By Justin Crawford
Those who are fortunate to know Steve Oberlechner would agree that he is kind, generous, and a genuinely good person to know and be around. Those unlucky ones who never knew Steve, those poor souls, wouldn’t know that he is from McClellandtown, Pennsylvania, that he graduated from Duquesne University in 2000 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and an Education minor, and that he completed his Master of Fine Arts in Fiction at West Virginia University in 2003. Steve continued his stay at WVU as an adjunct before accepting a tenure-track position at Potomac State College of West Virginia University in Keyser, WV, where he currently works. Those untouched minds wouldn’t be privy to the knowledge that Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen is one of Steve’s all-time favorite musicians, that he spent two months hiking the Appalachian trail where he lost thirty pounds and most of his fear of spiders, and that the Pirates are a team that one must love regardless of ill or fair weather.
Steve’s fiction and essays have shown up in numerous literary magazines. His essay “No Small Thing” was published in The Gettysburg Review, and the essay “Running the Line” was showcased in Prairie Schooner. Two flash fiction pieces, “The Deal” and “Signals” were in The Cortland Review, and the short story “Armwrestling the Slipstream” appeared in Connotation Press.
I first met Steve in 2006 when I took one of his classes, English 212 Introduction to Fiction, when I was an undergrad. When I joined WVU as an English major, I had no idea that I was going to go into the MFA program for writing, but after having MFA Graduate Teaching Assistants for both English 101 and 102, I was quite drawn to the prospect of creative writing. Steve guided me along my path. As a teacher, he enlightened students through reading choice, analysis, and articulate passion for the craft, and to say that he made me a better writer and person would be an understatement. I owe him a great deal of gratitude for his support and kindness.
I had a chance to reconnect with Steve recently to conduct this interview.
1. I took one of your writing courses when you were an adjunct at WVU. One thing that I will always remember is not just your passion for writing but your passion for teaching the craft. Was that your calling from the beginning, or were there other career goals and professions you tried your hand at first?
Thanks for the kind words about your memory of the class. I grew up in the country with few neighbors, so reading was an enjoyable way to fill time. I read a lot of genre fiction, mostly horror, when I was younger. High school English courses exposed me to better, literary fiction, and I began trying to pay more attention to style, character development, and plot. Based on my love for English classes as a high school student (and my lack of real talent in math and science courses), I worked for a couple years toward my education degree at Duquesne University with the goal to teach English at the secondary level. Ultimately, I found the English courses at Duquesne to be more challenging and enjoyable than the education courses and switched my major to English by the start of my junior year. My intent was to keep studying literature at the graduate level and teach college level English courses. When the MFA program began during my stint as an MA student, I was happy to make the switch. I always felt more skilled at considering how the stories were crafted and took pleasure in writing my own. Despite having a desire to teach the craft since I switched into the MFA program, developing the confidence in my ability to teach creative writing took additional time. Some small successes with publishing and continued observation of the faculty here whom I admire helped instill the proper mindset and formula for doing it effectively.
2. Now that you’ve had time and space to reflect about your stay at WVU, what are things that you still remember, things you still miss? Reminisce about this for a moment, if you don’t mind.
Living in Morgantown and working on my MFA is probably the happiest stretch of years I can remember. I lived just forty minutes south of my family, I gained experience teaching composition at a pace that didn’t pose a major distraction from my graduate course work, and I found value in every workshop that I took. It was a privilege to have my work receive attention from some of the faculty even post-graduation as I continued to live and work in Morgantown as an adjunct instructor. In moving from Pittsburgh to Morgantown, I was pleased with the amount of culture the town provided. Public readings and live music were within walking distance in the evenings, and I was fond of the Metropolitan pool hall and McClafferty’s. Friendships formed with students and faculty in the program remain strong, and I doubt the level of intensity, consistency, and care of the writers group I took part in while living in Morgantown can be recreated elsewhere.
3. In this competitive field, any window of opportunity is wonderful, yet picking up your life and moving can be rather difficult. Describe the move from WVU to Potomac State. Was this an easy transition?
Given that I only moved an hour and a half east of Morgantown, I don’t expect the transition could have been much easier. My closeness to my family set limits on my willingness to take any job at any location, so I essentially worked part-time after I graduated looking for something full-time to open within a couple hour radius of home. From Keyser, I can still visit my parents, my sister, and my niece and nephew almost as easily as I could from Morgantown, and while the number of courses I’m expected to teach has risen in the move from part-time to full-time instructor, the courses themselves required little adjustmentthe same mix of English 101, 102, and creative writing courses I had either taught in Morgantown or had been conditioned to teach.
4. For the grad students finishing up their MFAs, what advice do you have in working the job market as a writer?
My desire to remain within close proximity of my family placed such limitations on the scope of my personal search for full-time employment in teaching that I doubt I’m the best person to give advice to those beginning to test the market fully. Having served on two hiring committees since I’ve moved to Potomac State, though, I can emphasize the importance of a strong cover letter. I witnessed these letters read carefully by other committee members, and the best results stemmed from letters designed to state one’s interest in teaching the courses offered at the particular school in question along with a brief teaching philosophy or description of how the applicant finds success in reaching the students. Research into the school to which one is applying also shows respect and a desire to have that particular job, making one appear likely to be a comfortable fit in the new environment. I’m always happy to help when I can, so if there are particular questions, any student nearing completion of the MFA is welcome to contact me through MIX or Groupwise. If it’s a question I can answer, I won’t keep any secrets.
5. So what happens now? What is in the works for you at the moment?
Aside from gearing up for the fall semestera semester that has me teaching nineteen credit hours of coursesI’m continuing to work on writing literary nonfiction, with one new essay nearing completion and two ideas in the early, planning stages. Ideally, these new essays will fit comfortably with the two I’ve published recently and help form the beginning of a collection of linked essays that will chronicle most of my early years in southwest Pennsylvania. I’d also like to get something written eventually about the two months I spent living out of a backpack on the Appalachian Trail. I haven’t given up on fiction writing, but nonfiction seems to be where the momentum lies at the moment, so personal essays have been receiving what attention I can give to my personal work around teaching.