FSU Creative Writing joins the year’s best in ‘New Stories From the South’

The literary world has served another round of recognition to Florida State University’s celebrated Creative Writing Program during one of its hottest years ever.

A trio of pieces from “Severance”—a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning Francis Eppes Professor Robert Olen Butler—and a yarn called “The Pantyhose Man” penned by graduate student Rebecca Soppe have each earned one of 19 slots in the 20th anniversary edition of “New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 2005.”

Author and FSU Creative Writing Program Director Mark Winegardner points to recent reviews of the anthology that praise as “brief and brilliant” Butler’s imagined last words of severed heads; and “wicked and twisted” Soppe’s tale of front-desk clerks in an Arkansas hotel who bear witness to the anonymous relationship that develops between a shy coworker and a man who makes unseemly phone calls in what she deems a “gentlemanly” manner.     

English department Chair Hunt Hawkins declares that Butler and Soppe have voiced “that very old Southern tradition of the ghoulish and gothic.”
“Having both Bob and Becky in this distinguished annual anthology at the same time highlights why FSU’s creative writing program is perhaps the best in the world,” Winegardner said. “On the one hand, our program features the writer who’s been honored by ‘New Stories from the South’ more than anybody. On the other, it features a young writer, while still a student here, making her debut on a stage where many established writers have never managed to appear.”

Butler has appeared a total of eight times.

This latest inclusion comes in the wake of his 2005 National Magazine Award in Fiction, earned twice in four years out of three nominations since 1996. Last April saw the publication of “From Where You Dream,” a book of his lectures—given and refined at FSU—edited with an introduction by FSU Robert O. Lawton Professor Emerita Janet Burroway. In 1993, Butler took home the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.” Author of 10 novels and three collections of stories, Butler’s work has appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, Esquire, and Houghton and Mifflin’s “The Best American Short Stories.”

Emerging author Soppe, a second-year doctoral student, has seen her first published work earn not only a coveted berth alongside Butler’s but also the 2004 Cohen Award in Fiction from the literary journal Ploughshares, where it first appeared. A Midwesterner who discovered her Southern voice, she is the second graduate student to see work published in “New Stories from the South” while enrolled at FSU, following alumna Beauvais McCaddon’s inclusion in the 1997 edition.

“Becky was in my fiction workshop this spring and has a remarkable talent,” Butler said. “I’m delighted to appear with her in this book.”

The three “Severance” pieces chosen by anthology editor Shannon Ravenel each represent the final outburst of internal monologue from a recently severed head—in precisely 240 words. They are part of 62 altogether in Butler’s book by that name, to be published in 2006.

Why 240 words? Butler points to the book’s two epigraphs:

“After careful study and due deliberation it is my opinion the head remains conscious for one minute and a half after decapitation.” (Dr. Dassy d’Estaing, 1883)

“In a heightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words per minute.” (Dr. Emily Reasoner, A Sourcebook of Speech, 1975)

“It was a wonderful surprise and a great honor to find myself sharing pages with Robert Olen Butler, especially in an anthology like ‘New Stories From the South,’” Soppe said. “I’ve been very lucky, and this publication may be tough to follow, but I’m certainly going to try.”

Along with fresh nods from “New Stories from the South” and Butler’s National Magazine Award last spring, achievements by many in the English department’s Creative Writing Program—ranked among the nation’s best—have garnered top honors throughout the past year. A sampling includes the O. Henry Award for Elizabeth Stuckey-French;Virgil Suarez’s inclusion in “The Best American Poetry 2004”; and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry for James Kimbrell, soon to be the program’s new director.

FSU’s Creative Writing Program is the only one with inclusions in every volume of Harcourt’s anthology, “Best New American Voices,” the premier annual compilation of work by emerging writers.