Interview with 2019 Cabell First Novelist Award Fellow, April Sopkin

September 20, 2019

 April Sopkin is the 2019 Cabell First Novelist Award Fellow and in her third year of the M.F.A. program for fiction.

April SopkinTell us a little about yourself?

I grew up in rural Minnesota, spent most of my twenties in New York City, then moved down here to Richmond. I’ve been writing stories since I was a little kid. When I was a teenager, I wrote for the local newspapers, but my main creative push was always fiction. It’s always been my instinct. That said, I resisted school for a long time, preferring instead to work various day jobs and write on the side, but the day jobs themselves started to wear me down. I went back to school at twenty-nine, graduating with my bachelor’s in history in 2017 here at VCU. I chose history over English, because history is all about storytelling, and I wanted exposure to experiences far beyond my own. I figured I would continue to an M.F.A. program anyway, where I’d be reading and studying literature, so I wanted the detour in another area first.

The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award is a nationally prominent award that is organized and run by the Cabell First Novelist Fellow. The website for the CFN Award says:

Twice a year, the administrative team from the VCU Department of English sends out a nationwide call for submissions from publishers, editors, agents, and writers themselves. The first round of evaluations is made by volunteer readers from across the university and the Richmond community. Their rankings and feedback guide the judging process toward three or four finalists, and from there, the First Novelist Committee and the winner from the previous year choose the recipient of the award.

Each year there are hundreds of submissions. How are the students involved in determining the winner? What can you tell us about the selection process and organization of the award from your end? 

The sheer amount of submissions makes community involvement so essential in those early evaluative stages. Our “Community Reader” membership extends across a spectrum of local book loversprofessors and teachers, independent bookstore owners, books clubs, local writers, etc. This time around, we’ve pulled in even more student involvement, recruiting undergraduate English majors and graduate students from the M.A. program. 

In those early evaluative stages, participation by the M.F.A. students is similar to the Community Readers –reading submissions and submitting reviews. It’s during the last half of the spring semester that the M.F.A. students take on more judging responsibilities. We convene for two juried meetings where we cull the “Top 20” novels down to the “Top 10,” then the “Top 10” down to the “Top 3”… The juried meetings are full of debate and discussion (and pizza), and this culling process takes into account reviews from both Community Readers and M.F.A. students, as well as the award’s core goal of finding the best debut novel out there – regardless of the size of the press, regardless of industry buzz, regardless of an author’s established (or not) reputation. 

Once the “Top 3” novels are chosen, the students are given another month to read the finalists and submit electronic votes. The final stage of voting is three-pronged and majority rules, wherein the M.F.A. students are given a single vote, the Cabell First Novelist Committee is given a single vote, and the winner from the previous year is also given one vote. In the event of a three-way tie, the students’ choice wins.

Severance by Ling MaAs Assistant Cabell First Novelist Fellow last year, you were extremely involved with the selection of the winner, Ling Ma, for her novel Severance. What made Severance stand out amongst the other novels? 

It’s such a layered narrative, shifting back and forth between the past and present, with the loneliness of the immigrant experience juxtaposed with the isolation of surviving the apocalypse. There’s also a thread about the horrors of late capitalism, which feels particularly timely and remains entertaining without becoming heavy-handed. The novel is about so much that, when describing it to someone who hasn’t read it, I find myself just listing off topics: the immigrant experience, zombies, office drudgery, the apocalypse, social commentary, cults, failed relationships… All of it is true, and all of it works together brilliantly. The novel was a popular contender among both Community Readers and the M.F.A. students. 

What is it like for you now working on both planning the award night and Ling Ma’s visit while also reading through submissions for next year’s winner?

I was explaining it recently to the Assistant Fellow, Michelle Goshen, as a machine that just doesn’t stop. You are always planning forward for the award event and also keeping track of the day-to-day administrative stuff for the current year’s judging process. It’s a lot of to-do lists, email reminders, and social media/publicity planning. And research, as you try to stay on top of what’s being published, and reach out to the right people to make sure they know about the award.

Being the Cabell First Novelist Fellow gives you an insider’s look at the traditional path a debut novel takes through the publishing process. How do you think this has prepared you for your own future novel? 

I’ve lived in Richmond for eight years and attended VCU Cabell First Novelist Award events long before I ever registered as a student at VCU. For anyone interested in writing and publishing, it’s such an instructive and worthwhile event for the Richmond writing community. But now, as the Fellow, the award has given me “behind-the-scenes” insight into awards processes, as well as how exciting it is to be a part of delivering good news to authors at each progressive judging stage. 

When the award was created, it was to celebrate the M.F.A. program’s year-long novel-writing workshop. I just went through that workshop last year. To say it was challenging is an understatement. The stamina, desire, and vision needed to complete a novel-length project are hard to navigate your first time through. It feels, only briefly and intermittently, like it will ever come to fruition. Frankly, I’m still in that stage with my own work. But the award event offers M.F.A. students (and writers in the larger community) an opportunity to ask point-blank questions of an author who has gotten through the muck of that first time. Last year’s winner, Hernán Diaz, talked about how he drafted In the Distance (Coffee House Books, 2017) by starting each day’s work with an edit of the previous day’s pages, which allowed him, in the end, to finish a first draft that was also very near to a final draft.

And the path to publication is not the same for every author, which is another thing attending the events, and now working the award itself, has taught me. I think, for example, of the 2013 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award winner Ramona Ausubel (No One Is Here Except All of Us, Riverhead Books, 2012) who was sought out by an agent after she had a short story published in One Story. That’s not an uncommon occurrence, depending on the literary journals your work gets published in. But it’s not the absolute rule by any means. I think, again, of Diaz, who talked about having trouble getting his short stories published, and could not find an agent either. He ended up submitting In the Distance to a small press on his own, and only after the novel was published did he acquire an agent. Working on the award has definitely broadened my ideas of the “right” way to pursue traditional publishing.

Ling Ma, 2019 winner of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award for Severance, will come to VCU on Tuesday, November 12, 2019, for a public reading and question-and-answer session at the James Branch Cabell Library, followed by a book signing and reception in her honor. The Cabell First Novelist Award Night is free and open to all, but registration is required.

The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award is presented on behalf of VCU's M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program. Sponsors include the James Branch Cabell Library Associates, VCU Libraries, the VCU Department of English, Barnes & Noble @ VCU, and the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.