The Right Formula: Graduating Student is Celebrated Author and Licensed Chemical Engineer

By Tom McLaughlin

At first glance, engineering and creative writing might seem like vastly different disciplines.

However, for Mary Anna Evans, they have always had a common thread.

Capturefile: C:Program FilesPhase OneCapture One PROImagesEvans_m_a-005.tif CaptureSN: CI001267.071998 Software: Capture One PRO for Windows“I have always had a certain curiosity for the way that things work and are put together – that is the connection between engineering and writing,” says Evans, a licensed chemical engineer and author of the award-winning Faye Longchamp Mysteries series.

Just as importantly, the Camden resident came to discover a consistent formula for success in either field – whether it was step by step, or line by line, if she put in the work, then any goal was attainable.

On May 21, Evans will once again dot her i’s and cross her t’s , as she graduates from Rutgers University–Camden with a master of fine arts (M.F.A.) degree in creative writing. She will then begin a tenure-track position as an assistant professor of professional writing at the University of Oklahoma. She will also celebrate the release of her latest Faye Longchamp novel, Isolation (Poisoned Pen Press) in August.

As she begins a new chapter as an educator, Evans continues to exhibit the same zeal for new experiences and challenges that she once displayed as a wide-eyed undergraduate. With an insatiable curiosity of the world around her, she earned her bachelor’s degree in engineering physics from Murray State University in 1983. She then pursued her master’s degree in chemical engineering at the University of Mississippi, recalling that it was a time when “women were perceived as a novelty in the field.”

Even then, the signs of an emerging writer were there. Under the weight of a constant, demanding workload, Evans increasingly sought an outlet to express her creative side. About halfway through the program, she asked and was given permission to audit a short story writing course taught by National Book Award nominee Ellen Douglas.

“I told them that the right side of my brain was shriveling,” she says with a laugh. “I wrote stories like my classmates, but without the pressure of being graded on them.”

Evans then followed up the class with a literature course exploring the works of popular modern fiction. She was soon juggling her studies in unit operations and chemical kinetics with the prose of Stephen King and Mickey Spillane – and loving every minute of it.

“It was crazy with how busy I was, but I wanted that expression,” says Evans, a native of Hattiesburg, Miss. “I needed to be intellectually and emotionally in that other world.”

isolationcoverShortly before earning her master’s degree in 1984, Evans landed a position teaching physics, mathematics, and computer programming at Paducah Community College in Kentucky. Despite leading five classes, she still found the time to write – a trend that would continue throughout her professional career.

In 1988, Evans took a fulltime position as a chemical engineer for Water & Air Research, Inc., in Gainesville, Fla. Over the next eight years, she traveled throughout the country auditing industrial sites for hazardous waste – her travels only further fueling her imagination and sense of adventure.

In the late 1980s, Evans added the title “proud mom” to her résumé, and took advantage of any respite to write.

“I wrote poems, haikus, and short stories while my children slept – sometimes that’s all the time I had,” she recalls. “That’s what you have to do when you have dreams. Children were always at the heart of my dreams, but I was able to be their mother and still have something that was for me.”

In 1995, as Evans awaited the birth of her third child, she knew that she would be on extended bedrest as a precaution for a high-risk pregnancy. She also knew that it would be the perfect time to take care of unfinished business.

“I knew I could never say again that I didn’t have time to write a full-length novel,” she says.

Evans ended up writing a thriller called Wounded Earth. Although it wasn’t published, the novel secured her an agent with a prominent Manhattan firm. She then followed up with her first published novel, the award-winning Artifacts (Poisoned Pen Press), the first installment in the popular crime series featuring archeologist Faye Longchamp. The series has since continued with Relics, Effigies, Findings, Floodgates, Strangers, Plunder, Rituals, and the forthcoming Isolation.

Over the years, Evans would branch out into other genres as well. In 2011, she teamed with literacy expert Faith Wallace to co-author Mathematical Literacy in the Middle and High School Years: A Modern Approach to Sparking Student Interest (Pearson), which introduces new concepts and strategies for teaching mathematics. The duo has also written several peer-reviewed research articles, as well as developed and implemented workshops for both teachers and students.

A recent writer-in-residence for the Studios of Key West, Evans also published Wounded Earth, as well as a book on how to write novels – titled Your Novel, Day by Day: A Fiction Writer’s Companion – and a collection of short stories and essays called Jewel Box, through her own Joyeuse Press imprint.

Having taught herself mostly everything that she knows about writing, and with her children now in college or in successful careers of their own, Evans decided to delve deeper into her craft in Rutgers–Camden’s M.F.A. program.

Among her most memorable experiences was a course, titled “Teaching Creative Writing in the Public Schools,” offered through Rutgers–Camden’s Office of Civic Engagement. Students in the class received training in working creatively with young people and then volunteered in the Camden City School District. Last month, she was on a panel of five Rutgers–Camden students selected to share their experiences and ideas with educators hoping to do similar work, at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference and Bookfair in Minneapolis.

Evans is also as busy as ever writing. As part of her classwork, she wrote a manuscript, titled Mommy, Why Are My Blocks Pink?, which encourages young girls to enter the predominantly male field of engineering. She also recently wrote an article, titled Could Silicon Valley Become the Next Camden?, which appeared in The Atlantic.

Evans now credits Rutgers–Camden’s M.F.A. in creative writing program for helping her to realize another long-held dream – landing a highly coveted tenure-track position teaching professional writing.

“It is really the job that I had hoped for when I came to Rutgers–Camden,” she says. “Teaching is a great complement to writing as a life – and I’m excited for the chance to teach every day.”

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