When Claire Alongi (‘21), Kevin Alexander (‘19) and Emily Korn (‘22) received emails congratulating them on placing for the Frank H. Newell Award, they simultaneously discovered the award existed. This is the second year this award has been offered, and it works to recognize outstanding pieces of short fiction that are composed by students in their creative writing classes.
“Nominations came from all fall 2018 classes in which students wrote short fiction: English 135, English 203W and English 331. Each faculty member teaching those classes could nominate up to four stories, and then our Teppola Visiting Professor Justin Taylor chose the first, second and third place winners from those finalists,” explained Associate Professor of English Scott Nadelson.
The winners read excerpts from their pieces at the concluding event of the Spring 2019 Hallie Ford Literary Series on April 4, which featured a reading from Professor Taylor.
Korn received third place for her coming-of-age story titled “A Word for Change,” a piece she wrote for her first-ever creative writing class.
“It’s about a boy and his two friends in high school. They take a road trip to the beach, an overnight road trip… He’s also dealing with the fact that the two friends he is with, who he has been close friends with for a long time, they just got in a relationship,” she said, summarizing the main premise of her story.
In the judge’s comments, Professor Taylor called her story “An earnest exploration of the vagaries of adolescence, this story grounds its emotional uncertainties in a deeply felt and finely detailed sense of place.”
Korn explained that the praised sense of space was strengthened through the workshop process, where at first a small group of classmates read her story, commenting on what worked and what could be improved, and then the whole class did the same with a newer draft.
At first, Korn explained that she wanted the piece to be set in the Pacific Northwest, but through the workshop process decided to base the setting on places close to her hometown in the Santa Cruz mountains.
“I think [this change] added an authenticity,” she said.
Alexander placed second for their bizarre science fiction piece titled “The Field Study.”
“It’s a story set in an unclear near future where some sort of alien presence has landed on earth and is observing in invasive detail the life of a couple of human characters. The story follows one of those humans as she tries and struggles to find meaning where everything is supervised,” they explained.
Professor Taylor remarked, “This story kept me intrigued and baffled from its first page to its last.”
When asked what inspired this piece, Alexander said, “When I think about a lot of science fiction, it tends to over-explain all the things that are new to the audience, even if it wouldn’t be new to the character. If you look at the way we deal with smartphones now, they are this completely normal thing that we seamlessly integrated into our lives. But if someone had come up with that idea 30 years ago and was writing a story about it, they would be this very serious focus. I wanted to play with this organic integration of the bizarre.”
Alongi received first place for her story that utilizes a unique form and centers around the processing of grief, entitled “A Selective Investigation of the Causes and Effects of Keraunographic Markings Upon a Teenage Subject (Female).”
“[The form is a] summer assignment for a science class and the protagonist has to observe something in their daily life through a very scientific lense… She decides to observe her sister right after she has come home from the hospital,” she said, not wanting to give too much away.
Professor Taylor’s comments said, “This story wisely plays its absurdities with a straight face, makes the most of its formal conceit, treats heavy themes with a light touch and is gorgeously written as well.”
On her reaction to winning first place, Alongi said, “I was very excited… It’s nice to win something, and when it’s something you put a lot of effort into and really care about to have someone recognize this is good… that is always nice.”
Professor Nadelson gave some background on Newell, the benefactor, “He graduated from Willamette University in 1949, and subsequently enjoyed a 58-year run in the newspaper and broadcast business… Mr. Newell did not slow down in retirement, however, and at 93, saw his first novel published. He has long had a love for fiction writing, with a particular emphasis on short stories, and wants to foster this interest in future generations of Willamette University students.”
Next year’s Newell Prize winners will be announced in January of 2020.