Meet the Winners of First Pages Prize 2019

Our winners with judge Paul McVeigh

Our winners with judge Paul McVeigh

Get to know our winners of the First Pages Prize 2019 in these Q&As with Stockholm Writers Festival.

Sara Johnson Allen wins first place

Sara travelled from Boston, Massachusetts to receive this year’s prize and is an Associate Professor of Communication at Endicott College.  Photo credit : Channing Johnson Photography

Sara travelled from Boston, Massachusetts to receive this year’s prize and is an Associate Professor of Communication at Endicott College. Photo credit : Channing Johnson Photography

Congratulations on winning the First Pages Prize 2019, Sara. What was your inspiration for your literary novel, We Make Them Pay? 

Like many writers preoccupied with the subject, I was writing about “home.” While I grew up mostly in North Carolina, I have now lived in the Boston area longer than I have lived anywhere else. I don’t belong in what used to be home, but I’m not from the place where I live either. That makes me interested in this idea of “place” and who can claim it as their own.

Also, I didn’t set out to do this, but I realize now I wanted to write a story about three women who have lost their children in very different ways. I gave each of them the power to help one of the other women find what she most wants, but they all distrust, even dislike each other.

I guess I like exploring rife, hot messes. The luxury of being a fiction writer is you make up people who have to live out what haunts you.

How long have you been writing?

Always. I vaguely remember one of my first works being a direct rip-off of The Secret Garden. That said, there have been long periods of time where I wasn’t writing. Even after finishing my M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Emerson College, financial pressure and general fear kept me from focusing exclusively on writing. Later, when starting a teaching career and a family, I was not writing at all.

In the past five years, I have returned to writing fiction with renewed focus. Finally, I prioritize writing enough to make it actually happen.

What were you doing when you heard you'd won?

I was on a conference call with two of my best friends who also went to Emerson. We run a program called L’ATELIER Writers and were planning our June retreat in France. I think they may have suffered some hearing loss from my reaction. My oldest child was home sick that day, so he saw his mom jumping up and down, screaming with excitement. 

What's your writing process?

It’s probably best characterized by a lack of finite process. I wish I wasn’t ruled by chaos, but I am. I am often sneaking in times to write between the demands of daily life, so I routinely use Spotify playlists and music videos on Youtube to quickly bring me back to the right aesthetic.

I also use “Speak” features on Scrivener and my phone’s Notes app to read my work back to me. This is handy if you are trying to revise and “write” while doing dishes or driving a car.

What are your next steps for We Make Them Pay?

We Make Them Pay is complete at 115,000-words, so I am seeking representation from a literary agent. I would love a partner to help me bring this book into its best possible form for publication.

I am also finishing up a first draft of a second novel about two people who grew up together, now a deli owner and an adjunct professor, who employ eco-terrorism tactics to prevent a new real estate development threatening their coastal Massachusetts town. That story has been disturbingly fun to write.

I always find it incredibly validating to spend time talking with other writers and learning from the kinds of panels and discussions this festival offers. Writing can be lonely. Events like SWF can sustain us for the times we feel more isolated.

Website Sara J Allen.

Sandra Jensen takes second place

South-African born Sandra Jensen has three passports and never formally studied writing — instead she’s attended numerous workshops, conferences and received mentorship from Dani Shapiro among others.

South-African born Sandra Jensen has three passports and never formally studied writing — instead she’s attended numerous workshops, conferences and received mentorship from Dani Shapiro among others.

Congratulations on reaching 2nd place in the First Pages Prize 2019… what was your inspiration for writing your creative non-fiction, Seagull Pie?

For three years my family had what I call an Irish ‘My Family and Other Animals’ experience in a tiny, pub-filled village in a bleak valley in Donegal. My mother, a famous South African sculptor, had been invited start a craft centre. We were housed in an old schoolhouse with holes in the roof and no running water; the IRA had a caravan just down the way. I was thirteen and studying for O levels by myself, my brother was sixteen and into self-sufficiency and smoking marijuana. My grandmother ordered everyone about until she had a stroke and started standing outside in all weathers wearing only her cotton nightdress, waiting for “Johnny-Noo Noos and the Ding Dongs” to whisk her away to London. 

It was a crazy, mad few years. Whenever I’d tell the story, people insisted I’d turn it into a book, but I’d always thought of myself as a fiction writer, until in 2015 I decided it was time. I managed to get much of a first draft done, but then my mother died, and I couldn’t continue. I shelved the book.

Winning second place in this prize means I feel I’m now able to pick it up again and finish it. I’m so very grateful!

How long have you been writing?

I always thought I’d be a writer ‘when I grew up’. I wrote weird fairy tales as a child and bad, tortured poetry as a teenager. But growing up seemed to take a long time, and it was only in my mid-forties that I finally decided it was time to focus on writing. Prior to that I’d done everything from teaching martial arts to being an IT project manager for a large bank in Toronto - all good inspiration for stories!

What’s your writing process?

I’m very grateful to have been taught "Freefall”, an approach to writing developed by Barbara Turner-Vesselago. Actually, I wouldn’t be writing now if it wasn’t for Freefall. It very simply silences all the questions that get in the way: what, in fact, do I write? Where do I begin? How do I continue? What if it’s bad? And, it can encourage those rare and extraordinary moments of being “in the zone” when it feels like the work is writing you

I can’t say I always apply the Freefall approach, but I do try. Other than that, my days are actually spent (wasted) doing everything *but* write, until guilt forces me to get to work. I can’t say I always love writing, but I can say I always feel better when I do it.

You’ve flown to Stockholm from Brighton, England. Is this your first time in Sweden? 

Yes, it’s my first time. I feel very excited about this, my father was half Danish (he died when I was very young), and I’ve never been to any part of Scandinavia. My husband told me, “You’ll meet your people!”

Sarah Fuchs places third

Sarah Fuchs recently returned to her hometown Berkeley, California after years away including teaching full time in Dar es Salaam while completing Deborah Landau’s wonderful low-residency NYU Writers in Paris program, “learning at the feet of luminaries”

Sarah Fuchs recently returned to her hometown Berkeley, California after years away including teaching full time in Dar es Salaam while completing Deborah Landau’s wonderful low-residency NYU Writers in Paris program, “learning at the feet of luminaries”

Congratulations on placing third in the First Pages Prize 2019… what was your inspiration for your literary fiction, Mississippi Goddam?

In August 2014, white police officer Darren Wilson murdered 18-year-old Michael Brown. I was moving back to Togo, where concern about the first Ebola outbreak was gaining momentum. On screen, I watched the militarized response to community resistance in Ferguson unfold while assuring friends and family that if Ebola hit Lomé, I would be able to leave. 

The power and privilege of my passport, the images of white aid workers air-vaced to safety without their African colleagues, the bloody oppression on the streets of Ferguson all seemed deeply connected to me, deeply rooted in the same white violence. I thought about white liberal consumption of black culture — even and especially black radical political culture — without a commensurate commitment to black people. Or, where there is a commitment, the ability to abandon it at will. I thought about my own complicity. And about love; I always think a lot about love. The title is an homage to the incomparable Nina Simone. From there, I wrote the story.

I’m a new writer, and newness aside, maybe I won’t ever have the chops to do certain subjects justice. But I guess I have to try.

What were you doing when you heard you'd won?

I was in bed after reconstructive knee surgery and thought I was dreaming…a wonderful boost at a trying time!

I’m thrilled to be at SWF! It’s so wonderful to be immersed in an international community of writers. I’ve never been to Stockholm before and I cannot wait to explore.

Do you make your living as a writer? If so, what do you do? 

This year I’m lucky to work for the extraordinary lawyer Brittany K. Barnett and the Buried Alive Project (anyone who reads this should visit and support! https://www.buriedaliveproject.org)