MFA alumnus and mentor Bryan Bliss tackles loss and redemption in award-winning young adult novels
Bryan Bliss is the author of three young adult novels. His most recent novel, We’ll Fly Away, was longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award. Bliss is also a young adult fiction mentor for Seattle Pacific’s MFA in Creative Writing program and a graduate of the program.
We had the chance to catch up with Bliss and hear about his book, faith, inspiration, and what motivates him to write.
What was the inspiration behind We’ll Fly Away?
As a newspaper reporter, I was a press witness to an execution. It had a profound effect on me and made me want to do something different, where I didn’t have to withhold my opinions and beliefs — I could have an influence on the injustices I encountered. That’s ultimately what led me to fiction, because I could write about topics important to me and use fiction as a vehicle to hopefully open up readers’ minds and hearts to different ideas they hadn’t considered yet.
In your experience, how does fiction accomplish that?
Fiction gives us a chance to see people up close, find out more of who they are, and, what I’m most interested in, who they can still become. You have the opportunity to present your readers with a story and characters they care about.
In We’ll Fly Away, one of the characters is writing letters from death row. A lot of times when we see people on death row, we only hear about the terrible thing they did. What makes We’ll Fly Away important, or at least interesting, is that readers get to journey with the character leading up to the worst thing he’s ever done. They have the ability to see beyond what his crime is.
This book isn’t as much about the death penalty as it is about loyalty, friendship, and, most importantly, redemption. Even people who’ve done the worst things still have value.
Your books tackle some serious topics, from doubt and the death penalty to PTSD and family conflict. Is young adult fiction the right genre for exploring these topics?
Teenagers are more willing and open to have their hearts and minds changed, more so than adults. Fiction can be an opportunity for teenagers to test out opinions about theology, philosophy, whatever it is, asking, “What would it look like if I lived in this situation?” It gives them an opportunity to encounter those ideas in a safe way. My hope for a book like this is that it will plant something inside them, so when they see a similar situation in the real world, they’ll say, “Oh yeah, I remember this” and be unable to look away from those places of injustice and brokenness in the world.
You have a background in theology and ministry. How does your faith influence your writing?
My faith 100% influences my work. I never wanted to write “Christian fiction.” I think that can limit your topic and alienate many readers who might otherwise enjoy the story. Instead, I want to be a Christian who writes fiction. Fiction is an incredible way to explore themes and topics that are inherently theological. It doesn’t have to have an “altar call” moment. Creating art is a way for Christians to mirror the beauty, grace, and love they have received and put it out into the world. For example, Romans 8:38 says, “Nothing will ever separate us from the love of God.” The idea that we are never beyond redemption is the main theme of We’ll Fly Away.
I did not want to go to a Christian MFA program for those reasons. But SPU’s MFA program was different.
How was Seattle Pacific’s MFA program different?
In the MFA program, not only did I learn what it means to be a person of faith who writes and creates art, I also became a much better writer. Two experiences influenced me most: I worked with mentors — talented writers who cared about my writing which was a life-changing experience for me. And maybe even more important are the others students in the program. We formed a creative community of writers with shared goals and shared intentions that still affects my life today, years later. The program brought together a group of people who are trying to scratch at the mysteries of life, through poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. It’s a rare experience. I don’t think it’s part of many other MFA programs, if any.
“In the MFA program, not only did I learn what it means to be a person of faith who writes and creates art, I also became a much better writer.”
What is the benefit of writing in an MFA program versus just writing on your own?
The program challenged me to read and write outside of my comfort zone. You’re pushed to create stuff that maybe you wouldn’t create if you weren’t in the program. A lot of the MFA programs have a huge emphasis on publishing, but SPU’s is really about becoming a better writer. The focus is on the craft.
Having the opportunity to get feedback and critique from people who care about you is also very important. MFA programs can be notoriously harsh, but at SPU, people were truthful but kind. That kindness builds trust. You can bring something to a workshop that doesn’t fit within the boundaries of Christian literature, and they will critique it from a place of knowing who you are and where you come from. When you get that kind of experience, it makes you unafraid to explore and go out on a limb and see where a story takes you.