By Adam Doster, Staff Writer, Loyola University Chicago

Amanda Marbais (photo courtesy of Loyola University Chicago)

Amanda Marbais (photo courtesy of Loyola University Chicago)

Amanda Marbais didn’t shed any tears when Michael Czyzniejewski, an editor at Moon City Press, called her with the news that she’d won the 2018 Moon City Short Fiction Award, which came with a $1,000 cash prize and the publication of her first collection of short stories. “But everyone cries when they get their first book contract,” Czyzniejewski claimed.

Not Marbais. A contributor to a number of prestigious journals, she’d been a finalist for literary awards eleven times prior. So close, over and over again. When Moon City finally offered her a deal, she was too shocked to react with the requisite level of joy.

Then, later that night, Marbais was at home bathing her young son, kid’s music droning in the background. “That’s when I broke down,” she says. “Ashamedly!”

Claiming a Body: Stories was published last April. There are eleven in the volume, mostly situated in what Marbais, a senior lecturer in Loyola University Chicago’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies (SCPS), calls the “decaying landscape” of the Midwest.

Marbais’ work is blunt and textural, often centering on empathetic female protagonists who make imperfect choices in an effort to reinvent themselves. A woman and her boyfriend go camping with the woman’s young son, who stumbles across a body in the woods. Another tends to her horrible boss while thinking about adoption. Two friends embark on a cross-country road trip after one experiences a busted marriage.

Cover image of Claiming a Body: Stories (photo courtesy of Loyola University Chicago)

Cover image of Claiming a Body: Stories (photo courtesy of Loyola University Chicago)

Novelist Denis Johnson was a major influence on Marbais; his portraits of people living on the fringe are, she explains, “stripped down and bare-bones, but still very precise and emotionally evocative.”

Readers can pull from Marbais’ work a greater understanding of how people communicate and develop relationships with those around them, especially in times of distress. As a New York Times Book Review put it, Marbais creates characters whose “friendships [are] laboratories in which to experiment with appetite and numbness.”

“[Marbais] has this ability to see the pure absurdity in any situation,” says Czyzniejewski of Moon City, “which makes me think she understands the world as well as anyone, truly and extensively.”

Though she wrote for herself as a teenager, it took a while before Marbais developed her authorial voice. In college, she studied psychology with ambitions of becoming a therapist. She graduated during the booming 1990s though, and detoured into finance instead, working for an insurance company and obtaining her Series 7 license. It wasn’t until Marbais married her first husband—an English professor—that she thought more intentionally about literature, and what she could express through it.

She dropped the broker job and enrolled, at age 30, in a Master of Fine Arts program at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her instructors there gave Marbais enough latitude to experiment without being prescriptive. “I was a late bloomer,” she says. “But as an art form, writing is very forgiving about this. You need something to write about before you can write.”

Many of Marbais’ students in SCPS, where she’s taught since 2008, are also coming to creative writing later in life. SCPS is a home to adult learners and working professionals, a place where they too can explore a new passion later in life or finally work toward earning the degree they’ve long sought. They might be looking to advance their current careers or, like Marbais, to change course.

In her classes, Marbais builds diverse and provocative reading lists, and is constantly impressed with the “creative approaches” her students take toward intellectual work. They, like her, have plenty of lived experiences to excavate.

So what comes next for Marbais? She’s working on a novel that’s “too nascent to discuss,” along with a set of linked short stories. (Both will include “some emotional components related to our current political and social state.”) She’ll continue pounding away at her keyboard in the mornings, sometimes as early as 4:30 AM, before her toddler wakes up.

Staring at a blank screen, at that hour or any other, can feel paralyzing. But you endure it, Marbais says, “because writing is the thing you do. And if you don’t do it, it’s more painful.”