Most students have to worry about finishing 20- or 30-page research papers or equally long essays in their final semester of college. Emily Mesev ’15 will hand in a 300-page novel.
Originally from Northern Ireland, Mesev considered attending a university in the United Kingdom but decided Grinnell would better accommodate her disparate interests in science and literature. She hadn’t thought of combining her interests until the idea she is fleshing out in her novel came to her.
The novel started as a short story in professor Dean Bakopoulos’ fiction seminar. Bakopoulos, a National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim Fellow, is the Department of English’s writer-in-residence. He has published two acclaimed novels and has a third, Summerlong, which has already received advance praise from Booklist and Publisher’s Weekly, coming from Ecco Books in June.
He asked the students to write three different one-page openings to short stories. Mesev had been taking a plant physiology course at the time and wrote one opening about a photosynthetic human from the future and the scientist studying it.
Mesev and two other students completed a novella-writing Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) with Bakopoulos in the fall. At the end of the semester, Mesev realized she could take the story she wrote and the world she had created — an institute for the study of post-historic organisms from thousands of years in the future — further. Bakopoulos agreed. “I took the novella and pulled it apart, adding more detail and making a larger story,” says Mesev.
During the first half of the spring semester, Mesev completed the 78,000-word draft. “I’ve been spending a lot of time working on structure because this size of manuscript is new to me,” she says. Bakopoulos has been encouraging her to give the story more urgency. “That’s one thing I struggle with in my short stories too,” Mesev says.
Mesev has had ample opportunities to learn from Bakopoulos over the last few years. She has taken two fiction-writing courses and a creative nonfiction-writing course in addition to the novella MAP and her current novel-writing MAP with him.
Bakopoulos generally takes on three or four MAP students a year, offering promising students a chance to deeply immerse themselves in a project that goes far beyond traditional creative writing coursework. “It’s a chance for students to experience the obsessive kind of discipline and focused creativity that goes into the work for any published author,” he says.
“I feel lucky to have this opportunity. It’s a really great experience,” she says. “It’s impressive that he can make time to work on this with me.” They have been meeting once a week this semester. “He can give me a critique and send me off to generate 100-150 pages during spring break,” she says. “That helps me as well, so I have to discipline myself on top of getting feedback from him. That’s one of the most valuable things I’m getting from the MAP.”
Mesev draws from her experiences researching lung cancer at the University of Minnesota and blood cancer at the Mayo Clinic. “A lot of what I know about biomedical research comes from there,” Mesev says. She also credits Grinnell with giving her the background knowledge to invent the creatures in her novel and ground them in real science.
Mesev plans to pursue biomedical research immediately after graduating. After that, graduate school in the same field. As for her novel, “I want to polish up the first 50 pages and submit them to an MFA writing program.” She does hope that with further revision and rewriting she can “turn this manuscript into an actual novel.”
Emily Mesev ’15 is a biological chemistry/English major from Coleraine, Northern Ireland.