Each summer, the Writers’ Program gears up for its annual James Kirkwood Literary Prize, when instructors of intermediate and advanced level fiction are asked to nominate up to two students they think are worthy of this competitive award.
Gina Anderson and Penrose Anderson are two of this year’s 32 nominees, and both are novel writing students of instructor Linda Palmer. If you’re wondering whether the last name Anderson is just a coincidence–it’s not. Penrose and Gina are mother and daughter, which is a first for the James Kirkwood Literary Prize!
As their instructor, Linda enthusiastically nominated both of these writers not for their relationship to each other, but for the strength of their writing. “They are both immensely talented, and a great pleasure to teach.” She adds, “What stood out was their separate combination of talent and command of the novelist’s craft. They are two very different writers: Penrose Anderson’s prose is literary and lyrical, full of imagery difficult to forget. Gina Anderson’s style is straightforward: witty, perceptive, skillful in evoking the intended reactions from the reader, but without lyrical flourishes.”
Gina and Penrose shared their thoughts about their writing.
WP: Can you tell us a little about your novels?
GINA(daughter): My book is about a young woman diagnosed with two brain tumors, and her experiences with surgery, treatment, and ultimately, recovery.
PENROSE(mother): John and Lillie Fitz-Howard are stunning young newlyweds in Bombay, India, 1941. Separated by the war, their dreams become nightmares when the British Raj collapses and Lillie’s loyalty to her husband is severely tested. Meanwhile, John is brutalized as a Japanese POW in Thailand.
WP: What originally drew you both to the craft of writing?
PENROSE: I have been an avid reader all my life. I worked for British TV for a number of years, mostly as a writer for children, and have written screenplays. I was aware I needed to learn the craft of novel writing. My novel was originally written, and optioned, as a screenplay for which funding proved difficult. It was suggested to me that I write the piece as a novel. I honestly knew I was not up to the task because the genres of screenwriting and novel writing are totally different. This is where Linda Palmer’s classes have proven invaluable. I have always wanted to write a novel but lacked the confidence and know-how to do so. Writing screenplays and understanding structure wasn’t enough to give me the knowledge I needed to craft a novel. Short story writing helped, but for me writing a novel is the penultimate accomplishment for a writer. I wanted that and knew I needed help. I looked for an instructor who could teach me. UCLA Extension provided me with the best.
GINA: I love words, speaking them, writing them, reading them, singing them. Before I started writing, I was involved with acting and singing. Growing up with two writer parents, reading and expressing oneself through the written word was always encouraged. I have always enjoyed writing, and have tried various forms of writing throughout my life, but I have never tried writing a novel.
WP: It sounds like you have really been inspired by Linda Palmer’s teaching. As you may know, she first started in the Writers’ Program as a student herself. What has your experience in her courses been like?
GINA: Linda’s class has really helped me to learn structure, and to think of the most entertaining way to tell my story. She is incredibly gifted, not only as a writer herself, but also as a teacher. Linda is able to give criticism that doesn’t sound critical.
PENROSE: The wonderful thing for me about the Writers’ Program is setting a goal, and working and reaching it. Linda Palmer has helped me to feel confident, and through her tutelage this has been one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences of my life.
WP: Gina, you are recovering from brain cancer, which is the topic that you’re exploring in your novel. How has your personal experience affected your writing?
GINA: Yes, my illness has inspired my book in many ways. Not only is the story inspired by what I have gone through, but the decision to write a book at this time was also due to being ill. Although both my protagonist and I suffer from the same illness, it was important to me to write about a very different experience than my own. I didn’t want to write a book about how to cope with cancer with grace. There are some wonderful books out there about how people have managed to accomplish this. My character’s experience is different. She has to find her way to a better attitude.
WP: Has being in a class with each other contributed to or changed your personal relationship with each other? (I should mention the interesting tidbit shared by Linda Palmer who said, “If one didn’t know that they are related, it would not be at all obvious in class. I would not have known the relationship if Penrose hadn’t told me that her daughter was going to enroll.”)
PENROSE: It has served to strengthen an already close relationship. We are having a great time attending class together and sharing our work with one another.
GINA: We have always been close, and now we get to share another aspect of ourselves! Mum is writing an amazing book, very different from my own, and I am loving reading it. I have always loved reading my mother’s work, and sharing mine with her. She is endlessly encouraging and positive, and has been a role model and mentor for me. When I was young, my mother wrote for children, so I have been lucky enough to always be at the right age to enjoy her work. Being in Linda’s class together has been fun, and challenging. My mother keeps me on my toes. Her standards are high, so I find I keep mine high as well.
WP: What’s your one best piece of advice for other writing students?
PENROSE: Trust your instructor. It was important for me to admire and enjoy my teacher as an author.
GINA: Really commit to the class and the instructor. There is so much to learn in this program.
We wish all 32 of this year’s Kirkwood nominees the best of luck in the 2009 competition. Check back with us in mid-November when the winners are announced.
Mae Respicio is the Program Representative for Onsite Creative Writing and Online Screenwriting.