“Writing takes a long time,” says Danika Isdahl ’14 of Louisville. “I didn’t fully understand what I was getting myself into when I started the project.”
She has spent her senior year completing a book-length manuscript of gothic short stories set in her hometown. She likens the task to working six different jobs.
“As soon as I’m done with one shift, I have to immediately go to another,” she says. “I’m juggling six stories in all different stages of draft, and pushing myself from story to story, draft to draft.”
Isdahl is developing her stories as one of seven John C. Young Scholars at Centre. Now in its 25th year, the program provides funding and two terms of course credit for independent research and study. Young Scholars present their work and results at a formal symposium in April. The name honors Centre’s fourth president, who helped establish Centre as a leading institution of higher education.
“I wanted to get the JCY because it would give me the time and funds to do this project,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to push myself into a writing project that needs a bigger commitment. I saw my chance, and I took it.”
The gothic genre—with its desolate settings and mysterious, even macabre incidents—especially appeals to her.
“As an English major, I have to read a lot of older books that I don’t necessarily enjoy,” she admits. “When I came across gothic fiction, it was the oldest pleasurable fiction that I had ever read, while equally being thought provoking.”
Isdahl acknowledges the impact on her writing of a class she took during the semester she spent at the University of Reading, outside London. James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which she read for a class on the 19th-century novel, “directly influenced” one of her own stories, she says.
Setting her collection in Louisville has led her to realize some unexpected truths about the Derby City. Each story takes place in a different neighborhood, and part of her research involved exploring the history of each location along its specific cultural attitudes and anxieties.
“In my writing process I work through how the past, sometimes distant past, is still influencing Louisville’s perspective,” she says. “As a non-native Louisvillian, it’s helped me understand the Louisville identity to a much deeper extent than I expected.
Isdahl’s faculty mentor for her manuscript is Christian Moody, visiting assistant professor of English and a short story writer himself.
“Danika is interested in the darker, unsettling aspects of life in the city,” says Moody. “Her stories are dark, but also sometimes funny. On the one hand, there are zombies and ghosts. But there is also a political edge.”
He sees his role as a writing coach, especially early on, and offers all his writing students suggestions for outlets to place their work. But Isdahl’s talent stands out.
“We have a lot of motivated fiction writers and poets,” he says. “Danika is exceptional . . . her gothic stories about Louisville are thrilling.”
He also praises her aptitude for editing.
Currently she is editor of Centre’s literary magazine, Vantage Point. After graduation, she will head to a coveted internship at Sarabande, an independent publisher in Louisville.
The short stories that make up her John C. Young project are the most coordinated writing she’s done—and the most challenging. The experience has been worth it, she says, but she does have some advice for the next class of John C. Young Scholars.
“Do a lot of research before you even apply,” she says. “You want to know you love what you’re going to be doing for the year. Ask for a lot of money, because it’s always going to cost more than you think (books and gas especially add up). And no matter what your project is, you have to let it change if that’s what it needs to do. Follow through is important, but knowing where limits are, discovering your strengths, improvising—that’s where I’ve learned the most.”
by Diane Johnson