ASU alumna finds success as an author after graduating from MFA program
Author and Arizona State University alumna Adrienne Celt was once dubbed a liberal arts success story by her literary agent.
“And it's true,” Celt said.
Celt said she can draw a direct line from a Vladimir Nabokov seminar she took while an undergrad at Grinnell College in Iowa to her latest novel, “Invitation to a Bonfire,” which debuts this summer.
After receiving her Bachelor of Arts in philosophy and Russian language, she went to work in advertising for Google, but eventually found her way back to her love of words.
“I was too burned out on school at the end of my undergraduate experience to go straight into graduate school,” Celt said. “By the time I was ready to go back, the little voice in my head that said, ‘make stories, make stories,’ had gotten really loud.”
After weighing her options between different graduate programs, Celt decided Arizona State University was the just the right place for her and graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in 2012 from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
“The MFA program and Piper Center for Creative Writing are really wonderful, nurturing places,” she said. “I began taking myself more seriously as a writer at ASU, and learned that I can make choices in my work instead of letting it all just happen to me.”
While immersing herself into the MFA program, Celt explored herself as a writer and learned what it meant, for her, to be successful in the world of literature.
“There's a mythos around writing and artistic work that suggests that all you need is inspiration and talent — as if the rest will just happen. But I rarely see ‘having good ideas’ as the problem artists run into,” Celt said
“The trick is to pick [a project] that's meaningful for you, and continue to work on it until it's done. And then look at the spectrum of your work across years and think: is this what I want to say to the world? Is this stretching me as a thinker, as a human? If not, maybe you need to think harder. Setting work that's not quite right aside can be as difficult as completing something perfect,” she said.
Since graduating, Celt has gone on to become a successful author. Her debut novel, “The Daughters,” which she began writing at ASU as part of her MFA thesis, was published in 2015 and won the 2015 PEN Southwest Book Award for Fiction; she also won a 2016 O. Henry Prize for her short story, “Temples.” These days, she draws comics for several media platforms and continues to work for Google as a contractor, allowing her to work creatively from home.
“I honestly can't imagine not having a larger purpose or project animating my days,” Celt said. “I feel extremely lucky to be part of the vibrant, funny, intelligent, sarcastic, ambitious world of literature.”
Celt’s literary pursuits have continued, and she is set to publish her newest novel this June.
“‘Invitation to a Bonfire’ is a literary thriller which twists through a seductive love triangle and a murder mystery, all while looking at questions of identity and national allegiance,” Celt said.
“The book is set mainly in the late 1920s, early 1930s, but goes back as far as the Russian Revolution. The main action takes place at a girl's prep school in New Jersey, where the protagonist, Zoya, has been placed as a refugee from the Soviet Union,” Celt said. “She has a hard time of it until she meets Leo Orlov, a Russian writer whose work she has been reading for years, and starts an affair with him — though that affair brings a whole new set of problems, mainly in the form of Leo's mysterious and manipulative wife Vera.”
Celt said the inspiration for her new novel is difficult to pinpoint, but part of it was loosely influenced by the history of Vladimir and Véra Nabokov, which she learned about while studying abroad in Russia during her undergraduate studies.
“Where do ideas come from? Everywhere? Your whole life? I began writing 'Invitation to a Bonfire' while I was working on a different project that was, for various reasons, frustrating me, and I fell headlong into this novel as a huge and beautiful relief,” Celt said. “I didn't tell anyone about it until after I had finished a full draft, so it was just my secret, which made it extra enjoyable.”
Although Celt has found success as a writer, she does note that life as an author isn’t always as easy as it seems.
“I think everyone meets with obstacles, writers especially. There's a lot of rejection, not a lot of money, a lot of uncertainty,” Celt said. “You just have to keep going, and try to be so in love with your work that you can tune out the rest of the world. When I'm stressed out about publishing, I remind myself that I'm not happiest when I succeed in public: I'm happiest when, in private, all alone, my writing is thrilling me.”
Devoted to her work, Celt continues to work on multiple projects and doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.
"I'm pretty ambitious, and have a strong inner motor,” Celt said. “Mainly this comes from my own deep love of literature, and my desire to continue diving into it — both as a reader and a writer — for as long as I can. There's nothing like the feeling of stepping inside a new story and walking around.”
“Invitation to a Bonfire” will be out June 5 and is available for pre-order at Barnes and Noble, Indiebound, Powell’s, Bloomsbury, and Amazon. Visit Celt's website for more information about the author and her work.