This morning, I got to make the phone call to the winner of the $10,000 James Jones First Novel Fellowship.
Every time we enlist a new judge, we give that person the privilege of making the call. I didn’t judge last year because my book was coming out and I was on the road; novelist Nina Solomon graciously took my place. She thus had the honor of phoning the 2009 winner, Tena Russ. Nina, who also teaches in the Wilkes MFA Program, said bringing Tena the good news made her feel happy for an entire month. It is one of the few times we, as teachers, as writers, get to feel powerful, as if we are moving boulders out of a struggling writer’s path. Nothing guarantees the novel will find a publisher, but our list of success stories is long. Our 2007 winner, MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER, was published last spring to critical acclaim and was chosen as one of Oprah’s top summer reads.
Our past winners include Leslie Schwartz, who won in 1997 for JUMPING THE GREEN, which became a best-seller. I never got to meet Leslie, because during that year’s James Jones Literary Society symposium, I was nursing my newborn, my only child.
Greg Hrbek, the 1996 winner for THE HINDENBERG CRASHES NIGHTLY, went on to become a Hodder Fellow at Princeton, and one of his short stories was included in The Best American Short Stories of 2009, edited by Alice Sebold.
Mary Kay Zuravleff of Washington DC won the 1994 contest for her wonderful novel THE FREQUENCY OF SOULS, which went on to be published to rave reviews. Her second novel, THE BOWL IS ALREADY BROKEN, was published in 2005 by Farrar Straus & Giroux. She told me winning the Fellowship changed her life. These are just a few.
Earlier today, upon having made our decision, I learned the name of this year’s winner. Gina Ventre. Up until that point, I only knew the working title and log number of her novel: #170, MOON’S EXTRA MILE. I called her and left a message to call me back as soon as possible. Then I sent an email, realizing most people check their emails much more frequently than their mobile phones. I received a response in about 5 minutes. Gina wrote that she was at work and couldn’t take a break to call me back until 1:30 PM. Where are you? I wrote back. She replied that she was at work behind a desk, at a hospital in Ohio.
At 1:30 on the nose, Gina called. I told her she’d won the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. Dead silence. Finally, in a timid murmur, she asked, “The whole thing?”
“The whole thing,” I replied.
After another silence, she said, “Holy shit.” Then she seemed to be catching her breath and asked me to hold on a second while she tried to process this news. “Can I tell people? I mean, is this for real?”
“It’s for real and yes, you can tell people.”
When I called Robin Oliveira and told her she’d won, she wept for 5 minutes straight before I could get a word in. She told me she’d given up. She was about to throw the book away. Now she’s on Oprah’s summer list.
When my daughter asks me about my father, who died long before she was born, I try to draw a three-dimensional picture of him, but my memories are confused. I can’t remember now what is purely true, and what has been embellished in my years of storytelling. One thing I know is true: he loved young writers. He wanted to help them. In 1973, he wrote a letter to a general he’d befriended while he was in Vietnam during the war, writing a series of articles for the New York Times Magazine. He told the general to support his Hippie son, who wanted to become a writer. He told the general that it took as long to become an accomplished writer as it did to become a doctor or a lawyer. Why not give his boy the same chance he would give him if he was in graduate school for medicine? It’s because of this letter that I started the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. This link will take you to the Wilkes University site for information on applying next year.
And Nina Solomon was exactly right. Having the privilege of making that phone call to Gina Ventre, the 2010 winner, will keep me flying for at least a month.