Fall is an exciting time of year for the Creative Writing side of the Wp’, a time when our intermediate and advanced-level instructors consider all of their students’ work from the preceding year and choose two nominees for the annual James Kirkwood Literary Prize. This year’s finalists will be celebrated at a luncheon with their instructors and the prize’s benefactor, Andrew Morse, in early December.

I recently had a chance to chat with a 2009 Kirkwood finalist, Jamie Schaffner, who placed in the top three with her novel excerpt, Get the Girl.

Writers’ Program: What was the experience like, from learning you’d been nominated by your instructor through the award luncheon?

Jamie Schaffner: When Les Plesko told me he’d nominated me for the Kirkwood Award, it was so gratifying. My teacher thought my work was worthy, and then I thought, wait. Do I even have twenty consecutive pages from my novel that make sense by themselves?

Having no better idea, I pulled together the last scenes I’d written and sent them in thinking that would be the end of it. So when I found out I was semi-finalist and ultimately a finalist, it was a shocker. It wasn’t until the luncheon when Andrew Morse spoke about my novel excerpt that it dawned on me that my work had stood out with a panel of judges who knew nothing about my novel. The words on the pages were speaking for themselves.

Wp’: Since then, you’ve had other great successes, including a PEN Emerging Voices Fellowship. Did your Kirkwood nomination help you continue to pursue your literary aspirations?

JS: Without a doubt the Kirkwood experience was a huge confidence builder and springboard for me. Afterward, I had this standalone piece from my novel, which was well-received by a group of published authors, and I started to imagine I could get published too. When I saw the call for submissions from the anthology Best Lesbian Romance 2011, I sent in my novel excerpt. It was accepted and published by Cleis Press in January 2011, which was an enormous step in my literary process.

With the PEN EV Fellowship application, I again needed to extract pages from my novel, but having already done that for the Kirkwood Award, I figured I could do it again. This time, though, it turned out to be a massive struggle to pull together a set of pages that made sense on their own. Still, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do it, since I’d already done so for the Kirkwood.

Wp’: Any other thoughts?

JS: I hope every emerging writer gets a chance to win or be nominated for a literary award like the Kirkwood. For me, it meant that my work had gone beyond my own head and resonated with others.

Who will this year’s finalists be? Stay tuned as the award luncheon draws near.

Kate Sipples is a former Program Assistant with the Writers’ Program. Follow her writing adventures at http://twitter.com/KateofGoodHope.

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