“I’ve always been a writer.”
Assistant professor of writing discusses his roots and his prize-winning new book
After eight years of writing and four years of sending out his work for judging, Lucas Southworth was awarded the 2012 Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction from the AWP Award Series for his book Everyone Here Has a Gun, published in fall 2013.
Southworth has been writing for as long as he can remember, but it wasn’t until he applied to graduate school that he considered writing as a career. When it became clear that writing was the path for him, he chose to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama. It was there that Everyone Here Has a Gun got its start.
Now an assistant professor of writing at Loyola University Maryland, Southworth works with his students to encourage them to think of themselves as community artists.
Loyola magazine sat down with Southworth to speak about his journey to becoming a successfully published and prize-winning author.
Can you tell me about your background and when you first started writing?
I’ve always been a writer. In high school particularly I spent a lot of time writing angsty poetry and dark image-driven lines. I used to listen to a lot of lyric-driven music like Bob Dylan and The Velvet Underground, and I used to try and take some of their images and turn them into something. I’d also write a lot of really surreal things. It was purely a hobby, not something I was trying to do anything with; I just liked language and how words flowed together.
In college I kept taking writing classes. I never really thought it would go anywhere, but I had this weird feeling that I was good at it. I liked what I was doing and it seemed like most people did too. I really enjoyed taking creative writing classes and writing stories.
Why did you go back to school for writing?
After college I got a job as a teacher’s assistant for special education students. I did that for two years, and about halfway through the second year I realized this writing thing was still in my head. So I thought I would apply to graduate schools for writing and if I didn’t get in anywhere than I’d go back to school for special education.
I applied to five places and I got into one, Iowa State, where I ended up getting my master’s. The stuff I was writing there was being received really well, so because of that I thought I’d apply to MFA programs, which is the terminal degree for artists if you want to teach college. I picked the University of Alabama because it was a good program for experimental writers and I saw myself as an experimental writer. I wrote a book at Alabama that originated as my thesis; I worked on that for four years while I was a student and then for four years while I was teaching there. Eventually that book became Everyone Here Has a Gun.
Can you give me a brief synopsis of the book?
It is a collection of short stories that I wrote while I was learning how to write stories. The stories are based in fairy tales and the idea of how the stories are told, particularly the flatness of them when you’re reading and this crazy thing happens but you don’t question it.
I was also interested in violence and how that worked in fairy tales, so there are a couple of stories about that. The second story is about a girl who witnesses her father murder her stepmother, but she tells it to us in terms of a fairy tale. The story starts with the murder as the father cuts off the legs of the stepmother, and then the legs get up and start running and the daughter pursues them.
The title story is about violence and its role in our society, with guns in particular. It is an exploration into the power and potentiality of guns and the emotional effect that they have on people. Hopefully that gives you a sense of themes that seem to keep coming back, and the power of stories and how we recast our lives based on existing narratives.
Do you have a favorite story from the collection?
Yes, “All This in a World Without Dragons.” It’s about the symbolism of the dragon, but it’s also a pretty brutal story about this culture where when kids turn 18 they kill their father and take over, like you would in the wild. It’s like a science fiction and fantasy story in a sense. I like to take genres and see if I can mess with them a little bit.
What was your initial reaction to hearing that you had won the Grace Paley Prize?
It was just disbelief and surprise because I really wasn’t expecting to win with the kind of writing that I do. I feel like this contest is usually won by people who have been more successful in traditional ways. I guess I just got lucky that the judge was looking for something a little less traditional, a little grittier.
Lastly, what advice would give to aspiring writers?
Keep doing it. Don’t let yourself get frustrated by people who aren’t interested in what you’re doing. And keep working.
My other piece of advice is really just to write every day, set a schedule and write every day. I’ve had students who have told me they’re worried once they graduate if they are going to keep writing because they won’t have deadlines. The best thing to do is to just make a tiny deadline, like writing two hours today, and letting whatever happens happen.
More information about the AWP Award Series is available here.