Judges honor two English professors in Sunshine State’s most prestigious competition

Florida State University is often hailed as the home of one of the finest creative writing programs in the country.

And no wonder: The awards are plentiful — and frequently dazzling.

The most recent?

Two Florida State University English professors — David Kirby and Elizabeth Stuckey-French — took away silver medals in the sixth annual Florida Book Awards competition. The esteemed annual awards program recognizes, honors and celebrates the best Florida literature published in the previous year.
Coordinated by the Florida State University Libraries, the 2011 competition honored about 20 writers statewide in seven categories.

Kirby, FSU’s Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English and an internationally renowned poet, won for his collection of poems “Talking About Movies with Jesus.” It is his third win since 2008. (He was awarded gold medals for two previous poetry collections.)

“It’s an honor to be recognized by the Florida Book Awards, especially in the company of my colleague and dear friend Elizabeth Stuckey-French,” said Kirby, a longtime, celebrated teacher of creative writing in Florida State’s English department. “Even more, it’s an intense pleasure to see the arts recognized and to be reminded that art gives people pleasure and insight they can’t get any other way. It’s long been known that when the arts thrive, communities thrive; civic-minded people are drawn to cities like Tallahassee and universities like FSU for many reasons, chief among which is their vibrant art scenes.”

Elizabeth Stuckey-French and David Kirby
Elizabeth Stuckey-French and David Kirby

Kirby, who came to FSU in 1969, holds a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. He has received many honors for his work, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and his writing appears frequently in the Best American Poetry and Pushcart Prize volumes. Kirby is the author of many books, including “The House on Boulevard St: New and Selected Poems” — a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award in poetry. His “Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll” was named one of Booklist’s Top 10 Black History Non-Fiction Books of 2010. A reviewer for The New York Times called it “a hymn of praise to the emancipatory power of nonsense.”

Novelist Stuckey-French won for her book “The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady,” a novel about an elderly woman who moves to Tallahassee and plots to kill the doctor who surreptitiously slipped her a radioactive cocktail in 1953.

So far, the reviews have been as sunny as a Florida spring afternoon. A writer for the New Yorker magazine last year called the book “wonderfully un-categorizable.” It’s been selected as a Ladies Home Journal Book Club pick for February; in addition, a reviewer for the New YorkTimes Book Review wrote that the novel “is populated exclusively by what used to be called oddballs, and therein lies its strength.”

“We don’t expect, in comic little-old-lady novels, to encounter childhood cancer, randy preachers and a boy building a homemade breeder reactor in a tool shed,” the latter reviewer wrote. “But Stuckey-French knows that if you dig deep enough, we’re all oddballs, and that the world is a perilous and unpredictable place.”

Stuckey-French, who has four other books under her belt, also is a co-author, along with husband Ned Stuckey-French and FSU’s Janet Burroway, of “Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft,” a widely respected writers’ guide used in many university fiction-writing classes.

She’s best known, perhaps, for her novel ”Mermaids on the Moon,” set around the disappearance of an aging alumnus from Florida’s famous underwater show at Weeki Wachee Springs.

On her stylish, Atomic Age-retro website, Stuckey-French, an Indiana native, observes that she and her husband both “lucked into” jobs in Florida State’s English department and quickly acclimated to the warm climate. The first time their daughters saw snow, she writes, they thought it was sand.

“I’m very honored to have won this award. I’m from the Midwest but have been living and writing in Florida for 12 years now,” said Stuckey-French, an associate professor of English who holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the venerable Iowa Writer’s Workshop and earned a 2005 O. Henry Award for her short story “Mudlavia.”

“When my first novel, ‘Mermaids on the Moon,’ which is set in Weeki Wachee, came out 10 years ago, I felt like an imposter and was sure I’d be found out as a fake Floridian,” she added. “Instead, the reviewers said I had a great feel for the state — its mermaids, alligators, palmettos and swamps. So I wrote another novel set in Florida, and now it’s won this award! I guess I really am a Floridian — and you know what? I’m glad of it. I love it here. Thanks, Florida.”

The Florida Book Awards competition is co-sponsored by the Florida Center for the Book; the State Library and Archives of Florida; the Florida Historical Society; the Florida Humanities Council; the Florida Literary Arts Coalition; the Florida Library Association; “Just Read, Florida!”; the Florida Family Literacy Initiative; the Florida Association for Media in Education; the Florida Center for the Literary Arts; the Friends of FSU Libraries; the Florida Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America; and the Florida Writers Association.

For a complete list of all the 2011 Florida Book Award authors, visit http://floridabookawards.lib.fsu.edu/index.php.