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Class of 2017: Graduate student turns life lessons into published work

Michael McClelland
Michael McClelland at the GC Barnes & Noble bookstore

The final story in graduating M.F.A. student Michael McClelland’s debut short-story collection, “Gay Zoo Day”,  gives readers an update of the Charles Dickens’ classic, “Oliver Twist.” 

It was one of the first stories McClelland wrote while beginning the Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at Georgia College and, in many ways, the journey of the “Olive Urchin” story, from conception to publication, is a reflection of McClelland’s own journey as a writer. 

In this version of the story, McClelland depicts the journey of an indentured maidservant in Hong Kong. The story even pays homage to Dickens’ immortal work in it’s title, “Olive Urchin.” It is the longest story in the collection and McClelland’s favorite for many reasons.

Olive tells the story’s narrator, “You must make sure that you hone your talents: your imagination, your storytelling, your kind spirit and listening ear. Someday you may have to depend on them,” which sounds like the kind of advice an adult McClelland might have heeded. 

“It’s funny,” McClelland said, “because I really love teaching here at GC, which I wasn’t expecting. To be in a teaching role has been really great for the soul after ten years of being in a world that is anything but nurturing.”

McClelland lived for a time in Hong Kong, and was fascinated by the country’s stark socioeconomic class system. Like his titular character, he’s gone from working a slew of service jobs, everything from grave digger to marketing strategist, to an artist on the heels of his first book being published by Beautiful Dreamer Press.

“When I turned 30 I decided I was going to switch careers because I’d worked in advertising for about a decade,” McClelland said, “Kerry Neville, who’s now a teacher here, was my undergraduate adviser at Alleghany College in Pennsylvania, and she went to the University of Houston with Allen Gee (a GC professor of English and Creative Writing) so it was a really easy thing for me to vet as a great program.”

McClelland had never published anything before entering the program, “It was a good thing I had written in undergrad, or I would have had nothing to send in with my application.”

McClelland is already enrolled in the University of Georgia’s Ph.D. program for Creative Writing where he hopes to continue publishing as well as teaching, while touring for “Gay Zoo Day” on the weekends. Every story of his debut collection was written during his time at GC, which McClelland credits to the university’s excellent workshops. 

“The M.F.A. program is kind of a hidden treasure,” he said, “I think my vision of myself as a writer has really changed since coming here. I expect a lot more out of myself, having been in this program. It really just gave me this confidence that you don’t have to start out as the next David Foster Wallace or Thomas Pynchon to be a good writer, you just have to be disciplined enough to produce the work. Then let the story come out in revision.”

As for McClelland’s own story, “Gay Zoo Day”, is only the beginning. McClelland’s debut collection will be available at Barnes & Noble at Georgia College in September, and he’ll be back for the Alumni Reading Series next March.

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