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So You Wanna Win A Book Prize?

Jesse Lee Kercheval talks about how the places she's been to find home in her writing

This is the second entry of our three-part series in which Hali Sofala, our Book Prize Coordinator, speaks with some of our past Book Prize winners to get a sense of how Prairie Schooner's Book Prize has played a role in their careers, and what advice they might have for future Book Prize contestants. Today, we're featuring her interview with Jesse Lee Kercheval who won the Book Prize in Fiction in 2006.

1. You won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction in 2006 for your collection The Alice Stories, what were you doing when you heard the news that you had won? How did you feel?

I don’t remember what I was doing! Ah, tricky memory. But I remember what I felt--overwhelming happiness. Not just for me, but for the characters--Alice, her husband Anders, her daughter Maude--in The Alice Stories. Without wandering into sounding mad, I felt happy they would have a life in the world where other people could read their stories.

2. How does The Alice Stories fit in with your larger body of work?

I started writing The Alice Stories after I finished my memoir, Space, and I think the experience of writing the memoir changed my approach to my fiction as well. Before Space, my fiction had been the opposite of autobiographical. The title story in my first story collection, The Dogeater, is about an Irogot man put on display at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1905. My first novel, The Museum of Happiness, is set in Paris in 1929.
I wrote the stories in Alice over time and they appeared, one by one, in literary magazines. I would let a few years pass, then check back in with Alice. Or, more honestly, I would have something happen to Alice that mirrored what had happened to me or someone close to me. In that sense, they are the most autobiographical fiction I have ever written, and that was both a change and a challenge for me.

3. What project(s) are you working on currently that you are most excited about?

I have a novel, My Life as a Silent Movie, coming out in the fall from Indiana University Press. It is a culmination of my obsession with silent films that lead to my poetry collection, Cinema Muto. But my current obsession right now is Uruguay and Uruguayan poetry. I spent my sabbatical year there in 2011 and have been returning as often as I can. I am writing a bilingual Spanish/English collection of poetry, Extranjera/ Stranger, about Uruguay. I am also translating the poetry of Circe Maia, an Uruguayan poet whose work I love, and editing a bilingual anthology of younger Uruguayan poets.

4. One of our mottoes here is “Writing that moves you.” Where is the best or most memorable place your writing has taken you? This can be an actual destination on a map or a more mental/emotional journey.

My writing is rooted in place. I was born in France and my novels The Museum of Happiness and My Life as a Silent Movie are set in Paris. I grew up in Florida near the Kennedy Space Center and that became my memoir Space. My years in Wisconsin gave me The Alice Stories. Whenever I travel, poems--and sometimes fiction--are the result. I have been going to Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, a silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy since 2011 and, as I mentioned above, that gave me the material for a poetry collection and a novel. Lately, my time in Uruguay is what is feeding my creativity. Or at least that’s what I believe and it justifies a lot of really wonderful travel!

5. What/who are you reading lately?

Lots of Uruguayan poetry. Most is not available in English, but I recommend the bilingual anthology Hotel Lautréamont, Contemporary Poetry from Uruguay, edited by Kent Johnson and the Uruguayan poet Reboert Echavarren. Also A Trip to Salto /Un Viaje a Salto by Circe Maia, translated by Stephanie Stewart, a short autobiographical novel about Maia’s life when her husband was imprisoned by the military dictatorship that ruled Uruguay from 1973-1985.

6. Do you have any advice for the writers submitting to this year’s book prize?

Write what you love. Believe in what you write. It may not seem like it sometimes, but a good book will find a home and people who love it as much as you do. And there is no place better than Prairie Schooner and the University of Nebraska Press.

Read more about The Alice Stories here:

Go here for more information on how to submit to our Book Prize:


Jesse Lee Kercheval is the author of twelve books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Her novella Brazil (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2010) won the Ruthanne Wiley Memorial Novella Contest. Her poetry collection Cinema Muto (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009) was selected by David Wojahn for a Crab Orchard Open Selection Award. Her story collection The Alice Stories (University of Nebraska Press, 2007) won the Prairie Schooner Fiction Book Prize. Her first story collection The Dogeater (University of Missouri Press, 1987) won the Associated Writing Programs Award in Short Fiction. Space (Alonquin Books, 1998), her memoir about growing up near Cape Kennedy during the moon race, won the Alex Award from the American Library Association. Her novel The Museum of Happiness, set in Paris in 1929, has been reissued with a new afterword by the author by the University of Wisconsin Press as part of the Library of American Fiction. Her popular writing text Building Fiction has also been reissued in trade paperback by the UW Press. Her other poetry collections are Dog Angel (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004) and World as Dictionary (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1999). She is also the author of two poetry chapbooks, Chartreuse (Hollyridge Press, 2005) and Film History as Train Wreck (Center for Book Arts, 2006) which won the 2006 Center for Book Arts Chapbook Prize. Her novel, My Life as a Silent Movie, is forthcoming from Indiana University Press in their Break Away Books series. Her individual stories and poems appear regularly in magazines in the U.S, the U.K., Ireland, Italy, Germany, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.