So You Wanna Win A Book Prize?

An Interview with Venita Blackburn

Filed under: Blog |

by Jamaica Baldwin

For the next several weeks, visit the blog for illuminating conversations between PS Book Prize Coordinator Jamaica Baldwin and writers who have played the book prize game and won! We're currently seeking submissions for the Raz-Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize. Click here for full details. Read on for Baldwin's conversation with Venita Blackburn, who won the PS Book Prize for her story collection Black Jesus and Other Superheroes.

Jamaica Baldwin: You won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction in 2016 for your collection Black Jesus and Other Superheroes. What were you doing when you heard the news that you had won? How did you feel?

Venita Blackburn: Knowing me, I was probably stretched out on my couch watching Bob’s Burgers. There’s a 90 percent chance of that. I know I was home when I talked to Kwame Dawes over the phone. Honestly, I had a good feeling about the book when I sent it to the contest. I thought I might place, you know, second or third or get an honorable mention. I’d been down those paths before. I really did not consider outright winning the thing. I probably had a long pause when Kwame confirmed the situation, ha. When I’m shocked I go quiet and time-travel a little mentally. It was a peaceful kind of elation, no jumping, no screaming, no crying; it was more of a calm sort of lightness.

JB: Was this your first published manuscript? Describe the process of constructing it. Did you know what this manuscript would look like when you started writing, in terms of the themes and the number of stories? Tell us about the process.

VB: Black Jesus and Other Superheroes is my first published book. The layout and content didn’t change much from what I originally submitted. I thought there would be more to do after, but perhaps that is because it was a prize submission; there are rules around how much can be adjusted. I thought about the beginning and ends of stories as I arranged them in the book mostly, more than themes, though I knew they all belonged together. Not every story I had written up to that point made the cut, even out of published stories. I wrote heavily around questions of faith and girlhood and sexuality under a magic realist filter for the most part. I didn’t know what the title of the book would be for a while, because I thought the title had to be exactly one of the stories. Eventually, I thought of all my characters as these anti-superheroes that are not opposites in objectives, just not conventional in how they wield their own power (literal or metaphorical). So, I decided to violate one of the assumed rules of naming collections of stories and use the title of the most representative story, “Black Jesus,” and add a little more to it for clarity. It kind of works still, ha.

JB: How did you decide where to submit the collection? How many places did you submit?

VB: I submitted to three contests that season (I think). There is a normal route for publications like this (I’ve recently learned). So apparently, you’re supposed to get discovered by an agent through your famous MFA faculty mentor or after getting your first publication in a prestigious literary journal. The agent helps you package your manuscript and market it to the big publishing houses and then the medium ones and then the small ones. There is supposed to be money (I hear). I didn’t know this because to me writing is just an obsession, a weird habit I can’t shake, and in my mind, nobody has agents for weird habits, but clearly that is a thing among things. Contests are wonderful, but they are the unicorns of short story collection publications. I snagged a unicorn!   

JB: What does current-you wish you could have tell past-you about the whole process?

VB: !!!Promote yourself. It’s OK to tell people you wrote a book and it will be published. Tell people you don’t know. Shout it out. Make a song about it. Post the song about how you wrote a book and it’s going to be published somewhere. And start immediately. 

JB: Has publication changed your writing or manuscript construction processes?

VB: Oh no, I still feel like writing is my personal character flaw, so I write like no one else will see it. Then I remember artists have to share their work; it’s the only healthy way for us to exist. Because I have a book and the book helped me to get a cushy teaching gig there are pressures to produce more. Regardless, I always write and share, so I feel in balance with the pressure around me. I don’t really know what content people are expecting now, because I don’t think about public reception when drafting. The work has to be interesting to me primarily, and then I’ll adjust to be understood.

JB: What project(s) are you working on currently that you are most excited about?

VB: Well, I’ve finished the draft of my second book, and it is going on the market this week actually. I’ve never been down this traditional road to publication before with an agent and the list of swanky publishers (not that PS is not swanky ;). It’s just different. The collection is called How to Wrestle a Girl and still covers all my favorite themes of faith, sexuality, and girlhood, but this one has more buff women than the last one.

JB: What was the most surprising thing about the publication process?

VB: Winning more prizes! You know I only half expected Black Jesus to do well in the contest arena. Then it went on to get acknowledgments from PEN America and the Young Lions Award. I told about ten people that I won a book prize. Two of those people thought that meant I would get a copy of someone else’s book in the mail. Nine of those people attended my impromptu book launch. I really was shocked that more people than that had interest in what I was writing. That was really cool and surprising.

JB: What is your favorite part of your first book? 

VB: The cover is amazing. I love what PS did with the design and the matte texture. I still like the stories in there too, ha.

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

VB: Writing is forever, no matter what happens from one year to the next. Acceptance/rejection or winning/losing isn’t the point. Writing is habitual; it’s brushing your teeth, having coffee, worrying about taxes, saving for new tires, walking through a parking lot, looking over your shoulder at suspicious animals. Write like you’re riding a bike. Write like it will save your life.

JB: Who are you reading? Or, what writers and/or books really excite you right now?

VB: My students and I are reading these for the semester, and I love them: White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar, Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, The World Doesn't Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott (who is also visiting campus this summer, which is cool), and Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha (we met as PEN America mentors, and she’s cool as well). Also, I can’t say enough about This is How You Lose the Time War (Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone) as a genre-crushing nugget of gorgeousness.