Our Stories

Angels Along the Way

Olympia Vernon didn't always have a title, a Pulitzer nomination, a novel on The New York Times Editor's Choice list, or as many awards as her years.

Her beginnings were much more humble. Born on the edge of Louisiana, the fourth child of seven, she wrote her first words in the dirt. She would stretch out on her belly by a garden "held together by stones from the river." Her step-grandfather would come out and pluck watermelons with his thumb and ring finger to test the heart. If the heart was good, all the children would come running. And after a few bites of sweet red fruit, Vernon would return to her words. "I wrote them in my head and on my fingertips and sometimes, a breeze would blow through the curtains and I'd write every word I had held in my mind as quickly as I could.

"I'd like to think that gifted writers swim in their mother's bellies with an oxygen of a different kind," says Vernon, who holds Willamette's Hallie Ford Chair of English. "I have very few memories where a pen does not exist."

Vernon got off to a charmed start, one born of hard work and a burning gift -- words so "powerful and raw," according to reviewers, it's as if she is "reinventing the language."

Not realizing one could write for a degree or for a living, Vernon got a bachelor's in criminal justice, but was steered toward a master of fine arts at Louisiana State University. On a used computer that alternated between functioning and crashing, she tapped out the opening line of a story: "One Sunday morning, during Bible study, I took a tube of fire-engine red lipstick and drew a naked lady on the first page of Genesis." The raw coming-of-age tale that emerged was set in the rural black Southern countryside, and its characters were limited by poverty and prejudice.

When she submitted the story as credit for an independent study course, an LSU professor sent it to a New Orleans writing festival. Within a week New York City agents were on the phone vying for rights to a novel that would be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and land on The New York Times New & Noteworthy list. Reviewers across the country praised Vernon's writing as explosive and lyrical, fearless and erotic.

Three novels, a string of short stories and numerous awards later -- including an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award -- Vernon follows an obsessive rhythm. "When my characters want to write, they wake me up in the middle of the night and they keep talking until they are finished," she says. "I like to have a constant thread that connects." She creates her first draft in nearly one sitting and doesn't edit it until she's signed a contract.

"I dive into this grand ocean and I don't like to come up for air until I absolutely have to," she says.

Vernon is trying to immerse as many Willamette students in the "ocean" with her as possible. "At first her methods seemed a little unorthodox," Cassie Huntley '07 says. On Huntley's first day of class, students were asked to trace their hands on paper and draw in details that didn't show up in the tracing. Vernon then randomly passed around the prints, and students were asked to write careful descriptions, guessing at likes and dislikes, majors, jobs, family background. "When we checked it out, some descriptions were dead on," Huntley says. "The exercise made us think." Vernon also takes her students to the Bistro for coffee and talks about life and, always, about writing.

"I never intended on 'being' a writer," she says. "I was simply writing. It was a part of what I always was." She remembers chatting with authors at the writing festival that kicked off her career. "There was an energy around us. Something was happening to me that I had not been aware of."

It's proof, Vernon says, that gifts are part of who we are. They're something we can't live without, but often overlook. "I'm grateful," she says. "Thank God there were angels along the way to push me forward."

Vernon's most recent award is the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, for her book, A Killing in This Town.