Monday, March 5, 2012

UNCC graduate named national book prize finalist

Stephanie Powell Watts, a UNC Charlotte graduate, has been named a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award finalist for her debut short story collection, “We Are Taking Only What We Need.”

Watts, an English professor at Pennsylvania’s Lehigh University, is one of two finalists for the 2012 prize, considered the nation’s most important award for a first work of fiction. Teju Cole, author of “Open City,” is this year’s winner. Amy Waldman, author of “The Submission,” is also a finalist.

Watts, who grew up in Lenoir and Wilkesboro, graduated from UNCC with an English degree in 1997. With her husband, Bob Watts, she wrote a community column for the Charlotte Observer in 1996-97.

She will read from her collection at 7 p.m. Friday, March 9,at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.

In “We Are Taking Only What We Need” ($15.95; BkMk Press), Watts’ characters are young black women living in North Carolina. For the book’s Pushcart Prize-winning story, “Unassigned Territory,” Watts draws from personal experience as a former Jehovah’s Witness. In the story, the narrator, a young black woman, is proselytizing door to door on a hot day in rural North Carolina.

“On the way past the car, past the tired old dog, through the patchy yard,” the narrator recalls as she leaves one woman’s porch, “I can’t be sure, but I think I heard the woman say ‘wetback.’ I don’t know, it could have been the bigoted cicadas or heat stroke, but I think she called me a wetback. I wanted to put my finger in her crumpled face, her skin like the film from Krazy Glue and say something wise and cutting like, ‘Get your racial epithets right, Ms. Einstein.’”

As a former Jehovah’s Witness, Watts has written a lot about “losing faith and what that feels like and trying to figure out how to reconstitute yourself once you’ve lost faith,” she said in a telephone interview Monday.

Watts, who holds a PhD from the University of Missouri, is now working on a novel. And she has lots of promising life experiences to draw from.

In her early years, she worked at a furniture factory, where part of her job involved fetching fabric swatches from warehouse boxes that sometimes contained spiders “as big as my hand.”

She also once worked at a Hickory shoestring factory, where she boxed packages as they traveled down a conveyer belt.

The experience, she says, was much like the famous Lucille Ball candy factory episode, “but without the charm.”

Another N.C. writer also received an honorable mention in this year’s Hemingway Foundation competition. Marjorie Hudson, who lives in Chatham County, won an honorable mention for “Accidental Birds of the Carolinas.” The short story collection was published by Winston-Salem’s Press 53. A second honorable mention went to Chad Harbach for “The Art of Fielding.”

The late Mary Hemingway founded the award in 1976 to honor the memory of her husband, Ernest Hemingway, and to recognize distinguished first books of fiction.


Anonymous said...

The title on the main page says UNC graduate instead of UNC Charlotte graduate. You might want to update that before all of the Charlotte alum go crazy.

Anonymous said...


Class of 1973

Anonymous said...

Congratulations to Mrs. Watts! I'll definitely be checking her work out soon!

Anonymous said...