill in a small Texas town, was named one of National Public Radio’s “great reads” and was shortlisted for the St. Francis College Literary Prize for mid-career writers. The novel was widely reviewed in major newspapers and also featured on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition”. I’m currently working with a producer to adapt the novel as a potential TV series.

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