This summer is a significant season for the 2008 winners of the Katharine Bakeless Nason Prizes sponsored by the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. By this time next week, poet Leslie Harrison, fiction writer Skip Horack, and creative nonfiction writer Vicki Forman will all have seen their debut books hit bookstores (Harrison’s and Forman’s were published in July, and Horack’s goes on sale next Wednesday), and will be gathered at the twelve-day conference, which they will attend on fellowship.
Harrison won the Bakeless Prize in poetry for her collection Displacement, which she calls a "project book" with a distinct narrative arc. Eavan Boland was the judge. Skip Horack won in fiction for The Southern Cross, chosen by Antonya Nelson, a collection comprised of sixteen stories set in the Gulf Coast shortly before and after Hurricane Katrina. Forman received the prize in creative nonfiction, judged by Tom Bissell, for her memoir This Lovely Life, centered on her experiences as a mother of a special needs child. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is the publisher for the 2008 winners’ books. (Graywolf Press will publish the 2009 winners.)
In the midst of this celebratory time, Poets & Writers Magazine caught up with the winners to get their views on receiving the award and publishing a first book.
What was the most difficult aspect of bringing your debut book into the world, and the most fulfilling?
Skip Horack: Well, it’s pretty tough these days to get a short story collection published. So, other than getting the words down on the page, I suppose the most difficult aspect of putting my book together was keeping the faith. That said, I suppose that’s also what makes seeing the book in print most fulfilling, as nothing that comes too easily can be all that satisfying. Also, having the manuscript chosen by someone as talented as Antonya Nelson was incredibly touching.
Vicki Forman: Before winning the prize, the book had been subject to more than a few difficult rejections. As with all heartbreaking rejections, many cited the impressive language, craft and storytelling, but concluded that the story itself might be too painful for most readers. I knew the story was tough, but from my perspective, I felt there was a kind of complexity and depth to the story that carried the reader beyond the painful elements. When Tom Bissell chose the book, my sense was that it was, in fact, the story that pulled him in and carried him along, partly because it was tough but primarily because it was also complex.
What has been
the most positive result of having won the Bakeless Prize?
Leslie Harrison: Well, there is the obvious positive result, which is that I have a book! Beyond that, there is a weird intangible quality to having won. Before your book gets taken, you—if you are like me—think about it a lot. You want it to happen. You wish and hope and send the manuscript out. You pay the contest fees and the postage. Then it did happen and I was really excited. Just beside myself with joy. And disbelief. I tried to convince Michael Collier [Bread Loaf Writers' Conference director and poetry editor of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt] that he should call me up every day for awhile and reassure me that it was true. He—very politely—declined, but did send, almost instantly, a letter confirming that the book had indeed won, so I could refer to that when in doubt.
But I still had to go to work and do laundry and shovel snow, and then I got that itch that means a new poem is bubbling away somewhere, and I realized that almost nothing had changed about my life. Winning was not going to make me thinner, better looking, smarter, more talented, or—given that I am a poet—substantially richer. But that one change, it was pretty remarkable. It was a huge vote of confidence in the work: a poet whose work I admire saying, "yes," a legendary publishing house saying, "yes," a storied writing conference also saying, "yes—we believe in this project." And because all those people believe in the book, the poems have the chance to find for themselves an audience—people to whom they will speak, and maybe even matter.
How has the process of writing and publishing the first book informed your approach to working on subsequent projects?
Horack: I feel like, to have any real chance of winning most contests, you typically have to submit a polished, compelling, and—almost—fully realized manuscript. However, outside of the contest world, I think many fiction writers approach editors and agents too early in the process, before their work is truly ready to be pitched, and thus they never really give their own manuscript a chance to be well-received. So I suppose this experience has taught me to "work up" every writing project like it is going to be submitted to the judge of a contest—and indeed, for all intents and purposes, that’s exactly what’s going to happen, whether that "judge" be an agent, an editor, or Antonya Nelson.
Of course, I think there are also many writers who hold on to their work for way too long, so it's important to strike the right balance.
Forman: To me, getting a first book published is like cracking a code. Until this work was in print, I wasn't sure I'd be able to continue writing about my son, which meant writing about disability, the way it's perceived and its daily realities. I knew I still had stories to tell in this regard, but I didn't know if those stories would ever reach an audience. Now that the book is published, I've given myself more permission to continue with those threads, and see where they take me.
Do you have a piece of advice for writers preparing to submit book manuscripts for publication, particularly those looking to enter a first book competition as you did?
Harrison: I would say that you need to believe in your work enough to send it out. Be as honest as you can about making sure your manuscript is your best work and is the best you can do and then try not to think about it while it is out in the world. Write good poems. Give the craft everything you have and then keep trying. Read everything you can. Don't panic. Keep writing.
Forman: Aside from the usual advice—put your best foot
forward, do your research, follow the rules and be absolutely professional in
your approach—I would also say it's very important to discharge any
preconceptions or imaginings you might have about the prize, your odds at
winning, or the mechanics of the process. I sent the manuscript and
promptly let it go from my mind. The worst thing a writer can do is sit
around waiting to hear results. It's utterly disastrous for your writing
and your day.
Horack: Again, I think it is very important that the manuscript be quite polished, as I assume “overall readiness to be published in the near future” is an important factor in many book competitions. Also, in putting my book together, I made it my goal to get at least half of the stories accepted by various literary journals. I think that was a good strategy, as it helped ensure that a large portion of the manuscript had already been vetted, to some extent. So take advantage of all the hardworking and brilliant people working at the hundreds of literary journals out there. Finally, remember that you have to play to win. So much of being a writer is learning not to be afraid of rejection. I wish I could say that the Bakeless was the first competition I ever entered, but that’s very, very far from the truth.
We also asked the winners what they were anticipating about the attending the storied conference, now in its eighty-fourth year. One thing all of them said that they were geared up to do: commune with talented writers, including one another. "I think writers spend so much time fretting that it’s nice to take a moment every now and then to relax and acknowledge that you’re doing something you love, and that you’re doing it voluntarily," said Horack. "So, I suppose my main goal is to go and meet some wonderful people, learn a lot about writing and teaching, and say a truckload of thank-yous, then head back home with my batteries recharged, ready to put my head back down and write."
Manuscript entries for next year’s Bakeless Prizes will be accepted from September 15 to November 1, and the winners will be announced in spring 2010. The 2009 winners are Nick Lantz of Madison, Wisconsin, for his poetry collection We Don’t Know We Don’t Know; Belle Boggs of Washington, D.C., for her novel, Mattaponi Queen; and Kim Dana Kupperman of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for her essay collection, I Just Lately Started Buying Wings. Their books will be published in 2010.