Cabell First Novelist Award Celebrates 10th Anniversary
Festival events scheduled for Nov. 15-16
University Public Affairs
Tom De Haven had a problem. The graduate students in his novel workshop were writing complete first drafts of novels over the course of his two-semester class – many of them ambitious, compelling works that were promising candidates for publication with the right fine-tuning and guidance. However, once the students were let loose on the world with their manuscripts in hand, they often were uncertain how to proceed.
Getting published meant navigating the laborious revision process and the confusing commercial marketplace. Rewrites, agents, editors, publishers. The whole thing seemed daunting.
So De Haven, a professor of English in the Creative Writing Program, decided VCU needed to bring success stories to campus who could inspire students and serve as relatable role models – individuals who had only recently been in the same place as the students, striving to become published authors, and who had found their way to the milestone of a published novel. VCU would lure authors who had recently published accomplished debut novels to the university to let students in on the secret of writing and marketing their books.
And that was how the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month with a two-day festival, was born.
De Haven and fellow English professor Laura Browder, who now teaches at the University of Richmond, founded the award in 2001-02 to honor an outstanding debut novel published each year. From its humble beginnings – De Haven and Browder hustled around that first year to solicit nominations and attract an audience to the winning author’s appearance – the Cabell First Novelist Award has grown to become one of the more prestigious awards in the country for first novels. This year, the award’s stewards received more than 100 nominations for the prize.
“It’s gratifying and surprising to see how far the award has come,” said De Haven, who himself is the author of 17 books, most of them novels.
The Cabell First Novelist Award is one of the chief features of the VCU Creative Writing Program that helps give it a public presence and a way to engage the wider literary culture, along with the Levis Reading Prize, which honors the best first or second book of poetry published each year, and Blackbird, an online journal of literature and the arts published by the VCU Department of English and New Virginia Review, Inc.
Susann Cokal, the director of the Creative Writing Program, said the Cabell honor is a natural fit for VCU.
“The award celebrates great writing and the things that we’re trying to teach and learn here,” said Cokal, the author of the novels “Mirabilis” and “Breath and Bones.” “It inspires our students and it helps us contribute to the national conversation about literature. This award has become an important part of the literary culture.”
The financial component of the award has grown to $5,000 for the winning author, in part because of the steadfast support of the VCU Libraries and the James Branch Cabell Library Associates, but the author visit to campus remains the centerpiece of the prize. Each year, the winning novelist gives a public reading and participates in a panel discussion with his or her editor and agent, providing insights into both the award-winning work at hand and the painstaking process of guiding it to publication.
David Gordon, this year’s winner for his book, “The Serialist,” will continue the tradition with a reading on Wednesday, Nov. 16, at 7 p.m. at the Commons Theater, 907 Floyd Ave. A subsequent panel discussion, “Inside the Business: Bringing a Book to the Public,” will include Victor Lodato, last year’s award-winner for “Mathilda Savitch”; Douglas Stewart, Gordon’s agent at Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.; and Karen Thompson, Gordon’s editor at Simon & Schuster. Cokal will moderate.
Also as part of the festival, on Nov. 15, Alan Cheuse, the prominent NPR book critic, will deliver the festival’s keynote address, discussing “First and Last Novels: Rumblings about Writing and Publishing in the 21st Century,” and De Haven will moderate a panel discussion on “Building a Career after Winning an Award” with Cheuse, Lodato and previous Cabell recipients Michael Byers (“Long for This World”) and Maribeth Fischer (“The Language of Good-bye”). The evening’s events start at 7 p.m. in the Commonwealth Ballrooms of the VCU Student Commons.
All First Novelist events are free and open to public.
Cokal said creative writing graduate students often cite the visits to campus of the First Novelist winners as a highlight of their time in the program.
“So many of our students are trying to write their own novels, and these visits show them that it can be done and that there are many different ways of doing it,” Cokal said. “It’s a tough process to write a novel and it’s nice to be up close to the mind that has written one.”
Over the years, graduate students have become increasingly responsible for the management of the award, and they make up a significant portion of the award’s first readers, who read and review each of the submissions and begin to create a pool of contenders for that year’s judges. They also coordinate the festival.
“If we didn’t have so many great graduate students to handle everything, I don’t know that we’d have been able to keep it going,” De Haven said. “They do an amazing job.”
In addition to the VCU Libraries, the Creative Writing Program and the James Branch Cabell Library Associates, other supporters of the Cabell First Novelist Award include the VCU Department of English, the VCU Friends of the Library, the VCU Honors College and the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.