Alumni Spotlight: Debra Ratner '80

September 09, 2014

The Alumni Spotlight is a place to hear from the School of the Arts alumni community about their journeys as artists and creators.

Debra Ratner '80 attended Kenyon College in Ohio, where she was awarded the Philip B. Timberlake Award for consistent excellence in writing literary essays. She received an MA in English from Washington University, where she studied fiction writing in a tutorial with Stanley Elkin. In the MFA program at Columbia, Debra studied fiction writing in workshops with Grace Paley, Carlos Fuentes, and Joseph McElroy. She taught English at the Nightingale-Bamford School in New York and Rutgers Preparatory School in New Jersey. The Yale Review, the Southern ReviewRedbookHotel Amerika, and the anthologies Writers Introduce Writers and The Best of Intro have published Debra's short fiction. She was awarded a Transatlantic Review prize for fiction writing. In California, The Marin Arts Council awarded her their Chief Individual Grant for Fiction in 1990. She was a finalist for the 2013 Dana Award in short fiction. Currently she lives in Berkeley and teaches literature classes for adults.

Was there a specific faculty member or peer who especially inspired you while at the School of the Arts? If so, who and how?

Joseph McElroy was a brilliant and inspiring teacher of fiction writing. His written comments on my stories were penetrating. His intellect was remarkable and made me want to write more subtly and bravely. I'd like to add that Carlos Fuentes also had an extraordinary intellectual force as a teacher of literature and fiction writing; as well, he was as welcoming of students' efforts as it is possible to be.

How did attending the School of the Arts impact your work and career as an artist?

Through attending the graduate creative writing program, I went from being a writer in love with language and the evocation of mood and feeling to one who could also create substantive plots. From the faculty I received a great deal of support and encouragement to try to publish my stories. I have published a number of them, and I continue to write fiction with seriousness and passion. I have just finished writing a novel as well as a series of short stories.

If you could revisit any piece you created during your time at the School of the Arts, which would it be? Why?

I have in fact revisited several short stories I worked on at Columbia. Most memorably for me I revisited a story that was presumably narrated by a child. As Maureen Howard pointed out in her comments on my thesis, the narrator's language wasn't convincingly childlike.

What was your favorite or most memorable class while at the School of the Arts?

It's a tie between fiction writing classes with Joseph McElroy and literature courses taught by Carlos Fuentes. I deeply appreciated other courses as well; I hope I'll have a chance to mention them later.

Read more from the Alumni Spotlight series