Wednesday, June 25, 2014

UNO Creative Writing Workshop Director Creates National Buzz with New Book Due Out in January

M.O. WalshM.O. Walsh
Director, Creative Writing Workshop

A debut novel from a UNO faculty member won't hit shelves until 2015, but it's already generating national attention.

M.O. Walsh, the director of the Creative Writing Workshop at UNO, had his first novel accepted for publication in July 2013 by Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam. Einhorn (the editor of bestsellers like The Help and The Widow of the South) acquired the world rights for Walsh's book in a pre-empt deal as soon as she read it, preventing the book from ever going to auction.

Since then, Putnam has sold foreign rights to the United Kingdom (Viking), Israel, Italy, France, Brazil and the Netherlands. The book will appear in Hebrew, Italian, Portuguese, French and Dutch translations in 2015.

"I never expected any of this to happen, ever," said Walsh. "I was just excited to finish it."

My Sunshine Away, a literary novel, is set in Baton Rouge, La. The novel is told from the point of view of a 30-something man looking back at his youth. The narrator recalls the summer of 1989 when a 15-year-old girl who lived across the street from him was raped. He was 14 years old at the time and madly in love with her. No one was ever arrested and the narrator, he confesses, was one of the suspects.

"It took me about seven years to write and it was really the only thing I worked on that whole time," said Walsh, who joined UNO faculty as an assistant English professor in 2011. "I was an instructor at LSU at that time, teaching four classes every semester ... I have two small kids. It was hard to get it done."

Creating a Buzz

My Sunshine Away

My Sunshine Away, written by M. O. Walsh and published by Amy Einhorn Books, a division of Putnam Publishers, is slated to hit bookshelves in January 2015.

The book, set in Baton Rouge, is already creating buzz among booksellers around the nation.

Walsh traveled in late May to New York City, where he and six other select authors spoke on a panel to booksellers from around the world at Book Expo America, where My Sunshine Away was one of only seven titles in the adult literature category presented as a "Buzz Book" for 2015.

BEA is the largest annual book sellers' event in North America, said English Department Chair Peter Schock. The annual event features the most highly anticipated titles from publishers across the globe and Walsh's book was chosen for the honor from hundreds of submissions by major American publishers.

At the BEA conference, Walsh appeared on a panel to speak to representatives from all major media outlets, including The New York TimesThe New Yorker and USA Today, as well as bloggers, retailers, booksellers, and reviewers. His editor, Amy Einhorn, also delivered a presentation about the novel to the media and booksellers on May 27, where the first galleys of the book were made available.

Set in Louisiana

My Sunshine Away begins with an excerpt from the Louisiana state song, "You Are My Sunshine," written by the late Louisiana Gov. Jimmie Davis. The epigraph — a short quotation at the beginning of a book intended to suggest its theme — echoes the song's chorus.

"I want it to kind of be a positive Louisiana book, despite the dark themes, because I just don't think there are a lot of those," said Walsh, who set the novel in his hometown. "It's a Baton Rouge book. I always wanted to write a Baton Rouge book. I love that place."

The story takes place in a fictional neighborhood called Woodland Hills, which bears similarities to his own childhood neighborhood, Woodland Ridge. The school attended by the book's major characters also bears some likenesses to Episcopal Academy, where Walsh matriculated. The rest, the English professor said, is fiction.

"The plot is entirely made up," he said. "It's a literary book, which I guess means the language is hopefully all right, but there's a plot and a mystery to it, as well."

Like the narrator, Walsh said he lived a mostly idyllic childhood.

"I remember hearing a story when I was a kid about a girl in my neighborhood being raped and I remember not understanding what that meant," he said in an interview. "I think that's where I got a lot of the drive for the story. Being an adult now and wondering: Did that really happen? If so, what does that mean about the place I thought I knew?"

The episode remained "one of those nagging things about the past" for Walsh that he later interpreted through this story.

The tale covers about 20 years of the narrator's life, Walsh said. Most of the book's narrative action takes place between 1989 and 1992, but stretches as far as 2012.

Scenes of LSU football appear in the background and the book includes an entire chapter devoted to a comparison of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Walsh said. Cultural touchstones include references to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986 and the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.

"I wrote it chronologically from page one to the end," said Walsh. "I think I knew who my suspects were and I had my characters, but I didn't know how it was all going to come together. I was surprised by how things came together at the end."

The author tends to write between 4 and 6 a.m. each day, before he has checked email and before his children, ages 5 and 1, have risen, he said. As he goes, he jots down ideas for scenes and dialogue on a stack of index cards he references each time he sits down to write. He tends to review the last 20 pages before he ever writes anything new.

"I revise constantly as I'm working," said Walsh. "I think it helped in the sense that when I finished the last chapter, I was done with the book. I sent it out."

On Campus

Walsh became director of the Creative Writing Workshop at UNO this spring.

"It's a well-respected and nationally known program," said Walsh. "Our students are super-talented. They publish a lot. I know this year and last year we got more graduate applications than any other program at the University. That's pretty exciting."

The program offers both a resident graduate program and a low-residency graduate program that culminates for graduates in a Master of Fine Arts degree. Approximately 70 students pursue studies in five genres: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, playwriting and screenwriting. This year, the program received 83 applications, in fiction alone, for a class of 13.

Walsh, who teaches a fiction-writing workshop, said that some of the best fiction writers and poets in the country work at UNO. On faculty are award-winning fiction writer Barb Johnson, poets John Gery and Carolyn Hembree, and a host of other writers including acclaimed nonfiction writers, screenwriters, poets, playwrights and authors.

On Writing

Walsh previously published The Prospect of Magic, a book of short stories that won the Tartts Fiction Award, through Livingston Press at the University of West Alabama. The book was an outgrowth of work he did for his thesis before graduating in 2006 from the Master of Fine Arts degree program at the University of Mississippi.

Though his latest book is expected to sell more copies than his first, Walsh said his only aim in writing was to produce a work of art that would earn respect from writers he respects. At the top of this list is the late Mississippi writer Lewis Nordan, who Walsh said "lives in the same world" as Southern writers like William Faulkner, but spins both sad and positive tales.

Walsh, who also received a master's degree in literature at the University of Tennessee before studying creative writing, is thankful for having had the chance to work with the late Barry Hannah, a famous Southern writer, who coached Walsh in creative writing workshops at Ole Miss.

"It was really hard to turn things into him in workshop and watch him destroy them," said Walsh. "But it undoubtedly made me a much better sentence writer and, hopefully, a story writer."

He also admires the work of Tom Franklin, the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which was nominated for nine awards and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the prestigious Crime Writers' Association's Gold Dagger Award.

Franklin, who won a 2001 Guggenheim Fellowship, also teaches in the University of Mississippi's MFA program, where he taught Walsh in a fiction-writing workshop. Franklin's books include Poachers, whose title story won the Edgar Award, Tilted WorldHell at the Breech and Smonk.

Franklin is a master, Walsh believes, of blending literary and commercial fiction. "If I could ever do something like that," Walsh said. "That would be all right with me."


Learn More

M.O. Walsh
Creative Writing Workshop at UNO
BEA 2014: Big Debuts and Breakouts Dominate Adult Buzz Panel, Publishers Weekly
Book Buzz: Editors' picks at BookExpo, USA Today
 #BEA14: Editor's Buzz Panel, Shelf Awareness
BookExpo America: What's Officially Exciting, Dallas Morning News
New Orleans Author M.O. Walsh Celebrated for 'Buzz Book' at New York Publishing Expo, The Times-Picayune
Publishers Weekly Touts UNO Creative Writing Workshop in Inaugural Survey of Creating Writing Programs in the U.S.
New Experiences in an Old Country: UNO Creative Writing Workshops Move to Ireland
UNO's Creating Writing Workshop and WWNO Launch "Storyville"
UNO Alumnus Tops the Charts