“The dark gangway smells like the inside of Dean’s mother’s oven, and he longs to be in his mother’s kitchen on Sunday morning when, off from the railroad, his father always planned supper. . . . Now, as he sits in the cold gangway, looking at the loveless, watery beans in his lunch, Dean thinks of his father’s cooking as a graceful dance by a man who never grew old or bitter enough to hate food and his own family.”
– From “The Nipper” (2009)
With a novel that traces the hopes and hardships of three generations of immigrant coal miners, Susan Tekulve of Spartanburg has won the 2012 S.C. First Novel Competition sponsored by the S.C. Arts Commission and Hub City Press of Spartanburg.
Competition judge Josephine Humphries, a well-known S.C. novelist, said the work had “a remarkable sensitivity to the mystery of how place affects human souls” and called Tekulve “a writer who definitely has what it takes . . . to make a real contribution to Southern literature.”
Tekulve, 45, is an associate professor of English at Converse College whose nonfiction, short stories and travel essays have appeared in numerous literary journals. She also has published a collection of short stories, “My Mother’s War Stories” (2004).
In 2005, Tekulve was working on what she called “the great Italian novel” when her husband’s grandmother died, prompting the family to visit the grandmother’s home in “a tiny little town in Virginia.” As Tekulve and her son, Hunter, explored the area – and as her husband, Rick Mulkey, told stories about his childhood –Tekulve found herself drawn in.
“I became fascinated by the geography of my husband’s upbringing,” she says. She took notes everywhere she went – as is her habit.
At a poetry workshop sometime later, “suddenly, I realized I was sitting on this wealth of information.” Tekulve used the material to compose poetry, switching to prose on the advice of her instructor because of the richness of detail her notes possessed.
And then, she couldn’t stop writing.
“I just kept writing, and the story kept coming,” she says. She rose every morning at 6 – rushing to write on good days, forcing herself on those less inspiring.
In 2009, she published a short story called “The Nipper” in a compilation of Hub City short stories called “Expecting Goodness.” The story is now Chapter 4 of her book, and its main character, a representative of the second generation of the Italian immigrant family she follows into the mines and out.
This summer, Tekulve is working on revisions to her book, tentatively titled “The Stranger Room” – she must choose a permanent name by Aug. 1 – with C. Michael Curtis, longtime fiction editor for The Atlantic and holder of an endowed professorship at Wofford College. It was Curtis who read the book during the competition and urged that it win first place.
Curtis says Tekulve’s book was “so detailed and so exact that I found myself absorbed.” Although set in a mining region, the book is less about the place than about a family’s struggles against it, he says – about “people just trying to stay alive.”
“(Tekulve) moved me through those generations with surprises and with sadness and with drama,” he says. “(She) makes this specialized life come alive – to show people who struggle and survive . . . or don’t survive.”
Hub City will release the book May 1. It will debut at the 2013 S.C. Book Festival in Columbia.
Other finalists in the biennial competition were Kam Neely of Spartanburg, Mark Sibley-Jones of Greer and Alexis L. Stratton of Columbia. The competition drew 55 unpublished manuscripts.
The two previous winners were Brian Ray of Columbia, author of “Through the Pale Door” (2008), and Matt Matthews of Greenville, author of “Mercy Creek” (2010).