by Leonard Gill
Writer Rebecca Skloot made it big — very big — with her nonfictional The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a best-seller since it appeared in 2010. At the time of the book's publication, Skloot was teaching in the University of Memphis' creative writing department.
More good news this summer for the department: the announcement in early July that Courtney Miller Santo's first novel had been sold to William Morrow in a six-figure, two-book deal by Santo's agent, Alexandra Machinist.
That debut novel, which was Santo's thesis project for her MFA at the U of M (a degree she earned in May), concerns a cross-generational family of strong female characters. It's also a novel that made it to the list of 50 semifinalists in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest in general fiction, the winner of which receives a cash prize of $15,000 and publication of the manuscript by Penguin books. It was Santo's contest submission that first attracted the attention of her agent.
"I first heard from my agent when I made the semifinalist cut for the Amazon contest. She'd read an excerpt and loved it and wanted me to send her the novel. She read it and said, 'Don't take this the wrong way, but I hope you lose that contest because I can make you a lot more money.'
"Two weeks later, she sold the novel to Morrow. It's been crazy. I can't believe someone else besides me has not only read the novel but liked it.
"It was a friend who told me about the Amazon contest. I had no expectations, because I've had a bazillion rejections. That's all I've ever gotten. I'm still getting rejections. Two yesterday. But I was like … okay. I just graduated in May. This has been really unusually fast. I thought I had a good 10 years before anything hit."
Look for Courtney Miller Santo's Roots of the Olive Tree to appear sometime next summer. ("Believe me, I will be telling everyone about the book," she said.) But for the time being, Santo will be working with her editor at Morrow, teaching at the U of M beginning this fall, and acting behind the scenes as an administrator for the school's creative writing program.
And as for her unwritten but sold second novel:
"I have something in mind, but I haven't started it yet. I don't want to say anything to jinx it. But I come from an amazing family of matriarchs. My grandmother, who lives in a tiny town in Northern California … she's 103. My next story will have aspects of my own family — an extended family with great stories of their own."