High Praise From Down Under: UT Alum Nominated for Top Australian Literary Prizes

DomThe accent is still there, made faint by long years away from Australia.

Dominic Smith, a 2003 alumnus of the Michener Center’s MFA program in writing, was born in Brisbane and grew up in Sydney, but his education and work have taken him far from the continent since—he earned his B.A. in Iowa and worked in the dotcom boom in Europe before coming to The University of Texas at Austin for graduate school.  Smith seems to have found Texas to his liking, though, and has stayed in Austin for more than ten years now.

After graduating with one completed novel, “The Beautiful Miscellaneous,” he won a prestigious Dobie Paisano Fellowship and spent six months completing a second novel,The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre.” Both were sold in 2004 to Atria (Simon & Schuster), who published them in reverse order, “Mercury Visions” being touted as his debut, followed by “Miscellaneous” in 2007.

“Miscellaneous” is a contemporary tale, the story of the average son of a genius physicist who develops a form of synesthesia after an accident. The novel explores how the character comes to understand his own mind and deal with his father’s demanding expectations.  It has been optioned by Southpaw Entertainment, with Smith adapting the screenplay himself.

In “Mercury Visions,” Smith shows his gift for capturing another time and place.  Photographer Louis Daguerre slides into a madness caused by exposure to mercury vapors, and determines to capture ten final images before he dies.  The novel expertly conjures Paris in the 1800s and the historically accurate, though fictionalized, life of Daguerre, creating what Kirkus Reviews called  “a compelling psychological study, a thoughtful tracing of the birth of a new art form, and an atmospheric portrait of 19th-century France:  impressive on all three counts.”  The book was selected for Barnes & Nobles Discover Great New Writers Program and received the Steven Turner Prize for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters.

BrightShoresDomSmithIn his third novel, “Bright and Distant Shores,” Smith returns to the 19th century—1897 Chicago this time, where a gilded age magnate competes in the race to build the city’s highest skyscraper and erect on its rooftop a spectacle of South Pacific natives.  It is his first novel to be published in Australia, where it’s been received with critical praise and two national literary award nominations.

“Smith’s novel is an atmospheric, meticulously observed period drama from a footsure and stylish writer with a fine sense of narrative pace,” says “The Age,” Melbourne’s daily, which has shortlisted the novel for its Book of the Year Award.  It was also shortlisted for Australia’s prestigious Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction.

Smith launches the book’s U.S. release this week with a reading and book signing at Austin’s BookPeople at 7 p.m. on Friday, September 16, 2011. He answered a few questions for ShelfLife@Texas about his research for the novel and its reception in his homeland.

What was the genesis of “Bright and Distant Shores”?

It was a story I heard about the arctic explorer Robert Peary and the anthropologist Franz Boas, who was then working at the American Museum of Natural History. In 1897, the year my novel begins, a family of six Greenland Inuit disembarked from a ship at a dock in New York City while a curious crowd of thousands looked on. They had been shipped to the city under the care of Peary at Boas’s request — he had asked Peary to bring back a single native so the Inuit could be studied “without fear of frostbite.”  Peary took it upon himself to bring back six Greenlanders instead of one, and the Inuit were housed in the basement of the museum. Within a year, all but one had died of tuberculosis, and the sole survivor, a boy named Minik, was adopted by a museum official. The bodies of the dead were turned over to a medical school for dissection and the bones were later returned to the museum.  The bones sat in a drawer at the museum until 1992, when they were returned to Greenland after a journalist exposed the situation. Minik returned to his homeland in 1909 but later came back to the United States, only to die in the flu epidemic of 1918. This tragic story got me thinking about the troublesome relationship between museums and the people and cultures they catalogue.

Is it true that you took a crash course in sailing to get the nautical lore right for the sea voyage that takes place in the novel?

It is true, and my wife can vouch for what a disaster that was. I had read all I could about 19th century tall-mast sailing and had struck up an email correspondence with a sailor named Jonas Collins, who was circumnavigating the globe alone in his 35-foot Pearson Alberg sloop. He would answer my obscure questions whenever he got Internet access—for example, how long would it take to sail out to a remote island like Tikopia from New Guinea outside of monsoon season? Even though I knew the factual ins and outs of sailing, I felt afraid of betraying what a landlubber I was in the novel.  So I enrolled in a sailing course with a private instructor.  Flash-forward to my first time renting the boat alone and deciding to bring my wife along so I could show off my maritime prowess…we nearly collided with the dock, the boom nearly hit me in the head, and I sat by the tiller yelling instructions in a way that brought Ahab to mind.  My wife was a good sport about it all, but she suggested — quite diplomatically — that I should invite one of my male friends to go along next time. I haven’t been on a sailboat since.

You do a lot of research for your historical novels. What’s the oddest thing you discovered about the 19th century or the settings for the novel?

The 19th century abounds with oddities, one of the reasons I find it a deep well to draw from in my writing. Consider the Chicago meatpacking tycoon who tried to dynamite a freighter’s way out of frozen Lake Michigan one winter, or the use of the word antifogmatic for a drink of liquor taken in the morning to brace oneself against bad weather, or the fact that Harper’s and other serious magazines published articles that profiled the emerging skyscrapers in Chicago and New York, asking questions like—How Will High Altitude Affect Business Acumen? These were, in the 1890s, buildings of not more than 10-25 floors. The 19th century is full of gripping philosophy, words, but also lots of whimsy. I feel right at home there.

You haven’t really taken Australia as a subject for your fiction thus far.  As you look towards other projects, does the book’s tremendous reception there make you rethink this?

I’ve published one short story that takes place in Australia and the current novel has an Australian sea captain — the son of a freed Tasmanian convict — but that’s as close as I’ve gotten to staging fiction on the continent.  I’ve had an idea for a while about a novel set in Australia during its early period, but so far it’s escaped my grasp.  I’m working on something now that features a school of New York painters of the early 20th century, but then I’m determined to make the Australian idea come to life.  I was in Australia for about a month earlier this year and it was very gratifying to see my work getting a warm reception there. I’ve spent half my life in the United States, but culturally I still feel very connected to the place where I grew up.

Texas Institute of Letters Selects “Quest for Equality” as Most Significant Scholarly Book for 2010

Equality_webHistorian Neil Foley’s book, “Quest for Equality: The Failed Promise of Black-Brown Solidarity” (Harvard University Press, May 2010) was selected by the Texas Institute of Letters as the most significant scholarly book for 2010.

“Quest for Equality” examines the complicated relationship between African Americans and Mexican Americans in Texas and California during World War II and the post-war era.

Named by the Huffington Post as one of the 17 “best political and social awareness books of 2010, “Quest for Equality” provides a historical context for understanding many of the issues that divide Latinos and African Americans today.

In 2003, the census announced that Hispanics had become the nation’s largest minority group, while the percentage of African Americans had declined in many cities. This includes seven of the 10 largest cities in the United States — New York, Los Angeles, Houston, San Diego, Phoenix, Dallas and San Antonio.

As a result, the book addresses: Will Latinos displace African Americans from positions of power locally? And what are the prospects for black-brown coalition politics when more than half of all Hispanics identify themselves as “white” in the 2010 census?

Today African Americans and Latinos have found common ground over issues such as de facto school segregation, unequal school financing, immigration reform, racial profiling, redlining, and the prison-industrial complex — challenges, Foley argues that remain central concerns of contemporary American life.

Foley is an associate professor in the Department of History and American Studies. He was honored at the Texas Institute of Letters’ annual awards banquet in Dallas on April 30. The Texas Institute of Letters was established in 1936 during the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas to foster and promote Texas literature. The state’s oldest literary organization, it has held competitions for outstanding achievements in literature since 1939.

Michener Center Graduate First Poet to Win Keene Award for Literature

Josh Booton, 2011 Keene Prize Winner

Josh Booton, 2011 Keene Prize Winner

Josh Booton, a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers (MCW) at The University of Texas at Austin, has won the $50,000 Keene Prize for Literature for his collection of poems, “The Union of Geometry and Ash.”

The Keene Prize is one of the world’s largest student literary prizes. An additional $50,000 will be divided among three finalists.

Booton’s collection of poems was chosen from more than 60 submissions in drama, poetry and fiction. The title sequence is a traditional double or “heroic” crown of sonnets, 14 poems in which the last line of the first poem becomes the first line of the next.

“The technical inventiveness of these poems never overwhelms their substance, a profound meditation on how to sustain a working marriage,” says Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, chair of the Department of English and the award selection committee. “All of the judges found Josh’s work hauntingly memorable and compassionate, as well as formally compelling.”

Booton received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Oregon, and his master’s degree in speech and hearing sciences from Portland State University. A finalist for the 2010 Missouri Review Editors’ Prize, his poems have appeared in The Missouri Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review,Poetry Northwest, Raleigh Review and The Grove Review.

The three other finalists are:

  • Carolina Ebeid, MCW student, for her collection of poems, “An Iceboat Will Carry Us Through the Ice.”
  • Nicole Cullen, MCW graduate, for her story, “Long Tom Lookout.”
  • Fiona McFarlane, MCW student, for three stories, “Rose Bay,” “The Movie People” and “Unnecessary Gifts.”
  • Members of the selection committee were: Cullingford; Randy Diehl, dean of the College of Liberal Arts (ex officio); Brant Pope, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance; Joanna Hitchcock, director of The University of Texas Press; and author Tom Zigal, novelist and senior communications writer for The University of Texas System.

    Established in 2006 in the College of Liberal Arts, the Keene Prize is named after E.L. Keene, a 1942 graduate of the university who envisioned an award that would enhance and enrich the university’s prestige and reputation in the international market of American writers. The competition is open to university undergraduate and graduate students, and the prize is awarded annually to the student who creates the most vivid and vital portrayal of the American experience in microcosm. Students submit poetry, plays and fiction or non-fiction prose.

    Keene Prize Play Goes on to U.S. & U.K. Premieres

    FCSnowThe Keene Prize selection committee of The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Liberal Arts may have been among the first to recognize the power of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s work when they awarded her their $50,000 literary prize.  But they are far from the last. Her prize-winning play “Lidless” will soon be seen on stages both in the United States and abroad.

    The 27-year old Cowhig has been in an eddy of career opportunities and artistic accolades since winning the Keene Prize and completing her Master of Fine Arts with the university’s Michener Center for Writers (MCW) in 2009.  “Lidless” which powerfully and poetically tells the story of a Guantanamo detainee who confronts his female interrogator 15 years later — was also selected by David Hare for the 2009 Yale Drama Prize and published by Yale University Press.

    In readings and workshops at theatres across the country — among them Yale Rep, Ojai Playwright’s Conference, Houston’s Alley Theatre, and L.A.’s Open Fist Theatre — “Lidless” has captivated audiences.  Over the past year it has also been produced at two major playwriting festivals, the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, W. Va., and the High Tide Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, where it won the Fringe First Award.  Reviewing the play, The Scotsman said, “If Henrik Ibsen had been alive in the era of Guantanamo, he’d surely have written a play every bit as scintillating as ‘Lidless.’  Reframing global politics on a domestic scale, [Cowhig] turns headline news into a modern-day tragedy.”

    This coming year, though, “Lidless” has its fully staged regional U.S. premiere at Interact Theatre in Philadelphia—city of the playwright’s birth—running from Jan. 21 through Feb. 13.  Then only weeks later, it opens on the London stage at Trafalgar Studios 2 Theatre, a noted venue for new work, running from March 15 through April 2.

    Cowhig has lived largely out of her backpack since leaving Austin eighteen months ago. For several months, she moved between distinguished writers’ residencies—Yaddo, MacDowell, Ragdale and the Santa Fe Art Institute — then spent another half a year traveling throughout China, Taiwan and Mongolia. The daughter of an Irish-Catholic U.S. diplomat and a Taiwanese-Daoist, Cowhig credits her cross-cultural, transient childhood for the fluidity of her work, which always seeks to push boundaries and examine the personal in light of the political.

    She is currently settled in Oakland and in January begins a stint as Playwright-in-Residence at the Marin Theatre Company (MTC) in Mill Valley, Calif., as recipient of its 2010 David Calicchio Emerging Playwright Prize. There, she will judge MTC’s writing prizes and shape the company’s upcoming season, and her newest play, “Sunspots,” will get a workshop treatment.

    It’s no less than anyone who knows her work from the university expected of her.  “Frances’s talent was apparent immediately,” MCW director James Magnuson says.  “Because she’d gone to Brown and had done a lot of work in experimental theater, I was concerned about her being a little on the ethereal side. But once I started seeing her work in class, I was blown away by how bold and gusty she is. And she’s such a craftsman!  She works as hard as any young writer I know.  Honestly, the sky is the limit for her.”

    Hans Boas Wins Book Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to the Study of Linguistics

    boas.hans1Hans Boas, associate professor of Germanic studies, has been awarded the 2011 Leonard Bloomfield Book Award from the Linguistic Society of America for his book “The Life and Death of Texas German.”

    In “The Life and Death of Texas German,” Boas presents the first major study of Texas German, a unique fusion of English and 19th century German. The book includes and in-depth analysis of Boas’ Texas German Dialect Project, an online digital archive of recordings, transcriptions and translations of interviews with more than 300 Texas German speakers.

    “This masterful work combines a sociolinguistic analysis of the phonological, morphological, and syntactic developments in the German spoken in New Braunfels, Texas, with a study of the larger socio-historical context that framed these developments. Written lucidly and accessibly, the book contributes significantly to the understanding of the dynamics underlying new-dialect formation, language contact, language change, and language death.” – the Linguistic Society of America

    First presented in 1992, the Leonard Bloomfield Book Award was established to honor recently published books that make the most outstanding contribution to the development of our understanding of language and linguistics.

    For more about Boas’ work, read the feature story, “Vanishing Voices.”

    Winners of the Fourteenth Annual Hamilton Book Awards Sponsored by the University Co-operative Society

    9780674023512-lgThe winners of this year’s University Co-op Robert W. Hamilton Book Awards were announced on Wednesday, October 20, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin. The Hamilton Award is one of the highest honors of literary achievement given to published authors at the University of Texas at Austin. Chairman of the University Co-operative Society, Dr. Michael H. Granof hosted the event and announced the winners. President Bill Powers of The University of Texas at Austin presented the awards.

    The Hamilton Awards are named in honor of Professor Robert W. Hamilton, the Minerva House Drysdale Regent Chair-Emeritus in Law. Hamilton was chair of the Co-op Board from 1989 to 2001, and was in large measure responsible for the Co-op’s uncommon growth and profitability during that period.

    The $10,000 Grand Prize winner of the Hamilton Book Award was:

    Shirley E. Thompson, Department of American Studies
    “Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans” (Harvard University Press)

    There were also 4 winners who took home $3,000 runner-up prizes:

    Oscar G. Brockett, Department of Theatre and Dance
    “Making the Scene: A History of Stage Design and Technology in Europe and the United States” Published by Tobin Theatre Arts Fund (University of Texas Press)

    Huaiyin Li,
    Department of History
    “Village China under Socialism and Reform: A Micro-History, 1948-2008”
    (Stanford University Press)

    Robin D. Moore, Butler School of Music
    “Music in the Hispanic Caribbean” (Oxford University Press)

    Richard R. Valencia, Department of Educational Psychology
    “Chicano Students and the Courts: The Mexican American Legal Struggle for Educational Equality” (New York University Press)

    Faculty Book Celebration Honors L. Michael White’s “Scripting Jesus”

    9780061228797Christian history scholar L. Michael White will discuss his book “Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite,” (Harper Collins, May 2010) at a faculty book celebration party hosted by the Department of Religious Studies 5-7 p.m., Wednesday Oct. 29 in Mezes Hall Auditorium..

    The gospel stories of Jesus have shaped the beliefs of billions of Christians and deserve to be studied seriously. In “Scripting Jesus,” L. Michael White proposes to do just that — to take them seriously as stories.

    He argues that in order to understand the earliest gospels one must look at them the way they were originally intended, rather than newspaper-like historical accounts in any modern sense. Instead, they were intended to be read aloud or performed as stories of faith, which were told and retold, edited and reedited, for the greatest effect.

    In “Scripting Jesus,” White examines what the gospel stories meant to people in ancient times and offers insights for how people can read the stories today. Carefully examining the complex and sometimes-conflicting narratives of the gospels, White explains how the gospel writers of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John had a specific audience in mind and a particular perspective to advance.

    “White’s hands-on knowledge of archaeology, his broad knowledge of the literature of the Greco-Roman world and his mastery of scholarship in several different areas all combine to make this a rich and illuminating book,” says Wayne A. Meeks, the Woolsey Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Yale University.

    White is the Ronald Nelson Smith Chair in Classics and Christian Origins and director of the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins at The University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of “From Jesus to Christianity” and was featured in two award-winning PBS Frontline documentaries, “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians” and “Apocalypse!,” for which he also was principal historical consultant and co-writer.

    In celebration of White’s book, the Department of Religious Studies will host a panel discussion featuring commentary from Steve Friesen, the Boyer Chair in Biblical Studies, and Martha Newman, chair of the Department of Religious Studies.

    The event is free and open to the public. A reception will follow.

    A Weird End Run for the Pulitzer

    HardingthumbIt’s the story of the Little Novel That Could.  Paul Harding was an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate with a slim manuscript about a dying new England clock repairman and a drawer full of rejections.  After three years of shopping around his novel Tinkers, he finally sold it to the tiny nonprofit Bellevue Literary Press for an advance the size of a big publisher’s paperclip budget.  They printed 3500 copies.  Still, the struggling author was glad to have his work in print.  Harding and his family were getting by on his wife’s teacher salary and his unemployment, and he was still driving the eighteen-year-old clunker station wagon which had served him since his days as drummer for the rock band Cold Water Flat in the 90s.

    Bellevue is a curious hybrid, a literary press housed in the infamous eponymous hospital, a part of New York University’s School of Medicine.  Created by doctors, the press seeks to illuminate “the human experience in medicine,” and they bring out one fiction title a year alongside titles exploring the intersections of science and the arts.

    TinkersBut Bellevue editorial director Erika Goldman utterly believed in Harding’s book.  “I found myself,” she says, “weeping for the beauty of the prose.”  Goldman passed a galley to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, who likewise couldn’t put it down and gave it a coveted starred review.  Sales reps and staff of independent bookstores on both coasts who read the novel got behind it and began word of mouth campaigns.  There were no press kits, no media blitzes, no book tours.  Reading groups formed around dinner tables in friends’ houses, where Harding was invited to read.  Rave reviews came in from the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe and an NPR story got the attention of Random House, who offered Harding a deal on his next two books. Bellevue printed more copies.

    So, naturally, as Tinkers went on to win its ultimate recognition, the story had more strangely homespun twists.  The Pulitzer Prize committee waived the $50 submission fee from Bellevue in consideration of their nonprofit status.  Astounded enough at his book’s inclusion by the prize jury, Harding says things became entirely surreal when, as announcement time drew near, he got online to check the Pulitzer website and found his own name there as winner.  No thrilling phone call.  No crisp letter or telegram as in olden days.  Not even an e-mail.  He calls the whole experience “this weird end run from noble obscurity to a Pulitzer.”

    Tinkers is the first such end run since John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, published by LSU Press, won the fiction Pulitzer in 1981.  In a time when book sales are dominated by powerhouse sellers and shaped by the bottom line, a win for a fledgling author and a nonprofit press is heartening news.  Critics praise the book’s quiet lyricism, the powerful evocation of family history and memory, and Harding’s stunning sentences. “There are few perfect debut American novels,” says NPR’s John Freeman. “Walter Percy’s The Moviegoer and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird come to mind.  To this list ought to be added Paul Harding’s devastating first book, Tinkers. . . . Harding has written a masterpiece.”

    There are a quarter of a million copies of Tinkers in print now, and Austinites will get the chance to hear Harding as part of the Michener Center for Writers’ annual reading series on Thursday, September 30 at 7:30 pm on campus in the Avaya Auditorium. ACE 2.302. Parking is available in the nearby UT garage at 24th and San Jacinto.

    Elizabeth McCracken's Property

    625338Named Best Young American Novelist by Granta, Elizabeth McCracken traveled to London this July for an event promoting the British literary quarterly’s latest issue. Granta hosts a week of events featuring its writers and editors as they discuss the issue’s content and central ideas. This issue’s theme is “Going Back” which includes McCracken’s short story “Property.”  She appeared at several of the week’s events, including a conversation at the British Library with Salman Rushdie, Richard Russo, A.L. Kennedy, and Granta editor John Freeman.

    McCracken, a professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin, holds the James A. Michener Chair in Creative Writing. She is the author of a story collection, “Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry;” two novels, “The Giant’s House,” a finalist for the 1996 National Book Award, and “Niagara Falls All Over Again;” and a memoir, “An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination.”

    Elizabeth McCracken’s Property

    625338Named Best Young American Novelist by Granta, Elizabeth McCracken traveled to London this July for an event promoting the British literary quarterly’s latest issue. Granta hosts a week of events featuring its writers and editors as they discuss the issue’s content and central ideas. This issue’s theme is “Going Back” which includes McCracken’s short story “Property.”  She appeared at several of the week’s events, including a conversation at the British Library with Salman Rushdie, Richard Russo, A.L. Kennedy, and Granta editor John Freeman.

    McCracken, a professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin, holds the James A. Michener Chair in Creative Writing. She is the author of a story collection, “Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry;” two novels, “The Giant’s House,” a finalist for the 1996 National Book Award, and “Niagara Falls All Over Again;” and a memoir, “An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination.”