Professor’s Novel is Pen-Faulkner Finalist

Professor of English William Henry Lewis loves his work, and the academic world of fiction is of the same mind.

On February 15, Lewis’s collection of stories, I Got Somebody in Staunton, was named one of four finalists for the 2006 Pen-Faulkner Award, the largest peer-selected prize for fiction in the United States.

Three judges considered 400 novels and short story collections published in the 2005 calendar year for the prestigious award, which honors four finalists as well as the one winner. This year’s winner was E. L. Doctorow for his novel, The March; besides Lewis, the three other finalists were Karen Fisher for A Sudden Country, James Salter for Last Night, and Bruce Wagner for The Chrysanthemum Palace.

I Got Somebody in Staunton is a collection of 10 stories, set in Bedford-Stuyvesant, NY; Denver, CO and Staunton, VA, which speak to the contradictory pride and pain of African-American heritage. In the title story, a black college professor tests his own preconceived notions of race by giving a ride to a flirtatious young white woman.

In recent months, Lewis has received numerous accolades for his works. I Got Somebody in Staunton was named one of the Kirkus Reviews’ top 25 books of 2005, and also received a 2006 Black Caucus of the American Library Association Literary award. “It’s been a nice little passage of months,” Lewis said. “It feels good.”

Lewis is currently in his first year teaching at Colgate. Previously, he taught English to students in elementary school and coached the National Soccer Team of the Bahamas.

“I didn’t know I was going to teach,” Lewis said. “I just was interested in writing. Most days I think it still feels like that; I’m most interested in enjoying the work.”

Authors such as John Edgar Wideman, Zora Neale Hurston and James Joyce have influenced Lewis’ writing, but he is careful not to limit himself.

“There are people who have definitely been a part of me understanding how words work, but I’m always looking for the next great thing,” he said. “I just really love reading, and all kinds of writing; I could never pick one author.”

For his stories, Lewis draws on his own curiosity. “Sometimes they come from me trying to figure out something in my own life, but more often they are quilted together,” Lewis said. “The way someone says something, or the way a scenario looks to me. There are a lot of ‘what ifs’ that I want to answer, and I answer them through stories.”

Lewis advises students at Colgate interested in writing not to be in a rush. “A lot of people will start writing and think that right away they’re going to be published. I think that people move very fast, and I don’t know if really good writing works the same way. In a world where the Internet and iPods and all that stuff are bouncing around, I think that writing is something that takes a little more time. The writing that lasts to me comes from people who spend a lot of time loving books and language, and work hard to develop their craft.”

Lewis and the other winners will be honored in May at a reception in Washington, D.C. Each finalist receives a prize of $5,000, and the grand prize winner receives $15,000.

However, Lewis is quick to point out the inherent value of writing, apart from any monetary reward.

“Awards and getting published are a nice affirmation,” he said. “Yet I think I’m being honest with myself when I say if none of that had happened, I’d still be writing. It’s a great therapy and it’s a great way of understanding myself and making sense of things.”