Poets & Writers Blogs

Sierra Leone Story Writer Wins Major African Prize

This year's winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, given annually for a short story by an African writer published in English, was announced earlier this week. Olufemi Terry, born in Sierra Leone and now living in Cape Town, South Africa, won the ten-thousand-pound prize (approximately fifteen thousand dollars) for "Stickfighting Days," which appeared in the South African journal Chimurenga. The writer, who is currently working on a novel, was honored at a ceremony at the Bodleian Library in England, home country of the award named for the late Booker Prize chair Michael Caine.

Terry's work was recognized by the prize committee once before and included in the eighth annual Caine Prize collection, Jambula Tree and Other Stories
(New Internationalist, 2008). As part of this year's honor, in addition to the monetary prize, he will
receive a monthlong residency at Georgetown University in Washington,
D.C., during February 2011.

Also shortlisted this year were Ken Barris for "The Life of Worm" and Alex Smith for "Soulmates," both stories from New Writing From Africa 2009 (Johnson and King James Books); Lily Mabura for "How Shall We Kill the Bishop" from the Spring 2008 issue of London-based Wasafiri; and Namwali Serpell for "Muzungu" from The Best American Short Stories 2009 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

The judges were Ellah Allfrey of Granta, University of East Anglia professor Jon Cook, Georgetown University professor Samantha Pinto, and Economist literary editor Fiammetta Rocco.

What Is a Preempt, Anyway?

On July 1, Publishers Marketplace reported that literary agent Zoe Pagnamenta sold Rosie Dastgir's debut novel, A Small Fortune, about "the loves, struggles, and tensions in the lives of a Pakistani family, from rural Pakistan to urban England," to editor Sarah McGrath at Riverhead Books in a "preempt." We asked Pagnamenta to decipher what, exactly, a "preempt" is.

"When a publisher wants to preempt," Pagnamenta explains, "they are choosing to make an offer that will persuade the author’s agent to take a project off the table early. The publisher is grabbing a project they love and avoiding having to compete with other publishers. When an agent feels strongly that the house and editor are the right match for the writer, and if the financial terms being offered are strong, the agent will be well-disposed toward a preempt, although in other cases the agent may want to hold on and conduct a formal auction."

Do you have any questions for literary agents? E-mail Special Agent, and we'll get the answers for you.

Budget Cuts Hit Fringe Prize Benefits

First for some good news. Danielle Cadena Deulen, whose name has appeared in our Grants & Awards pages a few times in recent years has won the Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize from the University of Arkansas Press. Lovely Asunder, which will be the debut poetry collection of the University of Utah PhD candidate, was selected by Enid Shomer for publication. Deulen will also receive a prize of five thousand dollars.

What this year's winner won't receive is the trip to Fayetteville to give a reading, with most expenses paid, that once came with the award. Due to budget cuts affecting the University of Arkansas MFA program, the annual spring festival that had played host to the winners' performances has been canceled. The press anticipates that the reading will be reinstated as part of the prize at some future point, but it's too early to tell when.

Back to the bright side: This year's competition also recognized one finalist, Stephen Gibson, for his manuscript "Paradise." Gibson also recently won the Idaho Prize for Poetry from Lost Horse Press for his collection Frescoes.

Classical Pianist Wins Australian Debut Book Award

Earlier this week the Australian Publishers Association celebrated its favorite books of last year, with honorees including a pop rocker and a classical musician. The book award for a debut title went to pianist Anna Goldsworthy, who performs solo and in the Seraphim Trio, for her memoir, Piano Lessons (Black Inc.). Novelist and indie singer and songwriter Craig Silvey won both the Australian Book of the Year award and the prize in literary fiction for his second novel, Jasper Jones (Allen & Unwin).

Both books are available in the United States as e-book editions for Amazon's Kindle, and Goldsworthy's memoir is forthcoming in October from St. Martin's Press.

For the Book of the Year honor, Silvey's novel was up against Australian literary luminary David Malouf's novel Ransom (Random House Australia) and Peter Temple's literary crime novel Truth (Text Publishing), along with a biography of horse racing legend Bart Cummings and a history of Australia by Thomas Keneally.

Malouf's book also appeared with Silvey's on the shortlist for literary fiction, joining novels Dog Boy by Eva Hornung (Text Publishing), The World Beneath by Cate Kennedy (Scribe Publications), and Lovesong by Alex Miller (Allen & Unwin).

In debuts, the shortlist included the novels Siddon Rock by Glenda Guest (Random House Australia), Red Dust by Fleur McDonald (Allen & Unwin), and The Weight of Silence by Catherine Therese (Hachette Australia).

The video below is the trailer for Silvey's winning book, which has been compared to classic coming-of-age novels like To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn.

Brooklyn Zine Holds Free Contest

Birdsong Collective and Micropress, an indie literary outfit based in Brooklyn, New York, is now accepting submissions for its winter 2010 poetry and prose competition. There's no entry fee and the prize is fifty dollars, publication in Issue 14 of birdsong, and a featured spot in a mid-December reading in New York City (the reading is "an integral part of birdsong’s publication process," so entrants should make sure they'd be able to attend in the event of a win).

The members of the collective, headed up by editor in chief Tommy Pico, aren't simply producing zines and holding readings for literature's sake, but share an interest in furthering "social movements of feminism, anti-racism, queer positivity, class-consciousness, and DIY cultural production," according a statement on their Web site. For more on the collective's ethos, take a look at their blog.

To enter the contest, poets may submit up to three poems and prose writers may send a story or essay of up to fifteen hundred words. Entries (one per writer) are accepted via e-mail only, but before you submit, check out the full guidelines on the Birdsong Collective Web site. The deadline is October 10.

In the video below, Pico reads his work at the New School University's Nuclear Poetry series.

Ted Kooser Honored With New Poetry Award

Former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize–winner Ted Kooser has been named the inaugural recipient of the Hall-Kenyon Prize in American Poetry. The five-thousand-dollar award, named for the late poet Jane Kenyon and her widower, the New Hampshire poet Donald Hall, is given by the New Hampshire Writers' Project and the Concord Monitor to honor a poet's contribution to the art.

Kooser, whose most recent book of poems is Valentines (University of Nebraska Press, 2008), was selected to receive the prize by poet Wesley McNair. "He's a miniaturist in American poetry," McNair said, also recognizing Kooser as a poet of place working in the vein of Hall and Kenyon. "He creates small poems that include large worlds."

The seventy-one-year-old poet will receive his award at a reading at New Hampshire's Concord City Auditorium in October. In the video below, Kooser reads a poem at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in 2008. 

Novel of "Frozen Landscapes" Wins Debut Fiction Prize

The third annual Desmond Elliott Prize, given for a first novel written in English and published in the United Kingdom, was awarded yesterday. British author Ali Shaw received the ten-thousand-pound prize (approximately fifteen thousand dollars) for his novel, The Girl With Glass Feet, published by Atlantic Books in the United Kingdom and Henry Holt in the United States.

The judges—author Elizabeth Buchan, bookseller James Daunt, and Observer editor William Skidelsky—praised Shaw's book, a hybrid work of myth and realism, for its "exploration of frozen landscapes, both interior and exterior" and "precisely detailed and articulated fantasy." The author, whose influences include the Italian fabulist fiction writer Italo Calvino and Franz Kafka (specifically The Metamorphosis), spent five years writing the book, centered on a woman who is turning, feet first, to glass. 

Also on the shortlist for this year's award were Before the Earthquake (Tindal Street Press) by Maria Allen and Talk of the Town (Picador) by Jacob Polley.

The prize, given in past years to Edward Hogan for Blackmoor (Simon & Schuster) and Nikita Lalwani for Gifted (Penguin), is named for the late literary agent and publisher Desmond Elliott whose wish it was to have his estate establish an award to "enrich the careers of new writers." In September, the submission period for the prize will open for books published between April 2010 and April 2011.

The video below was posted on Shaw's blog under "Strange and Beautiful Things," a piece illuminating of the author's aesthetic that we couldn't help but share. Shaw reports an affinity for fantastical animals—images of his drawings of unicorn mice and winged livestock, some of which make appearances in his novel, are posted on his Web site—and told the Oxford Reporter that he hoped his book would be "a conversation of images." 

Firekites - AUTUMN STORY - chalk animation from Lucinda Schreiber on Vimeo.

Belle Boggs and the Three Literary Agents

After having a less-than-ideal experience with her first two literary agents, Belle Boggs, one of the five debut authors featured in our current issue's First Fiction 2010, finally found a great agent who is an active partner in her publishing career. We didn't have room in the print magazine to include the full story of her agent ups and downs, but she was kind enough to write about it for the blog. Below is her story, which she sent to us with hopes that others might learn from her experience:

After I graduated from Irvine’s MFA program, I moved to New York. I found an agent I really liked at a small, respected agency with a lot of good Southern writers. My agent was and is a great person and a talented and generous editor. He shopped a novel, which didn’t sell, and after a while he left the agency for other work. The agency kept me on, and I was assigned to the principal agent, who understandably had less time to spare. I think I revised and we tried a few more places—I am not the kind of writer who wallpapers her bathroom with rejection letters, so it’s a little hard to remember—but at some point I felt that it was time to move on.

I was teaching in Brooklyn at the time—I was a New York City Teaching Fellow—and I didn’t have the kind of sustained time I needed to start a new novel. So the summer after I finished my first year in the classroom, I began the stories that would become Mattaponi Queen. Right away, one story was selected for publication in Glimmer Train Stories and another one was a runner-up in their Very Short Fiction contest, which I thought was a good sign. I kept working and teaching.

After my second year of teaching my husband and I moved to North Carolina, where I taught GED classes, and I continued to work on the stories. My agent’s assistant sent a couple of them to a few very big magazines, and they didn’t sell, but I still felt that the collection was a book. I gave them to my agent, and I met him for lunch on a visit to New York.

I remember that he talked a lot and in very general terms about my novel, a ship I thought had sailed a while ago. He was not very direct, and I didn’t ask the right questions. I left the meeting confused because I was too shy and inexperienced to ask him why he was not interested in the collection of stories. Was it because they weren’t his thing? Was it because they wouldn’t sell for a big advance? Was there some other way to find a good home for them? He did say, “You can only be a debut author once.” I suppose he meant that this was my chance to make a big splash, and a collection of stories set in rural Virginia was wasting that chance. I did try to say, a few times during that meeting, how much I believed in the stories.

After a while he stopped writing back to me, but I still assumed he was my agent. In my mind, I moved on again and made plans for another novel. I was teaching fifth grade in Durham, and then in D.C. at a KIPP school. My husband, who has always believed in my work and is a talented poet, suggested sending the book to contests. I agreed, but mentally I had moved on, and my teaching schedule made me too tired to think about the book. I even named our cat Loretta, after one of my favorite characters in Mattaponi Queen, because I loved the name and didn’t want it to go to waste.

Then one night, after returning home from work in D.C., there was a blinking light on our answering machine: Mattaponi Queen was a finalist for the Bakeless Prize, and was it still available? Of course it was available! I didn’t even know it had been submitted. While I was teaching and lesson planning and grading papers, my husband had printed and submitted the collection for me. It is the best gift I’ve ever been given. People gasp when I tell them this story. I don’t know how I got so lucky.

I didn’t say anything to my agent about the contest—I didn’t expect to win—but when I did I e-mailed him right away. I never heard back from him.

After working with Graywolf Press and with the Bakeless Prize, I can’t imagine having a better debut experience. I’ve worked with phenomenal editors and talented, enthusiastic publicists who have gotten Mattaponi Queen noticed in some really great places. I get to go to Bread Loaf on a fellowship. I’m in the middle of a fantastic book tour. And I have a new and very wonderful and involved agent, Maria Massie, who found me after a short story from Mattaponi Queen was published in At Length. I was able to read her beliefs about the business and about working with authors in an Agents & Editors interview published in Poets & Writers Magazine.

But I do sometimes think about my other agency experience, which left me feeling confused and uncertain about my career for a while. I don’t blame him for that—I should have been more assertive, should have asked more questions—and I have no regrets, because everything has worked out so well. But not everyone is as lucky as I have been, and I am sure that there are other shy and self-doubting writers like me, who make a living outside the world of academia and don’t have a ton of contacts.

Here’s what I did right: I kept working, writing what I felt most compelled to write (and I should add that I married an incredibly generous and supportive man). What I did wrong was fail to advocate for myself, and allow one way of looking at the marketplace to control my career.

This past winter, there was a problem with the wells on our property in North Carolina. I called around for recommendations, and I talked to a well guy who wasn’t sure what to do to fix our water shortage. He could have easily thrown up his hands, and he could have done some work that may or may not have solved my problem and charged me a lot of money. Instead we stood outside in the cold and talked about it, and he recommended someone else. I called his recommendation and a few other people—a well fracker, a plumber, some well drillers—and after trial and error, we found a solution. I was really happy with the outcome, and I would recommend any of the people who helped me to someone else in the same situation.

Ideally, all business interactions should work this way—if one person can’t help you with the tools they have, they should recommend someone else or some other way to achieve your goal. Unfortunately, things don’t always work like this, so you have to want whatever it is as much as you want water flowing from your taps.

So my advice to someone looking for an agent would be to write down all of your questions, then talk to another writer to see if there are some relevant questions you haven’t considered. First on my list would be: Will you work with independent presses? Be prepared to ask your questions in a direct way. Don’t wait forever for someone to write back to you. Pick up the telephone if you need to. Don’t give up on something too quickly, but don’t stop writing new work, either.

And good luck to you!

If you have a suggestion, anecdote, or essay for Agent Action, send an e-mail to specialagent@pw.org or post a comment below.

Literary Agent Debuts as Memoirist

Literary agent Bill Clegg of William Morris Endeavor who represents authors such as Rivka Galchen, Shane Jones, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Salvatore Scibona—and even a few poets, including Mary Jo Bang, Mark Doty, and Rebecca Wolff—made publishing headlines this month, not for a recent sale, but for debuting as an author. On June 9, Little, Brown released Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man, a memoir about his years in the early aughts when he suddenly disappeared from agenting after succumbing to a private battle with crack addition. After recovering, Clegg was hired by the William Morris agency, and his book was sold for a reported $350,000 advance to legendary editor Pat Strachan whose books include those by Joseph Brodsky, Lydia Davis, Marilynne Robinson, and Tom Wolfe. An excerpt of Clegg’s debut was published in New York Magazine’s May 23, 2010, issue. Listen to a sample audio clip of Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man read by the author.

Two Literary Outfits Suspend Poetry Awards

Two award announcements arrived recently with news that they would be the last for the respective prizes. Earlier this month Washington and Lee University's literary journal, Shenandoah, named Robin Ekiss, author of Mansion of Happiness (University of Georgia Press), winner of its Glasgow Prize for a debut poetry collection. However, due to budget cuts, the two-thousand-dollar award, which has been given since 2001, has been discontinued.

Quercus Review Press, which awarded its latest Poetry Series Book Award to Orlando poet Terry Godbey for her manuscript "Beauty Lessons," has also announced the suspension of its prize. The entire press, based at Modesto Junior College in California, is going on hiatus—a casualty of state budget cuts in the arts, according to editor Sam Pierstorff. The press will publish Godbey's collection, the seventh book in its award series, in the fall and will award her one thousand dollars along with fifty copies of her book.

In the video below, Ekiss reads the poem "The Opposite of the Body" from her winning collection. 

Book's Translation Made Winning Dutch Author Realize He Was a Writer

The results of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award competition, sponsored by the libraries of Dublin, were announced today. From a shortlist that included Marilynne Robinson and Joseph O'Neill, Gerbrand Bakker of the Netherlands was selected as winner of the one-hundred-thousand-euro prize (approximately $124,000), of which a quarter will go to his translator, David Colmer, for The Twin (Harvill Secker).

The judges, Anne Fine, Anatoly Kudryavitsky, Eve Patten, Abdourahman Waberi, and Zoë Wicomb, praised the "sparely written" novel for its narrator's "odd small cruelties, laconic humor and surprising tendernesses." The book is available in the United States from the small press Archipelago Books.

"It's wonderful," Bakker said after hearing news of the prize, the Guardian reported. "But for me it was also wonderful to read the book in English— I said to David, the translator, 'Who wrote this book?' I didn't recognize it; I thought it was very good. It made me realize it really is a book, and I am a writer."

Bakker, also a licensed gardener, reportedly has plans to buy a horse with his winnings. "In Holland we've got these huge grey horses that are very sweet and I would like to own one," he said. "I'm not a rider but I just love these big beasts. They're so kind. You
can lie on top of them every day for ten minutes, not ride them—and then feed them a carrot or ten."

[Correction: Gerbrand Bakker's country of residence was incorrectly stated in the original blog post. Bakker is a resident of the Netherlands.]

Irish Story Prize Accepts Submissions From Around the World

In recognition of Bloomsday and the author that inspired it, we're taking a look at a contest out of James Joyce's native Ireland that's seeking stories (though Joyce's Ulysses, celebrated all over the Western world today, is a far cry from the short form). The Munster Literature Centre, located in Joyce's ancestral hometown of Cork, is accepting entries for its eighth annual Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Competition until July 31.

The winning story writer will receive fifteen hundred euros (approximately $1,850) and publication in the Centre's journal, Southword, as well as an invitation to read at the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Festival in Cork this September. Writers of any nationality working in English are welcome to submit—while the majority of past prize recipients hail from Ireland, the two most recent winners are U.S. residents.

The contest is named for Seán Ó Faoláin (1900–1991), an Irish writer and admirer of Joyce known for his short stories, included in collections such as The Man Who Invented Sin (1949), A Purse of Coppers (1937), and Midsummer Night Madness (1932). Tania Hershman, author of The White Road and Other Stories (Salt Publishing, 2008), will judge.

In other award news from the Emerald Isle, the winner of the one-hundred-thousand-euro International IMPAC Dublin Literature Award will be announced tomorrow. The shortlist, which will be narrowed down by judges Anne Fine, Anatoly Kudryavitsky, Eve Patten, Abdourahman Waberi, and Zoë Wicomb, includes American Marilynne Robinson for her novel Home (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

The other shortlisted authors, all with books published in 2008, are:
Dutch author Gerbrand Bakker for The Twin (Harvill Secker)
Muriel Barbery of France for The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions)
Robert Edric of Great Britain for In Zodiac Light (Doubleday)
German author Christoph Hein for Settlement (Metropolitan Books)
Zoë Heller of Great Britain for The Believers (Fig Tree)
Irish Author Joseph O’Neill for Netherland (Pantheon Books)
Ross Raisin of Great Britain for God’s Own Country (Viking)

Happy Bloomsday, and stay tuned for the IMPAC prize results. In the meantime, check out the video below, by Jim Clark, of an animated Joyce reading from Episode Seven of Ulysses.

Welcome to Our New Blog

Last week we posted a comment on our Facebook page inviting our fans to contribute questions for our Agents Advice column. We received some great questions from writers who wanted to know more about the process of getting the attention of a good agent, writing an intriguing query letter, and, you know, sealing the deal. There were also some good-natured (we think) jokes about agents. “Are you consistently drunk on the power you possess, fighting every moment to maintain a hold on decorum?” one fan asked of any agents who might have been following the comment thread. “If I had that kind of influence, I’d wield it like an angry hammer.”

We know that the prospect of securing a literary agent is daunting and, for some writers, seemingly not worth the trouble. That’s partly why we decided to launch this, our new Agent Action blog. Here we’ll regularly explore the nuts and bolts of approaching an agent and selling your work, provide news about agents and their clients, and relay some first-hand anecdotes from authors who have had success—and even some who haven’t.
Together we’ll take that angry hammer and break down the wall that seems to separate us from them.

As one agent wrote in response to the Facebook comment above: “Most agents work their butts off to sell books that they believe in, and often fail. Just like writers, we face rejection and discouragement all the time.”

If you have any suggestions for Agent Action, let us know in the Comments field below.

Kingsolver Takes Orange Prize, Top Sales in U.K.

Earlier this week, Virginia author Barbara Kingsolver took home the fifteenth annual Orange Prize for Fiction, a thirty-thousand-pound award (nearly forty-four thousand dollars) given to a woman writer of any nationality for a novel written in English. Kingsolver's winning book, The Lacuna (Harper), was up against American Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs (Knopf) and Wolf Hall (Holt) by Hilary Mantel of England, who won the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for her historical novel.

This is the second year in a row in which an American has received the Orange Prize—last year Marilynne Robinson won the award for Home (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008).

Zimbabwean author Irene Sabatini won this year's Orange Award for New Writers for her debut novel The Boy Next Door (Sceptre), rising to the top of a shortlist that included U.K. writers Jane Borodale for The Book of Fires (Harper Press) and Evie Wyld for After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (Jonathan Cape). Sabatini received ten thousand pounds (approximately $14,500).

In the United Kingdom, where the prize's sponsor, Orange Broadband, is based, Kingsolver's novel (in paperback) leapt to the top spot on U.K. Amazon best-seller list in contemporary fiction, and is currently at number six in books overall, with a rise of 835 percent the night after the award announcement, according to the Guardian. Meanwhile, on the American retail site, the book (in hardcover—a paperback edition won't be released until August) weighs in at number seventy in the contemporary category and ranks in the mid-hundreds in general. This may be a slight disparity given the sheer number of books available on Amazon, but a curious one nonetheless.

How do literary awards inform your interest in a book? Are you more likely to purchase a title that comes with a prize committee's imprimatur? Would a book recognized by a local or national prize be more likely to be in your shopping basket? Leave a comment and let us know what you think about the Orange Prize and literature's other big awards.

In the video below, prize judge Daisy Goodwin discusses Kingsolver's Mexican Revolution-era book, which calls out the lacunae, or gaps, in history.