The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award celebrates its 10th anniversary this month with a festival spanning two evenings, November 15-16. The award was the idea of VCU professor and novelist Tom De Haven, who came up with the idea to “bring in a first novelist” after finding that the students in his year-long novel writing workshop for the MFA in Creative Writing program finished the course with lingering questions like: “What happens now?” and “How do I get my book published?”
After recruiting the help of his colleague, Laura Browder, the two launched VCU’s First Novelist Award in 2001, to honor writers who have just published their first novel and bring them to the university. Now, 10 years later, the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award has become one of the university’s major fall events.
“It started out very small, as just a glimmer, as a way to enhance teaching at VCU and has become a prestigious national award that involves a lot of the university,” says Susann Cokal, VCU professor, author and director of the MFA Program, as well as one of the event’s main planners alongside De Haven. Initial funding was provided by the Dean of Humanities and Sciences, Dr. Stephen Gottfredson. VCU graduate and best-selling author David Baldacci soon offered his support to the program, doubling the prize and establishing a fellowship program for one of the graduate students to devote his or her time to the organization of the award event.
After those first five years, funding for the award and festival passed into the hands of VCU’s Cabell Library, namely the Cabell Associates. “It was an ideal match between the Cabell Associates and the First Novelists,” explains VCU Librarian John Ulmschneider. Founded in the mid-1970s by Margaret Cabell in memory of her late husband, writer James Branch Cabell, the Cabell Associates promote the scholarship of James Cabell, as well as reading and literature in general. Their goal in the next 10 years is to double the prize again and to make the prestige of the award such that publishers will want to advertise their winners and nominees. “It is exciting to be part of this effort in Richmond, this significant growth and support for the writers of the area.”
And grown it has, which is evident from the extent of the selection process.
“At around January, there’s a letter that goes out to publishers asking for submissions of first novels from the previous calendar year,” says De Haven. Once they do, members of the VCU and Richmond community check out the books, read them and rate them. The first year, they only received about 12 submissions; now they receive over 100. From there, the award committee narrows the submissions down to eight to 10 semi-finalists, then three finalists. A team of three judges then deliberates over the three finalists for six weeks to determine a winner. “The judges change every year,” says Cokal, but tradition has it that one of the three is the previous year’s winner, and “the others are two nationally prominent writers or critics.” This year’s judges were Tim Hulsey, Dean of the VCU Honors College; Marcela Valdes, critic and books editor for The Washington Examiner; and Victor Lodato, author of Mathilda Savitch and winner of the 2010 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award.
“It is interesting in how the novels seem to sort themselves out, but in the end the finalists are very worthy winners,” explains De Haven. There is no real cookie-cutter definition of a First Novelist winner beyond a book “that people really like.” Winners have been all across the board, from Westerns set in the 1860s to experimental novels. This year’s winner, David Gordon for The Serialist, puts a literary spin on the classic detective story. “It is about a serial killer and a pastiche of different types of writing,” say Cokal, “this year was the first year in which the judges were unanimous in their decision for The Serialist, which is very exciting.”
And once there’s a winner, it’s time for the festival.
The festival is “unique in that we bring in the writer, the writer’s agent, and the editor who worked on the manuscript,” and it’s been like that from the beginning, says De Haven. “There are very few [festivals] that focus, like the Cabell First Novelists, on the craft of writing a book and how you get that published,” says Ulmschneider.
The First Novelist Award Festival is normally a one-day celebration but this year, it spans over two evenings. Tuesday night will explore writing and publishing from the stand-point of current writers, beginning with Alan Cheuse, NPR’s book critic speaking as a writer, and featuring a panel of previous winners—Michael Byers, Maribeth Fischer, and Victor Lodato—discussing how their lives have changed through both publication and receiving the award. Wednesday will be the traditional celebration of the winner, giving the author a chance to talk about how this year’s novel went from inspiration to publication, which will give the students of the master’s program and the rest of the community insight into what it is like to be a first novelist. Gordon is absolutely thrilled just to be coming: “To be honest I had no expectation to be nominated...but to know that a bunch of people read my book and liked it, and chose mine! That is really exciting to me.”
As Gordon works on his next novel, he sees receiving this award as something to facilitate his blossoming novel career, helping him continue to be published. “I think that with any kind of acknowledgment like this—from academics, writers, novelists—the rest of the world takes you a little more seriously. I’m very grateful. It’s something that hopefully distinguishes me a bit more and adds to my credibility.” Which is exactly the goal of the Cabell Associates working with the award.
“The thing that is very satisfying to me is there are so many people involved in this,” says De Haven. “I get a little hesitant getting phone calls asking about me as the founder because over the years, so many people have worked on it.”
And that’s what everyone involved in the First Novelist Award has to say about it. Cokal could not emphasize enough “what a great collaboration this has been among a lot of different units at VCU: the honors college, the masters program, the library…and it all started with this idea to enhance the year long novel workshop and getting students to meet a first novelist and the editor and the agent.” This collaboration is a natural element in the framework of VCU, as Ulmschneider points out: “that is part of the culture of VCU. We do things across departments that other schools can’t do.”
“It’s fun, it really is fun,” beams De Haven. “A lot of work, particularly these days, but it’s worth it.” And I think the first novelists and the graduate students searching for answers to the publishing dilemma would have to agree.
—The First Novelist Festival takes place November 15-16 at Virginia Commonwealth University. See the event schedule at Novelist.Library.VCU.edu/Festival.html