Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Steve Woodward on Margaret Lazarus Dean & the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize

“Say the words out loud: Cape Canaveral. Say them in JFK’s voice, in John Glenn’s voice, in Walter Cronkite’s voice. The very syllables connote rockets and bravery, the countdown to zero, heroes in helmets, banks of inscrutable computers.” This was how Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight, Margaret Lazarus Dean’s book on the Shuttle era, announced itself to me as I trawled the submissions for the nonfiction prize. This was an opening that stood out for its confidence. The imperative in the first line immediately signaled that Dean had a passion for her subject—human spaceflight—and wasn’t afraid to let me know it.

I was intrigued with the proposal for the book not only because of this directness and passion but also because of the way she approached her subject: to put it simply, she was obsessed. And not only with tracing the history of spaceflight and of the closing days of the shuttle era in particular but also with those early chroniclers of spaceflight, Norman Mailer in particular. Dean was interested in how the rise of New Journalism dovetailed with our early forays into space. Even more important, she was haunted by the question of what it meant that the shuttle program was coming to an end. That kind of passion, that dedication to craft and subject, was clear to reviewers as well. The New York Times called Leaving Orbit “wonderfully evocative,” and said of Dean that she “writes with the passion of a lifelong lover of space exploration and an ability to communicate, with tremendous kinetic power, the glory and danger of its missions.”

The Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize exists for these kinds of writers: those who want to engage with the nonfiction form, to test its limits, and to see what it might hold. For Dean, that meant engaging with a tradition, asking questions that hadn’t been asked before. For other writers, that might also mean stylistic innovation, or formal experimentation. It looks different for every writer, and each year the nonfiction prize winners continue to redraw the lines of what is possible. Writers like Leslie Jamison, Kevin Young, Eula Biss, and Ander Monson have each been in a dialogue with what came before—reaching back toward the origins of their chosen form and yet still reaching forward for something new.

The nonfiction prize came about in part because Graywolf Press wanted to encourage writers interested in essayistic writing. That is, not just essays themselves, but nonfiction of all types that contained writing that was questing—always searching for the limits of the known. Writing that dares to act as discovery is in some ways always finding itself, and we love to be surprised by fresh approaches to a subject, a finely honed style, or great storytelling, whether in essay, memoir, or narrative nonfiction. The prize is also intended to support writers who are still fresh to the genre, or perhaps haven’t tried their hand at nonfiction before.


This year, submissions for the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize are open through Sunday, January 31, 2016. The prize, which comes with a $12,000 advance and publication by Graywolf, is awarded to the most promising and innovative literary nonfiction project by a writer not yet established in the genre. The winner will work closely with an editor to develop the project into a finished manuscript. Complete contest guidelines are available here. Before submitting your manuscript for the prize, please look at the books previously published as winners of the prize—Leaving Orbit, The Empathy Exams, The Grey Album, Notes from No Man’s Land, and more—for examples of the type of work that we are seeking. These are some of the writers, after all, that your own work will be in conversation with. And it is very much a conversation, an ongoing dialogue of our own making. As John D’Agata says in the introduction to his latest anthology, The Making of the American Essay: “Let the essay be what we make of it.”


Steve Woodward is associate editor at Graywolf Press and the coordinator of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. He teaches at Sierra Nevada College and lives in Minnesota.

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